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.
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 might take the whole book as a missile aimed with frightening accuracy at humankind’s conception of its own decency and dignity. This is achieved in the first part by reducing a man to a pompous little creature six inches tall and essentially by the same means in the second part, except that...
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here it is Gulliver and his fellow countrymen (including the reader) who are made ridiculous through diminutive stature. In the third part, all pretensions to human knowledge, progress, and achievement are systematically reduced to absurdity in the Grand Academy of Lagado. The values expressed here are confirmed when the dead are conjured up for Gulliver in Glubbdubdrib, where humanity is shown to have declined in every respect since the classical era. Brutus names the six greatest men in history as “his ancestor Junius, Socrates, Epaminondas, Cato the Younger, Sir Thomas More and himself,” meaning that only one of them lived in the modern era at all, and he has been dead for almost two hundred years. In Luggnagg, life itself is disparaged through the pathetic figures of thestruldbrugs.
All these negative visions have the power of absolute conviction, but when it comes to the Houyhnhnms, Swift’s intention is much less clear. Can he really conceive of nothing better in terms of an ideal society than some horses agreeing with each other about the nature of wisdom and virtue? Is he making a nihilist point about the impossibility of even imagining a society in which one might want to live? Is the creator of the Houyhnhnms any more enamored of them than most readers have been?
If these questions cannot definitively be answered, perhaps the most productive way to address them is to look to the other three parts of the book for comparison. The Lilliputians are contemptible for several reasons. Chief among these are treachery, pride, and a propensity for warmongering. These same faults are the ones the king of Brobdingnag (regarded by Gulliver as the wisest character in the book except for the Houyhnhnms) singles out for censure in Gulliver’s countrymen. The scholars of Laputa and Lagado are marked by their preference for abstraction over practicality—even, one might say, by their intellectual curiosity. This is less obviously a fault than those castigated in parts 1 and 2, which is why the satire in part 3 is less successful and seems more mean-spirited than it is in the earlier books.
The Houyhnhnms are marked precisely by the absence of the faults castigated in the first three books. They are so perfectly honest that they do not even understand the concept of lying, are entirely without pride, and remain completely innocent of the arts of warfare. They are also without scientific curiosity, meaning that their society is remarkably primitive on a technical level. They do not appear to have invented the wheel and have no knowledge of other societies or nations. They do not even know what a boat is. Swift’s satirical vision is so powerful and convincing at least in part because it is so entirely negative. When he suggests what a utopian society might be like, his idea is to present beings who are notable mainly by the absence of the particular faults he has excoriated so fiercely in the first three quarters of the book. Aside from this lack of vices, they are quite purposeless and do nothing but wait calmly and reasonably for death. In this, they closely resemble the Roman Stoics whom Swift most admired (and with whom Gulliver converses on the island of Glubbdubdrib). The ultimate good is quietism, devoid of desire or hope or any emotion at all.