Among quite a few things Gulliver’s Travels has in common with Alice in Wonderland, one in particular would have surprised their authors: each jumped nimbly across the boundary of their assumed readership. But they did so from different sides of the fence. Carroll’s child’s fantasy, spun during a picnic afternoon on the river, generated an entire academic industry for serious-minded adults; Swift, on the other hand, had ground out a bitter, hard-hitting satire on bad government, intellectual pretension and moral hubris, only to have it co-opted by children in their fascination for little people and giants.
This infantilization of one of the world’s great books is an industry in itself. Looking it up in the British Library catalogue, I counted twenty-two child-friendly editions from the past twenty years alone, most of them encompassing only Lilliput and Brobdingnag. The result is that many people think they know Gulliver’s Travels having read it as children – as I first did – in the Illustrated Classics, a Ladybird Book or some similar ‘retelling’. But charming and stimulating though it may be, this is like meeting an inoffensive, pink-cheeked Dr Jekyll in contradistinction to the dark, snarling Mr Hyde of Swift’s imagination.
Dr Johnson started a hare running when he called Gulliver’s Travels ‘a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity’. The novel, and in particular its main character, has often subsequently been criticized for lacking consistency. The quibble plays into Swift’s hands, however, since an important part of his point is that honesty and reliability of character are rarely seen either in human nature or in human experience, and there is no reason why Gulliver himself should be an exception to the rule. George Orwell in his own spark-ling essay on Gulliver remarks that ‘in his shrewder moments, Gulliver is Swift’. For me, it is not just in his
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