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  • THE LENS REVERSED: METHODOLOGICAL APPROACHESFOR AN ETHICAL AND POLITICAL ANALYSIS

    OF GULLIVER'S TRAVELS

    JESS VRELA ZAPATA*

    University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

    ABSTRACT

    Gulliver's Travels is a hallmark in English and world literature because ofits popularity among young readers; it has even been interpreted as beingwritten especially for children. However, its complexity and real purpose investit with a very different character. In fact, it is one of the best examples ofsatirical works, and its social and political criticism is clear.

    In this essay we outline the approaches necessary for the students to beaware that the transition from absolute regimes to modern democracy has beengradual. Through the analysis of Swift's work we can realize that the Illustrationwas one of the key periods in this process, for the importance given to theideas of moral relativity, tolerance and balance of power, so important in ourcontemporary society.

    RESUMEN

    Los viajes de Gulliver es una de las obras ms significativas de la litera-tura inglesa y universal que debe en parte su popularidad al hecho de quelos lectores toman contacto con ella a edades muy tempranas, ya que ha lle-gado a ser considerada como una obra para nios. Sin embargo, su compleji-dad y los fines para los que fue escrita distan mucho de este carcter. De he-cho es una de las obras cumbre de la stira y contiene una agria crtica socialy poltica.

    En este artculo se exploran las posibilidades que ofrece el texto para queel alumno se haga consciente de que el trnsito desde los regmenes absolutis-tas hasta las democracias modernas ha sido muy gradual y cobr en la Ilustra-cin uno de sus impulsos fundamentales. A travs de la obra de Swift pode-mos apreciar que en ese momento histrico comienzan a valorarse conceptos

    * Jess Vrela-Zapata is currently Dean of Humanities at the University of San-tiago de Compostela (Lugo), where he teaches English literature. He has published anumber of books and articles about post-colonial studies.

    65CAUCE, Revista de Filologa y su Didctica, n" 25, 2002 /pgs. 65-84

  • JESS VRELA ZAPATA

    como el de relativismo moral, tolerancia o equilibrio de poderes, que es nece-sario seguir reivindicando en el momento actual.

    RESUME

    Les Voyages de Gulliver est une des oeuvres les plus significatives de lalittrature francaise et universelle et qui doit sa populante aux jeunes lecteurs.De cette maniere, l'oeuvre est considre une oeuvre pour les enfants.

    Malgr tout, sa complexit et ses fins ne rsident pas dans son caractre.C'est une des oeuvres satyriques les plus importantes qui contient aussi uneaigre critique sociale et politique. Dans cet article, nous explorons les possi-bilits que le texte offre pour comprendre le pas graduel allant des rgimesabsolutistes aux dmocraties modernes.

    Analysant l'oeuvre de Swift les eleves verront que l'Illustration a t unpriode tres importante pour ce procs cause du relativisme moral, la tol-rance et l'quilibre ou bilan de pouvoirs, qu'on doit continuer revendiqueractuallement.

    Traditional methodological approaches to literature teaching, basedon a long listing of authors, periods or movements are now openlycriticized, considering this is an activity more closely related to historicalor sociological studies than to literature itself. As David Daiches states:

    The slow patterning of English literature into movements, with theirprecursors and successors, the isolation of seprate periods, each withits own characteristics... all this had been going on steadily in thework of a host of scholars and critics and historians, until by the endof nineteenth century the "history of English literature" (or of any na-tional literature, for that matter) was a fairly stereotyped affair of move-ments and periods, each illustrated by its own "characteristic" group ofwriters (p. 314).

    The reaction against this teaching practice was to be expected, asDaiches admits: "The rebellion was understandable enough. We maynot agree that a survey course in itself is a bad thing; we may recognizethe valu of general notions about the climate of opinin in a givenperiod and the relation of writers to their age; but most of us will agreethat the run-of-the-miU survey course was an uninspired hodgepodgeof no real valu to anybody" (p. 315). This rebellion was more evidentamong the new critics, who thought the literary work should be isolated

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    from its social or historical context, and even from the biographical cir-cumstances of its author. Daiches mentions two of the best known figuresof the traditionalist and reformist quarters, to suggest that an eclecticapproach, combining different critical perspectives should serve the lit-erary analysis better: "The modern controversy between what used tobe called the 'new criticism'... and historical criticism thus centers onthe question of emphasis and proportion. Arguments such as that betweenProfessor A. S. P. Wbodhouse and Professor Cleanth Brooks never reallymeet... One must surely agree with both" (p. 320), an opinin we canalso subscribe in general terms.

