Gulliver's Travels Analysis
by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels book cover
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Gulliver's Travels Analysis

  • Jonathan Swift claimed to have written Gulliver’s Travels on “a great foundation of Misanthropy” in an attempt “to vex the world.” His relentless satire of humanity’s failings became a runaway bestseller.
  • Gulliver is an unreliable narrator who repeatedly defends the truth of his fantastical stories. As the novel progresses, he takes on more and more of Swift’s own misanthropic views.
  • While most of the societies Gulliver encounters are defined by their obvious flaws, Houyhnhnm society is defined almost exclusively by the absence of these flaws. Through the stoic, aimless Houyhnhnms, Swift seems to present quietism as the only goal worth striving for.

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Jonathan Swift famously told his friend Alexander Pope that he had written Gulliver’s Travels “to vex the world rather than to divert it.” These words, along with the assertion that the satire was based on “a great foundation of Misanthropy,” occur in a letter Swift wrote in 1725, the year before the book was published, while he was still correcting the proofs. He could not have known that this vexing, misanthropic satire would quickly become a runaway bestseller, delighting the very people it condemned, or that Bowdlerized versions of it would be the staple fare of Victorian nurseries long after his death.

By the time he came to write Gulliver’s Travels in the 1720s, Swift was a disappointed man. He had always been active in politics and moved in the inner circles of the government when Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, was the queen’s first minister. On this basis, he hoped for an English bishopric, but he failed to achieve this, largely due to the animosity of Queen Anne herself. Although Gulliver’s Travels is clearly a satire on humanity in general, there is a bitter personal animus behind Swift’s constant harping on the untrustworthy and devious natures of ministers, courtiers, and princes.

Lemuel Gulliver is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. He is a sailor telling tall tales, and his name suggests that he is either a gullible man himself or is gulling the reader with his pretense of wide-eyed innocence. His protestations of absolute accuracy in the final chapter, along with his censure of all those who are less than scrupulously honest in writing about their travels, savor of protesting too much. So, too, do his vigorous assertions of how the captains who brought him back to Europe came to believe his incredible stories.

A first-person narrative always runs the risk of confusion between the narrator and the author. Given that Swift often described himself as a misanthrope (though by no means such a universal one as he pretended in his writing), it appears that Gulliver becomes more like his creator, at least in outlook, as the story progresses. The final book, however, has presented both critics and readers with a puzzle in this respect. Swift has an obvious gift for satire of a particularly savage and ferocious variety. His exposure of humanity’s faults is coruscating and relentless. However, when he comes to express a positive vision, the result is even less appealing than is commonly the case with utopias. It certainly seems as though Gulliver is serious in his admiration for the Houyhnhnms, but is Swift equally sincere? The Houyhnhnms have bored most readers of Gulliver’s Travels with their long discussions of reason and virtue, and the complete lack of joy, love, purpose, or excitement in their lives. Gulliver says that the Houyhnhnms write excellent poetry, but it is very difficult to imagine any possible subject for their verse. It is quite clear that they would regard such figures as Romeo, Juliet, Macbeth, and Othello as absurd and irrational. All the great themes of literature are foreign to their conception of life. Presumably, their poetry is didactic verse on how to behave virtuously and reasonably.

It is clear that Swift shares Gulliver’s disgust at the Yahoos and, particularly, at the vice of human pride. One...

(The entire section is 1,164 words.)