Gulliver’s Travels: Based on a True Story?
An opening title card introduces the 1996 movie Fargo as one that is not only based on a true story, but with the exception of name changes made at the request of the survivors, a film that proceeds to present the events of that true story exactly as they occurred. In fact, not a single event presented in Fargo is based on a true story (Chaloupka 163). On the other hand, the opening credits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid significantly tamp down its claims of authenticity relative to Fargo with a title card suggesting that “Most of what follows is true” and then proceeds to live up to that promise surprisingly well for a Hollywood western. In between those two extremes lie a seemingly endless number of movies that profess to be factual, but deliver the goods in an amazingly inconsistent manner. From the way in which Hollywood constantly tries to lend its product some kind of greater value with claims to authenticity, it would appear that the mistrust of fiction so strongly urged by Plato thousands of years ago remains firmly in place (Halliwell 50). A significant amount of the voluminous satire that permeates through every page of Gulliver’s Travels is directed toward this deep-seated suspicion of the worth of fiction and the often ridiculous extremes to which creative artists will go to create worth in their own creations by attaching a perception of authenticity to it that, paradoxically, is utterly fictitious.
The mistrust of fiction is always at its greatest when the medium for delivering that fiction is new and unfamiliar. Such was the case for the novel during the period in which Jonathan Swift was composing Gulliver’s Travels. When that new medium of presenting fiction occurs during a period in which scientific exploration was beginning to displace old notions of religion, superstition and myth, asserting an empirical verisimilitude within the fiction takes on even greater importance. “The transference of detail to manifest fictions may create verisimilitude, for it appropriates to fiction a strategy of recording reality, the world of brute and unignorable fact. But the impetus for it involves ways of thinking and experiencing rather than a rhetoric calculated to convince doubters. Novelists repeatedly assured readers that the substance of their story was real and historical and that their account was faithful–a reporting of actuality” (Hunter 200).
Nowhere, perhaps, Swift engage this aching need of authors the earliest British novels in the mind of the reader a curious recognition of quantifiable authenticity than when he has Gulliver first provide an excruciatingly detailed account of what it was like to eat, and sleep and go the bathroom among the giants of Brobdingnag was like only to then explain why he has just expended so much time over explaining a situation the reader hardly needs to know at all. “I hope, the gentle Reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like Particulars; which however insignificant they may appear to grovelling vulgar Minds, yet will certainly help a Philosopher to enlarge his Thoughts and Imagination, and apply them to the Benefit of publick as well as private Life; which was my sole Design in presenting this and other Accounts of my Travels to the World;* wherein I have been chiefly studious of Truth, without affecting any Ornaments of Learning, or of Style” (Swift 82). What sort of philosopher might be capable of enlarging his thought and imagination to the point that he could utilize the information Gulliver has provided on any of the matters he details so precisely can only be imagined, but Gulliver does provide a clue in the form of a satirical arrow aimed with great precision when he admits to editing “out several Passages of less Moment which were in my first Copy, for fear of being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof Travellers are often, perhaps not without justice, accused” (Swift 82).
The “Travellers” that Swift targets for overindulging in detail designed to lend a greater sense of verisimilitude and a voice of authority are not the Irish Gypsies selling their wares, but writers of travel adventures that were an enormously popular antecedent to the novel and essential in its early evolution. “The first novelists openly tried to capitalize on the contemporary popularity of travel books by suggesting the similarity of their wares” (Hunter 353) and one of the most successful was Daniel Defoe. Defoe, Aphra Behn and other early English novelists all managed to incorporate a little bit of travel adventure into many of their stories and the adoption of the techniques of establishing authenticity are a vital a part of those prototypes of the modern novel as the preface.
Perhaps Jonathan Swift was as bewildered by the necessity of a work of fiction needing prefatory material as the modern day reader. Most novelists today and for some time have not felt the need provide information in the form a preface, which is a stylistic convention typically associated with non-fiction material. English novels of the 18th century almost invariably contained a preface and usually for the purpose of creating that false sense of authenticity. The prefatory material of 18th century novels was the “Based on a True Story” of film and TV.
The fact that the preface is associated with non-fiction and used to extensive effect in these novels is neither incidental nor accidental. Their entire purpose is establish in the reader the idea that he is about to read something real and true-to-live, if not necessary factual. Such is the inherent preposterousness of the preface of many novels to establish such veracity that Swift provides a satirical perspective on them in the form of not, not two, but three different pieces of prefatory material existing only for the purpose of creating a foundation of reality for the story that finally starts about a dozen pages in. The advertisement, the letter from Captain Gulliver to his cousin Sympson and the direct address to the reader from the publisher would all—in a work of non-fiction—help the set the stage of the believability of the story they are about to read. In the hands of the English novelists who adopted the preface for their works of fiction, the material accomplishes nearly the same thing.
In the hands of Jonathan Swift, however, the sharp edge of the cutting satire which is the intent of the prefatory material reaches attains the status of lethal weapon with the appearance that the publisher himself is taking the time to publicly assure readers there “is an Air of Truth apparent through the whole; and indeed the Author was so distinguished for his Veracity,* that it became a Sort of Proverb among his Neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a Thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr Gulliver had spoke it” (Sympson xxxvii). That Defoe may once again be considered a prime target of Swift’s satire seems easy enough to prove in consideration of the very similar pronouncement by the supposed editor of Robinson Crusoe that he believes it to be nothing more nor less than a history of fact.
Ultimately, the accumulation of facts as supportive evidence of an authentic truth is both what exists throughout 18th century novels and what is the focus of much of the satire of Gulliver’s Travels. Or, as John Mullan defines the situation so accurately, “detail is presented as if it were synonymous with credibility” (Mullan). So ingrained into the very fabric of the English novel even by the time it was ripe for satire at the end of Swift’s pen was this misapprehension of detail upon detail upon detail as a substitute for credible authenticity that the attention of the reader does even have to be directed toward the questionable conclusion to be drawn for Swift’s humor to slice through.
Upon being released from his constraints after washing ashore on in the land of Lilliput, Gulliver is directed to submit a search of his pockets after which is compiled an inventory of possession and belongings found upon his person including, but not limited to: silver and copper coins, a purse with nine large pieces of gold and several small pieces, knife, razor, comb, silver snuff box, journal, scimitar, pistols and a pouch (Swift 23). Of course, it is worth noting that the description of the search which results in this inventory is far more verbose with exhaustive detailing of not just the objects, but the process of searching that located them. While the compilation of details of what is found in Gulliver’s pockets does have the cumulative effect of presenting what was quite likely a fairly credible account of the items that a traveler such a Gulliver might have equipped himself with on such a voyage, the ultimate point realization that arrives as a result of such a compilation is far more biting in its satire.
Plainly put: just how, exactly, did Gulliver manage to make it from the ocean in which he found himself adrift and struggling for survival to the shores of Lilliput with such a comprehensive collection of belongings still intact? The mind positively boggles as the equitable struggle it would take for any reader to accept such a factual account of a real life survival story without blinking an eye. What really seems to be at stake throughout much of what the reader learns from Gulliver about his travels is not so much a satirical undermining of conventional beliefs about the nature of man as he relates to other creatures or as a creature of rationality and scientific inquiry so much as the much more specific nature of his gullibility. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s satirical lens magnifies with each successive voyage the distinctly irrational insistence by authors throughout time to impress upon their reader an inherent validity and utilitarian purpose to their stories through the act of attaching to it a paradoxically unreal source of authentication of its veracity.
Chaloupka, William. Everybody Knows: Cynicism in America. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1999.
Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002.
Hunter, J. Paul. Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Paul Turner. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
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