Finished Part I of Gulliver’s Travels

Okay, this was a bit of a struggle.  Of course, I’ve always been aware of this work, but have never actually read it (seems like I’m saying that a lot recently).  It is a bit difficult for a modern reader to appreciate the satire within this book.  Not having lived early 18th Century England, I did not notice many things that ‘clearly refer to…’ a contemporary of Swift.  One thing that was ‘clear’ even to me was his description of the ‘channel’ between Lilliput and Blefuscu – (“Aha! Just like the English Channel!” I thought) but that was about all I could muster without the help of the footnotes in my copy (pictured below).

I decided fairly early on in my reading, since I realized the satire would be largely lost on a 21st century reader (at least without significant research), that I would just try to enjoy the book as an ‘adventure’ and as ‘good writing.’  On that level, I believe it succeeds for me.  The descriptions of Lilliput – and indeed the descriptions the Lilliputians used to describe him, The Great Man-Mountain (love that), require some skill and imagination.  I particularly enjoyed, for example, how his pistol was described: “we saw a pillar of iron, about the length of a man, fastened to a strong piece of timber, larger than the pillar; and upon one side of the pillar were huge pieces of iron sticking out, cut into strange figures…”

My rational side had an occasional problem with what I thought were inconsistencies of scale.  E.g. when he first awakens to find himself tied down by the Lilliputians and struggles to free himself, resulting in volleys of arrows – the arrows must be very tiny indeed to only have the effect he describes.  Yet, the scale is supposedly 12 to 1 as far as his size vs. theirs, and later he describes a sword as 3 inches (his inches) long.  An arrow wouldn’t be much shorter than that and would seem to be capable of causing more harm than they do.  But this is nitpicking, I suppose.

I enjoyed some of the classical references as well. (Classics/Ancient History Minor here, thank you very much!).  In my edition’s introduction (by Miriam Kosh Starkman), Swift’s earlier work, Tale of a Tub, is described as having “something of the quality of an Athena sprung full blown.” Quick everybody, get out your Bullfinch’s Mythology if you don’t understand that reference!  Another time, Gulliver states that the emperor “desired I would stand like a colossus with my legs as far asunder as I conveniently could” (in order to let the army march under him).  One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the famous “Colossus of Rhodes” – a gigantic statue that straddled the harbor of the city by that name.

I liked chapter six’s ‘utopian elements’ of Lilliput, such as “Ingratitude is among them a capital crime” and “fraud is a greater crime than theft,” etc., but Swift’s distrust of (government) institutions – particularly judges and courts – is clear even here.

And what’s with the obsession with his bodily functions?  This was a bit ‘disturbing’ even if humorous.  Does the sheer magnitude of Gulliver in relation to the Lilliputians make this more humorous?  I’ve heard many scholars have wondered about this aspect of Gulliver’s Travels.  I’m thinking he could have gotten away only including Gulliver’s “firefighting prowess,” as the other times this comes up aren’t vital to the story, in my opinion. 

Up until recently, the only knowledge or image I had of this book is the iconic one of Gulliver tied down by countless little strings.  I knew he had other journeys than the one to Lilliput, though, and look forward to experiencing them in the upcoming weeks.  Now I’m going to hop over to Allie’s page to see what she and others have had to say today…  Note, Allie’s mom is also ‘guest posting’ on her page and is ‘reading along’ with the rest of us.

Also participating in the read-along is Lindsey at Sparks’ Notes. (I’ll come back and edit this post later with links to any of the others that post comments)

Another participant is Caritoo over at A Whole Book World

Please give these other blogs a look, and feel free to jump in and join the fun!

Jonathan Swift

Funny, I could’ve sworn that was Isaac Newton

Well, maybe not, but close.  (maybe it’s just that they had the same hairstyle)


  1. Allie said,

    June 9, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Great post!

    My own edition (Oxford) has a lot of footnotes as well and it certainly helps to refresh my memory.

    One of the things you’ll notice as you get into each section is that they foil each other. Parts 1 and 2 are opposite, as are 3 and 4. Swift does a great job of showing both sides of the story, and focusing on both sides of the political spectrum. It makes for some interesting reading as you move forward.

    And I am glad you pointed out the references! There are so many in this piece that I didn’t notice all of them!


  2. June 10, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    The pictures of Newton and Swift are funny! They do look alike. I love the Colossus scene. It cracks me up. I’m glad you’re enjoying it even though we can’t possibly get all of the references. I have a feeling you’ll like parts three and four the best, but that could be because I like those the parts the best. And Allie’s right, parts one and two foil each other, as do three and four, and it makes the book as a whole more interesting.


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