Sunday, October 31, 2010

Suspension Of Disbelief

I've renewed my library book five times, so far. It's not exactly a "page-turner" and I'm starting to wonder why exactly I am finding "Gulliver's Travels" such heavy going.

It's a classic. It's considered a children's book. It's said to be a clever and witty satire. It's humiliating to me that I cannot enjoy it. What's wrong with me?

One issue, which I may have mentioned before --and I am afraid it is in very poor taste to mention this, not for the first time-- is that poor Gulliver has been a prisoner for several weeks, tethered securely by an ankle to a tiny temple which is just big enough to shelter him when he lies down full length on a specially constructed pallet bed.

His captors are less than six inches tall.

Great lengths are taken to calculate how much food and drink he needs (as much as 1728 Lilliputians). Much is made of the size of his hat, and so forth. There is also some ado about the fact that the Lilliputians consider and reject the notion of killing the potentially dangerous "man mountain". They worry about the smell of his decaying corpse, and the probability of pestilence and disease if he dies, owing to the logistics of disposing of a dead body of such a size (twelve times their own).

But the most interesting and necessary feat of domestic engineering is not mentioned at all.  There ought, by now, to be more than one eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the vicinity, even if the unfortunate Mr. Gulliver is on an exceptionally low fiber diet.

Jonathan Swift has not succeeded in making me suspend my disbelief. In fact, I find that as every day of Gulliver's captivity passes, I am more and more aware of what he is not passing.

It could have been dealt with. An enormous bed pan would work for me. A plate on wheels (shades of a haemoccult test). A leashed walk to the seaside twice a day. A Big Dig. A conveniently exhausted local quarry. His own hat, even! The matter could have been managed in the totally indiscreet style of a French levée of the Sun King, or under cover of a newly mandated curfew.

We have precedents in our own history for almost everything imaginable.

It seems to me that perhaps the Lilliputians are a mockery of Freemasons.
"I was demanded to swear to the performance of (Articles); first in the manner of my own countrey, and afterwards in the method prescribed by their Laws; which was to hold my Right foot in my Left hand, to place my Middle finger on the Tip of my Right ear."
Is that it? Frankly, I was expecting something more sophisticated, particularly after the lengthy and laudatory introduction to the work.

The punctuation from the 1894 printing is also an annoyance. Each antiquated spelling, or unfashionable upper case character pulls me out of the story.

One wants one's reader to suspend disbelief, and to become totally wrapped up in the story. That means that bothersome questions must be answered, or they will niggle and fester. Spelling, punctuation and grammar should be as "invisible" as possible. That's why many educators prefer the use of "said" instead of a couple score of pretentious synonyms.

Should one spoof Swift? If one did, would it be pitched as "Lemuel Gulliver meets Thomas Crapper"? (I added first names in the interest of good taste.)

Trick or Treat?

Happy Halloween!


  1. But GULLIVER'S TRAVELS is certainly not a children's book. The first two sections are often presented that way, because the tiny people and the giants lend themselves to "children's fantasy" treatment. The third and fourth parts of the original book are very un-childlike.

    And the first two parts, at that, are customarily abridged (expurgated) for young readers, and it has to be an expurgated edition you're reading. In the original, there's a quite explicit scene about Gulliver's moving to the end of his chain to take care of that digestive inconvenience you mention.

  2. Oh, I forgot -- I'll bet your edition also omits the scene where Gulliver urinates on a fire to put it out. The eighteenth century had no qualms at all about mentioning body functions in print.