Pox and the City: the complex life of Jonathan Swift

Dr Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defines a novel as “a small tale, generally of love”. It was when Johnson was writing, in the mid-18th century, that the novel emerged as the dominant form of prose literature. Thanks especially to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, coming of age and falling in love became the defining characteristics of the genre, which Fanny Burney and Jane Austen would then bring to perfection.

A generation earlier, the most widely read works of “modern” prose fiction were John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. All three of these titles became household names (The Pilgrim’s Progress remained the most reprinted book in English, other than the Bible, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries). All three share with Shakespeare the special distinction of having been rewritten and simplified as tales for children. Even today, people who never pick up a book will have heard of Crusoe’s island and of Gulliver among the little people. The words Lilliput and Yahoo have taken on lives of their own.

Although the three books share some of the characteristics of novel and romance – adventurous journeys, an array of memorable characters, the growth towards self-knowledge on the part of the protagonist – none of them is a tale of love, and all of them have a further agenda. In Bunyan’s case, the real subject matter is the Christian life; in Defoe’s it is the distinctively Protestant virtues of thrift and self-reliance.

What about Swift? Gulliver’s Travels can be read in many different ways: as local satire (on particular political circumstances and scientific fashions), as parody of the kind of pseudo-realistic travel narrative represented by Crusoe, as mockery of utopian visions, as the misanthropic ravings of a furious old man. Three hundred years on, scholars and students still debate whether or not Swift the narrator is directing his irony against Gulliver or the talking horses known as Houyhnhnms (all you need to do is whinny). Or both. The fact the name Gulliver contains the word “gull” – someone who is easily deceived – is a starting point.

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