Gulliver's Travels (Ben Lee)

Gulliver's Travels is what is nearly universally considered the 18th century satirist, Jonathan Swift's, most famous and prolific work. Originally published in 1726 as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships and then revised in 1735. It has since become a classic work of English literature and staple of the satirical style.

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Jonathan Swift

Born on November 30th, 1667 in Dublin, Jonathan Swift was the second child of Jonathan Swift and Abigail Erick. Raised primarily by his father, he attended Dublin University where he received his B.A. in 1686. He was forced to leave school for England during the Glorious Revolution in 1688. In England he worked as a secretary for Sir William Temple, an essayist and statesman. Temple is most well known for his negotiations in the Triple Alliance of 1668 and his work Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands. In an Oxford Press review, Henry Kamen writes that Temple's ideas were, "down to earth and common-sensical," he further adds, "Temple had simpler ideas. Free immigration, free thought and a sound Bank were enough to explain it all." After three years of service, Temple sent Swift to London to try and convince the King of an idea for triennial Parliaments. Upon returning to Temple he earned his M.A. from Hertford College, Oxford in 1692.

Swift left Temple for several years. During this time he contracted Ménière's disease, became a priest, and had his marriage proposal declined. He returned to Temple in 1696. In 1702, he earned his Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College. His professional writing career began in 1704 when he published A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. As his reputation grew he befrienexternal image Jervas-JonathanSwift.jpgded some of the most prominent figures in the English literary world: Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot (these four men later went on to form the Martinus Scriblerus Club).

Swift tried in vain to advise the Whig administration. He eventually sided with the Torys and became one of its most important members. Before the eventual fall of the Tory government in 1714, Swift wished to retire from his political career and become a minister in England. However, Queen Anne had grown to dislike Swift and he was denied. With the fall of the Torys he moved back to Ireland in essence as an exile.

Upon his return, Swift began writing some of his most famous works. It was during this period when he published: Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), Drapier's Letters (1724), and A Modest Proposal (1729). Gulliver's Travels was secretly published during one of his trips to England under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver in 1726. It was a enormous success. As John Gay put it, ""it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery."

Swifts lifelong friend and secret wife, Esther Johnson, died on January 28th, 1728. Swift almost immediately fell permanently ill. His writings took a dark turn as well. Death became a prominent topic, evidenced in his works The Death of Mrs. Johnson (1729) and his self-written obituary, Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift. He suffered a stroke in 1742 and lost his ability to speak. Swift was pronounced insane by even his closest colleagues. He died October 19th 1745. (Jaffe, 1890. Wikipedia)

Plot Summary


Gulliver's first voyage gone awry finds him in the nation of Lilliput where the people are one-twelfth the size of normal humans. They happen upon a sleeping Gulliver and he becomes their willing prisoner. After gaining their trust, Gulliver is freed and begins life in the tiny land. He aids them in their constant war (over egg cracking) against the similarly tiny nation of Belfuscu and becomes a national hero. However, opinion of him sours when he uses his urine to save the queen and palace from a fire. He is sentenced to being blinded for this offense. He escapes to Belfuscu where he finds a boat and sails home.


Some time passes and we find Gulliver on another voyage. His ship is forced to land during a storm and Gulliver wonders off. He returns to see his shipmates sailing away from a 72-foot giant. He flees inland but is soon spotted by a giant who places Gulliver in his coat pocket similarly to how he used to carry Lilliputians. He is taken care of by a farmers daughter but is displayed as a novelty of sorts. The queen of Brobdingnag hears of his show and takes an interest in him. The queen takes him as a pet. During his time with the queen he is amazed by the level of ignorance the giants live in. Ironically, it becomes obvious to the reader than Gulliver is the truly ignorant one and that he is simply captivated by his own ethos. During a trip to the ocean, Gulliver's box is seized by a seagull and is dropped into the sea. Gulliver is soon found by some sailors and returns home.


Gulliver's ship is attacked and marooned by pirates on a small island. Gulliver is rescued by the floating island of Laputa. It's inhabitants are incredibly intelligent and cultured but lack common sense. They conduct wild experiments with little thought to their practical value. He joins a trader who then takes him to Japan with him. Gulliver returns home from there.

The Land of the Houyhnhnms

In his final adventure Gulliver is the captain of a mutinous ship. He is abandoned on an island by his crew and left to die. He comes across a wild looking man we later learn are called Yahoos (a word that his since entered the vernacular because of GT). He meets the ruling race of the island, the Houyhnhnms. Houyhnhnms are horses who have developed a language and community that rules over the mindless Yahoos. Gulliver is swept up in the ideology of the horses and wishes that he could be one of them. The Houyhnhnms decide that Gulliver is a taint on their society and he is exiled. He is unwillingly taken by a Portuguese ship and returns home to England.

