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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
A LETTER FROM CAPTAIN GULLIVER TO HIS COUSIN SYMPSON
This letter, written ten years after Gulliver completed his narrative, is your first introduction to the "author." What a grouch he is! And how peculiarly he speaks-of Yahoos, of Houyhnhnms, of being made to say the thing that was not. Really, he sounds like some sort of crank who has half lost his wits. But pay close attention here, for this letter is full of clues as to how to read this novel and what to watch for in it.
Though the narrative takes the form of a travel book, it's really about England in the time of Swift. We know this because Gulliver complains that a chapter about Queen Anne was inserted into his book. He also says that he has been accused of making fun of important political figures, of degrading human nature, and of abusing the female sex. You know from the outset, then, that the Travels aroused (and still arouses) controversy. We still read this book because it is not just about eighteenth-century England, but about man in general.
Gulliver says he did not want to publish his book. This seems odd, since he gave the manuscript to a publisher. Maybe Gulliver was being coy, or maybe he doesn't always tell the truth.
The only point in publishing his book, Gulliver says, would have been to improve mankind. Depending on your view, and on the spirit in which it's undertaken, this is either a very idealistic or presumptuous project. But six months have passed since his book came out, and mankind, says Gulliver, has made no progress. So he concludes that men are beyond correction. As a result, Gulliver is angry, bitter, and disappointed.
Gulliver says he's been corrupted by contact with other Yahoos (even by the sound of it, not a complimentary name), especially by his family. You may well be tempted to say, "Fine, Gulliver, who needs you!" Many readers have had this reaction.
THE PUBLISHER TO THE READER
We learn more about Gulliver in Richard Sympson's letter.
Gulliver's first name is Lemuel. In the Bible (Proverbs 31:9) Lemuel says, "Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy." He also speaks in praise of women, and counsels men to honor their wives. Gulliver, at this point, seems a far cry from the biblical Lemuel. As you read the novel think about Swift's reasons for choosing this name. Bear in mind what you already know about satire, and Swiftian satire in particular.
Sympson tells us that Gulliver is well thought of by his neighbors. So perhaps we shouldn't judge him prematurely. Maybe he's having a hard time readjusting after a traumatic period of travel.
Sympson tells us Gulliver gave him carte blanche with regard to his manuscript. So it would seem that Gulliver does lie sometimes. After all, he didn't stop the presses.
Even if Gulliver does lie, he isn't irresponsible. His book was so full of facts and so copiously documented that Sympson had to make certain cuts. Sympson offers this as though Gulliver's fondness for facts is evidence that he is interested in the truth, even if he doesn't always tell it. But facts aren't the same thing as truth. What is true? What is truth? These are central questions in this book.
Even if it seems he tells an occasional untruth, Gulliver is an okay guy. Sympson tells you that within "the first pages" of the narrative, Gulliver will prove this to your "satisfaction."
Swift didn't write Gulliver's Travels so that readers would "receive satisfaction." He said he wrote it "to vex." Keep this in mind. Keep in mind, too, that part of Swift's technique is to keep you guessing. Just as Gulliver doesn't always reflect Swift's views, neither does Sympson, nor do the other characters.
Both of these letters, of course, are fictions invented by Swift. They are good illustrations of another important Swiftian technique. The letters provide a sort of documentation regarding Gulliver's character and the publication of his book. Swift habitually presents fantastical incidents, objects, and perceptions in the form of "official documentation." Take note that Gulliver habitually gives proof-in the form of numerical comparisons, measurements, etc.-when he recounts something outside reality as we know it.