Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels book cover
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Gulliver's Travels Themes

  • British Politics: Swift parodies British politics of his day by comparing the petty Lilliputian emperor to King George I, and the meaningless ribbons given to the emperor’s advisors to the titles offered by the king to his cronies. The culture clash experienced by Gulliver and the people he encounters leads to questions about the way of life in England. Swift uses the probing questions offered during these encounters to critique British government and argue that the British are not necessarily superior to others.
  • Arbitrary Nature of Human Mores: Gulliver’s straightforward description of the customs and traditions of the people he encounters reflects Swift’s belief in the arbitrary nature of many human mores.
  • Scientific Development: In his third voyage, Gulliver meets scientists who are performing ludicrous experiments with no practical application. Swift is critiquing the pursuit of science for its own sake rather than for solving practical human problems.

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Themes

(Novels for Students)

Human Condition
Gulliver's Travels is political satire in the form of an adventure novel. Swift creates several fantasy worlds to which his character, Lemuel Gulliver, travels, and where he learns that English institutions, such as the government and social structure, are not necessarily ideal.

Swift subscribed to the pre-Enlightenment, Protestant idea that man is by nature sinful, having fallen from perfection in the Garden of Eden. While man is a rational animal, his rationality is not always used for good. Therefore, one should not hold up rationality as the greatest human quality, as many Enlightenment thinkers did. It is the human condition, Swift felt, to sin: to be deceitful, cruel, selfish, materialistic, vain, foolish, and otherwise flawed. Rationality and institutions such as governments, churches, and social structures (schools, for example) exist to rein in man's tendency to sin, to keep him in line.

These beliefs of Swift's are evident throughout Gulliver's Travels. Naive Gulliver encounters his physical and moral inferiors, the Lilliputians, and sees that they have well-thought-out but illogical and even unethical ideas about justice, schooling children, and choosing political leaders. On the contrary, Gulliver's physical and moral superiors, the Brobdingnagians, do not suffer war or strife because their political and social structures are far superior to England's. Part III is a scathing indictment of how Enlightenment thinkers value rationality, science, discoveries, and new ideas over traditional, practical ways of doing things. Note, for example, that only Count Munodi's arm thrives because he does not embrace the Projectors' newfangled ways. Practicality and tradition, Swift believed, have great value. Finally, in Part IV, Swift contrasts the best that man was (in the Garden of Eden before the Fall), represented by the Houyhnhnm, with the debased state to which he can fall, represented by the Yahoo. While Swift suggests that we can never return to that state of perfection, because it is the human condition to sin, we can at least rise above our Yahoo-ness.

Politics
Swift was not only a clergyman but a political writer and activist, writing for the Tory paper at one point in his career and writing political pamphlets. He was deeply involved in the battles between the Whigs and Tories and active in trying to help England's oppression of Ireland. He and some of his friends were also the victims of petty politics. No wonder Swift chose to ridicule the worst aspects of politics in Gulliver's Travels.

Most of Swift's scathing political satire can be found in Part I, which mirrors the events in England in Swift's day. The petty Lilliputian emperor represents the worst kind of governor, pompous and too easily influenced by his counselors' selfish ambitions. He is also a stand-in for King George I, from his identification with the Whig party (the fictional Low Heels) to his betrayal of his friend and helper, Gulliver (who represents Swift and his...

(The entire section is 1,179 words.)