SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels [Part II]

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Part 2: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

  • Chapter 1: “A great storm described; the long boat sent to fetch water; the author goes with it to discover the country.  He is left on shore, is seized by one of the natives, and carried to a farmer’s house.  His reception, with several accidents that happened there.  A description of the inhabitants.”

After a fierce storm, Gulliver lands in a country of giants. He laments his fate, and considers the vicissitudes that led him from Lilliput, where he was revered as a prodigy, to Brobdingnag, where he is merely a diminutive curiosity to the citizens. While reading this chapter, I was frequently reminded of the tired phrase: “Everything is relative.” Gulliver asserts the truth of this statement, that as Gulliver was a giant in proportion to the Lilliputians, he is insignificant among the people of Brobdingnag. The giants of Brobdingnag might be as diminutive in size compared to other unknown races as Gulliver is to them, and so on ad infinitum. I think this concept also has a strong relation to Aurelius’ and Montaigne’s arguments that everything is opinion. One is small only if one believes that he is small. There is no objective truth. Truth is merely opinion, and opinion often consists in comparing things with one another. If one does not possess omniscience, which no one does, absolute truth is impossible to attain because one cannot compare all things in order to make an utterly true comparison.

  • Chapter 2: “A description of the farmer’s daughter.  The author carried to a market-town, and then to the metropolis.  The particulars of his journey.”

The farmer, who discovers Gulliver, decides to make money by displaying Gulliver as a side-show attraction. This is similar to the European practice of bringing natives of the Americas to Europe. While reading this chapter, I remembered one of the many immortal lines of Shakespeare: “Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man. Any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.” It is interesting to note that anything unusual provokes our curiosity and willingness to pay money to learn about it, while anything mundane, such as a lowly beggar, does not move us to pity or action, regardless of the desperate straits in which the wretch is suffering.

  • Chapter 3: “The author sent for to court.  The queen buys him of his master the farmer, and presents him to the king.  He disputes with his majesty’s great scholars.  An apartment at court provided for the author.  He is in high favour with the queen.  He stands up for the honour of his own country.  His quarrels with the queen’s dwarf.”

The King of Brobingnag and his philosophers first conclude that Gulliver is an artificial creation because it is clear that he cannot preserve his own life by any physical means such as swiftness, strength, or agility. However, after listening to Gulliver relate the tale of his life in Europe, they conclude that Gulliver is merely an indescribable mutation of nature. This description is criticized by Swift as a convenient way of explaining something about nature of which someone is ignorant; chiefly Swift targets the philosophers who claim that some questions are unanswerable.

  • Chapter 4: “The country described.  A proposal for correcting modern maps.  The king’s palace; and some account of the metropolis.  The author’s way of travelling.  The chief temple described.”

Swift’s description of the location and geography of Brobdingnag is so convincing that a person of the 18th century must have at least seriously considered the possibility of lands such as Brobdingnag and Lilliput existing on the earth unknown to Europeans. After all, the Europeans had only two centuries before discovered the Americas. In the modern age, I think that it is safe to assume that we know about every terrain on the Earth. The depths of the ocean, however, are still not entirely known, nor are the expanses of the universe. The probability is likely very high that a race of intelligent beings several times our size exist somewhere in the universe. Like the people of Brobdingnag, they might consider our sense of self-importance amusing; for even we consider the play of children to be amusing because of their diminutive stature and sense of self-importance. [Often children will pretend to be kings, queens, soldiers, etc. and play their roles with the utmost gravity]

  • Chapter 5: “Several adventurers that happened to the author.  The execution of a criminal.  The author shows his skill in navigation.”

This was a very amusing chapter. Gulliver describes many of the perils he endured while in Brobdingnag, which include being seized by a monkey, jumping into cow dung, and being present while the Queen’s handmaidens urinated. This chapter reminded me of Rabelais’ style of writing – especially the scatological humor.

Swift also elaborates that a sense of self-importance, no matter how insignificant one might be in comparison to others, is a virtue, and commendable. Indeed, there is some sort of honor in defiance against overwhelming odds or disparities.

Gulliver also describes the several imperfections that he perceives on account of his diminutive stature. For example, he notices blemishes and foul odors emitting form the handmaidens despite knowing that these flaws are unnoticeable to the giant sized people of Brobingnag. This can be interpreted as a comment upon the imperfection of all things. Nothing can withstand a close scrutiny.

  • Chapter 6: “Several contrivances of the author to please the king and queen.  He shows his skill in music.  The king inquires into the state of England, which the author relates to him.  The king’s observations thereon.”

Gulliver describes Europe and its history to the king. The king is appalled by Gulliver’s depiction. From what Gulliver relates to him, he concludes that the world of Gulliver is despicable because of the prevalence of vice. This is an obvious attack upon the degeneracy of 18th century Europe perceived by Swift. In particular, Swift criticizes the propensity of countries to war with one another for trivial reasons.

  • Chapter 7: “The author’s love of his country.  He makes a proposal of much advantage to the king, which is rejected.  The king’s great ignorance in politics.  The learning of that country very imperfect and confined.  The laws, and military affairs, and parties in the state.”

Gulliver offers to teach the King how to construct guns of war. After describing the deadly effect of such weapons, the King commands Gulliver not to reveal the secret of such devastation to him. He would rather live without such knowledge, so that violence and bloodshed remains at a minimum. The King states that the inventor of those weapons is an evil genius. Gulliver scoffs at what he believes to be the King’s foolishness to refuse such an advantageous gift. The conversation between Gulliver and the King of Brobdingnag exhibits the violent culture of Gulliver’s world – i.e. our own. Machiavelli’s Prince once again came to my mind while reading this chapter. Machiavelli would certainly exhort the King to accept Gulliver’s offer because it provides greater security to the King’s power and to the country itself; however, the King would likely argue that guns of war actually jeopardize his power and the safety of the kingdom because the weapons will inevitably fall into the hands of malicious individuals.

  • Chapter 8: “The king and queen make a progress to the frontiers.  The author attends them.  The manner in which he leaves the country very particularly related.  He returns to England.”

Gulliver returns to England after a series of unlikely events. While resting near the sea shore in his box, an eagle picks up the box and drops it in the sea. A ship from England discovers Gulliver, and they bring him home. When he arrives, it takes him some time to adjust to the diminutive stature of the people in comparison to those of Brobdingnag. He grew accustomed to shouting so that he would be heard. Furthermore, because of the disparity in size between the people of Europe and Brobdingnag, Gulliver believes that he is in Lilliput again, and fears trampling on the European people. Gulliver states that such is the power of custom, which recalls Montaigne’s essay on the topic of custom. One can achieve desired results by developing habits conducive to obtaining such a result.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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