Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver's Travels - Essay

Jonathan Swift


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels

English novel.

The following entry presents criticism of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. See also, A Modest Proposal Criticism.

Swift's greatest satire, Gulliver's Travels, is considered one of the most important works in the history of world literature. Published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts; by Lemuel Gulliver in 1726, Gulliver's Travels depicts one man's journeys to several strange and unusual lands. The general theme of Gulliver's Travels is a satirical examination of human nature, man's potential for depravity, and the dangers of the misuse of reason. Throughout the volume Swift attacked the baseness of humankind even as he suggested the greatest virtues of the human race; he also attacked the folly of human learning and political systems even as he implied the proper functions of art, science, and government. Gulliver's Travels, some scholars believe, had its origins during Swift's years as a Tory polemicist, when he was part of a group of prominent Tory writers known as the Scriblerus Club. The group, which also included Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, among others, collaborated on several satires, including The Scriblerus Papers. They also planned a satire called The Memoirs of a Martinus Scriblerus, which was to include several imaginary voyages. An immediate success, Gulliver's Travels was inspired by this work. Swift finished Gulliver's Travels was published anonymously, but Swift's authorship was widely suspected. Alternately considered an attack on humanity or a clear-eyed assessment of human strengths and weaknesses, the novel is a complex study of human nature and of the moral, philosophical, and scientific thought of Swift's time which has resisted any single definition of meaning for nearly three centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

Written in the form of a travel journal, Gulliver's Travels is the fictional account of four extraordinary voyages made by Lemuel Gulliver, a physician who signs on to serve as a ship's surgeon when he is unable to provide his family with a sufficient income

in London. After being shipwrecked Gulliver first arrives at Lilliput, an island whose inhabitants are just six inches tall and where the pettiness of the political system is mirrored in the diminutive size of its citizens.

Gulliver is referred to as the "Man-Mountain" by the Lilliputians and is eventually pressed into service by the King in a nonsensical war with the neighboring island of Blefuscu. Gulliver finally escapes Lilliput and returns briefly to England before a second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag. There he finds himself dwarfed by inhabitants who are sixty feet tall. Gulliver's comparatively tiny size now makes him wholly dependent on the protection and solicitude of others, and he is imperiled by dangerous encounters with huge rats and a curious toddler. Gulliver, however, incurs the disdain of the kindly and virtuous Brobdingnagian rulers when his gunpowder display, intended to impress his hosts as an exemplary product of European civilization, proves disastrous. An address Gulliver delivers to the Brobdingnagians describing English political practices of the day is also met with much scorn. Housed in a miniature box, Gulliver abruptly departs Brobdingnag when a giant eagle flies off with him and drops him in the ocean. He soon embarks on his third voyage to the flying island of Laputa, a mysterious land inhabited by scientists, magicians, and sorcerers who engage in abstract theorizing and conduct ill-advised experiments based on flawed calculations. Here Gulliver also visits Glubbdubdrib where it is possible to summon the dead and to converse with such figures as Aristotle and Julius Caesar. He also travels to Luggnagg, where he encounters the Struldbrugs, a group of people who are given immortality, yet are condemned to live out their eternal existence trapped in feeble and decrepit bodies. Once again Gulliver returns to England before a final journey, to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who are a superior race of intelligent horses. But the region is also home to the Yahoos, a vile and depraved race of ape-like creatures. Gulliver is eventually exiled from Houyhnhnm society when the horses gently insist that Gulliver must return to live among his own kind. After this fourth and final voyage, he returns to England, where he has great difficulty adjusting to everyday life. All people everywhere remind him of the Yahoos.

Major Themes

Each of the four voyages in Gulliver's Travels serves as a vehicle for Swift to expose and excoriate some aspect of human folly. The first voyage has been interpreted as an allegorical satire of the political events of the early eighteenth century, a commentary on the moral state of England, a general satire on the pettiness of human desires for wealth and power, and a depiction of the effects of unwarranted pride and self-promotion. The war with the tiny neighboring island of Blefuscu represents England's rivalry with France. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver's diminutive status serves as a reminder of how perspective and viewpoint alter one's condition and claims to power in society. The imperfect, yet highly moral Brobdingnagians represent, according to many critics, Swift's conception of ethical rulers. The voyage to Laputa, the flying island, is a scathing attack upon science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and reveals Swift's thorough acquaintance with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the leading publication of the scientific community of his day. The third voyage unequivocally manifests Swift's contempt and disdain for abstract theory and ideology that is not of practical service to humans. But it is the voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms that reveals Swift's ultimate satiric object—man's inability to come to terms with his true nature. In particular, the Houyhnhnms are interpreted as symbols and examples of a human order that, although unattainable, deserves to remain an ideal, while the Yahoos are found to be the representatives of the depths of humanity's potential fall if that ideal is abandoned.

