Friday, May 3, 2024

Gulliver’s Travels


Towards the end of the 17th century, a surgeon’s apprentice by the name of Lemuel Gulliver decides to choose a life of adventure by hopping on a ship to explore foreign lands. His first trip gets him marooned on the island country of Lilliput, whose inhabitants do not exceed six inches in height. There he gets caught in a war between his host nation and the neighboring island of Blefuscu. Once fortune returns him to England, his thirst for travel has him sailing again. This time around he is abandoned by the ship’s crew at Brobdingnag, whose inhabitants stand 72 feet tall. There he becomes some kind of a circus animal, finding refuge at the royal palace, somehow being treated as the royals’ pet. Once his luck takes him back to Britain, once again he finds himself on board another ship. A pirate attack leads him to be rescued by the flying island of Laputa which is in rivalry with the grounded kingdom of Balnibarbi. Once back in his native country, he goes on yet another journey and this time ends up at the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses ruling over Yahoos, which look like primitive humans.

The storytelling is repetitive as far as style is concerned. The guy hops on a boat and gets stuck in a weird country where customs wildly differ from what he is used to. This happens four or five times and runs the risk of boring you. Luckily, the content of his different adventures is a good mix of silly fish-out-of-water scenarios and an indirect critique of human behavior during that time, even though we can argue that most of his misanthropic arguments still hold water up to this day. It is interesting because given how this novel was penned three hundred years ago, it’s as though nothing much has changed. Mankind are, still, assholes.

The sequence of his adventures feels just about right. The Lilliput versus Blefuscu episode gives you a good grasp of the author’s storytelling style. The follow-up at Brobdingnag is in the same vein, but with circumstances reversed. Gulliver was literally the big guy on Lilliput with much to offer only to be reduced, literally once again, and feel useless at Brobdingnag. Since this novel is a satire of travel journals, anyone who has traveled to other countries could easily relate to that weird feeling of superiority or inferiority, with your country of origin and culture as the point of comparison, depending on which shores you end up landing on.

Once Gulliver takes you to Laputa and to the land of the Houyhnhnms, the premise is no longer a fish-out-of-water storyline as the mood quickly changes to a more philosophical outlook where the inhabitants of those countries serve as some kind of mirror for the human psyche. This is, perhaps, one of the geniuses of Swift’s writing, by being able to openly criticize our species through the standpoint of fictional characters that, in the case of the brainy horses, are supposed to be inferior to our kind, but have been elevated to a pedestal of intelligence and reason in this book’s universe.

I share the same observation by some readers regarding Swift’s treatment of women, his descriptions of whom appear to be downright misogynistic. However, I also believe that the author should be given the benefit of the doubt. After all, this book is obviously a satire of 1700’s society in England. Is this misogyny coming from the author himself or is this a sarcastic flaw he has intentionally assigned to his main character as a form of veiled criticism? We really wouldn’t know. Swift has been dead for almost three centuries now so we can’t really ask him. Rest assured that this quirk adds even more color to the main character.

In the end, I can’t help but commiserate with Gulliver with regard to his acute misanthropy after finally settling back with his family in Britain. It is weird but highly relatable. Isn’t this almost always the case for anyone growing old and getting tired of other people’s BS? You eventually just get allergic to them and try to avoid those who you could easily avoid. Perhaps that is just how our species is supposed to be. Destructive. Antagonistic. Warfreak. Isn’t it bliss to share this phobia of fellow humans with someone who lived 300 years ago, survived, and told the tale? I guess we are just slow to evolve, now aren’t we?

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