Gulliver’s Utopian Travels
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a classic by any means of measurement. It has influenced every medium of storytelling to one degree or another practically since its initial publication. I grew up with the television mini-series adaptation starring Ted Danson on two thick VHS tapes. It was among my favorite things to watch as a six year-old. The witticisms, the nonsensical lands Gulliver travels through, the absolute surreality of the world and magnificent wonder of it all came together in a magnificent way. Granted, Ted Danson’s Gulliver was more sarcastic, less naive, and, overall, much more Ted Danson-y than the book was, but, hey, it was the 90’s. I’ve yet to see a main character in 90’s media that wasn’t all of those in a some way or another. (Okay, maybe not so much Ted Danson-y on all of them, but a good many.) It wasn’t just this television show, or the Jack Black film of the same name that came out in 2010 (which I did not see, because it just didn’t seem like the right role for Black. I suppose he’s a bit Ted Danson-y in that way). The fact that Lilliput (the nation of the Lilliputians [a word still in modern lexicon if slightly less so and slightly offensive]) is in the spell-checker’s dictionary should be evidence of Swift’s it spreading If you search Gulliver’s Travels in Google, the very first link is to a travel agency called Gulliver’s Travel. The website states it was founded in 1984, making it seem like a reasonably successful agency.
It seems a reasonable assumption that this means Gulliver’s Travels as a story is still remembered and even well-liked. If you had a travel agency called Hitler’s Daycamp you would likely not have the same kind of reception or longevity. So the question is, what makes Gulliver’s Travels so memorable? As most interesting questions are, this is not a simple question. There are a lot of different reasons. One is that it’s funny. The humor appeals to all ages from the baseness of Gulliver urinating on the fire in Lilliput, to the wit of describing the experiments in a praising tone while pointing out their pointlessness in satirization of science in the Academy of Lagado in Laputa. Funny isn’t all that it is, however, as it is even the type of literature that Gulliver’s Travels that makes it so very intriguing. Many draw parallels to Homer’s Odyssey and for very good reason, but it isn’t focusing on the journey, rather the societies through which the journey travels. These societies define what kind of literature Swift’s satirical prose falls under. Yet they are so very diverse, are they perfect utopian societies like Voltaire’s El Dorado in Candide? Are they horrifying dystopian societies like George Orwell’s 1984? Are they societies that are serene on the surface with monstrosities lurking just beneath like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? They are seemingly all of the above, often all at once.
The Academy of Lagado, having already been mentioned, seems a perfect place to start. Chapter 5 of part 3 of the novel opens by stating that empty houses are not left to simply waste away but are purchased by the Academy and put to use. While slightly ominous that there should be so many empty houses in the area, the fact that this society (at least in this particular way) is largely without waste makes it very Utopian. Indeed, the fact that logic and science is the defining aspect of the culture is a utopian trope. The anti-utopian dialog comes into play in the science being researched, however. Instead of beneficial, or even pleasurable, research, the projectors are researching things that seemed like great ideas to six year-old me. Turning poop back into food, building houses from the roof down, learning by pills, all seemed immeasurably genius to me. Of course none of them worked. The projectors would not alter their beginning or end goals of these tasks and would continue at times for decades on impossible tasks without making an ounce of progress, some don’t even follow their own experiment guidelines. Like television and drugs in Fahrenheit 451 the experiments seem only to be there to keep the projectors happy through the illusion of importance. It seems as though the projectors have seized on a lie that may have, at one point, been fed to them as youths or students, that the only thing that is ever wrong with an experiment is a lack of funds. Thus, these men who supposedly hold a grand position are begging for alms from every visitor. This society, from the perspective of the pupils of the projectors, becomes largely dystopic as they are not so much there to learn as to play the part of guinea pigs for the experiments. The pupils of the projector looking to condense knowledge into an ingestible pill and teach them exclusively through this method could expect at most frequent bouts of nausea and to learn not a thing. Upon this last selection, one can only imagine the pupils of the man attempting to reconstitute food from feces, or the one who kills a dog to show Gulliver how he can cure gas.
The article “Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-utopia? Gulliver’s Travels and the Utopian Mode of Discourse” by Chloe Houston focuses on what is presented as the truest utopian society in the book: the Houyhnhnms. A race of super intelligent, purely rational, emotionless, horses take top billing in the utopian slot. This society, according to Houston’s reading of the text, focus on pleasure because it makes sense rationally to do so. The text also says that though there’s slavery in the society, but ,despite the inequality, strangers are always welcomed with open arms. This society, of all the societies that are visited in the novel, is the only one of which Lemuel Gulliver actually wants to become a permanent member. In a stroke of lovely irony, this is the one society that refuses him, which seems to fly in the face of their ideas of hospitality, but whatever. Instead, he returns home to live out his days disgusted by his family and fellow man in general because of their “pride” and decides to practically live in the stables conversing with his two horses. Houston writes that this ending actually shows a dystopic view of society as it is something that can be seen and thought of, but never obtained by humankind. The fact that we, as human beings, have no place in this idyllic society makes it a dystopia for us; a dystopia of perspective. While the idea of utopia or dystopia is explored as perspective (particularly in the subculture of the Struldbruggs of Luggnaggians shifting from idyllic to insufferable as it is further explained). However, perspective isn’t necessary for the Houyhnhnm’s society to be dystopic. Houston, misses the point that empathy and mercy which the Houyhnhnms lack are part of what makes society livable. The sterile society and speciesist culture make it less idyllic and more tyrannical, less utopian and more dystopian.
Swift, Jonathon. “Gulliver’s Travels.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Pearson, 2010. 2371-2426. Print.