Critical Reception

Gulliver's Travels has always been Swift's most discussed work. Critics have provided a wide variety of interpretations of each of the four voyages, of Swift's satiric targets, and of the narrative voice. But scholars agree that most crucial to an understanding of Gulliver's Travels is an understanding of the fourth voyage, to the land of the Houyhnhnms. Merrel D. Clubb has noted that "the longer that one studies Swift, the more obvious it becomes that the interpretations and verdict to be placed on the 'Voyage to the Houyhnhnms' is, after all, the central problem of Swift criticism." Much of the controversy surrounds three possible interpretations of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. One school of thought has traditionally viewed the Yahoos as a satiric representation of debased humanity, while taking the Houyhnhnms as representatives of Swift's ideals of rationality and order. The two races are thus interpreted as symbols of the dual nature of humanity, with Gulliver's misanthropy based on his perception of the flaws of human nature and the failure of humanity to develop its potential for reason, harmony, and order. Another critical position considers both the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to be the subject of satire, with the Yahoos representing the physical baseness of humans and the Houyhnhnms representing the fatuousness of the idea that humans will ever achieve a rationally-ordered existence. The ultimate satiric intent of the work to critics who accept this interpretation is that the only truly rational or enlightened beings in existence are not humans, but another species altogether. Since the 1950s, however, a variety of critics have tempered these readings by illuminating the complexity of purpose in the fourth voyage. The Houyhnhnms and Yahoos are now most often discussed as both satiric objects and representatives of the duality of human nature. The nature of Gulliver is another much-debated element of the Travels. Early critics generally viewed him as the mouthpiece of Swift. Modern critics, who recognize the subtlety of Swift's creation of Gulliver, have discredited that position. The most significant contemporary debate is concerned with Swift's intentions regarding the creation of Gulliver—whether he is meant to be a consistently realized character, a reliable narrator, or a satiric object whose opinions are the object of Swift's ridicule. This debate over the nature of Gulliver is important because critics seek to determine whether Gulliver is intended to be a man with definite character traits who undergoes a transformation, or an allegorical representative of humanity. In general, Gulliver is now considered a flexible persona manipulated by Swift to present a diversity of views or satirical situations and to indicate the complexity, the ultimate indefinability, of human nature. Many scholars have suggested that Gulliver's Travels has no ultimate meaning but to demand that readers regard humanity without the prejudices of pessimism or optimism, and accept human beings as a mixture of good and evil. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics of Swift were primarily interested in aspects of his character, although a few did actually discuss the meaning and merits of his work at length. The eighteenth-century critics were most concerned with depicting Swift's perceived immorality and misanthropy, and they often argued their case with the help of misrepresentations, or deliberate fabrications of facts. Swift's defenders, in attacking these critics, provided the first real criticism of Swift, in particular pointing out the misrepresentations of his life. Twentieth-century critics have been confronted with the task of sifting through the misconceptions to reevaluate Swift's total achievement. There are many psychological examinations of Swift's character; the psychoanalysts, however, have often been criticized for neglecting the literary or intellectual traditions of Swift's age when associating his works with supposed neurotic tendencies. Some commentators believed that psychoanalytic critics also make an obvious mistake when they identify Swift with his characters, assuming, for example, that Gulliver's comments reflect the opinions of his creator. Close textual analysis has demonstrated the complicated elements of Swift's works and proven that they do not always reflect his personal opinions, but are carefully written to reflect the opinions of Swift's created narrators. A master of simple yet vividly descriptive prose and of a style so direct that if often masks the complexity of his irony, Swift is praised for his ability to craft his satires entirely through the eyes of a created persona. He is now regarded as a complex though not mysterious man who created works of art which will permit no single interpretation. The massive amount of criticism devoted to Swift each year reflects his continued literary importance: his work is valuable not for any statement of ultimate meaning, but for its potential for raising questions in the mind of the reader.

William A. Eddy (essay date 1923)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Didactic Content of the 'Philosophic Voyage,'" in Gulliver's Travels: A Critical Study, Russell & Russell, 1963, pp. 40-50.

[In the essay below, first published in 1923 and reprinted in 1963, Eddy focuses on Swift's satiric, pessimistic, and misanthropic views in arguing the superiority of Gulliver's Travels over other contemporaneous texts employing the "voyage" motif]

Turning now from the story form of the Philosophic Voyage and from its interest as a romantic tale, let us examine the author's purpose in writing. In its fully developed form the Philosophic Voyage was always a vehicle for ideas, never an end in itself. Swift's avowed...

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Arthur E. Case (essay date 1945)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Geography and Chronology of Gulliver's Travels," in Four Essays on "Gulliver's Travels, " Peter Smith, 1958, pp. 50-67.

[In the following essay, first published in 1945 and reprinted in 1958, Case argues that many of the geographical and chronological inconsistencies in Gulliver's Travels are not due to Swift's carelessness, but instead are attributable to engraving and printing errors that remained uncorrected in later editions.]

Surprisingly little attention has been paid by editors and commentators to the geography and chronology of Gulliver's Travels. Sir Henry Craik, in his Selections from Swift, found the geography worth a...

