Gulliver's Travels eText - Reading Pointers for Sharper Insight

Jonathan Swift

This eText contains embedded glossary terms and other notes added by our community of educators. Simply click or tap on the yellow highlighted words within the text to see the annotations.
Turn Off

Reading Pointers for Sharper Insight

Key Historical and Political Facts

Satire in Lilliput

Satire in Brobdingnag

Satire in Laputa, etc.

Satire in the Land of the Houyhnhnhms

Satire at the end of the book

Swift's Use of the Naïve Narrator

Daniel Defoe's popular Robinson Crusoe had appeared in 1719 and set a new course for prose fiction. Swift adopted much of Defoe's technique in his 1726 story of Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's surgeon and sea captain, who recounts his adventures at sea. Because Gulliver's Travelsis a satire, it is often difficult for the modern reader to fully appreciate Swift's wit, sarcasm, and occasional diatribe without some understanding of the major issues of the time period in which Swift lived and wrote.

The Lilliputians, being one-twelfth Gulliver's size, represent the pettiness of human nature. Because Gulliver finds them beautiful, he often does not notice their pettiness, and finds a number of occasions to praise their artistic taste, governmental practices, and so forth.

  • The tiny Lilliputians’ control of Gulliver (keeping him chained and watched by armed guards) represents tiny England's growing dominion in Europe. Europe could crush England if she chose, just as Gulliver could easy overpower the Lilliputians.

  • The appointment and promotion of political figures is silly and has no basis in the candidates’ qualifications.

  • The Lilliputian war with Blefuscu is over an interpretation of a sacred text (Protestant versus Catholic interpretations of the Bible), but ultimately a minor point—on what end to break an egg.

The Brobdingnagians are twelve times Gulliver's size. Thus, he is very aware of all of their physical blemishes, which were too small on the Lilliputians for him to discern. He can see the pores in their skin, variations in skin coloring, and lice crawling on their bodies. Because they physically disgust him, he cannot see past their physical being and recognize that they are much more highly moral than either the Lilliputians or the English themselves.

Here Swift satirizes the Royal Academy and what he perceives are the problems with the science of his day.

  • The flying island of Laputa is England, and the stationary island of Lagado is Ireland. The king, living in Laputa, has never even been to Lagado and, thus, has no real knowledge of Lagadoan needs or concerns. When the Lagadoans rebel, Laputa cuts off their means of survival, and threatens to crush them.

  • In the Laputans and their Flappers, Swift is mocking “intellectuals” who are so deep in thought that they have lost touch with practical concerns.

  • The ill-fitting clothes and other disastrous projects Gulliver observes are Swift's way of mocking the Royal Academy, which, at one point, wanted to use scientific knowledge to make the crafts more efficient. However, most of the knowledge gained by the Society is theoretical and offers no new or useful technologies.

  • Gulliver's journeys to other islands in this section allow Swift to mock the human tendency to revere the past and historical figures—ignoring the fact that these people were merely human.

  • Swift also mocks the vanity and emptiness of human desires by showing how the Struldbrugs, who possess immortality—something most humans profess to desire—are selfish, petty, cynical, and eternally sad.

Gulliver's final voyage occasions Swift's broadest and most vitriolic attack on humankind, and while Gulliver my be able to distance himself from the Yahoos while he is wearing clothes, the incident with the Yahoo women while he is bathing convinces even him that he is indeed—as are we all—a Yahoo.

Gulliver's final abandonment of the human-Yahoo race and his insistence on living among the horses in his stable is Swift's final jab. Are his fellow Europeans Yahoos or not? Are his horses horses or Houyhnhnms? Is Gulliver, therefore enlightened or insane?

The use of the naïve narrator is an ancient satiric technique. Throughout his voyages, Gulliver, for the most part, finds little fault and much to admire in the new races he encounters. When he does find reason for criticizing, often what he points out is the race's most admirable trait (e.g., the Brobdingnagian king's refusal to learn the secret of gunpowder). Because Gulliver fails to accurately assess the people he meets and the circumstances he is in, it is left to the reader to condemn what is condemnable and praise what is praiseworthy. If we fail to recognize Gulliver's naivete and take what he says at face value, we also become targets of Swift's satire.