What is the general theme of Gulliver's Travels?

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The satirical allegoryGulliver’s Travels was published in 1726 by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). The book incorporates the author’s vision and criticism of humankind, and is especially savage towards the population of Europe in the eighteenth century. Swift satirizes human foolishness and lack of common sense in his era.

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The satirical allegory Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726 by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). The book incorporates the author’s vision and criticism of humankind, and is especially savage towards the population of Europe in the eighteenth century. Swift satirizes human foolishness and lack of common sense in his era.

Gulliver’s Travels is not structured like a traditional novel. It is broken down into four voyages during which Lemuel Gulliver’s vessel is cast ashore in many strange lands. Each voyage is a separate tale placed within an overall story. In order to assess the general theme of the work, each voyage containing numerous descriptions and anecdotes should be considered individually. The characters presented possess the attitudes and qualities of Europeans of the time from the author’s perspective.

Voyage 1: Lilliput

The Emperor of Lilliput is equally capable of kindness and cruelty. He can use his status of royalty to spread his beneficence or usurp dictatorial power:

It seems, that upon the first moment I was discovered sleeping on the ground, after my landing, the emperor had early notice of it by an express; and determined in council, that I should be tied in the manner I have related, (which was done in the night while I slept;) that plenty of meat and drink should be sent to me, and a machine prepared to carry me to the capital city.

Voyage 2: Brobdingnag

The King of Brobdingnag is a kind ruler endowed with common sense and rationality, but his common sense makes it difficult to govern. He is terrified by the complexities of politics. This fear leads him to make some poor decisions based on ignorance:

As for yourself, continued the king, who have spent the greatest part of your life in travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many vices of your country. But by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wrung and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.

Voyage 3: LAPUTA, BALNIBARBI, LUGGNAGG, GLUBBDUBDRIB, AND JAPAN

The King of Laputa does not rule with a sense of practicality. He is a ruthless dictator:

If any town should engage in rebellion or mutiny . . . the king has two methods of reducing them to obedience . . . he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases: and if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones . . . But if they still continue obstinate, or offer to raise insurrections, he proceeds to the last remedy, by letting the island drop directly upon their heads . . .

Voyage 4: THE COUNTRY OF THE HOUYHNHNMS

Gray Horse is the kind, benevolent, and rational master of the protagonist. He remains unemotional throughout his dealings with Gulliver:

My master heard me with great appearances of uneasiness in his countenance; because doubting, or not believing, are so little known in this country, that the inhabitants cannot tell how to behave themselves under such circumstances. And I remember, in frequent discourses with my master concerning the nature of manhood in other parts of the world, having occasion to talk of lying and false representation, it was with much difficulty that he comprehended what I meant, although he had otherwise a most acute judgment.

The above characters represent just a few of the inhabitants of the lands to which Gulliver travels. Taken as a whole, the reader can identify the general themes that Swift communicates through this story. He concludes that European values are corrupt. Gulliver begins his journey believing people to be good-natured. After the voyages, he develops the same dissatisfaction with humankind shared by Swift. Gulliver, like the author, sees civilization itself as depraved. The general theme of the book is that human beings are irrational and unethical, and life itself should be viewed through a pessimistic prism.

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The general theme of Gulliver's Travels, to which Swift returns time and time again, tackling it from different perspectives in four different books, is the absurdity, wickedness and folly of mankind.

In Lilliput, the principal source of the satire is the diminutive stature of the Lilliputians, which makes all their pomposity and their concerns of statecraft seem trivial. The same object is achieved by the opposite means in Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is confronted with a race of giants. Here, the Brobdingnagians are not the object of satire, but their wise and benevolent king questions Gulliver about the customs of his homeland, and this provides Swift with the opportunity to be very scathing at the expense of English culture and society.

The third book satirizes the human quest for arcane knowledge in the depiction of the flying island of Laputa and the Grand Academy of Lagado. This is perhaps Swift's weakest and most mean-spirited attempt at satire, since most people would regard the pursuit of knowledge as a noble endeavor, but he involves his scientists in the most ridiculous and disgusting experiments, leading them to appear as cranks.

Finally, in the fourth book, Swift gives his ideal beings, the Houyhnhnms, the appearance of horses while making the beasts with which they share their country, the filthy, brutish Yahoos, look exactly like people. His inversion of the relationship between man and beast is Swift's final and most biting comment on humanity and reminds the modern reader of the pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer calling his dog "man" when it misbehaved.

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There are many many themes in Gulliver's Travels, but I would argue that the most important is the constant battle between the individual and society. This has been a perennial theme in political discourse ever since the explicit philosophical articulation of the self was first made in 17th century Europe. Once it was established that individuals were endowed with certain rights and liberties that ought to be protected from society, it became necessary to define the degree to which individuals needed to conform to the existing social rules and customs.

In all the societies he visits, Gulliver is very much an outsider; he's about as individual as they come. Wherever he winds up, Gulliver finds himself forced to conform to a bewildering array of often absurd and pointless customs that he never quite understands. Gulliver's alienation from the societies he encounters highlights the way in which social customs can often be used to stifle individuality, blurring the distinction between the individual and the society in which he or she lives. As a rather singular individual himself, Swift is intensely suspicious of any kind of collective endeavor, as we see in his mordant commentary on the Lilliputians' practice of communal child-rearing. This is supposed to be a more civilized way of raising children, but in actual fact it simply means that children grow up without any sense of individuality, the true hallmark of a human being.

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The general theme of Gulliver's Travels is the inherently amusing nature of human tradition and custom, and the relative nature of morality and society based on historical precedent. Like so many of Jonathan Swift's works, Gulliver's Travels is mostly a satire of British royalty and Imperialism. Swift shows various facets of British life through his fantastic islands, such as the overt political symbolism in Lilliput and the pursuit of knowledge for no greater purpose in the flying island of Laputa. Gulliver acts as both the everyman, representing the reader, and as a person whose ideals and morals are changed by  his experiences. One of the works that Swift intentionally satirized was the then-new novel Robinson Crusoe, in which a British man is marooned and becomes self-sufficient and wealthy; Gulliver, in contrast, is constantly captured and held captive by the people he meets, and has no ability to alter his own fate or the circumstances of other nations.

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