Gulliver's giant feet walking in the diminuative forest of the lilliputians

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

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As a product of an age that celebrated reason and was then apt to think of life as a comedy, Gulliver’s Travels, it should not go unsaid, is frequently funny. As an Irishman born in Dublin, Dean Swift of St. Patricks Episcopal Cathedral was inclined to blame the Whig administration in London for Irelands social ills. Satire is the outsiders mode, and Swift here uses and makes fun of the popular, first-person, sea voyage account. William Dampiers books of the late seventeenth century had been extremely successful in establishing the genre. Daniel Defoe had published the successful Robinson Crusoe in 1719, seven years before Swifts book appeared. Swift supported Irish aspirations for freedom from English domination and published his equally incendiary The Drapiers Letters anonymously in 1724. The Anglican clergyman in him also appreciated that some moral rearmament must accompany any political solution. It is this moral dimension, this focus on humankinds universal propensity to delude itself, that is the main appeal of the work for subsequent generations of readers, for whom the machinations of eighteenth century Westminster politicians mean very little.

Swift deliberately sets up Gullivers voyages in a realistic voyage framework. He provides maps of the voyages, complete with decorative, tiny, spouting whale drawings just like real maps. He also mixes actual places (Japan and Sumatra) with the imaginary.

Gullivers level of pride is fairly stable in part 1, where he has the physical and moral advantage over the tiny Lilliputians. In part 2, however, he reveals himself to be suffering from their destructive, hubristic attitude. Having boasted of the political and social situation in England, and then having offered the king of Brobdingnag gunpowder, Gulliver is roundly deflated by that monarch, who informs him that he must represent “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” In part 3, Gullivers pride expands even further when for an instant he envies the Struldbrugs immortality. His normal, high level of this vice, the most damning in the Christian scheme of things, returns in part 4, where he resents being treated like a Yahoo and envies the superrational Houyhnhnms.

Humankind exists, Swift suggests, between the animal world of the Yahoos and the rational world of the Houyhnhnms. Gullivers recourse to living in the stable with his horses on his return to England is hardly a solution. To be out of step with the entire human race is to be insane; some kind of balance, however precarious, is Swifts proposal in this, his only trip into the world of fantasy voyages.

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