“Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”
This week we look to Jonathan Swift and his masterwork Gulliver’s Travels. The story is familiar, but widely misunderstood. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the sanitized and highly abridged version consumed by contemporary audiences omits the bits that scandalize some surprised readers. Swift was a master of satire and his use of symbols was filled with power and nuance.
As Karen Swallow Prior writes in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me:
Symbols are powerful. And we live in a symbol-saturated society. The power of symbols comes from the reality they represent. Very few of our experiences are unmediated by the symbols of an experience that enter our consciousness long before the actual experience. We see ads touting the smiles toothpaste will bring us before we have all our teeth. We watch commercials showing how much fun we’ll have if we drink a certain brand of beer before we’ve lost the joy of blowing bubbles. We hear songs about romantic love before we have our first crush. Before we’ve even reached puberty, we watch sex as it is portrayed in the movies and television, imagine it as it is described in books, and laugh about it from jokes whispered by schoolmates. It’s hard to imagine things otherwise.
A symbol is something that represents something else. This chapter discusses symbols of sex and the power of those symbols.
What are other kinds of powerful symbols in our society?
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Literature, Liturgy & The Arts
When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, the author’s name did not appear on the book. The title page read “Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver …” Many people accepted this as fact. Travel books of the time told many tales that were no more strange than the imaginary adventures of Gulliver. One sea captain even claimed that he knew Captain Gulliver well.
Other readers condemned the book as full of exaggerations.Although it became one of the most famous books for children, it was not written for children. It was savage satire aimed at the human race. The tiny Lilliputians are vain, malicious, and bloodthirsty. The king and the court of Lilliput are a parody of the English king and court. The giants of Brobdingnag are amiable, but commonplace and insensitive. Laputa is full of the foolish philosophers and scientists whom Swift despised. The Houyhnhnms are horses who use degraded men, Yahoos, as men use horses elsewhere. Looking at mankind through the eyes of horses, Swift sees people as vicious, greedy, and ignorant.
From its first appearance Gulliver’s Travels delighted its readers instead of shocking them. In spite of his bitterness, Swift took a dry delight in making his narrative sound real even when it was fantastic. Children could enjoy the marvelous adventures of a traveler among pygmies and giants, on a flying island, and in a country where horses talk. Gulliver’s Travels soon became a children’s classic.
A large part of what Swift wrote is made up of pamphlets on political or ecclesiastical affairs and must be read in the light of history. But A Tale of a Tub, a satire on false religion, and The Battle of the Books, a burlesque of literary controversy (both published in 1704), are still read for their comic ridicule of human folly. Drapier’s Letters (1724), written to expose a minor scandal in the government of Ireland by the English, lifts the issue to something universal—the human rights of men against tyrants. The Journal to Stella is a brilliant picture of a brilliant age.
“Swift, Jonathan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.
Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me
Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.