Sorry – there are explicit spoilers here. I thought this novel was widely referenced and played upon enough in modern culture to warrant them.
A light-hearted children’s story about not getting too big for your boots, you’re probably thinking. Or maybe you’ve got that bird’s-eye of Jack Black in your head, lying flat, hair sprawling, a look of terrified confusion on his face, tied down, apparently, by dental floss.
You’re probably not thinking ‘ingenious political satire which had to be printed under the utmost anonymity’.
Modern adaptations of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel tend to ignore its heavily political undertones. And, in fairness, it would be easy to take the first of its four books as little more than a chuckle-inducing tale of a strange land where poor, shipwrecked Gulliver is twelve-times the size of his fellow inhabitants.
Sure, he recognises flaws in the running of Lilliput – uproar, treachery and execution based on trifles (such as at which end of the egg one chooses to make the crack) – but it seems rather to be a little joke at the British court and Parliament’s expense than a full-scale attack upon them. Sure, it takes Gulliver a little while to adapt to his now apparently miniature surroundings upon his return to England, but, ultimately, he settles back down to play happy families. His frantic yelling at people in the street to get out of his way lest he trample them is innocently amusing.
And we might even remain under the same illusion when Gulliver sets sail again and, lo and behold, finds himself once more on a fantastical island – only, this time, he’s the one of Lilliputian proportions.
Only, this time, also, he’s abandoned by his crew. He’s exploited for profit by the gigantic farmer who finds him. A dwarf at court taunts him cruelly. Gulliver’s anecdotes remain light-hearted, comical, bizarre throughout, but his discussions with the king remind us of similar ones in Lilliput, only this time in reverse.
Gulliver isn’t just relating outlandish, amusing tales of his travels here – he’s witnessing first-hand, scrutinising, analysing, eventually lamenting methods of government, and the defining, often dark, elements of human nature.
His travels take him to a few more islands, each eccentric in its own creative way, but the steadily increasing hostility which finds him fending for himself in such places (no longer shipwrecked, but attacked by pirates, or mutinied against by his own crew) reflect his increasing awareness of the corruption of his kind, and the imbecilities of various governmental, societal, artistic systems and ideas. He ends up back in England, bitter, a misanthrope, an effective recluse, talking infrequently with his wife and regularly with his horses. (Seriously, the horse bit is true.) Somehow I don’t think Jack Black would have enjoyed that role quite as much.
In the end, we are left uncertain as to whether Gulliver is a part of the satire himself, and to what extent this unique work is jesting, moralising, lamenting or all of the above. Criticism varies on this point, and whether or not we take Gulliver’s voice to be Swift’s is crucial to the reading in a wider sense.
But, on the other hand, despite initial apprehensions and complete ignorance of the context, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Though there’s none of Austen’s witty irony, or the Brontës’ tumultuous passion, or George Eliot’s philosophising, or Woolf’s long-spun, delightful sentences, or even a character who I could connect with on any emotional level, the age-old formula of fantastical lands far far away works a treat for a surprisingly entertaining read. It’s no surprise that modern adaptations continue to abound, even if they do avoid its cynical, political current.