Gulliver's travels

Gulliver's travels



Gulliver's travels

Published 1726



Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667, of Anglo-Irish parents. He was educated in Ireland and graduated only with difficulty from Trinity College, Dublin, because of his refusal to study logic. His education at Kilkenny School and Trinity was financed by a generous uncle, casting Swift, who was a proud man, in the uncomfortable role of dependent.


In 1688, following James II's abdication and the subsequent invasion of Ireland, Swift, along with other Anglo-Irish citizens, found it necessary to move to England. At Moor Park, Surrey, he became secretary to Sir William Temple, an urbane, retired diplomat who was also a distant relative. Here, Swift made the acquaintance of important political figures, including King William. In 1694 Swift was somewhat reluctantly ordained as an Anglican priest and served in a remote Irish parish for a year before returning to Moor Park, where he remained until Temple's death. It was at Moor Park that Swift met Esther Johnson (possibly an illegitimate daughter of Sir William Temple) when she was little more than a child. He tutored her, shaped her character, and she became the great love of his life. Later, Esther moved to Dublin at Swift's suggestion, where the two saw each other almost daily, but always in the presence of others. Whether or not they married (which seems unlikely), this unorthodox relationship appeared to satisfy both their needs.


While at Moor Park, Swift wrote his first important prose works, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, both of which were published in 1704. In these two works, Swift sided vehemently with the Ancients in their supposed quarrels with the Moderns and exhibited a remarkable talent for satire by which he exposed corruption in religion, education, politics, and human nature in general.


Swift was an outspoken supporter of the Anglican Church and became involved in the political turmoil between England and Ireland. He abandoned the Whig party because of its indifference to the welfare of the Anglican Church in Ireland and its tolerance of Roman Catholics and Dissenters. The Tories welcomed him with open arms, and he became their most brilliant political journalist, editing and writing articles in The Examiner for the government of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Henry St John Bolingbroke. In 1713, as a reward for his services, Swift was appointed Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, a financially rewarding position. In 1714, however, Queen Anne died and the Tories fell from power, dashing Swift's political aspirations with the party.


Drawing again upon his writing skills, Swift began to champion the cause of Irish resistance against English oppression. Under the pseudonym “M. B. Drapier” he wrote letters that aroused the Irish to reject a debased currency coined in England. Even though his authorship was widely known in Dublin, no one came forward to collect the £300 reward offered by the English for the identity of “M. B.”. Swift's literary support for the oppressed Irish culminated in A Modest Proposal (1729), a beautifully written satirical essay that remains popular even today, and he is still venerated as an Irish national hero.


For much of his life, Swift was afflicted by Meniere's syndrome, a disease of the inner ear that causes dizziness, nausea, and deafness. This disease, worsened by age, accelerated the decay of his mental faculties until his death on October 19, 1745.


Swift saw a wide disparity between his ideal of human nature and the people he saw around him. He called himself a misanthrope, saying that he loved individuals but hated humankind in general. He saw humans as animals capable of reason, but not as rational animals. He certainly did not share the optimistic view that human nature is basically good, regarding it rather as somehow permanently flawed. Nevertheless, he had a great urge to improve humanity, the government, the clergy, and the world. He also worked to improve the English language by establishing an English Academy, presenting the idea first in “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue”, later in “Letter to a Young Clergyman”, and finally in his masterful satire on trite diction in his “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation”.


For Swift, reason was the key—if humanity relied on reason and common sense it could improve despite moral and intellectual deficiencies—and he made his argument by dazzling the reader with humour, wit, and satire.



Gulliver's Travels relates the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver, an English surgeon, who, in the first quarter of the 18th century, embarks on four voyages to unknown parts of the world. In each case, events beyond his control interrupt his progress: a storm at sea, the cowardice of his shipmates, the cruelty of pirates, and the treachery of his own sailors. He is stranded in Lilliput, a land of very small people; in Brobdingnag, a land of giants; in Laputa, Balninarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan, lands of scientific speculation and magic; and finally in the land of the Houyhnhnms, where degenerate humans serve as beasts of burden for a master race of horses.


Natural curiosity, courage, and linguistic proficiency allow Gulliver to master the customs of these various countries. As he observes closely the people and societies he visits, he minutely describes their appearance, size, and habits like an early anthropologist. Swift designed these exotic lands and strange characters to reflect the England of his day, but, at the same time, his satire strikes so close to human nature that it is as relevant today.



During Gulliver's stay in Lilliput, the work's most popular section, Swift depicts a common children's fantasy—a miniature world inhabited by tiny people, the tallest being only about six inches. In Lilliput, a place reminiscent of the dolls and toy soldiers of childhood, Gulliver plays the role of benevolent giant to a race of little people who have exaggerated ideas about their importance. In contrast, when Gulliver reaches the land of Brobdingnag he finds himself surrounded by giants, making him feel like a Lilliputian. In both worlds, Gulliver finds that he must use his wits to survive. Not only does he manage to feed, clothe, and shelter himself—all of which, considering the circumstances, require ingenuity and courage—but he also learns their languages and customs, and turns them to his advantage.


