Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Classic of the Week: Gulliver's Travels

The Classic of the Week is one that most of you will have heard of, but probably not read in the original unless you’ve studied it in school. This writer was from the 18th century (so a fair bit later than Shakespeare) and he wrote satire, which was a fairly common genre at the time. He was also the author of one of the earliest novels, which is evident by the fact that some of the paragraphs go on for three pages! What is this book? It’s:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

You’ve probably all heard of this book, especially with the Jack Black movie just out. I’ve known of it for about as long as I can remember, since we had a little children’s book telling the story of Gulliver with the little people (the Lilliputians). When I was about twelve we drove to Ontario as a family (about 18 hours) and we listened to it on tape. That wasn’t the most fun drive in the world, but even Gulliver’s Travels was better than bickering with my siblings.

Gulliver’s Travels is a fairly famous book that isn’t really read that much anymore. It’s composed of four parts. The first is where Gulliver visits the Lilliputians. The second has Gulliver in the land of the Giants. The third takes him to the world of the philosophers/university professors who live in the clouds, and in the fourth he journeys to a land where the horses rule the humans (who are very ape-like and called yahoos). Each of these four parts tries to make fun of something, and the satire becomes more evident as the story goes along.

That’s probably why the first few parts are so much more famous. The idea of the big man held prisoner by the tiny people is quite fascinating, especially to children. Also interesting, but slightly scarier, is the idea of us being dwarfed by some immense race of people. While there certainly is satire here, mainly to do with either how small and insignificant, or how large and oaf-like, humans are, it’s less obvious and the actual plot is more fun.
The later books are almost exclusively satire. The third book, featuring Gulliver on the floating ship with the philosophers, makes little sense unless you understand what he’s trying to make fun of. As a child, I was just bored. And as for the last section, where the humans are virtually apes, I hated it, and I still do now. It’s such a low, disgusting picture of humanity. Since I believe that humans were created by God and in His image, not evolved from apes, this last part just felt so wrong. It was such a depressing way to end the story.

All in all, Gulliver’s Travels does certainly have its moments of brilliance. There is one scene in particular, in the first book, where the little people are searching through Gulliver’s pockets and describing the contents, that I absolutely love. Like most classics, this is not something you just read for an entertaining story. This is a book to be read for the satire, and for Swift’s dry wit. If you can get past the slightly difficult prose, Gulliver’s Travels is incredibly funny. 

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