There are few great satirists who manage to judge their work so finely that it can be considered both a rip-roaring, fantastical adventure story suitable for children and adults alike, as well as a searing attack on the nature of society. In his Gulliver's Travels, Jonathon Swift has done precisely that and has bestowed upon us one of the great works of English literature in the process. A tale recognized far more widely than it is read, the story of Gulliver--a traveler who is, in turns, a giant, a tiny figure, a king and an idiot--is both excellent fun, as well as thoughtful, witty and wise.
The First Voyage
The travels that are referenced in Swift's title are four in number and always begin with an unfortunate incident that leaves Gulliver shipwrecked, abandoned, or otherwise lost at sea. On his first misadventure, he is washed up on the shores of Lilliput and awakes to find himself tied down by a hundred tiny threads. He soon realizes that he is a captive in a land of tiny people; compared to them, he is a giant.
The people soon put Gulliver to work--first of a manual kind, then in a war with neighboring people over the way that eggs should be properly cracked. The people turn against him when Gulliver puts out a fire in the palace by urinating on it.
Gulliver manages to return home, but he soon wishes to get out into the world again. This time, he finds himself in a land where he is tiny compared to the giants who live there. After numerous close encounters with the large animals that populate the land, and achieving some fame for his tiny size, he escapes Brobdingnag--a place he disliked because of the boorishness of its people--when a bird picks up the cage in which he resides and drops it into the sea.
On his third voyage, Gulliver pass through a number of lands, including one whose people literally have their head in the clouds. Their land floats above the normal Earth. These people are refined intellectuals who spend their time in esoteric and entirely pointless pursuits while others live below--as slaves.
Gulliver's final voyage takes him to a near utopia. He finds himself in a land of talking horses, called the Houyhnhnms, who rule over a world of brutish humans, called Yahoos. The society is beautiful--without violence, pettiness or greed. All the horses live together in a cohesive social unit. Gulliver feels that he is a stupid outsider. The Houyhnhnms cannot accept him because of his human form, and he escapes in a canoe. When he returns home, he is upset by the sordid nature of the human world and wishes he were back with the more enlightened horses that he left.
Beyond the Adventure
Brilliant and insightful, Gulliver's Travels, is not simply a fun adventure story. Rather, each of the worlds that Gulliver visits exhibits the features of the world in which Swift lived--often delivered in a caricatured, inflated form that is the stock in trade of a satirist.
Courtiers are given influence with a king dependent on how well they are at jumping through hoops: a sideswipe at politics. Thinkers have their head in the clouds while others suffer: a representation of intellectuals of Swift's time. And then, most tellingly, humanity's self-regard is punctured when we are portrayed as the beastly and incoherent Yahoos. Gulliver's brand of misanthropy is aimed at the lampooning and improvement of society through a form that is far removed from any kind of serious political or social tract.
Swift has a deft eye for an excellent image, and a uproarious, often bawdy sense of humor. In writing Gulliver's Travels, he has created a legend which endures up to our times and beyond.