Gulliver's last two journeys are less easily understood and more disturbing than their antecedents. During these excursions, Swift is more critical of human nature, and Gulliver becomes less an anchor of reason. Swift's imagination and wit make reading the journeys fascinating and thought-provoking. For example, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, humans are subjugated by horses, a concept that turns 18th-century reality on its head.


Through Gulliver's descriptions of these societies, Swift provides examples of a range of human traits from the contemptible to the admirable. He first presents these traits at a distance, enabling the reader to feel detached and laugh at the foibles of the Lilliputians or Brobdingnagians. Gradually, the reader comes to see that many of the contemptible traits of these strange races are human traits as well. Although Swift specifically satirizes 18th-century English society, his sweep is universal. A reader who understands the political history of England in the 1700s will certainly enjoy a rich experience reading Gulliver's Travels, while an intelligent more general reader will understand what Swift is saying about human nature while enjoying the fantasy world he has created.



In many ways Lemuel Gulliver is an average human being with a profession (surgeon), a family, and a desire to be comfortable and secure. He is moderately well off with no special ambitions to separate him from his contemporaries. In many ways he is an ordinary person who we would hardly expect to experience the adventures described. In other respects, Gulliver is not so typical. His acute curiosity leads him to discover much more about the societies he encounters than most travellers surely would. He measures, weighs, scrutinizes, and compares, giving the reader an accurate picture of all that he sees. He enjoys sitting for hours learning the customs and practices of other cultures, and he is just as willing to describe his own society to anyone curious enough to listen.


Gulliver is quickly able to communicate with his hosts thanks to his facility for languages, even to the point of learning the sophisticated language spoken by horses in the book. He reports on the strangeness he encounters with a blend of curiosity and matter-of-fact pragmatism. Gulliver's obsession with detail is fortunate, but he often does not recognize the significance of what he observes and reports, showing an obtuseness that eventually causes the reader to doubt his reliability as a moral guide.


Gulliver is also extremely resourceful and courageous. He always manages to feed, clothe, and shelter himself. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, where no creature is clothed or eats any food that Gulliver can stomach, he manages to make himself comfortable for the five years he spends there. In Brobdingnag he successfully defends himself with his coat hanger against rats the size of mastiffs and seems only slightly affected by the encounter. Almost every living creature in the country is a threat, and Gulliver is constantly in danger of being squeezed, stepped on, or dropped by the giants who surround him. However, he simply goes about his business as if these dangers were only minor inconveniences.


Gulliver is not always Swift's spokesman in the story, but often becomes an object of ridicule as well. Swift depicts Gulliver as a typical 18th-century Englishman who is blind to his own flaws and the flaws of those around him. When Gulliver proudly offers the Brobdingnagian king the formula for gunpowder, Swift is satirizing both man's desire to conquer and destroy, and Gulliver's blindness to the peaceful nature of the Brobdingnagians. At the end of his travels, when Gulliver has come to despise the entire human race, his unreasonable reaction to his fellow humans is as much the target of Swift's anger as are the faults he finds despicable. By the end it is safe to assume that Swift does not entirely approve of Gulliver's attitudes and reactions.


Don Pedro de Mendez is the Portuguese captain who returns Gulliver to his home after he is expelled by the Houyhnhnms. Don Pedro's generosity and his concern for a fellow human serve as an example to counter Gulliver's opinion that all humans are despicable. In the face of Gulliver's obvious indifference and even revulsion to him and the sailors, Don Pedro is kind and considerate as he cares for Gulliver until he can be reunited with his family. Don Pedro has neither the cold reason of the Houyhnhnms nor the vulgar passion of the Yahoos. He is an admirable human being, but Gulliver's obtuseness and lack of judgement prevent him from recognizing Don Pedro's qualities. Gulliver's wife serves a similar purpose; she continues to shower him with love and concern even when he mistreats her.


In terms of actual people and events, Swift attacks Robert Walpole and the Whig party (Flimnap and the Slamecksan) and reduces the controversy between the Roman Catholics and Protestants to the animosity between Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Lilliput and Blefescu. In Gulliver's description of the Royal Academy of Lagado, Swift ridicules many of the popular experiments of the Royal Society as well as the contemporary fascination with impractical experimentation based purely on theory.


Throughout, Swift's view of humankind is a pessimistic one. Only a few admirable examples of humanity are presented in Gulliver's Travels, and these characters do not receive any kind of recognition or praise from Gulliver. The Brobdingnagian king is kind and sensible, but Gulliver scorns his understanding. The people of Laputa and Balnibarbi, and especially Gulliver's host in Lagado, are friendly, kind, and generous, but Gulliver seems unaware that they are acting in an admirable manner. Don Pedro de Mendez, the kindest and most generous of all the characters, at best is tolerated by Gulliver. The Houyhnhnms, whom he admires, seem lifeless, ruled only by cold reason. Gulliver himself turns away from his fellow man.