Critical Response

Gulliver's travels is a landmark work of English literature. It is certainly among the greatest works of political satire of all time. The influence Swift had upon modern political satire (e.g. The Onion, The Daily Show, etc) is undeniable. There even exists a sub genre of satire referred to as Swiftian Satire in reference Jonathan Swift. George Orwell writes that he does not agree with many of Swifts ideas, but if he had to select six books to remain while the rest were destroyed he, "would certainly put Gulliver's Travels among them" (Orwell, 1950).

George Orwell writes that Gulliver is not only a character through which the stories are told, but also Swift himself. He cites specifically the example of Gulliver urinating on the Palace to save the queen as a key example of this. Gulliver has done the royal family a great service but instead of being rewarded, is punished. Swift experienced a similar injustice with his Tale of a Tub. Accord to Orwell, the book, "scarifies the Dissenters and still more the Catholics while leaving the Established Church alone." But instead of being rewarded, Swift was virtually exiled from England. Orwell is repulsed by Swift's ethos but is attracted to the book. He says that this is an example of the innate link humans have between disgust and fascination. He concludes his review by saying that Swifts, "world-view which only just passes the test of sanity," is good enough to create a great work of art (Orwell, 1950).

Ronald Paulson expounds similarly on Gulliver's urination. He says Gulliver urinating to put out the fire was symbolic of Swift putting out the, “conflagration of radical religious sects” by protesting their corruption. He says Queen Ann should have thanked Swift for his support of the English Church but rather she was scandalized much the same as the Lilliputian Queen (Paulson, 1996),

Robert Markley wrote in his essay for the Modern Language Quarterly about the seldom discussed 3rd part of Gulliver’s Travels. It is often overlooked because it is an excursion to a Japanese land and many critics tend to see it as out of place. It is sandwiched between two books criticizing European (especially Dutch) expansion, exploration, and colonialism so it is often misunderstood. The book is interpreted by many as a critcism of the Royal Society, but Markley sees it as much more. Markley says Swift uses the East Asian lens as another way to view the shortcomings of the prevailing Eurocentric viewpoint of the world (Markley, 2004).

Chloe Houston gives her take on Utopian writing through the lens of Gulliver's Travels. She says that the Utopian mode of discourse has evolved from the days of Thomas More's Utopia. Gulliver's Travels reminds us of the "ambiguity and irony" of the genre. She delves into the commonly asked question of how to classify Gulliver's Travels. She argues that it is unique because its "self-reflexive utopianism is a feature of the text's satirical nature; the utopian mode is satirised through use of the utopian form and by attacks upon features common to utopian fiction." (Houston, 2007)

Swift's work has been leveled with charges of sexism as well. Felicity Nussbaum suggests that Gulliver is a sexist but as Vaughan Hart puts it in his article Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, "Gulliver is surely less misogynist than misanthrope, repulsed as he is by his own image and by the "absurd Vice" of pride common enough in both sexes."

Original Analysis

I found that after reading most of the literary speculation on the book, I tend to agree with most of it. One thing that makes it difficult when reading Swift, is that historical perspective is important. I tried to inform myself about the politics of the time but this is virtually impossible. Too much of the humor depends on being a part of the public consensus and understanding the atmosphere of the society. Often the satire will go right over your head while you read so agreeing with the criticism is easy. I feel however that the book has lost some of its luster over time. As the political relevance becomes more and more out of date, the book loses its appeal to the common reader; It becomes more fantasy than satire. However, one thing that does remain is the utopian/dystopian elements of the book. Rather than a warning or commentary on contemporary society of some of the more prominent -topia style works (1984, Handmaid's Tale, etc.), Swifts probes the intricacies of the human psyche. George Orwell's comment on keeping Gulliver's Travels over nearly all other books, speaks volumes about not only the work itself but also the longevity of Swift's ideas.

From the triviality of the Laputians or the Lilliputians to the morality of the Brobdingnagians to the wisdom of the Houyhnhnms, Swift delves into the inner workings of the human mind. Physical form is used categorically to represent types of human. This generalization does tend to oversimplify things but Swift seems well aware of this. Swift models his characters as "stock" characters. Rather than trying to capture the entire identity of humanity he analyzes four different human natures through the eyes of Gulliver. Orwell points out in his criticism that Gulliver is a stock character as well. Rather than being representative of merely your average man, Gulliver is amorphous. His character adapts to the people of the land. This culminates in his complete removal from society and the ravaging of the original character.

The Lilliputians are obsessed with the absurd. Custom and order are preeminent in the society. Despite suggestions of practicality or logic, the traditional order of things must be maintained. They do offer some ideas that Swift seems to agree with; punishing fraud harsher than theft for example. The Lilliputians are the traditionalists of society who refuse to accept anything outside of their natural order.

