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

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

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The use of irony in Gulliver's Travels


The use of irony in Gulliver's Travels serves to satirize human nature and societal norms. Swift employs irony to critique the pettiness, corruption, and foolishness of human institutions, contrasting Gulliver's naive perspective with the absurdities he encounters. This technique highlights the disparity between appearance and reality, revealing deeper truths about human behavior and societal flaws.

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How does Swift employ irony in Gulliver's Travels?

Irony occurs when there is some discrepancy between what we expect and what the reality is. We do not really expect Gulliver to end up in locations where human beings are so very different, physically, than the way we are or he is.  First, he arrives in Lilliput, where the humans are only about six inches tall. Then he gets stranded on Brobdingnag, where he is dwarfed by the natives' giant size. Ultimately, he travels to Houyhnhmland, where horses are civilized and run the society, and humanlike creatures are called Yahoos. They are totally uncivilized and used like livestock by the Houyhnhnms. We would certainly be unlikely to expect to see a society where the horses are in charge and use people like we use horses.

Further, Swift employs irony in Gulliver's third voyage to Lagado. There, he sees scholars and intellectuals working on such experiments as trying to extract sunshine from a cucumber or reanimate a dead dog by placing a bellows in his anus and pumping him full of air. We would hardly expect to see such absolutely ridiculous experiments being conducted by people who are like the most highly educated, the most intelligent among us.

In the end, Gulliver decides that the Houyhnhnms really are the master race, agreeing with them about the dirtiness and stupidity of humans. When he returns home, he cannot stand the smell of his wife and children, and he generally finds everyone he once thought so wonderful absolutely disgusting. After Gulliver has spent so long defending his home country, customs, and government to so many individuals, against so much criticism, we would not expect him to turn on his countrymen and women the way he does. This, too, is ironic.

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How does Gulliver's voyage to Houyhnhnms highlight Swift's irony in Gulliver's Travels?

The voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms shows the ultimate destination of the unfortunate Gulliver; through each prior voyage he has held steadfast to the morality and dignity of his homeland and his countrymen, although his ideals were challenged many times. However, when confronted with what seems a perfect Utopian society, one in which humans are animals and horses are intelligent and civilized, Gulliver's alliance breaks down at last. He cannot argue with the rational arguments of the Houyhnhnms and becomes a self-loathing Yahoo.

...I entered on a firm resolution never to return to humankind... in what I said of my countrymen, I extenuated their faults as much as I durst before so strict an examiner; and upon every article gave as favourable a turn as the matter would bear.  For, indeed, who is there alive that will not be swayed by his bias and partiality to the place of his birth?
(Swift, Gulliver's Travels,

The irony comes when Gulliver accepts that he is most at home in an inhuman society; on his return to England he can barely be in the same room with other humans. Throughout his travels, he always found the means and the need to return to his home life and land, both physically and mentally; at the end of the book, he is safely home, but trapped among creatures he abhors. Gulliver has completed his journeys and found the reason and purpose he sought, but at the cost of his link to human society. 

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