Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

The Historical and Cultural Background of Swift's Satire

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726, was an instant hit, one of the top three sellers of the eighteenth century. It was only one of Swift's many significant works, however. Of his prose writings, the most famous include his attack on modern literature, The Battle of the Books; a critique of English oppression of the Irish, A Modest Proposal; and A Tale of a Tub, his defense of Protestantism and the Church of England. He is also well-known as a poet, particularly for his poems criticizing romance, such as Cassinus and Peter and A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Gulliver's Travels addresses almost all of Swift's primary concerns and involves some of the most important questions in literature and the development of the novel.

Gulliver's Travels remains Swift's most famous and popular work. Ricardo Quintana calls it a "satire taking the form of four imaginary voyages," a formulation which explains why the story does not have the traditional plot structure of rising action-climax-denouement. Because Swift depicts the ills and sins of his society, Gulliver's Travels can feel like a string of episodes tied together. The book gets its unity from Gulliver himself, since his perceptions drive the story and the satire. Swift uses Gulliver and his voyages primarily to examine problems with contemporary society, such as the evils of politics, humanity's frequent foolishness, and the importance of a thoughtful, self-aware, balanced perspective. In this sense, Gulliver's Travels addresses issues that still worry people today. A recent television version also testifies to the book's continued appeal. Although this version is generally faithful in many places, however, it is no substitute for the book.

Swift's story takes place simultaneously at two points in time and at two levels of meaning. First, it is a recollection: Lemuel Gulliver tells the story of his adventures after they are finished. The story of Gulliver sitting at home writing about his voyages is the "frame narrative," the story of the telling of the story. Like a frame around a painting, it gives shape to Gulliver's character and to the events that he recounts. As Richard Rodino writes, "Swift the author writes the story of Gulliver the author writing the story of Gulliver the character." Second, all the events except the frame narrative take place in the past. These two levels of time enable Swift to create a work that also has two levels of meaning: the straightforward story of Gulliver's adventures, and the satire of Swift's world. By making Gulliver look back on his life and explain it, Swift allows readers to see Gulliver as unreliable, a man whose opinions must be questioned.

The two levels of meaning, the adventure and the satire, come from Swift's use of a popular kind of literature, the travel narrative. It is important to remember while reading Gulliver's Travels that Swift's world was very different from ours. Captain Cook had not yet sailed around the world; he would not be born until 1728. Lewis and Clark would not head west across North America for another seventy years, and much of the continent was still inhabited only by Native American tribes. It was not unusual to be the first westerners to discover new islands (the Dutch found Easter Island in 1722), to make the first maps of a coast, or to find strange and exotic people, plants, and animals. The eighteenth-century public was as excited to read about travels to strange lands such as Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as North and South America, as the twentieth-century public is to hear about celebrities. They were also used to a wider diversity of reading material, and, because it was so hard to prove things were true, were more comfortable with not knowing whether a story was fiction or not.

The travel narrative did more than allow Swift to create an exciting "true" story, however. It also gave him a way to criticize the familiar world of eighteenth-century England. Swift "defamiliarized" aspects of English life such as political or social practices by having Gulliver describe them to people who had never encountered them before, or as if they were things he had never seen before. In some cases, this defamiliarization is amusing. When the Lilliputians search Gulliver's pockets, for example, they find a "Globe, half Silver, and half some...

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The Hairy Maid at the Harpsichord: Some Speculations on the Meaning of Gulliver's Travels

When Gulliver first appears on the shores of the several remote nations he visits, the inhabitants respond to his monstrosity much as Londoners responded to monsters at Bartholomew Fair. The Lilliputians show "a thousand Marks of Wonder and Astonishment" when they first see him, and when he rises to his feet, "the Noise and Astonishment of the People ... [were] not to be expressed." In Brobdingnag, Gulliver "was shewn ten Times a Day to the Wonder and Satisfaction of all People." The Laputans "beheld [him] with all the Marks and Circumstances of Wonder." Not even the rational Houyhnhnms are immune to astonishment: "The Horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself, looked full in my Face with manifest Tokens of Wonder."

These first reactions give way to another, equally mindless response. Astonishment and wonder are succeeded by a desire to be diverted—most obviously in Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is trundled around the country like dwarfs were in England, but also in Lilliput, where the king uses Gulliver like the kings of Europe used giants, as a way of "diverting himself” and of "entertaining the Court." And the Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver reports "brought me into all Company, and made them treat me with Civility, because, as he told them privately, this would put me in good Humour, and make me more diverting."

Turning Gulliver into a diversion is a way of neutralizing the threat of his monstrous difference, a way of managing the radically alien so that it does not disrupt the comforting assurances of the usual. Tied down in Lilliput, Gulliver is addressed by one of the officials:

... I saw a Stage erected about a Foot and a half from the Ground, capable of holding four of the Inhabitants, with two or three Ladders to mount it: From whence one of them, who seemed to be a Person of Quality, made me a long Speech, whereof I understood not one syllable.

This is a deliciously ludicrous moment, for to give a "long Speech" to a monster who obviously does not understand a word of it is to insist on the unexpungeable truth of the normal with a tenacity that verges on the solipsistic. But this is the strategy of the inhabitants in all the lands he visits. He is effortlessly assimilated into each society, leaving their quotidian realities unperturbed.

