The prefatory comments in Moll Flanders, Oroonoko, and Gulliver’s Travels all work to instill in the novels the sense of verisimilitude that was so important to achieve in the early days of the novel, but in the case of Gulliver, Jonathan Swift as usual is taking the opportunity to make a satiric comment, in this case the target being the supposed honesty in reporting of first person memoirs, a genre growing significantly in popularity at the time.
In Oroonoko, Aphra Behn’s purpose in desiring a sense of realism is directly stated when the narrator promises that her story is based on reality and is not merely going to be some fictional adventure featuring a fictional puppet hero whose strings the author can manipulate to her will.
In the preface to Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe strongly asserts that Moll’s tragic tale is steeped in reality. The purpose of direct application of this misapprehension for the reader is tightly bound to Defoe’s intention that his readers leave the novel just entertained but concretely aware of its moral. What that moral actually turns out to be is a bit questionable depending on whether you believe Defoe’s irony in “Moll Flanders” is intended or unintended.
The very idea of a preface appearing in a novel may seem startling to readers of contemporary fiction. After all, most books today that come with a preface are found in the non-fiction sections. It is important to understand that all the novels discussed here represent a revolution in literature. Fictional tales were solely the domain of poetry and drama up to this point in the history of literary. Prose was relegated to either factual accounts or stories so clearly a work of the imagination that nobody could possibly think they were based on fact.
Early novel authors utilized the preface to instill confidence in their works for a reading public as yet unaccustomed to fictional stories about average people. It was very important during the early developmental stages of the novel to create a sense for the reader that what they were reading might have actually happened. In Gulliver, one of Swift’s aims is to take this promise of reality to its most logical degree, and by doing so raise questions about the desire for acceptance of the truthfulness of events contained in a first person work of fiction. In the prefatory material Gulliver is stated to be too circumstantial and distinguished for his truthfulness.
This is subtly stated, but perversely demonstrated. Gulliver will often and insistently make us privy to his most private bodily functions, demonstrating at length his methods of discharging urine and waste. Obviously, these are necessary and universal needs, yet they receive little if any mention in most first-person literary accounts and, according to my sources, none at all throughout the 24-day coverage of the activities of Jack Bauer. Swift’s point seems to be that if one is going to attempt to give completely honest reportage of the events of their lives, he should indeed be excruciatingly circumstantial and, if he isn’t, then perhaps everything he’s written should be held up to skepticism.
A very cunning example of this satire occurs during the first voyage. Without drawing undo attention to it, Gulliver would have his reader believe that during a storm, in raging waves, he was able to swim to shore while carrying in his pockets a snuffbox, a diary, a comb, a razor, eating utensils, a watch, two pistols, gunpowder and bullets, money and gold, eyeglasses, a telescope and all while wearing a hat and equipped with a sword. Perhaps pockets at the time were enormously roomy yet tight enough for items not to slip out during swimming.
Or, perhaps, Swift was being particularly satiric about a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief when told up front just how true was the story he was reading. Swift was much more crafty than Behn in instilling this belief into his readers’ mind when he makes a link between the reader and the almost unhuman Yahoos by asserting that even the Yahoos never doubted the veracity of his story. A reader may not mind doubting that it was Behn’s narrator’s fancy that dictated the life of Oroonoko, but he certainly would have reservations about being revealed as a presumptuous Yahoo because he doubted the veracity of Gulliver. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift’s satiric sword slices through politics, religion, science, reason, and a multitude of other targets, but his first satiric objective was to attack the insensibility of authors who tried to trick their readers into thinking that a work of fiction based upon the memories of the main character could be trusted as an evocation of truthfulness.
The life of the novel clearly outlived the usefulness of prefatory material in. The point of the preface may mostly be related to creating a sense of reality, but other elements also seem to be at work in terms of the creation of novelistic genres. The structure and content of the preface did much to institutionalize generic divergences between stories. Over time, as the rules and conventions of genre became more starkly defined and more widely accepted, the necessity for the preface to work within the metafictional universe declined until it has practically become extinct. Which is a loss for all readers.