with a Satirist
a small converted office in Gates-Blake, a handful of undergraduate
upperclassmen-none of whom is an English concentrator-gathers
with Ned Rosenheim, AB'39, AM'46, PhD'53, to discuss Jonathan
Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Published in 1726, the story
was a "sensation and was read, discussed, and exploited,"
says Rosenheim, sporting a tweed jacket and dark slacks. From
the start, he betrays his fondness for Swift's writings: "You
may not have a good teacher, but you have a great writer."
students early on that Gulliver is a satire, Rosenheim
gives a brief history of late 17th- and early 18th-century England.
Born in the reign of Charles II, Swift witnessed and took part
in the rise and fall of Tory politics during the reign of Queen
Anne. The politics of his time are apparent throughout the book,
starting with the Lilliputians' charge of treason against Gulliver
when he puts out the palace fire by urinating on it. Rosenheim
draws a parallel between the ungrateful Lilliputians and the ingratitude
shown by the Whigs toward the Tories after negotiating the Treaty
of Utrecht that ended the War of Spanish Succession.
In one session, the class discusses how the reader is led to accept
the improbable events in Gulliver's tale. Rosenheim starts with
an obvious question-"Who's telling this story?"-and
leads the discussion to a more complex query-"What's the
benefit of having the story told by Gulliver?"
allows the reader to get to know the narrator more intimately,"
offers one student. Rosenheim elaborates: through intimacy comes
the illusion of greater authenticity.
to the text, the class ponders why Swift chose to start with Gulliver's
history and education. Beginning this way, argues Rosenheim, "makes
sure that there's a kind of internal probability." After
a spectacled male student suggests that the effect may be just
the opposite-"Does starting off so normally make the start
of the weirdness all that more extraordinary?"-the group
hunts through Part I for hints by Swift of extraordinary events
to come. They point out how long it takes the shipwrecked Gulliver
to walk to the shore of the island and the supernaturally short
and soft grass on which he falls asleep.
question from Rosenheim: "What is the role of Gulliver in
the book?" Several answers are explored: he's a reporter
of the things he sees; he's a victim of circumstance. "We're
learning along with him," says a student, "while being
concerned about him."
their Travels at the next session, Rosenheim and his crew
consider how the story can be read. Seen as narrative fiction,
the question becomes, Where does the plot begin? One student argues
that it begins when Gulliver won't destroy the army of the Lilliputians'
enemy. Another maintains that the plot kicks in when Gulliver
puts out the fire at the Lilliputian palace.
most common way of reading Gulliver is as satire. Using
examples of comic strips such as Blondie and Doonesbury,
the class works to figure out what makes a satire a satire, while
Rosenheim offers a bottom-line definition: "The object of
attack lies in the world of actuality." To understand Swift's
world of actuality, the people and institutions at which he poked
fun, the history lesson continues.
related to satire is reading the story as philosophic," Rosenheim
says by way of segue. The class reexamines Gulliver's treatment
at the hands of the Lilliputians after he extinguished the palace
fire, looking at the ingratitude of the Lilliputians-the charge
of treason-but also the ingratitude of Gulliver-leaving the land
of his hosts. Part I, the students argue, brings up questions
of biting the hand that feeds you. Relating the philosophic to
the satiric, Rosenheim details how two Tory leaders were tried
for treason for ending the War of Spanish Succession. Swift saw
this treatment as ingratitude, Rosenheim says, and expressed his
feelings through Gulliver, specifically in Gulliver's departure
from the land of the Lilliputians to the land of their enemies
or 30 years ago, when I taught this book," Rosenheim tells
his students on the first day of class, "we sped through
Part III and its discussion of technology." But as technology
and its reach have exploded, recent classes have paid much more
attention to Swift's satirizing of science and mathematics. Rosenheim
isn't surprised by the shift or by the fact that Swift's story
continues to speak to contemporary audiences-and remains a very
good read. -Q.J.
in the Translations
Soul of the Republic
with a Satirist
Genius of the Everyday