Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Jonathan Swift’s classic novel Gulliver’s Travels
Coming off of the Bhagavad Gita, I had every intention of either a) finding an additional work of Eastern philosophy to read, or b) going into a reread of The Lord of the Rings (since it has been almost ten years now since I last read them, I intend to reread them this year, so expect reviews for those on the site some time this year). Then, somehow, I ended up picking up a copy of Gulliver’s Travels, instead. This ended up on my reading list as one of those classics that is frequently referenced by other works, and so I thought it would be valuable to know just what was being referenced. It’s the same way that I ended up reading Moby Dick, which I picked up because Captain Picard frequently references it.
I enjoyed the first half of the book. The narrator’s tone, interactions, adventures, and internal dialogue was reminiscent of works like A Journey to the Center of the Earth or Around the World in 80 Days, or other novels of similar period and tone, so I found it to be easy reading, and the descriptions and considerations were all interesting, if not entirely well thought out in places. It reminded me a little of science fiction stories where the aliens are used almost exclusively as a lens for humanity, rather than having a substantial, independent identity. In fact, if I had to put this novel into a genre, I would probably call it soft science fiction; it’s very much an idea story.
Recognizing that the book is intended as satire, I think that the first half struck a good balance between being satirical, and presenting an interesting and amusing story in its own right. That balance deteriorated in the second half. The third quarter of the book was still enjoyable, and was arguably the most realistic component, but from the point where the narrator discusses the virtues and vices of immortality, the story really goes down hill. Once I reached the point where the narrator encounters the talking horses, the story was barely palatable. This portion of the book, the last quarter or so, is almost entirely satirical, and not even clever satire at that. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as idle utopian fiction, like a sanitized version of Walden Two.
It is interesting to consider that this book has lasted into the present time almost entirely by the strength of its whimsy and adventure, as satire is highly contextual and I suspect that most of it is lost on modern audiences. Being somewhat familiar with the time period, I was able to gather easily that the novel was intended as satire, and some basic themes that were in focus, but significantly more thorough and rigorous research would be required on my part to understand just what issues specifically were being discussed, which parties were interested in them, and why the author was seeking to promulgate the points he included. More research, that is, than I am inclined to do for a quick read like this.
There are some books that are considered classics, and frequently referenced well into the modern day, for good reasons. Then there are books that are mostly on the classics list because they are a) old and b) still taught by some schools, but do not have the same long-lasting impact and relevance to the human condition. Unfortunately, I have to say that I think Gulliver’s Travels falls into the latter category. While enjoyable, this book was to me simply a mediocre and mildly imaginative adventure romp, and with all due respect to Jonathan Swift, I must conclude that if you’re looking for a classic to really provide insight into human nature, this probably isn’t where you ought to turn. Still, if all you’re looking for is a fairly light, fun adventure romp with a high quantity of whimsy, then by all means, give Gulliver’s Travels a try soon.