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NA307712 - SWIFT, J.: Gulliver's Travels (Abridged)
Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World was published under the name of Lemuel Gulliver in 1726, to mask the true author, Jonathan Swift, the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On one level Swift’s mock travel book is a hoax; the satirist’s friends, Pope and Gay, playfully reported to Swift that some readers had gone to their atlases to look up Lilliput. Swift gleefully countered that an Irish Bishop had said of the book that it was “full of improbable lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it”. That “hardly” is a deft stroke of irony.
Swift’s great satire has been read “from the cabinet council to the nursery” ever since its first publication. Its comedy and inventiveness have rightly made it a classic of children’s literature.
Rarely has the interplay between the perspectives and separate value systems of small and large people been so wittily explored. Unfortunately, many adults remembering children’s versions of the first two of the four books of Gulliver’s Travels have underestimated this great work. Anyone bringing such preconceptions to Gulliver’s Travels will be surprised by the sophistication and savagery of Swift’s satire and the rudeness of some of his jokes, none of which has been edited out of the version recorded here.
Gulliver’s Travels plays tricks with perspective and relativity not only with the physical world (which is encountered diminished by a scale of 12 to 1 in Lilliput and enlarged by the same proportion on Brobdingnag) but also with the moral and political assumptions of the nations that Gulliver encounters. Gulliver’s persona is that of a bluff and sometimes-naive empiricist. He shows himself unequal to the political intrigue that besets the court of Lilliput in the first book, the moral largesse of the King of Brobdingnag in the second, the ineffectual abstractions that preoccupy the inhabitants of the flying island and the crazy scientists in the third, and the pure and passionless rationality of the horses (the Houyhnhnms) in the fourth book.
Gulliver shows himself to be easily drawn into local allegiances and prejudices. In learning the languages of the nations he visits, he also becomes naturalized to their perspectives: he describes a little girl in Brobdingnag who is forty feet tall as small for her age, and he simply accepts the Houyhnhnms’ view of themselves as the perfection of nature. Its satire attacks corruption in politics, luxury and self-indulgence, absurd faith in science and progress, callous pride in the so-called valiant achievements of man in warfare, colonialism, and subduing the natural world.
Gulliver is at times an absurd jingoist, extolling the Excellencies of his “own dear native country” to the King of Brobdingnag, but unconsciously disclosing its fatal political, constitutional and ethical weaknesses. In the academy of Lagado, Gulliver expresses his enthusiasm for ingenious projects and reveals a naive faith in the capacity of man for improvement: this attitude is the very inverse of the satirist’s cynicism. Gulliver waxes eloquent about the seemingly limitless benefits of immortality, only to be humbled by the true horrors of the immortal Struldbruggs, who have tipped over the edge into despair faced by the terrible prospect of never dying.
Gulliver makes a comparative study of several parallel worlds and finds many human follies to be universally shared. He also betrays the blind spots
in his own outlook and thus allows the Western reader to see the culture of
the West with fresh eyes. Gulliver’s uncritical account of England (in the second book) invites the reader to re-examine his assumptions: the innocent observer is somehow wiser than the sophisticated one. In Gulliver’s Travels a kind of irony is generated that dissolves habits of belief: this ironic technique has been much admired and imitated. By the final book, the satire is not limited to evils that are merely local or national: Swift attacks the pride of mankind as a whole. Thackeray has condemned the final book of Gulliver’s Travels most famously as “filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene”.
Many have regarded Swift’s most radical satire as despairing and misanthropic. You will have to decide for yourself. In my view, having read and re-read Swift’s most famous work over many years, I always find it to be invigorated by an awesome negative energy that attacks, infuriates, and challenges the reader. Its satire is fresh and its relevance is timeless: it never fails to amuse and intrigue.
Notes by Daniel Eilon
Neville Jason trained at RADA where he was awarded the Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co., the Old Vic Company and the RSC as well as in films and musicals. In television he has appeared in popular serials such as Maigret, Emergency Ward 10 and Dr. Who, as well as playing classical roles such as Orestes and Horatio. Formerly a member of the BBC Radio Drama Co., he can be frequently heard on radio.
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