    One of the most sensitive issues in classroom planning is the choiceof primary reading. Among the criteria for such a selection we shouldcount on the following:

    1. Linguistic competence of the student and his critical ability.2. Relevance of the author in the canonical tradition and of the

    work within the author's own production.3. Contribution of the work to the acquaintance of students with

    the different English-speaking countries and their cultures.4. Selection of assorted literary genres and styles.5. Current reception of work and author.

    These criteria leave a great freedom of choice; this means that any se-lection should not be considered as permanent and should be open forperiodical reconsideration. One of the most problematic issues mentionedabove has to do with the canon. In spite of the existing controversialdebate, the fact is that there is a general consensus on the relevanceof certain works and writers. This can be easily checked in collectionsand anthologies, bibliographical compilations, publisher's catalogues, anduniversity syllabi. In his article "English Literature and the UniversityCurriculum", professor Wolfgang Zach collects data from over 28 highereducation institutions in 20 countries which leads us to conclude thatthere is a core group of authors and literary works written in Englishtaught all over the world (pp. 53-57). If we consider literature fromBritain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, the writers who gather mostreferences (number of mentions stated) are:

    34. William Shakespeare; 30. James Joyce; 20. Jonathan Swift; 17.Joseph Conrad; 17. Patrick White; 17. W. B. Yeats; 16. Charles Dickens;16. Samuel Beckett; 14. Chinua Achebe; 13. T. S. Eliot; 13. John Milton;13. Virginia Woolf; 13. Margaret Atwood; 12. Henry Fielding; 12. D. H.Lawrence; 12. V. S. Naipaul; 12. Wole Soyinka; 12. Laurence Sterne;

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  • JESS VRELA ZAPATA

    12. J. M. Synge; 11. Daniel Defoe; 10. Emily Bront; 10. GeoffreyChaucer; 10. Margaret Laurence; 10. R. K. Narayan; 10. Sean O'Casey;10. Salman Rushdie.

    As far as the works are concerned, the mentions are as follows:

    16. Gulliver's Travels; 14. Yeats' Collected Poems; 13- Ulysses;11. Paradise Lost; 10. Wuthering Heights; 10. Things Fall Apart; 10. APortrait of the Artist as a Young Man 9. Robinson Crusoe; 9- Middle-march; 9. Midnight's Children; 9. Tristram Shandy; 8. Canterbury Tales;8. Great Expectations; 8. Shakespeare's Sonnets; 8. To the Lighthouse;8. Surfacing; 8. Waiting for Godot.

    We can conclude from the preceding study that Gulliver's Travelsis not only one of the most widely read works in English literature butalso frequently prescribed reading at universities. One of its peculiaritieslies in the fact that it has long been considered adventure or children'sliterature. No doubt, Gulliver's Travels is part of a long list of works inEnglish which have drawn the imagination of young readers over sev-eral generations, among other titles such as Robinson Crusoe, Alice inWonderland, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye.

    It is not easy to define what we understand as children's or juvenileliterature and specialists do not agree on the issue. Barbara Wall statesthat "adults... speak differently in fiction when they are aware that theyare addressing children... [This is] translated, sometimes subtly, some-times obviously, into the narrator's voice" (pp. 2-3) in this way we mightaccount for the fact that this is a distinct kind of literature. On the con-trary, Nicholas Tucker questions this opinin since "although most peo-pie would agree that there are obvious differences between adult andchildren's literature, when pressed they may find it quite difficult to es-tablish what exactly such differences amount to" (p. 8).

    In turn, Karn Lesnik-Oberstein in "Defining Children's Literatureand Childhood", taking into account such diversity of opinions con-cludes that the best definition for children's literature should be statedas follows: "For this is what 'children's literature' means in its most fun-damental sense to every critic who uses the term: books which are goodfor children, and most particularly good in terms of emotional andmoral vales" (p. 17). In this Une, Myles McDowell says that "Children'sbooks are generally shorter; they tend to favour an active rather thana passive treatment, with dialogue and incident rather than descriptionand introspection"; McDowell's words serve to reject the idea that Gul-liver's Travels is a book that can be labelled simplistically as children's

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    literature: "child protagonists are the rule;