Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726 to immediate success and much controversy. Author Jonathan Swift wrote to his friend Alexander Pope that the purpose of his writing “is to vex the world rather than divert it.” Swift was a well-known Anglican priest, intellectual, historian, and political satirist. While he wrote Gulliver’s Travels about a set of political and social conflicts at the time leading to the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and wars between England and France, this novel derives its staying power from its vivid depiction of human avarice, corruption, and oppression.
Lemuel Gulliver, a sea-loving surgeon and “everyman” who travels to four lands and has numerous adventures, narrates Gulliver’s Travels in the past tense. This single point of view structurally unites the four seemingly unrelated voyages that compose the satire. In approaching the work, it helps to view Gulliver as Swift’s alter ego and to view the progression of the novel as Gulliver’s changing perception of himself and the world: Gulliver begins the journey larger than life in the land of the tiny Lilliputians, and after observing mankind’s tendency toward greed and selfishness, he finds himself most contented in a land of horses who are governed by reason. Themes and motifs throughout Gulliver’s Travels are primarily those of culture, politics, and the individual, while the lands that Gulliver visits provide vivid symbols for satire.
Swift’s satirical style has made Gulliver’s Travels important from the moment it was published to today, three hundred years later. “Satire,” Swift wrote in The Battle of the Books, “is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes scientists, academics, snobs, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and women; man as a sinner— his avarice, selfishness, and folly—is also held up to ridicule. Furthermore, Swift parodies travel writers’ preoccupation with appearing to be “experts” in everything they write. It would appear, however, that despite Swift’s critique of humanity and its institutions, he felt passionately enough about mankind to hope that those who read Gulliver’s Travels would reconsider themselves and the world around them in order to help make it a better place. That said, the moral of the novel appears to be that nowhere in a world of human beings does the ideal exist.
In the subjects of its literary examination and satire, Gulliver’s Travels remains relevant and often seems even timely. The practice of economically exploiting other countries, touched upon in Gulliver’s accounts of his first and third voyages, was the policy of English and French colonial governments during Swift’s time, just as world powers today often go into underdeveloped cultures and consume their resources. Conflicts of religious ideology, as observed in the battle of the “Big-Endians” and the “Small-Endians,” were inspired by the “troubles” in Ireland during Swift’s time when England oppressed the Irish, and they are still apparent today, often reflected in political conflicts throughout the world. Even the feuds between the “High Heels” and the “Low Heels” in Lilliput, which represented the feuds between the Whigs and the Tories in Swift’s time, continue between and among current political parties.
While the novel is noted for its satire, Gulliver’s Travels engages and entertains in other ways as well. Swift’s imaginary worlds and fantastic characters draw readers into the narrative, and his exaggerated stories of Gulliver’s strange and exotic adventures hold their interest. Moreover, the literary themes, motifs, and symbols developed in the novel invite thought and lively discussion, encouraging readers to examine the observations about human nature and human society that make Gulliver’s Travels one of the most celebrated novels of all time.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Define satire and explain through which characters and in what ways satire is employed in Gulliver’s Travels.
2. Identify and discuss the primary themes in the novel.
3. Identify the symbols developed in the novel, explain the ideas they communicate, and discuss their significance.
4. Identify the common roots of politics, culture, and the human condition and discuss how these are developed thematically in the novel.
5. Identify examples of different cultural beliefs and values as illustrated in the novel, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of cultural differences.
6. Consider and discuss the themes related to the individual versus society, as well as the motif of people taking themselves too seriously, especially in regard to Gulliver’s character.
7. Identify examples of the motifs of languages, clothing, and base physical actions and discuss their significance within the novel.
8. Explain how, and through which characters, “might” trumps “right” throughout Gulliver’s advertures.
9. Determine and define the elements that make Gulliver’s Travels one of the most celebrated novels of all time.