Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels Essay - Critical Evaluation

Critical Evaluation

It has been said that Dean Jonathan Swift hated humanity but loved the individual. His hatred is brought out in this caustic political and social satire aimed at the English people, humanity in general, and the Whigs in particular. By means of a disarming simplicity of style and of careful attention to detail in order to heighten the effect of the narrative, Swift produced one of the outstanding pieces of satire in world literature. Swift himself attempted to conceal his authorship of the book under its original title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

When Swift created the character of Lemuel Gulliver as his narrator for Gulliver’s Travels, he developed a personality with many qualities admired by an eighteenth century audience and still admired by many readers. Gulliver is a decent sort of person: hopeful, simple, fairly direct, and full of good will. He is a scientist, a trained doctor, and, as any good scientist should, he loves detail. His literal-minded attitude makes him a keen observer of the world around him. Furthermore, he is, like another famous novel character of the eighteenth century—Robinson Crusoe—encouragingly resourceful in emergencies. Why is it, then, that such a seemingly admirable, even heroic character, should become, in the end, an embittered misanthrope, hating the world and turning against everyone, including people who show him kindness?

The answer lies in what Swift meant for his character to be, and Gulliver was certainly not intended to be heroic. Readers often confuse Gulliver the character and Swift the author, but to do so is to miss the point of Gulliver’s Travels. The novel is a satire, and Gulliver is a mask for Swift the satirist. In fact, Swift does not share Gulliver’s rationalistic, scientific responses to the world or Gulliver’s beliefs in progress and in the perfectibility of humanity. Swift, on the contrary, believed that such values were dangerous, and that to put such complete faith in the material world, as scientific Gulliver did, was folly. Gulliver is a product of his age, and he is intended as a character to demonstrate the weakness underlying the values of the Enlightenment—the failure to recognize the power of the irrational.

Despite Gulliver’s apparent congeniality in the opening chapters of the novel, Swift makes it clear that Gulliver has serious shortcomings, including blind spots about human nature, his own included. Book 3, the least readable section of Gulliver’s Travels, is in some ways the most revealing part of the book. In it Gulliver complains, for example, that the wives of the scientists he is observing run away with the servants. The fact is that Gulliver—himself a scientist—gives little thought to the well-being of his own wife. In the eleven years covered in Gulliver’s travel book, Swift’s narrator spends a total of seven months and ten days with his wife.

Gulliver, too, is caught up in Swift’s web of satire in Gulliver’s Travels. Satire as a literary form tends to be ironic; the author says one thing but means another. Consequently, readers can assume that much of what Gulliver observes as good and much of what he thinks and does are not what Swift thinks.

As a type of the eighteenth century, Gulliver exhibits its major values: belief in rationality, in the perfectibility of humanity, in the idea of progress, and in the Lockean philosophy of the human mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, at the time of birth, controlled and developed entirely by the differing strokes and impressions made on it by the environment. Swift, in contrast to Gulliver, hated the abstraction that accompanied rational thinking; he abhorred the rejection of the past that resulted from a rationalistic faith in the new and improved; and he cast strong doubts on humanity’s ability to gain knowledge through reason and logic.

The world Gulliver discovers during his travels is significant in Swift’s satire. The Lilliputians, averaging not quite six inches in height, display the pettiness and the smallness Swift detected in much that motivates human institutions such as church and state. It is petty religious problems that lead to continual war in Lilliput. The Brobdingnagians continue the satire in part 2 by exaggerating human grossness through their enlarged size. (Swift divided human measurements by a twelfth for the Lilliputians and multiplied by twelve for the Brobdingnagians.)

The tiny people of part 1 and the giants of part 2 establish a pattern of contrasts that Swift follows in part 4 with the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The Yahoos, “their heads and breasts covered with a thick hair, some frizzled and others lank,” naked otherwise and scampering up trees like nimble squirrels, represent the animal aspect of humanity when that animality is viewed as separate from the rational. The Houyhnhnms, completing the other half of the split, know no lust, pain, or pleasure. Their rational temperaments totally rule what passions they have. The land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopia to Gulliver, and he tells the horse people that his homeland is unfortunately governed by Yahoos.

The reader who takes all of this at face value misses much of the satire. What is the land of the Houyhnhnms really like, how much is it a utopia? Friendship, benevolence, honesty, and equality are the principal virtues there. Decency and civility guide every action. As a result, each pair of horses mates to have one colt of each sex; after that, they no longer stay together. The marriages are exacted to ensure nice color combinations in the offspring. To the young, marriage is “one of the necessary actions of a reasonable being.” After the function of the marriage has been fulfilled—after the race has been propagated—the two members of the couple are no closer to each other than to anybody else in the whole country. It is this kind of “equality” that Swift satirizes. As a product of the rational attitude, such a value strips life of its fullness, denies the power of emotion and instinct, subjugates all to logic, reason, the intellect, and makes life dull and uninteresting—as predictable as a scientific experiment.

Looking upon the Houyhnhnms as the perfect creatures, Gulliver makes his own life back in England intolerable: I . . . return to enjoy my own speculations in my little garden at Redriff; to apply those excellent lessons of virtue which I learned among the Houyhnhnms; to instruct the Yahoos of my own family as far as I shall find them docible animals; to behold my figure often in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature.

When Gulliver holds up the rational as perfect and when he cannot find a rational man to meet his ideal, he concludes in disillusionment that humanity is totally animalistic, like the ugly Yahoos. In addition to being a satire and a parody of travel books, Gulliver’s Travels is an initiation novel. As Gulliver develops, he changes, but he fails to learn an important lesson of life, or he learns it wrong. His naïve optimism about progress and rationality leads him to bitter disillusionment.

It is tragically ironic that Swift died at the age of seventy-eight after three years of living without his reason, a victim of Ménière’s disease, dying “like a rat in a hole.” For many years, he had struggled against fits of deafness and giddiness, symptoms of the disease. As a master of the language of satire, Swift remains unequaled, despite his suffering and ill health. He gathered in Gulliver’s Travels, written late in his life, all the experience he had culled from both courts and streets. For Swift knew people, and, as individuals, he loved them; but when they changed into groups, he hated them, satirized them, and stung them into realizing the dangers of the herd. Gulliver never understood this.