Audiobook Review: Gulliver’s Travels

Gullivers TravelsGulliver’s Travels: A Signature Performance by David Hyde Pierce
Author: Jonathan Swift
Narrated by: David Hyde Pierce
Originally Published: 1726
Length: 9 hrs 52 mins
Why I read it: Personal Selection
Where I got it: Audible.com

Quick thoughts: Expecting a facile children’s book, I was instead astounded by a brilliant adult satire.

I had always believed Gulliver’s Travels to be a child’s novel. In my defense, it’s rather hard not to come to that conclusion when the story is fodder for family television and movie adaptations, and when abridged versions are often included in juvenile collections of classic literature. My immediate impression upon finishing the novel, however, was how emphatically this was not a children’s book. Not because of inappropriate content or mature subject matter, but because it was so concerned with politics and social philosophies.

Everyone is likely familiar with the first part of this book where Gulliver wakes to find himself bound by hundreds of tiny people, but that is just one of the four voyages recounted here. Each journey involves the introduction of some impossible alternative reality wherein the people, apart from possessing some memorable physical distinction, have developed an entirely different society. Much of the novel is taken with describing the benefits of these alternative models, and recognizing by comparison how silly some European social customs and conventions appear.

Some of these examples are brilliant. One of my personal favourites was the land of the Houyhnhnms, where the horses are intelligent and humanoid beings are the animal labourers. The Houyhnhnms do not lie, and have no word by which to express an untruth, leaving Gulliver at an absolute loss in attempting to describe a lawyer. Others are a product of their age, and have either lost their appeal or hint at failed social experiments from our modern history.

Although it lacks consistency (the third voyage seems to drag on interminably), the sparks of genius often seem just as fresh nearly 300 years after its original publication. It’s easy to see why it became an instant classic, and why it still holds cultural sway in our modern age. In a way, it’s also a shame that this has for many been relegated to a shelf which holds little interest to a child, yet is assumed to be too childish for an adult. It’s a biting political satire which retains a good deal of its sting despite the intervening years, and is definitely worth the read.

Audiobook notes: Do I really need to say more than Dr. Niles Crane from Frasier? Probably yes, but a bit of bombast is always fun. I was actually expecting something more frivolous and contrived, but David Hyde Pierce instead went a much more natural route. My initial disappointment was perhaps paired with my expectations that this would be a children’s book, and the more I came to see the novel as an adult satire, the more I appreciated the narration. This was a brilliant choice all around, and a production that I would highly recommend.

Summary:
Shipwrecked castaway Lemuel Gulliver’s encounters with the petty, diminutive Lilliputians, the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the abstracted scientists of Laputa, the philosophical Houyhnhnms, and the brutish Yahoos give him new, bitter insights into human behavior. Swift’s fantastic and subversive book remains supremely relevant in our own age of distortion, hypocrisy, and irony.
Jonathan SwiftJonathan Swift was an Anglo-Irish cleric, Dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer (first for Whigs then for Tories), and poet, famous for works like Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, The Drapier's Letters, The Battle of the Books, and A Tale of a Tub. Swift is probably the foremost prose satirist in the English language, and is less well known for his poetry. Swift published all of his works under pseudonyms — such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B. Drapier — or anonymously. He is also known for being a master of two styles of satire; the Horatian and Juvenalian styles.