The giants of Brobdingnagians appear to be the most utopian of the lands Gulliver visits. They have a heightened perception of morality that is lost on Gulliver. He assumes because of their gargantuan size that they are ignorant and that he is morally and mentally superior. Rather than Gulliver exposing the flaws of the Giants, they expose the flaws in him and Europe as a whole. The giants are ugly on the outside but shining epitomes of virtue on the inside. The giants are the overlooked people in society who can perhaps benefit us the greatest.

The Laputans are consumed by the pursuit for knowledge. Unfortunately they lack any interest for the practical. Similar to the Lilliputians, they are obsessed with an ideology of enlightenment that nonetheless blinds them to their own essential needs. The Laputans are the theological purists who are too consumed by their own self-righteousness to identify and pursue constructive ideas.

The Houyhnhnms are simple, rational beings. They exist in, what Gulliver believes to be, a true utopia. They put the community before the individual, dishonesty has been eliminated, and they have found inner peace. However, one laments the simplicity and boredom of such a society. The Houyhnhnms are the people whom have found peace with the world yet such a lifestyle is the epitome of mundane.

Gulliver's Travels is compared to the works of German writer Franz Kafka. Having read several of Kafka's works, I agree that some of the ideas are indeed very similar. Kafka was a perpetually depressed man who's writings often portrayed doomed characters. Despair and helplessness are among some of his most common themes. Upon completing Gulliver's Travels, I experienced a peculiar emptiness. For what is supposed to be a comedic masterpiece, I found myself left with a rather depressed state of mind. Similarly, after reading The Metamorphosis by Kafka I felt the same emptiness. The ending of Gulliver's Travels is anything but uplifting but it attempts to disguise this with a thin veneer of humor and irony. The Metamorphosis is the story of a man transformed into a enormous beetle and who's existence summarily disappears with his human body. After his death, his family, who had kept him locked in his bedroom, briefly mourn before rejoicing the prospect of finding their daughter a husband. With this story, Kafka takes a jab at humanities capacity to care for a person beyond his practical use. I feel this nihilist attitude permeates the foundations of both novels. Gulliver's life before his voyages became inconsequential after his voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms. Even after his "enlightenment" he lives a life of speaking to animals who cannot understand him. What is the purpose of Gulliver's life or of his voyages as a whole? Despite being confronted with the flaws and weakness of humanity, Gulliver does not mentally grow. Rather, he rejects reality and delves into a world of isolation. His continued existence is trivial.

Major Themes

Feasibility of a Utopia - Swift provides us with five different societies to psycho-analyze. Obviously Brobdingnag or the Land of the Houyhnhnms are morally superior. Morality and virtue seem to be Swift's greatest qualms with his European society. Too much emphasis is placed on tradition (Lilliput) and trivial knowledge (Laputa) while solutions to violence (Brobdingnag) and vice (Houyhnhnms) are ignored. Despite some being superior to the others, Swift does not present us with a Utopia. Perhaps this is because he was unable to form one without eliminating a crucial aspect of humanity that he deemed too important to leave out. Instead he writes of flawed societies. It may be presumptuous to assume that Swift could not create a utopia but it seems implied that a true utopia does not exist.

Alienation - Gulliver struggles throughout the novel to find a society where he can fit. Even when he returns to England he quickly returns to the sea suggesting no desire to stay. In all of the lands he visits he is clearly out of place because of either physical or ideological differences. Ironically he does find, what he believes to be, a home in the Land of the Houyhnhnms. The society where he believes he fits best is the one where he truly is an alien. This grim reality is fundamentally Kafka.

Morality - Morality is used throughout the novel as a justification. In Lilliput, the egg issue has gone beyond an issue of tradition. It is a biblical moral issue that has sundered the country and led to constant warfare. The Houyhnhnms also use their moral superiority to the Yahoos to justify their violence. In Brobdingnag the people feel they are justified in overthrowing the king who we find to be morally sound through his conversations with Gulliver. Similarly in Laputa, the people on the floating isle feel as if they can subjugate the land-dwelling people because they work in the name of knowledge. Of course it is clear to Gulliver and the reader that the elite of Laputa are the vile ones. In every instance delusions of morality have blinded the people to what is actually morale.

Theatrical Adaptations

Gulliver's Travels has undergone a number of film, radio, and television adaptations. They often go generally unnoticed by the popular media and none has had the impact of the novel itself. One of the few exceptions to the medias ignorance is the most recent television adaptation which aired in 1996. The television mini-series starred Cheers' Ted Danson as Gulliver and included all four of the original voyages (other "literary abridgments" have been written). In this film, Gulliver has returned home to England but the effects from his voyages eventually land him in an insane asylum. It is darker than Gulliver's objectively light-hearted narration but it gets at some of the undertones of the novel that many people miss. It is implied throughout the movie that Gulliver is clearly insane and that he has imagined everything. This idea in particular was highly interesting and had not occurred to me while reading. The series offers a different viewpoint on the entire story and brings up some interesting points on Swifts overarching message.


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