About the Author:
I am a fourth-semester student of the Cinema and Communications program. I wrote this essay last year as a part of my Reflections course: a class about museums, wonder, curation, and the harmful effects of creating a false representational universe. Swift’s work stuck with me because it offers an explicit critique of English domination and travel prose. The novel speaks to the inescapable European bias of the explorer and the transgressive nature of travel. I would like to thank Professor Rebecca Million for encouraging me to submit my essay to the Dawson English Journal.
Prof. Rebecca Million
English 102: Life As Exhibition
Why Gulliver’s Travels is Still Relevant Today
Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical travel narrative Gulliver’s Travels is one of those pieces that are helpful to a reader when picking apart other works of the same genre, and finding themselves confronted with a barrage of culturally explicit partiality. The satire follows Gulliver in his seafaring adventures through a panoply of less-than-credible island encounters. Wonder is palpable throughout the chapters that detail Gulliver’s meetings with different native people, each with a particular mythos and set of social customs. However, the relationship between the structure of the travel narrative and wonder is not as innocent as one may hope. The novel itself is heavily aware of its hero’s bias towards the methods and habits of English thinking. In fact, Gulliver’s Travels is the quintessential example of the dark side of wonder, the side that allows colonial structures to re-commit cognitive genocide through the excessive power of authorial final word.
Firstly, the travel narrative is a genre which by its very nature serves to distance its readers from the very people and cultures it wishes to spotlight. Wonder, in the age of exploration, can be defined simply with this excerpt from Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders quoting American literary historian Stephen Greenblatt: “‘Wonder,’ Greenblatt argues, ‘was the central figure in the initial European response to the New World, the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the presence of radical difference’” (Weschler 77). Indeed, by describing the people of Lilliput, Brobdingnag, or even the mathematics-loving anomalies of Laputa, Swift is exposing a dimension essential to wonder-inspired storytelling: otherness. Swift, through Gulliver’s British confidence, is highlighting the colonial mindset that pervades such accounts of travel. It is a trait that Gulliver himself is incapable of acknowledging until, significantly, a giant responds to his waxing rhapsodic on the affairs of his home country: “But by what I have gathered from your own relation […] I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth” (Swift 172). The reversal of the gaze sparked from this quote is evident during his time with the giants and is extremely relevant to the theme of wonder—wonder that is understood to be a power dynamic between the observer and the observed, or historically between white colonizers and the societies they catalogued. Though it is impossible to definitively conclude whether or not Gulliver immediately recognizes his imperial biases, this moment remains a clear directive to the reader to question the unmistakable lack of objectivity of the travel narrative genre, as well as the relevancy of travel texts made by other “odious vermin”. Moreover, this showcases how storytelling itself can be a form of cognitive genocide, for the readers can only guess through Gulliver’s eyes at a world warped by the words and opinions of some English guy.
Secondly, the novel begs the reader not to take it seriously, in the same fashion that Swift draws attention to cultural biases through Gulliver. He also points a finger at the process of writing itself, or rather why one might desire to pen travel prose. Indeed, most people would remark that the motivation behind a voyage is to experience an escape from the bureaucracy of one’s routine. However, as Srilata Ravi points out, there is also an undeniable yearning for disobedience in the heart of anyone crossing borders: “Travel writing cannot merely be perceived as a political activity. All borders are associated with taboos and since travel is also driven by transgressive impulses, it would only be appropriate for critics to also look at the idiosyncratic fantasies of each writer apart from reading the culturally and historically specific ones” (Ravi 2). In applying this idea to real travel narratives, one can come to understand how the “idiosyncratic fantasies” of the writer influences their report, as well as affects the natives depicted in their account. It is a crime the level to which an accurate depiction of the lives of native people often gets tossed aside in favor of the author curating a fantasy that effectively erases them. Indeed, the reckless author who crosses borders inevitably ends up creating new ones for others. If wonder is to gaze at radical difference, it is therefore contingent on a continued lack of self-reflection. By the same token, while Swift’s descriptions of the islanders of Lilliput or Brobdingnag whom he befriends appear at first to be portrayals of essentially alien races, they are in fact merely caricatures of ourselves. By focusing the microscope on them, he is really magnifying us, and forcing us to see that which we usually ignore. Take for example this nursing instance one night during a giant’s family dinner: “I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast […] The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug, so varied with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous […]” (Swift 144). Evidently, yet ironically, it is this focus on both the ego of the author and the complete nonsense that often finds its way into the travel narrative that makes Swift’s satire so trustworthy.
In conclusion, Gulliver’s Travels is a complex social commentary that manages to retain relevancy in an increasingly homogenized world, thanks to its unfortunately still-pertinent critique of English dominance and literary irresponsibility. In fact, such is the wealth of curiosity, of wonder, and of timeless discovery at its core that one must reasonably question Swift’s supposed misanthropy.
Ravi, Srilata. “Travel and Text.” Asian Journal of Social Science, 2003.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. The Project Gutenberg, The Project Gutenberg eBook of Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, www.gutenberg.org/files/829/829-h/829-h.htm.
Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. Vintage Books, 1995.