Discuss narrative technique in Swift'sĀ Gulliver's Travels.

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teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Gulliver is depicted by Swift as writing his own first-person account of his travels to exotic places, satirizing the vogue for travel books about faraway lands. Swift's primary didactic technique is to have created his narrator as a gullible man. In fact, his name, Gulliver, sounds like the word "gullible." Gulliver is in many ways the bean counter, the man who can't, at least right away, see the forest for the trees. He can describe in minute detail what's going on in places he is visiting without understanding the full implications of what he is describing. Likewise, he can describe English practices in all their absurdity without at all grasping their absurdity. Because the reader can interpret what is going on more quickly than Gulliver can, the reader is put in the superior position of feeling wiser than the book's narrator. Swift does this because it is more effective for a reader to figure out a hypocrisy, cruelty, or absurdity for himself than to be told what to think by an all-knowing speaker. Swift hopes that in this way the reader will see for himself or herself the evils and ridiculous practices not only among the peoples Gulliver visits but primarily those in England, for Swift's hope is to reform his own country. Gulliver in his bean-counting naivety is very much like the narrator of "A Modest Proposal," whose inability to get beyond bean counting in his proposal for alleviating suffering is meant to shock people into realizing their own cruelty towards the poor. A chief difference is that Gulliver does have a moral compass, as evidenced in the comic pathos of his insistence on living as a horse when he returns to England, so upset is he by his realization of the barbarity of humans.

MaudlinStreet's profile pic

MaudlinStreet | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Gulliver's Travels is a satire presented in the first person point of view, as a journal kept during Lemuel Gulliver's various adventures throughout the known and unknown world. Travelogues were quite popular during Swift's time, and so his audience would be familiar with such a style. Because so much of the world remained unexplored by Europeans, Gulliver's reports of the lands (especially their locations) would not seem as obviously fictional as they seem today.

The most significant aspect of Swift's narrative technique is the use of Gulliver as an unreliable narrator. At first, his attention to detail and revelation of embarrassing events leads the reader to trust Gulliver. He is an educated man- a surgeon, in fact- and he approaches each new situation with almost clinical precision. Yet slowly, he begins to reveal himself as humanly fallible. He admits to lying about English history, in order to present his country as more favorable to the Brobdingnagian king. He also appears incredibly naive and a bit dense, as he cannot grasp any society different from that of England (until his last voyage). Essentially, we cannot trust Gulliver's opinions on these lands, which is Swift's intention. Through that questioning of Gulliver as the narrator, the satire of the text is evident.