At some point Gulliver's Travels was labeled a children's novel, and that was not a promotion. While kids can certainly read Jonathan Swift's satirical masterpiece, calling it a young adult novel leaves the impression that it's not incredibly deep. But it is incredibly deep, and it isn't just a whimsical fantasy about Lemuel Gulliver's travels to made-up places.
It is plenty whimsical, of course. Lilliput is the most famous of Gulliver's island stops, a land of little people in which Gulliver is a giant whose size is a considerable problem until he proves his peacefulness and helpfulness. What isn't quite as well-known are some of the predicaments Gulliver finds himself in, such as where to relieve himself when he towers so enormously over the landscape.
Jokes like this aren't particularly rare in Gulliver's Travels, though they aren't there for no reason, or simply to be crass. Nor does Swift include the country of the Houyhnhnms (horses who rule people and treat them like animals) just because he had a twisted or outrageous imagination. Swift was, after all, a devout Anglican pastor.
Each novel has its context, and Swift's England was one of racist discrimination against his native Ireland, the Enlightenment and its exclusive focus on human reason, the corruption of the Church, the fragmentation of the British government, and general societal cataclysm and change. The different stops on Gulliver's voyages are meant to reflect this chaos.
As satire, the novel lampoons Swift's cultural, religious, and political milieu, showing the absurdity of so much that humans tend to take so seriously. For instance, when Gulliver ends up on the flying island of Laputa and sees the ridiculous experiments undertaken in the extensive laboratories, Swift takes the opportunity to criticize the pursuit of science for its own sake.
Like any good satire, there are plenty of jokes that are just plain funny. Even the ones that have a biting edge of criticism are hilarious, though they're even better when you understand the historical context that gave them birth. Which may be the best reason ever to study history—so you can get all the jokes.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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