To be sure, very occasionally some of the creatures are willing to see Gulliver as a monstrous Other whom they allow, if not radically to critique or disrupt their own familiar reality, at least to comment on it. Like the Brobdingnagian king before him, the Houyhnhnm master is willing to listen to Gulliver because he thought "that it was no Shame to Learn Wisdom from Brutes, as Industry is taught by the Ant, and Building by the Swallow." But even the Houyhnhnms have their limits. They do learn from Gulliver the technique of castration that they can apply to their own local problem of pest control, but they appear to learn nothing at all about the confines of their own structures of thought and value that are exposed by the fact that the mere existence of Gulliver causes unprecedented puzzlement and disagreement. And so, in the end, all the creatures turn from his monstrosity and ignore what he might have to tell them about themselves.

In his encounter with monsters, Gulliver reacts much more complexly and in a greater variety of ways. Further, he tends (though this is not invariable) to react to the monstrous inhabitants he visits just oppositely from the way the inhabitants react to him, their monstrous visitor. If they assimilate him, thus leaving intact and unquestioned their own sense of the normal, he tends to take the monsters as normative and to assimilate into himself their realities. And yet, for all of this apparent openness to their difference, he gains no more self-knowledge from his dealings with monsters than they do from their dealings with him.

Gulliver achieves no awareness because in his dealings with monsters he is always anxious about his own identity, always caught up (like the gawkers at Bartholomew Fair) in the various strategies of defense against humiliating self-knowledge. Something of a paradigm of his psychology is revealed when he first sees the Brobdingnagians in the beginning of Book II:

I bemoaned my desolate Widow, and Fatherless Children: I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second Voyage against the Advice of all my Friends and Relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose Inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the World; where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my Hand, and perform those other Actions which will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire, while Posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by Millions. I reflected what a Mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this Nation, as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my Misfortunes; For, as human Creatures are observed to be more Savage and cruel in Proportion to their Bulk, what could I expect but to be a Morsel in the Mouth of the first among these enormous Barbarians who should happen to seize me.

There are several peculiar features in this passage, not the least of which, given the context, is Gulliver's use of the word "mortification." For at this moment, he is on the brink of a literal death, fearful that he is about to be made "a Morsel in the Mouth" of the Brobdingnagians, who, like Grim Reapers, are advancing on him "with Reaping-Hooks in their Hands, each Hook about the largeness of six Scythes." But in the face of this death, Gulliver dwells on another kind of "mortification," and the fact that the two are linked by association in his mind (and by etymology in Swift's) is suggestive. For Gulliver's encounter with monsters at this moment precipitates anxieties about his personal identity. The sight of the Brobdingnagians causes him to swing hysterically from fears of the loss of his identity, "mortification," the "death" of the self, to hypertrophied fantasies of immortality (he thinks his actions "will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire"). And he swings so violently because he has delivered his sense of his own identity over to others. He is as he is perceived. To be "mortified" is to be seen as "inconsiderable"; to be "the greatest Prodigy" is to be so "attested by Millions." And the double meaning of "prodigy" reveals both the direction Gulliver takes to achieve a comfortable identity and the cost he is willing to pay to achieve it: in order to be distinguished, he is willing to play the monster.

For these reasons, it seems to me that throughout the book most of Gulliver's misperceptions of the significance of the creatures and events he witnesses in these remote nations, his inability to see any important relation between them and himself, his skewed and partial judgments, and his loopy misinterpretations seldom arise from naiveté or stupidity. For if his encounters with monsters provoke a blurring of his identity, these varieties of misseeings become ways, often unconscious, by which he reconstructs a sense of himself that he finds pleasing.

This strategy is most obvious in Book I. Gulliver quickly loses sense of the Lilliputians' monstrosity, accepting their perceptions and finally their values as normal, for to see the world as the Lilliputians see it is to see himself to considerable advantage. He can think of himself as having "performed ... Wonders" simply by eating and drinking, and he can take pride in urinating, watching with awe that "Torrent which fell with such Noise and Violence from me." And so he willingly plays the monster. He begins "entertaining the Court with ... Feats." He is pleased that he can find a way to "divert" the emperor and nobility "after a very extraordinary Manner" by turning his handkerchief into an exercise field. He willingly yields to the king's "fancy of diverting himself” by acting the colossus. The longer he stays in Lilliput, the more he can entertain fantasies of what "so prodigious a Creature … I must appear to them." And the more deeply he implicates himself in the Lilliputian point of view, the more he can see himself as superior not only physically but socially as well. He fails to see the patent physical absurdity in the charge that he has had an affair with a Lilliputian lady not because he is stupid but because it is more flattering to mis-see it in this way; he can revel in visions of himself at the center of court society ("I have often had four Coaches and Horses at once on my table full of Company," he says, proving that the visits by the lady were by no means unique) and as an important player in Lilliputian social and court politics ("I had the Honour to be a Nardac, which the Treasurer himself is not; for all the World knows he is only...

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The Satirist Satirized: Studies of the Great Misanthropes

If we ask who is the satirist of Gulliver's Travels, the answer obviously is Swift—or, if he is not "of” Gulliver's Travels, he is the satirist who creates the satire of Gulliver's Travels. But in the extended sense of the term we are familiar with Gulliver is also a satirist....

This of course is the Gulliver of the Fourth Voyage, worlds removed from the ship's surgeon who was charmed with the Lilliputians and quick with praise of "my own dear native Country." That Gulliver, he of the early voyages, is so far from being a satirist that he is often the butt par excellence of satire: Swift's satire, of course, and, within the work, the King of Brobdingnag's; but also, in a sense, of his...

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