May 23, 2012

Book: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:36 pm

Looking back, I seem to have taken a brief Classic Books detour.

It is one of those classic books that, to paraphrase an author I had read once `everyone knows about but no one has read’. I think everyone knows about Gulliver and some of his experiences. If you are like me, you would have known about the Lilliputans and the `Giant Land’. You may have even heard of the Yahoos, given the Internet Portal Yahoo – as a reference point for the name. (As an interesting aside, another little known Internet Trivia is that Yahoo, the web
portal itself is an acronym – or at least, it was, when founded. It stood for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle –Is this true or is this one of those Legends that are made up afterwards? )

But I always thought that Gulliver made two trips, one to the land of tiny people and one to the land of Giants. In fact, he makes several trips – four to be exact, and sees many countries. (On some trips, he visits multiple places).

The story is interesting in two respects. Its tone itself is different and old. Swift puts in capital letters at what seem to be random words in the middle of the sentence – and I am not talking about proper nouns here. (Wonder what Lynn Truss would have to say about that! See the review on her excellent Eats, Shoots and Leaves earlier in this blog.)

Second, many of the words have a completely different meaning. For example, apprehension means just the act of seeing, not what you think it is. Makes sense, if you think about it.

But if you get used to these peculiarities, you can sit down to read a classic story. Still, for all the fame, the book surprises you in many respects.

First of all, the author himself. Though born in Dublin in 1667, he soon moved to England and was neck deep in British politics. He was even instrumental in implementing some laws that ensured that Ireland, his motherland, was kept subjugated by England for a far longer period than it would otherwise have been. He was dyed in the blue Tory, and when Whigs won (under the legendary Robert Walpole) and prosecuted a lot of Tories for crimes including treason, that resulted in many of them being exiled or executed, he retired from politics and went back to Ireland to become the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. He considered this to be a big demotion and was bitter ever after. As it happened, Whigs never gave up power for the rest of his life.

In personal life too, from his childhood, his mother seems to have lived apart from him in Britain while he grew up in Ireland. As a Catholic, he was caught in the bitter crossfire of those times between Catholics and Protestants. He was barely in control as a child and was so rebellious in college that he was given his degree only `under special grace’! He alienated most people around him throughout his life and seems to have been something of a misfit in society. Towards the end of his life he became insane and was declared unfit to lead an independent life, and spent the last four years under the care of another appointed person.

Back to the story. First, some general comments on the author’s style.

The bitterness shows through in his work. Even for a satire, some parts are dark and vicious, and he seems to hate almost all of the professions. Lawyers, doctors, politicians and even royalty are in turn subject to vitriolic attack in the name of satire. (No wonder he had very few friends!)

Another thing that surprised me was how fond Swift is of scatological talk. Consider the number of events: In Lilliput, Gulliver puts out a fire by peeing on it – being a giant in that land, he could pee enough to put out a raging conflagration. In another trip, he meets a `scientist’ who wants to remove all illnesses by pumping air through the bellows into the anus of a person and `draw out the ill vapours with the wind being pumped in’. And if by now you have not had enough, you find another person is researching human excrement to infer the characteristics of the person who passed them.,

The story itself is about Gulliver and his travels. In summary, it is a study of exaggerated proportions. In Lilliput everyone is very small. In Brobdingnag (his second journey) everyone is a giant. In Laputa (his third journey, where he visits many places) everyone is very clever but lost in everyday tasks and are lost completely when it comes to trivial acts of everyday chores. In Balnibarbi, everyone he meets is eccentric (OK, eccentric scientist). In Glubbdubdrib, people can bring back dead people to answer questions. Anyone including historical figures like Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, you name it)
In his last trip, horses (Houynhnms) are the sentient and intelligent beings whereas humans (Yahoos) are essentially animals with no intellect…

You get the idea. All worlds have one set of characteristics exaggerated or reversed, and the author imagines what life would be like, if that were the case. In each case, Gulliver has a set of adventures to keep the story moving. The peoples’ way of life, culture, practices are all described in great detail.

In all, an interesting experience. You would need to consult the footnotes often to understand the different usage of words (like apprehend, mentioned above). But a fairly interesting read, nevertheless.

Let us say, a 5/10

— Krishna


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