Sunday, April 29, 2012

Gulliver's Travels: Stages of Inquiry

Gulliver’s Travels - Jonathan Swift

First level of inquiry:

Who is the central character?  Lemuel Gulliver, surgeon, sea captain, restless to travel and explore the world

What is the book’s most important event?  When does the character change?  The most important event in which Gulliver changes is during his fourth stop to the island of the Houyhnhnms.  He always remained himself during and after each new island adventure with different natives and customs, and yet still desired to return home, especially when events turned against him.  But once he lived among the Houyhnhnms, those rational and perfect animals, he lost all interest in returning to England and living among his fellow Yahoos; in fact, the thought of it repulsed him. 

Second level of inquiry:
What is the author trying to convince you of?  What evidence does he give you for believing this argument?  I am under the impression that the author is trying to convince the reader of numerous ideas: the folly of human organizations or societies, such as in religion, government, and traditions, especially pertaining to England; how man treats others with less honor or respect because of an inferior stature, class, power, or national origin; the abhorrent idea of war with or conquests of fellow man; and the notion that we are civilized when we may not be only name a few

What does central character want?  What is standing in his or her way?  What strategy does he or she pursue in order to overcome this block?  The central character is restless for adventure, desires to travel, and to see the world. I think his restlessness stems from not being content or grateful for what is.  He is not content before he begins his journeys, nor is he satisfied when he returns from his fourth journey because he lived among those creatures who, in his eyes, were absolutely perfect and true; yet, the truth is that there is no such thing as a utopian society or perfect persons.  Frankly, he who loves truth cannot handle it, and that is why he ends up spending his days with horses in his stable after his miserable return to England.  Again, as in Quioxte, are not reality and truth standing in his way?  But in this case, there is no solution, and there is a concern that he may never be the same.

Metaphors, anyone? I do not have the time to expound on every single one, nor do I know them all.  Everything is a metaphor for something, and it pays to know about Jonathan Swift’s time to understand that many of his swipes are aimed at England, the English crown, and the English people, society, politics, culture, and the like. 

Without that knowledge, I did recognize that the first nation of Lilliput made Gulliver seem very dangerous to the tiny inhabitants, and their policies were petty and reckless (i.e. civil war over differing heel sizes, going to war with neighboring islanders for harboring citizens who choose to break their eggs at opposing ends), and further research shows that Lilliput represents a small but precarious England and her policies at the time, her trivial conflicts with France, and the complications that were present between Catholics and Protestants. 

I noticed that in Brobdingnag, the events that took place there made him look literally “small” and pitiful.  He was vulnerable and a fool, especially when he tried to convince the king of the awesome supremacy of gunpowder and weapons.  The King sums it up: England is horrible and offensive to even invent such things.  However, the Brobdingnagians are not that superior either, now that Gulliver is the tiny one and they are giants, because their humanity is magnified and all their ugliness cannot be hidden.

At Laputa, it is obvious that Swift takes issue with worthless science and philosophy research and its useless results.  It seems that the efficient way to do something already exists, and yet additional wasteful research is done in hopes of finding something better.  Well, supposedly, there was a Royal Academy in London in Swift’s day that did try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.  How can you not use that as satire for your story? 

And down to the island of the Houyhnhnms, well, that is an evident slap at all humanity.  Those Yahoos look a lot like us, don’t they?  And those perfectly reasonable horses: that is what we humans are supposed to be in our righteous forms, right?  But they aren’t all that perfect after all because they come across as elitists.  They are also void of all emotion and compassion.  Humans cannot live on reason alone. 

Nonetheless, Gulliver comes away utterly dejected because he is under the impression that he (and all humanity with him) appear really to be nothing but a bunch of Yahoos.

There is so much more to mention, but I am NOT going to get into it today.  Maybe someday I will revisit it.

Beginning and ending?  Is it resolution (no further event can take place), or is it logical exhaustion (infinite repetition)?  Do you agree?
The author, in the voice of Lemuel Gulliver, an Englishman, gives a brief description of his life and how he has always desired to travel the world and have adventure, but he is met with misfortune during a voyage, and ends up in a strange land of tiny people.  Here begin his lessons in humanity, culture, society, power, governments, and traditions. 

He ends his adventures in misery and depression because he believes that mankind is an absolute failure, even though he meets a benevolent and decent captain who takes him home.  He is convinced that the Houyhnhnms were the ultimate and perfect ideal in individuals and society, and therefore, he cannot even bring himself to face his fellow Englishmen or his wife and family. 

There is a glimmer of hope, about the size of a Lilliputian, in which Gulliver says he would train his family in those good virtues he saw in his horse friends, but I think it is selfishly for his own opportunity to just tolerate them.

I agree that there is no solution.  Gulliver displays no resolution to his problem so long as he continues on in this way.  He will always remain unhappy seeking companionship with his horses, rejecting his wife and kids, and secluding himself from all society forever.  Maybe he will get better in time; however, the author does not indicate any opportunity for that.  

Third level of inquiry:
Is this story an accurate portrayal of life?  Is it true?  (What are people like?  What shapes them?  Are we free, or are we restricted by something?)  In this regard, this is in many ways an accurate portrayal of particular people.  The author set numerous examples of the most extreme cases of how individuals and societies may behave: some are trivial, like the Liliputtians, some are decadent, like the Brobdingnagians, others are bullies and abuse their powers, such as the Laputians, and others are elitist, like the Houyhnhnms.  This is human behavior. 

Putting England aside, the author may be trying to demonstrate overall that humanity is dying or degrading, like there is no hope for improvement; that England or the English societies are really not that civilized or advanced after all; we really are not free from our sickness.  We are slaves to our immorality, lying, cheating, folly, filth, power, greed, and the like.

Do you sympathize with the character?  Why?  Which quality allows you to sympathize?
Not at all.  I think Gulliver is truly a selfish, self-centered nitwit.  First of all, he neglects his duty and responsibility to his family, and his adventures were purely for his own desires.  Come on! Get a real job.

Gulliver is a nitwit because he was brainwashed by the end of his time with the Houyhnhnms to foolishly believe that the rational and reasonable horse creature is the ideal.  He is missing so much, including the importance of love, compassion, loyalty, family, and other ideas and emotions.

Is there an argument in this book?  What is the idea?  Do you agree?  Is the book true?
There are a lot of ideas in this novel.  It is quite complex for such a short story.  (I’m thinking Don Quixote.)  If I focus on one, it is this: Humanity is doomed because man is a Yahoo. 

But I disagree on this account: While cultures and societies seem to be de-evolving, that is, “getting worse,” the fact is that every generation has its debauched segment.  Swift just chose to focus on it.  But I believe that there are compassionate, accommodating, honorable, decent, and hard working people in the world, and I am sure they were present in Swift’s day, too. 

However, to be fair, Swift did place a generous character in an odd place – a sea captain – that drags an ungrateful Gulliver back to his home.  Nonetheless, Gulliver does not even seem to notice or care. 

In truth, the human race is doomed because of its depravity, which Swift portrays in his story.  It is called sin.  But not all of are enslaved by it because not everyone lives that way.  Not everyone is a Yahoo…or a Houyhnhnm…or a Brobdingnagian…etc.  


  1. I really love the way you break down the book in your reviews. This one is on my list, but I don't think I'll rush to it! -Sarah

    1. Sarah,
      I'm following the questions for reading novels listed in TWEM, although I do leave some questions out or combine others.

      Gulliver's Travels is just strange and unusual, and maybe I should not have taken it so seriously. So if you do get to it, read it more lightheartedly.