The book that changed my life

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Adrian Chapman on Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

I was five or six when I first read an illustrated, children's version of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. The text told of journeys and shipwrecks and adventures, and the pictures showed me a giant in a land of people no bigger than a knife or fork, and a hapless Englishman so small he could hardly be seen in a place where the people were as big as dinosaurs. When I grew up, I thought, I would be like a giant and children of my size would seem as small as the curiously named Lilliputians. Amazing! A book had told me something about my life and what it would become. I had been let into a secret and it all came from a little book.

At university I read Swift as part of my English degree. I discovered a different book. The Lilliputians represent little people acting big; and in the giant world of Brobdingnag, the moral vision of the King dwarfs the big ideas of Gulliver. Decoding Swift's satire further, I read a tract written against Horace Walpole, our first prime minister, and against new money and new ideas. At the Academy at Lagado, Gulliver meets scientists conducting experiments to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and to breed naked sheep (experiments not entirely dissimilar to work being carried out by the Royal Society now). This was not in my children's book. Nor was Houyhnhmland, a country in which reason is the prerogative of horses and all-to-human Yahoos live as beasts. Swift satirises the decline of reason in Walpole's Britain, in which (he believed) reason, hierarchy and tradition had been cast asunder. He looks back to a golden age before party politics, the national debt and the rise of the financial sector; when simplicity reigned and power rested with benevolent landowners.

Through Gulliver's Travels I saw that literature is a product of and reacts to the time in which it is written. I was hooked on 18th-century literature and went on to take an MA in the subject. The book is of its time but also timeless. Through the strategy of "parallel history" Swift encouraged his contemporary readers to compare their world with the imaginary worlds of the text. We can do the same. The hooligans at England football matches are surely nothing but Yahoos. Perhaps those working on genetic engineering are the equivalents of the scientists of the Academy at Lagado. Satirists used to be seen as "moral physicians", who lanced vices. Swift doubted this role and wrote that "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own".

However, the book's greatest achievement is that it makes you look again at yourself, your values and the way you live. It is an extraordinarily rich text, and when I come to read it once more it will probably change my life again.

Adrian Chapman is a former English teacher


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