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Page-turners
>> Travels with a Satirist

In 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."

PHOTO:  The first editions of Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World were published in 1726.Reminding 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?"

"It allows the reader to get to know the narrator more intimately," offers one student. Rosenheim elaborates: through intimacy comes the illusion of greater authenticity.

Turning 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.

Another 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."

Resuming 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.

The 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.

"Closely 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 the Blefuscudians.

"Twenty 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.


Found in the Translations

The Soul of the Republic

Travels with a Satirist

Ocean Reveries

The Genius of the Everyday

 


  FEBRUARY 2001

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