For this week’s readings in Gulliver’s Travels I’m choosing to focus on its absurdist aspects that allow it to serve as a parody of society and government. First, we see Gulliver is made to be a complete outsider in the land of Lilliput. Not only is his size a staggering difference, but he is unfamiliar with their culture. He can’t communicate with them, as he doesn’t know their language. Thus, Gulliver is established as an outsider who can see every practice from a fresh perspective. It is interesting to note that such a scenario has to be fictional, as any reasonably well educated human would have some preconceived notion or knowledge about a culture before they were to visit (or be held captive in) a distant land.
The first example that stuck out to me painting Gulliver as an outsider in regards to culture was his consumption of the first food and drink he is given by the emperor.
“He ordered his cooks and butlers, who were already prepared, to give me victuals and drink, which they pushed forward in a sort of vehicles upon wheels, till I could reach them. I took these vehicles and soon emptied them all; twenty of them were filled with meat, and ten with liquor; each of the former afforded me two or three good mouthfuls; and I emptied the liquor of ten vessels, which was contained in earthen vials, into one vehicle, drinking it off at a draught; and so I did with the rest” (p. 34).
Unlike other texts we have read, it is not the preparation of the food, or the state it is in (raw, cooked, rotting), but rather the amount consumed that presents the cultural difference. It is also worth noting that we see a class structure being established, with the government officials at top being served by waitstaff. Gulliver’s consumption presents a problem for the society, and the issue of famine is brought up if he is to be fed a full diet, yet the issue of a plague (rotting) is brought up if he is to be killed (p. 38).
On to a critique of government, I believe the absurdity of the situation intends to change the reader’s perspective on their own relationship to government. Gulliver is bound by many shackles that he himself is able to break, serving as a metaphor for many of the laws, rules, and regulations that bound us. The government officials themselves establish their ability to rule through an arbitrary system of sport:
“They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office” (p. 50).
Culturally, the values that are seen to make a candidate the most electable have no relation to the actual act of lawmaking. The first few chapters are not an obvious indictment of government ineptitude, but I believe the absurd scenarios intend to spur internal reflection about one’s relationship to government. In our world today, are all of our shackles imaginary? Is our system of election in fact based upon meaningless values?