Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gulliver's Travels I: A Voyage to Lilliput

This great classic of Western literature was written not as a novel but as a series of satires not only of politics and the age, but of travel literature itself. There is a tension between what Gulliver, the narrator, is saying and what his audience should think, indeed what Swift is telling (or showing) his readers. Gulliver is very serious in giving every factual detail to convince his readers not only of his varsity but also to ensure that we take on his point of view. In point of fact, we are taken on this very serious journey to fantastic lands and find much that amusing, much that is bemusing, that which is shocking and that which is exceptional. If we are not offended by the satire and can only see others folly in it then we ourselves become the butt of the joke. The book instructs us as well as entertains us.

On the surface the Voyage to Lilliput is fairly easy to understand. Lemuel Gulliver (whose name means "beloved of God" and "to trick by means of the truth" (Gull-vere)) sets out on a voyage as ships surgeon. He is ship-wreaked and it seems is the only survivor. He lands on the Isle of Lilliput and soon finds himself captured by the inhabitants who are about 6 inches tall compared to Gulliver. He is transported back to the city and housed in a disused cathedral Church. Over time Gulliver learns the language of the Lilliputians and is granted his liberty by the Emperor upon certain conditions.While he is there he discovers that Lilliput is the sworn enemy of Belfusca another Empire situated to the North-East on a different island. The principle divide between the two Empires is one of doctrine, the Lilliputians open their eggs at the small end (Small-Endians) and the Belfuscians open their eggs at the large end (Big-Endians). Upon this point neither side will budge (it is in point of fact the Lilliputians and their prince of some time past who instigated the Small-Endian schism), and so they are at war, and presently the Belfuscians have a larger fleet ready for fair winds. Gulliver is drawn into the politics and agrees to take the principle ships of Belfusca for Lilliput. Upon successfully returning the principle part of the enemy navy the Empire commands Gulliver in effect to subjugate the people of Belfusca, turn them into a province of Lilliput and stamp out the Big-Endian heresy. Gulliver refuses on moral grounds and so then precipitate a series of events that lead to Gulliver taking leave of Lilliput, seeking refuge in Belfusca and escaping back to England.

Clearly, Swift here has in mind the petty disputes between England and France. Though he was a Church of England clergyman (Dean of St Patricks in Ireland), and he disliked Catholic practice, he here shows that the differences between the French and the English were minor. They both have a fine and expressive language, with attendant cultures. The differences in religion are not as wide as many might make out, after all do they not enjoy the same yoke! It is also easy to see here that the Lilliputians have a cramped and narrow vision of politics and morality. Faced with Gulliver they have a choice, kill him (which they contemplate doing), or use him for their own ends. The list of criteria Gulliver is given so that he might be set free are all very practical things meant to increase the 'glory' of the Empire. He must crush the fleet of Belfusca, assist in building projects, take measurements of the entire kingdom and so on. The preamble to the list of demands makes the Empire to be a mighty prince, whose domain 'covers' the earth, and Gulliver points out that his kingdom is about 12 miles square. The cramped and narrow political views of the Lilliputians is therefore, exemplified in the fact that they themselves are small. Later when Gulliver visits Brobdingnag he is the small one, Europeans are thus the cramped and narrow ones.

When Gulliver refuses to humble and crush the Belfuscians the Emperor takes a dim view. Gulliver argues that it would be unjust to subjugate a free people and quash their culture, this boarder, more moral view is rejected by the prince. Thus, from that time onwards the court plots to get rid of Gulliver. They are a very careful and precise people, able to calculate the needs of Gulliver (he requires the food and drink for 1728 Lulliputians), they move him while drugged from the coast to his residence by as Gulliver says ingenious means, they fashion clothes for him, take precise notes on his personal effects and so on. They realise that if they were to kill Gulliver outright that his corpse would rot and likely induce a plague, so instead, for a crime he committed earlier and for which he received a kind of pardon, they decide to blind him, and hope that this will firstly punish him sufficiently and make him docile to the needs and (often capricious) wants of the Emperor. (Gulliver empties his bladder on the Royal Palace that is set ablaze in order to put out the fire, however, to do so is a crime punishable by death in Lilliput. This shows again that the Lilliputians know nothing of mercy and magnanimity. It is also part of Swifts jibe at travel literature, where minute details are related about the daily lives of the travellers, Swift therefore has Gulliver relate the precise details of how he 'answers a call of nature', using the grotesque and the scatological). Again, this broadness in science but narrowness in morality (the punishment is hardly fitting to the crime and is decided in secret, without taking evidence and without a defence for Gulliver) shows why the Lilliputians are small. Their stature matches the metaphysical reality of their lives.

The theme of Science and ancient wisdom is one that is pervasive throughout the Travels and we meet it most explicitly in the third travel book (reviewed here). The Lilliputians do indeed display their qualities in terms of physical science and in engineering. What they lack is the ancient moral wisdom and virtues of governance. They lack common humanity in raising of families and children, seeing marriage as a means of propagating the race and sending their children to be raised elsewhere. They lack the courage to reward virtue and good office, using acrobatics as a means for promotion at court to win various sashes (a direct satire on the various knightly orders in Great Britain). For all this, the Lilliputians are smaller than the Europeans. In the second travel book (reviewed here) we see science taking a secondary place to moral virtue and political magnanimity and hence it is the Europeans who are small.

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