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Roland M. Frye (essay date 1954)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Swift's Yahoo and the Christian Symbols for Sin," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XV, No. 2, April, 1954, pp. 201-17.

[Below, Frye discusses ways that Swift's characterization of the Yahoos reflects eighteenth-century Protestant dogma equating the misuse and abuse of reason with sin.]


Swift's treatment of the Yahoo in the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels has been the center of a prolonged critical controversy. Involving and epitomizing as it does the so-called "misanthropy" of Swift, this controversy has a significance which extends beyond the particular work in question, although that is significant enough in...

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David Oakleaf (essay date 1983-84)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Trompe l'Oeil': Gulliver and the Distortions of the Observing Eye," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 2, Winter 1983/84, pp. 166-80.

[In the following essay, Oakleaf examines how advancements in the capabilities of visual instruments in the eighteenth century destabilized notions of authoritative fixed points of view, causing philosophers, artists, and writers to reevaluate notions of one's ability to observe as well as the inherent bias of personal perspective.]

Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, is obviously an observer. The very title of his narrative appeals to popular interest in...

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Michael McKeon (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Parables of the Younger Son (II): Swift and the Containment of Desire," in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 338-56.

[In the following essay, McKeon discusses how Gulliver reveals Swift's pessimism concerning one's ability to transcend his or her political and social status because of predetermining cultural forces and inescapable material realities.]


For a brief time fellow servants of the Tory ministry, [Daniel] Defoe and Swift were never on close, or even cordial, terms. The cultural gulf between the two men, evident enough in their educational and religious differences,...

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J. A. Downie (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Political Significance of Gulliver's Travels," in Swift and His Contexts, edited by John Irwin Fischer, Herman J. Real and James Woolley, AMS Press, 1989, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Downie argues that critics have gone too far in making links between real events and people in British history and the contents of Gulliver's Travels. He suggests that Swift was writing a more general "parallel history" rather than a decipherable allegorical text intended to serve as an exposé.]

Seventy years have passed since Sir Charles Firth first made use of the title I have chosen for my essay. "Political allusions abound in the Travels,"...

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J. Paul Hunter (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gulliver's Travels and the Novel," in The Genres of "Gulliver's Travels," edited by Frederik N. Smith, University of Delaware Press, 1990, pp. 56-74.

[In the following essay, Hunter discusses the significance of Gulliver's Travels as a cutting-edge transitional text that uses satire to parody the subjective, first-person narrative, thus anticipating the rise of the novel as a narrative form.]

Gulliver's Travels is not a novel in any meaningful sense of that slippery term that I know, yet its generic status would be difficult to establish without having the novel in mind. Swift's masterpiece is, in fact, so conceptually dependent upon the...

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Christopher Fox (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Myth of Narcissus in Swift's Travels," in Reader Entrapment in Eighteenth-Century Literature, edited by Carl R. Kropf, AMS Press, 1992, pp. 89-108.

[In the following essay, Fox studies Swift's employment of the masturbation motif, (i.e. Gulliver's apprenticeship to "my good Master Bates") as a metaphor for excessive, myopic self-involvement, and as a retelling of the myth of Narcissus.]

This essay begins with a question posed by the late Frank Brady in 1978 and (more recently) by William Kinsley in 1982. What do we make of Gulliver's apprenticeship, at the opening of the Travels, to "my good Master Bates"? Brady noted that it "is easy to...

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Margaret Anne Doody (essay date 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Swift and Romance," in Walking Naboth's Vineyard: New Studies of Swift, edited by Christopher Fox and Brenda Tooley, University of Notre Dame Press, 1995, pp. 98-126.

[Below, Doody argues that Swift's Gulliver's Travels, like all significant Western texts, builds on and is connected to the entire Western literary canon.]

My topic may seem perverse. After all, in Gulliver's Travels, as we remember, the palace at Lilliput is set on fire "by the Carelessness of a Maid of Honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a Romance."1 We may take this, if we will, as a symptom of Swift's own distrust of novelistic narrative of all kinds; the...

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Denis Donoghue (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Brainwashing of Lemuel Gulliver," in The Southern Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 128-46.

[Below, Donoghue discusses ways in which Swift challenged Enlightenment thought and mocked Locke's "tabula rasa" conception of human consciousness, and instead viewed men as destined to be "brainwashed" by ineluctable cultural, political, and social forces.]

On October 28, 1726, the London printer Benjamin Motte issued the first volume of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver, "first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships." A few readers knew that the real author was Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Brown, Laura. "Reading Race and Gender: Jonathan Swift." In Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift, edited by Frank Palmeri, pp. 121–40. New York: G.K. Hall, 1993.

Examines the presence of both anti-imperialist and mysogynist, or anti-woman, sentiment in Gulliver's Travels.

Carnochan, W. B. "Some Roles of Lemuel Gulliver." Texas Studies in Literature and Language V, No. 4 (Winter 1964): 520–29.

Contends that Gulliver's Travels cannot be read as a psychological novel of personal transformation, arguing that the character of Gulliver displays change only when he consciously adopts a...

(The entire section is 428 words.)