Swift’s jaundiced view of the politics and mores of the England of his day are elaborated in the form of four allegorical tales in which the narrator, Lemuel Gulliver, observes the local customs in foreign lands while becoming increasingly disenchanted with his own world. The transformation from the magnanimous benefactor of the Lilliputians (among whom Gulliver is a giant) to the misanthrope who can barely endure the company of his own family (preferring to live in his stable among horses) is accomplished with consummate narrative skill and a sure instinct for pretense and folly.
The first book, which focuses on Gulliver’s stay in Lilliput, offers a thinly disguised version of political squabbles that would have been fresh in the minds of Swift’s readers. The second book takes Gulliver to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, where his plans to provide the local ruler with cannons and gunpowder are viewed with contempt and horror. In the third section, Gulliver encounters the land of Laputa, the flying island, where a parody of the experimental science of Swift’s day is raucously played out, including schemes for capturing the sunbeams trapped in cucumbers and for turning human excrement back into nutritious substances. The fourth book sends Gulliver to the land of the Houyhnhnms, horses who have the power of speech. The Houyhnhnms, who are distinguished by their virtue and their reliance on reason, to the exclusion of emotion, rule over a race of bestial creatures called Yahoos, who bear a dismaying resemblance to human beings.
Swift’s humor remains as powerful today as when he wrote, and if the references to 18th century politics and history are now largely lost on us, the recognition that our own scientific experiments often resemble those of the Laputans makes us still Swift’s contemporaries in many ways.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of criticism from the second half of the twentieth century, arranged in chronological order. Essays range from investigations of philosophical context and literary genre to psychoanalytic and deconstructionist approaches.
Brady, Frank, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Gulliver’s Travels”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. A selection of essays examining the philosophical, religious, and scientific background of the work. Examines the literary sources and traditions the book reflects.
Carnochan, W. B. Lemuel Gulliver’s Mirror for Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Relates Swift’s satiric intention to the epistemology of John Locke to illustrate his theory of Augustan satire. An epilogue examines how Gulliver’s Travels anticipates later satirists Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Erskine-Hill, Howard. Jonathan Swift: “Gulliver’s Travels.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A concise, accessible introduction. Final chapter surveys the work’s influence on fiction from Herman Melville to Nathaniel West.
Smith, Frederik N., ed. The Genres of “Gulliver’s Travels.” Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1990. A collection of previously unpublished essays, each taking the standpoint of a different literary genre. An afterword suggests how the reader might navigate the work, given the multiplicity of genres it represents. Assumed is the basic indeterminacy of texts.