Tomorrow night I am beginning my graduate seminar on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy by having my students read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I’m hoping that this text will serve as a useful model for Sterne’s difficult novel.

I’ve taught Gulliver’s Travels before, but this time I’m taking a slight risk. In addition to the usual discussion of politics and the Enlightenment (and Swift’s views on each), I am also emphasizing a reading of the novel based on two essays by Christopher Fox. The first is an article published in EIghteenth-Century Studies in 1986 entitled “The Myth of Narcissus in Swift’s Travels.” The second is a chapter in an MLA volume, Approaches to Teaching Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels entitled “Sexuality and the Body.”

What I’m interested in exploring is the joke early in the text in which Swift brings up masturbation. The joke starts with Gulliver’s mentioning the man to whom he is apprenticed, Mr. Bates. After a few near misses, Gulliver finally calls him “Master Bates.” The question I have is, “Why does Swift begin his text with this joke?” I wonder what function it serves and what connotations are evoked by it. This joke is all the more interesting because the opening paragraphs of Gulliver’s Travels so heavily emphasize the conventions of realist fiction: where Gulliver was born, who his parents are, where he went to college, how old he is, etc. This joke immediately seems to undermine this realism.