1. The Author and His Times
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland on November 30, 1667. Swift was raised by his uncle and graduated from Trinity College. Swift would later become the secretary for an influential member of the Whig party which began to influence his political views to lie on the Whig side. A few years later he became a parson for the Irish Church. As he worked as a chaplain, he began to write the satires that he would later become famous for. He was eventually criticized for his adherence to the Church of Ireland and was cast off by the Whig Party. He joined the Tories who soon fell out of political contention. As he lost his popularity, he returned to Ireland. It was during a trip to England, that Swift became acquaintances with such writers as Alexander Pope. They attended a literary club and it was during this time that Swift wrote the majority of Gulliver’s Travels. The book was a satire of several major aspects of English society and was originally not published in full because of several passages which were considered to be in bad taste. Gulliver’s Travels was influenced by the growing English empire and the folly of its monarchs as well as religion. The first printer that Swift talked to, refused to print the novel in full, out of a fear of being accused of treason.
2. Form, Structure, and Plot
The Novel consists of two letters to the reader and four additional sections of prose. These four sections are each divided into chapters. The novel is structured as a retelling of the speaker’s many voyages to new and uncharted lands. The story is told chronologically after brief background given by the speaker. The plot is simple and basically only follows the action of the speaker. As a novel based on a voyage, a critical facet of the plot is the change observed in the author once he returns from his trip.
3. Point of View
The point of view in the novel is strictly a first person point of view. It is written in the present tense as the action is described exactly as Gulliver experiences it. The point of view is that of Gulliver, the protagonist. Gulliver is somewhat strange as a narrator because he seems to have almost no emotion or opinions in his descriptions of his misadventures.
The characters in the novel are very flat and do not develop. The exception to this is Gulliver, the protagonist. He is the only character who grows at the end of the novel. The characters are not very believable, instead serving more as stereotypes or archetypes for some idea. We learn Gulliver has grown and changed his ideals by the end of the novel because of how he asks towards humans, showing he is changed by his time with the Houyhnhnms.
- Lemuel Gulliver- Gulliver was born into a middle class family in England and went to University to study medicine. He is most likely in his thirties. Gulliver is resourceful, learned, but yet, quite normal as well. Gulliver is basically an everyman. Gulliver enjoys adventure on the high seas but is also somewhat apathetic especially towards characters like his Wife, who is barely even mentioned in the novel. Gulliver functions as the protagonist of the novel and narrator as well.
“Accordingly, the next time I had the honour to see our emperor, I desired his general license to wait on the Blefuscudian monarch, which he was pleased to grant me, as I could perceive, in a very cold manner; but could not guess the reason, till I had a whisper from a certain person, "that Flimnap and Bolgolam had represented my intercourse with those ambassadors as a mark of disaffection;" from which I am sure my heart was wholly free. And this was the first time I began to conceive some imperfect idea of courts and ministers.” (1.5.7)
This quote shows the side of Gulliver that is naive. Gulliver is accused of treason for speaking with the rival king of the Liliputians but fails to recognize how this would have him lose favor with the Liliputians. While Gulliver is a learned man, he can be susceptible to bad judgements which one otherwise should not make.
“But when some confessed they owed their greatness and wealth to sodomy, or incest; others, to the prostituting of their own wives and daughters; others, to the betraying of their country or their prince; some, to poisoning; more to the perverting of justice, in order to destroy the innocent, I hope I may be pardoned, if these discoveries inclined me a little to abate of that profound veneration, which I am naturally apt to pay to persons of high rank, who ought to be treated with the utmost respect due to their sublime dignity, by us their inferiors.” (3.8.7)
This quote shows that Gulliver essentially would like to believe that politics are fair and there is no corruption in the government. Gulliver is disgusted to learn that many of history’s most powerful have achieved their power through underhanded means. This quote is also another example of how Gulliver is naive to how the world actually works. He shouldn’t be surprised to learn that politics isn’t honest.
- The Lilliputian Emperor- The Lilliputian Emperor is a few inches tall and of an unknown age. The character is meant to model the contemporary English monarch of the period, George I. The emperor is warmongering, vain, and susceptible to the opinions of his advisors. Swift heavily criticizes the monarchy throughout Gulliver’s time in Lilliput.
“When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office.” (1.3.2)
This quote illustrates the stupidity of the monarchy in how they choose officials. Instead of picking an official by qualifications or ability, the Lilliputian King chooses officials with a task completely unrelated to the job. This is meant to satirize the Monarchy and those associated with it.
“This open bold declaration of mine was so opposite to the schemes and politics of his imperial majesty, that [the Emperor of Lilliput] could never forgive me. He mentioned it in a very artful manner at council, where I was told that some of the wisest appeared, at least by their silence, to be of my opinion; but others, who were my secret enemies, could not forbear some expressions which, by a side-wind, reflected on me. [...] Of so little weight are the greatest services to princes, when put into the balance with a refusal to gratify their passions.” (1.5.5)
Although Gulliver protected Lilliput from an invasion, Gulliver’s refusal to enslave the rival Blefuscus, causes the Lilliputian emperor to become angry with Gulliver. This fickleness not only satirizes the monarch, but also reveals his character. The emperor is more concerned with blind loyalty than reason and lacks the basic morality to understand slavery is bad.
