We read Gulliver’s Travels in my Early Modern Literature class a few weeks ago; it’s somewhat enjoyable, but marred throughout, I think, by overly specific satire and unfunny attempts at humor. The following I wrote specifically in response to Part I, but applies to the rest of it as well, I think:
Political satire does not age well.
The first part of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels had such a promising premise. There is a reason the word “lilliputian” has entered our vocabulary: the concept of an entire race of minuscule men captures the imagination in the same way as do the ancient myths. When children are taught about Greek mythology, they always read (and sometimes only read) the relatively short passage from the Odyssey detailing Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops. No one forgets the use of “no man” as a name, and no one forgets the idea itself of a giant, one-eyed man-monster. The Lilliputians are the same. Children often read the first part of Gulliver’s Travels, and after doing so, the six-inch-tall man remains in their imagination long after they forget the other details of the story.
What surprises me, in fact, is that it took until the eighteenth century for the Lilliputians to be invented. There were occasionally folk heroes like Tom Thumb, but until Swift, was there an entire race of them? Not fairy-folk, not magical in any way, with exactly the same sort of society as ours, only smaller? The idea may have as a prerequisite the kind of scientific objectivity associated with Newtonian mechanics. Before, to be tiny was to be magic, but once scientific laws are fixed, they apply to a six-inch-tall man the same as to a six-foot-tall one, and the magic is no longer necessary. Six-inch-tall men can be just that, men six inches tall, not demons or faeries.
There may be another requirement for Lilliputians to emerge: the cosmopolitan nature of an age with relatively fast and reliable travel. Ancient histories emphasize the foreignness of even nearby countries, Gulliver’s Travels the sameness of places far away. A key aspect of the Lilliputian myth is how, though they are smaller than us, they have basically the same concerns. They have emperors, farm the land, and fight over differences of dogma. To be compelling, we must be able to see ourselves as primarily human, and only secondarily of any specific nationality, for the Lilliputians are primarily a satire of humanity: men, but smaller, they show us how small we ourselves are.
But in Swift’s rendering, the satirical nature of the story is its downfall. Everyone knows “Lilliput,” but far fewer remember “Blefescu,” that the war between the two is a satire of religious wars in England, or for that matter that there is a war between the two at all. The problem is that, while the nature of the Lilliputian myth demands that the Lilliputians be a satire of humanity, Swift decided to make them a satire of seventeenth and eighteenth century England; Lilliput and Blefescu are England and France, Big- and Little-Endianism are Catholicism and Protestantism. In doing so, Swift makes the myth fallible. The comparison is one reasonable readers may disagree with; were the religious wars in England really a result of something as trivial as how to crack open an egg?
Worse (though it may boil down to the same thing), Swift makes the myth specifically historical. In doing so, he reduces himself to a three-hundred-year-old Englishman complaining about four-hundred-year-old Englishmen. It is not that specificity is in itself bad, but that Swift becomes so specific as to lose a sense of the general. “Lilliputian” lasts in a way “Blefescu” and “Endianism” do not, I believe, because “lilliputian” conveys a satirical myth, a timeless satire, while “Blefescu” and “Endianism” are political satires. Political satires are not timeless, and so political satires cannot last.
I could see it argued that this is a measure of Swift’s achievement: we are no longer moved by his argument because his side won. But that would be to say that literature is in the service of politics, that because Swift could use Gulliver’s Travels to win a political debate, even though that debate would be irrelevant within a few decades, it excuses him from having to write literature that is truly timeless. I cannot agree with that; literature’s task is to teach us about human nature, not about the nature of the Tories and Whigs, and failing at this is a real failure. The Lilliputians are a great addition to our modern mythology, but Gulliver’s Travels itself I must consider as only of historical interest.