Swift was fascinated by bodily functions, odours, and anatomical parts. Gulliver graphically describes his own problems related to answering the call of nature when he becomes the target of another creature's excrement. Swift felt that the functions of the body belong to our lower natures and he uses these functions as a means of expressing the disgust he felt towards humanity.


In Gulliver's Travels Swift satirizes the petty, envious, selfish, foolish, and cruel traits of humanity and its corrupt institutions, especially government. In most cases we can by means of Gulliver's descriptions pinpoint the flaw that Swift is exposing. At times, however, Swift's purpose seems more obscure. For example, most of Lilliputian society is ridiculous and irrational, but their system of education appears quite reasonable. The Brobdingnagians are for the most part benevolent and sensible, but they can also be cruel, vulgar, and insensitive. If such ambiguities make gaining a complete understanding of Swift's intentions difficult, what is clear is that he wanted to improve humanity and society, and hoped to change people's attitudes and behaviour by holding them up for ridicule.



Swift's masterful use of satire is what has made Gulliver's Travels the delightfully enduring work that it is. Satire has the advantage of allowing readers to feel that the ridicule is aimed at everyone but themselves. What could be tedious and uncomfortable as a lesson can be enjoyable and satisfying as satire. This is not to say that Gulliver's Travels is a completely easy read; readers will most likely be disturbed when they see their own flaws subject to ridicule. Swift's use of the literary genre of the travelogue is well suited to his satirical observations. Travel accounts were especially popular during the 18th century when parts of the world were still unexplored and could conceivably be inhabited by the exotic creatures and cultures that Gulliver encounters. Thus, Swift was free to intermingle reality, fantasy, and satire as he chose.


The first two books of Gulliver's Travels are tightly structured, as Gulliver first looks through the wrong end of a telescope at humanity and then finds himself the subject of microscopic scrutiny. The third book is more discursive and episodic, and is obscure in its relationship to the other three. Even though Gulliver is among his own race in this book, he is more the observer and less of a participant than in the other three books. The fourth book, the most disturbing, follows the pattern of the first two in that Gulliver must adapt to and live within a strange culture.


The conclusion of Gulliver's Travels is contradictory. Gulliver returns from his first three voyages and resumes his life with no apparent effects from what he has experienced. However, after returning from the land of the Houyhnhnms, he is a changed man and refuses to acknowledge his connection with the human race. It is at this point that he sits down to write of his travels—after he has come to despise all humans as despicable Yahoos. The warm, personable Gulliver who describes the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and the people of Laputa is not consistent with the misanthropic Gulliver who ends the book spurning all contact with humanity.



What characteristics of the Lilliputians and their society does Swift present for ridicule?


In what ways does Gulliver act as a benevolent giant when he is among the Lilliputians?


Although Gulliver makes very few judgements, what parts of Lilliputian society can we assume Swift views as admirable?


Comment on the inappropriateness and irony of Gulliver's fastidiousness in Brobdingnag and the lack of it in Lilliput.


In what ways does Gulliver become the observed in Brobdingnag, instead of the observer as he was in Lilliput?


Gulliver claims to be a strong proponent of England and English ways. Either defend or refute this claim, based on what he tells the Brobdingnagian king.


What characteristics of the Brobdingnagians and their society does Swift present for the reader's admiration?


Point out the ways in which Gulliver's role in book three is different from his role in the other three books.


How does Swift continue to promote the Ancients over the Moderns in book three?


Explain which characteristics of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos could be combined to form an admirable, well-rounded person.


Although Gulliver tries to become a Houyhnhnm after he returns to England, he has adopted only their hatred for the Yahoos. What characteristic that he so admires has he not acquired?


What type of progression did Swift use to strand Gulliver on each of his four voyages? In what ways does this progression parallel the changes in Gulliver?



Even though Gulliver is an accurate and honest reporter, he is not a reliable narrator. In what ways is he unreliable, and how do readers know when not to accept his judgement?


Book three does not fit easily into the pattern of the other three books. Explain how it is different.


Carefully explain how Swift uses book one to both satirize and champion particular political events and people of 18th-century England. Explain the historical events that inspired much of what we see in Gulliver's visit to Lilliput.


Book four has confused critics and readers ever since Gulliver's Travels was published. Based on the first three books, defend the opinion that Gulliver is not speaking for Swift in his complete admiration of the Houyhnhnms and his subsequent detestation of the human race.


Both Gulliver's Travels and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) have become popular travel adventures. Explain how the two books are alike and different.



There are no other prose works by Swift connected with Gulliver's Travels. Both A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books require substantial background knowledge in political, literary, and religious history. The most readable of Swift's other prose satires is A Modest Proposal.


Source: Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Copyright by Gale Group, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
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Gulliver's travels


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