Adventure, Satire, Swift, Jonathan

Review of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

What was it about?

Lemuel Gulliver used to be a surgeon but took up sailing late in life. He became the captain of several ships. On the last voyages of his career, Gulliver found himself in hitherto unknown lands occupied by creatures so unlike himself. His personal journals were later given to Gulliver’s cousin Richard Sympson for publication. Unfortunately, an unabridged account of Gulliver’s Travels was not published; instead, Sympson edited down the book to eliminate what he felt were unnecessary details. At the start of the book, Lemuel Gulliver expresses his displeasure toward the alterations; yet, it seems that all major events in Gulliver’s travels were still retained.

On his voyages, Gulliver encounters doll house-sized people , 70 ft tall giants, philosophers living on a floating island, eccentric scholars, historical figures, and finally a race of intelligent horses. The dark side of human nature and English society is exposed in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most famous satirical works of all time.

What did I think of it?

When I heard that Cleo @ Classical Carousel was going to read Gulliver’s Travels for the latest Classics Spin, I offered to do a buddy-read with her. Gulliver’s Travels is on the list of my top 5 favorite books of all time. The first time I read it was in 8th grade. The English teacher mentioned the work in passing, and I just had to get my hands on a copy. I remember devouring it in two sittings. Although I have read the book five times, it was only during my last re-read that I fully understood the underlying message of Gulliver’s Travels. The last land Gulliver visits is Houyhnhnm-landThe Houyhnhnms (evidently pronounced ‘winums’) are a race of horses who far surpass humans in reason. They live alongside human-like creatures of beastly proportions whom they call Yahoos. Since much of the book is about the dialogues held between Gulliver and the bizarre creatures he meets, I don’t want to go too much into the conversations in Houyhnhnm-land lest I spoil the book for you. I will only say that I fell for Swift’s trap. What makes Jonathan Swift such a brilliant satirist is that he hides what I feel is the ultimate message of the book behind a boatload of overt and scathing criticisms of human nature. Unlike the irony in Voltaire’s Candide which I felt was too simple and obvious, the irony in Gulliver’s Travels is a lot more subtle. Satire is not for everyone and Gulliver’s Travels is no exception. Offensive humor and exaggerated imagery abound. Because this is my kind of humor (I wonder what that says about me 😮 ) I loved it. As I wrote on Goodreads, Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope, but I beg to differ.

Favorite Quote

[Musings from Brobdingnag (the land of giants)]: “I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian [a very tiny person] would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison. It might have pleased fortune to let the Lilliputians find some nation, where the people were as diminutive with respect to them, as they were to me. And who knows but that even this prodigious race of mortals might be equally overmatched in some distant part of the world, whereof we have yet no discovery?”

9 thoughts on “Review of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift”

  1. After reading your review, it reminds me of how much I felt – a whole range of emotions. I was offended and repulsed, and completely at odds w/ Swift about his opinion of human nature; but I still laughed and thought he was nuts. Nonetheless, I want to reread this book someday soon.

  2. It’s been a few years since I read it, but the entire time I was reading I had the impression that Swift held the human race in contempt. That made it difficult to truly enjoy. Pretty brilliant bit of writing though.

    1. I plan to write a reflection post about that in a few days. Swift definitely doesn’t have a fully optimistic view of human nature but I disagree that he loathes other people. But more on that in a bit…

  3. Thanks for reading along with me, Fariba! I just finished my review and then popped over here to read your wonderful review.

    As to how Swift felt about humans and human nature, look at the end of my review; there’s a quote from Swift himself that perhaps gives more insight.

    1. I wonder in what context Swift wrote this quote. It seems even here that he’s jesting. The reason why I can’t take Swift’s perceived misanthropy seriously is that i have difficulty believing that Gulliver is Swift. Gulliver’s Travels is not written from the perspective of a neutral character. Gulliver’s personality at the end of the book was shaped by the Houyhnhnmns. The question is: “Are these horses truly great?” This warrants a whole separate post which I am currently writing and will soon be published. Was there anything about the Houyhnhnms that disturbed you?

      1. I don’t know why people would think that Swift is Gulliver or vice versa. I never thought that. In fact, Gulliver is almost the antagonist to Swift, but Swift uses him to expose the evils of human nature in a very creative way.

        As to the Houyhnhnms, I thought that their existence was very idyllic but not very realistic. To be ruled by pure reason in such a manner and with such results, presupposes that their reasoning is perfect, or almost perfect. And, of course, their existence in pure reason diminishes their feelings and emotions and therefore, their mercy or understanding. I wouldn’t wish to be a Houyhnhm.

  4. This review just increased my desire to read this book. I knew about this one for a long a time but it wasn’t until I started studying Literature that I found out more about Swift literature. I have never read any satire yet so I think this one will be the first one I get around to.

    1. Swift is definitely a good author to start with. I recently purchased A Modest Proposal and A Tale of a Tub. I expect them both to be equally amazing (crosses fingers)

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