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.