When I was first assigned V. S. Pritchett’s succinct essay “The Dean,” I was a bit confused. I didn’t know who this “Dean” was. Then my nonfiction teacher explained that “The Dean” was the nickname for Jonathan Swift. I found out that Swift was the dean of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In the essay, Pritchett presents something of a defense of Swift and his famous work Gulliver’s Travels. Dr. Samuel Johnson, a famous literary figure, said Gulliver’s Travels was “in defiance of truth and regularity.” For Pritchett, Swift was “before his time.”
Pritchett seems to focus a great deal on the floating island Laputa. This is a part of Gulliver’s Travels. It’s meant to be a mockery of science and the supposed utopian ideals that science and technology possess.
Pritchett speculates that too little was known about science at the time for the satire to be fully appreciated. For Pritchett, there's a direct link between Laputa and later dystopian works like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Remember, Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726. Pritchett wrote his essay around 1942. More than two centuries have gone by. Now, according to Pritchett:
It is the clinic we have come to live in. It is the world of irresponsible intellect and irresponsible science which prepared the way for the present war.
The present war is World War II. The power of hindsight reveals to Pritchett the prescience of Swift’s Laputa. By the end of his essay, Pritchett has doubled down on his view that Gulliver is no madman. As his essay wraps up, Pritchett appears to compare Gulliver to some of the apostles.