Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels Essay - Critical Overview

Critical Overview

Gulliver's Travels was quite a success in its time. The first printing sold out immediately and the book was translated into French, Dutch, and German. It appealed to people from all social classes and ages, and readers thought the book was a humorous adventure tale, suitable even for children to read (the separate category of books especially for children did not come about until a generation after Swift's death). Gulliver was perceived as a "happy fellow." (Note, however, that the original editor of the work had toned down some of the satire, which was not restored to the text until 1735.) By the end of the 1700s, however, people were beginning to see past the fun adventure plot and become aware of Swift's hidden messages. Many were shocked by the negativity of the book and condemned it. Writer William Makepeace Thackeray said the message of the book was "horrible, shameful, blasphemous … filthy in word, filthy in thought" and "obscene," and certainly proof that Jonathan Swift was "about the most wretched being in God's world."

Sir Walter Scott obviously thought Gulliver's Travels had some merit or he wouldn't have published a collection of Swift's works in 1814. He noted that the work was "unequalled for the skill with which [the narrative] is sustained, and the genuine spirit of satire of which it is made the vehicle." He also declared, however, that the book was "severe, unjust and degrading" and dismissed early fans as people who, like Swift, had obviously been in a "state of gloomy misanthropy." Swift was accused again and again of being a bitter misanthrope who hated mankind, a pessimist who wouldn't acknowledge the good qualities of human beings. For a time only Part III was considered acceptable reading, and Part IV was considered exceptionally offensive right up through the 1800s. In 1889, Edmund Gosse urged "decent" people to avoid reading Part IV because of the "horrible foulness of this satire." And in 1882 Leslie Stephen speculated that the "oppressive" tone of "misanthropy" in Parts III and IV must have been the result of Swift's bitterness over ill health and dashed ambitions and suggested that readers skip them altogether. His contemporary, Churton Collins, said the book had "no moral, no social, no philosophical purpose." The novel's controversial messages about politics and the nature of man even led to censorship. In later editions, right up until 1899, the Lindalinian revolt at the end of Part III was excised because it was...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)