Gulliver's Travels

Topics: Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift, Satire Pages: 8 (3312 words) Published: April 14, 2013
(Shriya Shrimukham,BA English hons. 2nd year)

In 1726, the first edition of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World {Gulliver 's Travels) was published to great fanfare, first in London and early the following year in Continental Europe. Upon publication, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote, "Here is a book come out, that all our people of taste run mad about. This is no less than the united Work of a dignified clergyman, an Eminent Physician, and the first poet of the Age, and very wonderful it is, God knows" (qtd. in Williams, Kathleen 65). This great adventure story, fable and satire has entertained and confounded readers for the better part of three centuries. It is at once a parodic treatment of travel writing and a satirical exploration of politics, colonialism, human characteristics and human ideals. When dealing with a multi-genre text like Gulliver 's Travels, criticism can easily lock the book into one particular category. On one level, Travels appears to be a travel narrative and the subtext appears to be a political satire and fantasy, not a historical chronicle. Moreover, the text's "surprise factor" for all intents has been "spoiled" through its reputation. Modem readers recognize the text as an imaginary tale of little people, giants, flying islands, and horse-people, so they probably do not approach the text in the same way reading one reading the text for the first time did in 1726. As a history text, criticism tends to link Travels to the historical works of Clarendon, as Swift considered him the most important historian of the seventeenth century (Brownley xiii). At every stage of Gulliver's Travels, the fantastic elements are subservient to Swift’s satire and critical thinking. Swift is hardly an exception in this regard. Almost from the birth of storytelling, works of imaginative fiction have served as powerful platforms for social commentary. This was true of Ovid and Homer, Apuleius and Rabelais, H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Robert Heinlein, all the way to the present day, when science fiction and fantasy themes have taken over a host of mainstream highbrow literary works. Each of these passages comes from the final section of Gulliver's Travels, which describes that narrator's visit to the Houyhnhnms—a race of rational horses who live along-side brutish human beings known as Yahoos (note Swift's contribution both to our vocabulary and the Internet age).But those who are familiar with the cantankerous spirit of Jonathan Swift know full well that he was capable of his own kind of 'special effects'—with no advanced software or stop-motion animation required.Yet for all the satire, Swift also set the stage for the later blossoming of genre literature. Gulliver’s Travels is very much a forerunner of the later adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling—and reminds us that travel literature set the blueprint for many pulp fiction formulas. The fantasy genre is also very much an extension of such works—how many of them even come with a map as frontispiece? Certainly Gulliver's Travels is an important part of that lineage as well. Still another genre is anticipated in these pages: in the section on Gulliver’s visit to the flying island of Laputa, Swift moves clearly on to the terrain of science fiction. His explanations of the magnetic principles that allow the flying island to elevate and move may not be scientifically sound, but the very fact that our author felt compelled to provide technological descriptions is revealing. The storytellers who gave us the Arabian Nights or Grimm’s Fairy Tales never felt the need to bring science to the aid of their fantastic stories, and Swift’s gesture here, ever so fleeting, points the way towards the later mind set of a Jules Verne or H.G....
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