In the second half of the 17th century, Robert Hooke and Antony von Leeuwenhoek refined and used the microscope to view, for the first time, the microbiotic world around them. In a generation, people’s conception of large and small shifted. “It is no exaggeration,” says Henri Hitchins, “to say that without the development of microscopy Swift’s book would not have been written” (376).
Most of us know that Swift wrote a tale about a seafarer named Gulliver who washed up on a beach in Lilliput only to be pinned to the ground by little people. Some know that Gulliver’s next voyage was to Brobdingnag where he encountered people as large from his perspective as he was to the Lilliputans. This is only half the book.
In the second half he traveled to the floating island of Laputa where he met people who are so enraptured by philosophy and abstractions that they hire a “flappers” to attend to them on walks. The sole purpose of the flapper is to “gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself” (192). You could say the Laputans are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.
The final journey puts Gulliver in the land of the Houyhnhnms, a place where proto-humans have degenerated into disgusting “Yahoos” who are disdained by utterly rational (and virtually passionless) horses.
If the microscope inspired the shift in optical perspective in Gulliver’s first two journeys, it is a metaphor used to peer into the core of human nature during the second two trips. On the last journey, Gulliver’s conversation with the Houyhnhnms reveal the depth of humanity’s depravity—bordering on horror. He describes the reality of life in England in a richly ironic way that exposes dark truths about his society. Take his description of lawyers, for example:
I said there was a society of men among us bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose that white is black and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. (304)
While it’s easy to spot the sarcasm in Swift’s voice, I can’t help but think that a better understanding of the history of 18th century England would help me to catch more of the specific references. Still, Gulliver’s Travels, despite having been written three centuries ago, was quite a page-turner. This is no mere children’s book!
—Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (New York: NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004)