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The Book Club

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

1. The utopia-dystopia dichotomy. Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” is a unique piece of fiction amongst a collection of texts that revolve around the dichotomy of a perfect-imperfect world. Instead of the traditional exposition of singular worlds where elements have been altered towards the extremities of the spectrum, Swift cleverly adopts the use of satire and humour to subtly reflect many of his socio-political beliefs. Moving between the four fictional – and somewhat entertaining – worlds and realms, there is a general fixation over the ideals of a desirable and undesirable society-community: while most countries are dystopias for their irrational and unjustified customs, beliefs and methodological aspects, the Country of the Houyhnhnms approximate closest to a utopia.

2. Satire. Satire is a wonderful literary tool to dampen serious commentaries or critiques about particular issues; without compromising the value of these perspectives (dependent largely on how well – and non-contentious – the satires are adopted, as well as the reader’s personal evaluations). Swift indirectly – leaving it to the readers to judge for themselves – to conclude the impossibility and illogicality of the many rulers and inhabitants of the various nations he visits: the senseless scientific obsessions of the individuals in Laputa, the Brobdingnag royalty’s obsession with Gulliver et cetera. More broadly, it cruelly pokes fun of human nature and an assortment of travellers’ tales, going into ridiculous details about his sailing endeavours, and how maps of that time had to be drastically altered. Of course, there remains controversy over his final voyage in the Country of the Houyhnhnms: if Swift genuinely regarded their way of life as the true ideal, or whether it was a mere play on the impossibility of such a community.

3. Censorship and the freedom to speech, including satire. Such a theme resonates deeply with Swift’s experiences of his time. As Gulliver accounts his conversation wit the King of Brobdingnag, penning “He said, he knew no Reason, why those who entertain Opinions prejudicial to the Publick, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And, as it was Tyranny in any Government to require the first, so it was Weakness not to enforce the second”. It is an indirect commentary on social criticism, and the accepted extent of receptivity towards elements like satire as well.

4. A Voyage to Lilliput. Perhaps the most identifiable scene from the novel for many: Gulliver, having landed on a beach unconscious, finds himself surrounded by citizens of Lilliput – each not more than six inches tall – and having to fend off attacks. Despite their supposed disparity in size, they more than make up for the physical difference with their hubris and pride in existence, while their politics and country dynamics are notably characterised by great degrees of in-fighting and complication. Amongst the parades and presented grandeur throughout Lilliput’s societies, it is worth contemplating the significance – and cause – of the conflict between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Some might contend that the conflict of the big-enders / small-enders or the high-heels / low-heels (largely paralleled by the events in Great Britain at that time) is significant ideologically or religiously; but many dismiss these trivialities as insignificant and pointless.

5. A Voyage to Brobdingnag. A sudden role reversal: one in which Gulliver suddenly finds himself dwarfed by giant individuals who tower greatly over him; a reversed déjà vu experience from Lilliput. Even though Gulliver is treated somewhat like a toy or plaything for the inhabitants, and he is forced to endure the torture of been up-close to the Brobdingnags; personally, they have established an acceptable society. What Gulliver sees up close and in detail is invisible to the eyes of the people; and such a perspective parallels the King’s approach towards his country and politics. Rather than pedantically fussing over the specifics, he rules with a common-sense approach that brings about its own set of pros and cons. Even as Gulliver is treated fashionably well, many are starving on the streets of the country. At the end of it all, the King of Brobdingnag does deliver a considerably harsh verdict on the English people; but instead of viewing it as a failing on the part of the King, one should accept diversity in methodologies and attitudes.

6. One of the most quoted phrase from Gulliver’s Travels. “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”.

7. A Voyage to Laputa. In the confusion of knowledge and the abuse of technology, the world of Laputa simply reflects how the self-indulgent obsessions with theoretical knowledge – without practical applications – are ludicrous and useless. The preponderance of resources and intellect have been squandered in the blind pursuit of information and research that would not only improve the well-being of their people, but perhaps bring them further back from the deteriorating status quo.

8. An example of Laputian ideology (and Swift’s taste for humour). “He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers”.

9. A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms. Whether this was a satire, or a genuine exposition on the part of Swift: it is worth contemplating the Houyhnhnms as symbols of possible human ideals. Their mannerisms and approaches towards affairs and matters may be respectable, but are they truly applicable in our world?

10. Two prophetic quotes for contemplation; the first in Brobdingnag, the second in Houyhnhnms. “He gave it for his opinion, that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together” and “Poor Nations are hungry, and rich Nations are proud, and Pride and Hunger will ever be at Variance”.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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