It has been said that Dean Jonathan Swift hated humanity but loved the individual. His hatred is brought out in this caustic political and social satire aimed at the English people, humanity in general, and the Whigs in particular. By means of a disarming simplicity of style and of careful attention to detail in order to heighten the effect of the narrative, Swift produced one of the outstanding pieces of satire in world literature. Swift himself attempted to conceal his authorship of the book under its original title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.
When Swift created the character of Lemuel Gulliver as his narrator for Gulliver’s Travels, he developed a personality with many qualities admired by an eighteenth century audience and still admired by many readers. Gulliver is a decent sort of person: hopeful, simple, fairly direct, and full of good will. He is a scientist, a trained doctor, and, as any good scientist should, he loves detail. His literal-minded attitude makes him a keen observer of the world around him. Furthermore, he is, like another famous novel character of the eighteenth century—Robinson Crusoe—encouragingly resourceful in emergencies. Why is it, then, that such a seemingly admirable, even heroic character, should become, in the end, an embittered misanthrope, hating the world and turning against everyone, including people who show him kindness?
The answer lies in what Swift meant for his character to be, and Gulliver was certainly not intended to be heroic. Readers often confuse Gulliver the character and Swift the author, but to do so is to miss the point of Gulliver’s Travels. The novel is a satire, and Gulliver is a mask for Swift the satirist. In fact, Swift does not share Gulliver’s rationalistic, scientific responses to the world or Gulliver’s beliefs in progress and in the perfectibility of humanity. Swift, on the contrary, believed that such values were dangerous, and that to put such complete faith in the material world, as scientific Gulliver did, was folly. Gulliver is a product of his age, and he is intended as a character to demonstrate the weakness underlying the values of the Enlightenment—the failure to recognize the power of the irrational.
Despite Gulliver’s apparent congeniality in the opening chapters of the novel, Swift makes it clear that Gulliver has serious shortcomings, including blind spots about human nature, his own included. Book 3, the least readable section of Gulliver’s Travels, is in some ways the most revealing part of the book. In it Gulliver complains, for example, that the wives of the scientists he is observing run away with the servants. The fact is that Gulliver—himself a scientist—gives little thought to the well-being of his own wife. In the eleven years covered in Gulliver’s travel book, Swift’s narrator spends a total of seven months and ten days with his wife.
Gulliver, too, is caught up in Swift’s web of satire in Gulliver’s Travels. Satire as a literary form tends to be ironic; the author says one thing but means another. Consequently, readers can assume that much of what Gulliver observes as good and much of what he thinks and does are not what Swift thinks.
As a type of the eighteenth century, Gulliver exhibits its major values: belief in rationality, in the perfectibility of humanity, in the idea of progress, and in the Lockean philosophy of the human mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, at the time of birth, controlled and developed entirely by the differing strokes and impressions made on it by the environment. Swift, in contrast to Gulliver, hated the abstraction that accompanied rational thinking; he abhorred the rejection of the past that resulted from a rationalistic faith in the new and improved; and he cast strong doubts on humanity’s ability to gain knowledge through reason and logic.
The world Gulliver discovers during his...
(The entire section is 1,337 words.)