- The Master Horse- The Master Horse is the grey horse that Gulliver runs into when he arrives in the land of the Houyhnhnms. The Master Horse is very intelligent and is basically the embodiment of reason like the rest of his race. He is also portrayed to be a bit arrogant and smug however, somewhat undervaluing his apparent perfection.
“[The Master Horse] replied, "that I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not;" for they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood. "He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon water.” (4.3.4)
This quote helps reveal the character of the Master Horse. We learn that in Houyhnhnm society there is no word of lying because it just doesn’t happen. We also see the Master Horse’s refusal to believe that there is a land beyond, showing some closemindedness on the part of the Master Horse.
“The behaviour of the young colt and foal appeared very modest, and that of the master and mistress extremely cheerful and complaisant to their guest. The gray ordered me to stand by him; and much discourse passed between him and his friend concerning me, as I found by the stranger's often looking on me, and the frequent repetition of the word YAHOO” (4.1.5)
Here we see how civilized the master horse and his fellow Houyhnhnms are compared to the YAHOOS. The Master Horse and his people are portrayed to be very hospitable and pleasant to Gulliver once they learn that he is not a YAHOO. This helps show that the Houyhnhnms are sort of a utopian society.
The setting of Gulliver’s Travels is very diverse and features many lands that are discovered by Gulliver. The action of the novel takes place in the early 18th century, a time contemporary to the author. The action takes place in England and several fictional islands that Gulliver discovers. The environment is described by Gulliver who often describes the new lands in great detail such as how big the island is or how the roads are structured. The settings each have their own symbolism which is related to the people that inhabit the islands. Lilliput is symbolic of England as Blefuscu is symbolic of France, for example. Each island creates its own atmosphere which is related to the inhabitants of the island.
A major theme in the novel is the theme of Morality. Throughout the novel, Swift criticizes the immorality of many of the characters such the Lilliputians, the Laputans, and the Brobdingnabs. Gulliver is always surprised to learn of immorality in the novel as well. Gulliver learns a new morality from the Hounyhnmns which he tries to apply once he returns home. We also see how Swift is resolutely anti-war throughout the novel. Another major theme is the flaws in politics. Throughout the journeys of Gulliver, we are introduced to several forms of government, each with their own flaws. Especially criticized in the novel is the monarchal system of England and trivialities such as the Whig and Tory conflicts. Another theme featured in the novel is that of science and ingenuity. Each time Gulliver escapes from an island, he does so by his ingenuity. Swift also emphasizes the importance of science in the societies of the Laputans and the Brobdingnabs. The Brobdingnabs are brought up with a useful practical education based on science. In the Laputans, we see a society obsessed with math. Swift also shows that science isn’t everything when Gulliver receives a suit that fits badly, but was made with a mathematical formula.
Swift has a very terse and convoluted writing style. Many of his sentences rival the length of a paragraph. His prose is very involved and employs a sophisticated vocabulary. The style is absurd as well, as Swift makes sure to mention several details such as when Gulliver urinates, which are unimportant to the story, but absurd.
“I answered in a few words, but in the most submissive manner, lifting up my left hand, and both my eyes to the sun, as calling him for a witness; and being almost famished with hunger, having not eaten a morsel for some hours before I left the ship, I found the demands of nature so strong upon me, that I could not forbear showing my impatience (perhaps against the strict rules of decency) by putting my finger frequently to my mouth, to signify that I wanted food. The HURGO (for so they call a great lord, as I afterwards learnt) understood me very well. He descended from the stage, and commanded that several ladders should be applied to my sides, on which above a hundred of the inhabitants mounted and walked towards my mouth, laden with baskets full of meat, which had been provided and sent thither by the king's orders, upon the first intelligence he received of me. I observed there was the flesh of several animals, but could not distinguish them by the taste. There were shoulders, legs, and loins, shaped like those of mutton, and very well dressed, but smaller than the wings of a lark. I ate them by two or three at a mouthful, and took three loaves at a time, about the bigness of musket bullets.”
The language that the author employs here is very descriptive and neutral. Although the narrator is Gulliver, we get the sense that the narrator is a kind of impartial observer. The reader can also draw the conclusion that the author is from England by the word choice in the diction and the choice of subject in the similes, such as, the lark and musket bullets. The sentences are very long compound/complex sentences. The sentences are periodic as well. The syntax of the sentences displays the apathy that Gulliver is often criticized for, as a narrator. There is no excitement in his narration nor any sense of something out of the ordinary.
“The flying or floating island is exactly circular, its diameter 7837 yards, or about four miles and a half, and consequently contains ten thousand acres. It is three hundred yards thick. The bottom, or under surface, which appears to those who view it below, is one even regular plate of adamant, shooting up to the height of about two hundred yards. Above it lie the several minerals in their usual order, and over all is a coat of rich mould, ten or twelve feet deep. The declivity of the upper surface, from the circumference to the centre, is the natural cause why all the dews and rains, which fall upon the island, are conveyed in small rivulets toward the middle, where they are emptied into four large basins, each of about half a mile in circuit, and two hundred yards distant from the centre.”
The language in this passage is more formal and meant to convey the description of the island objectively. Swift simply states what the island is, while displaying no bias or opinion. The language is precise and clear, with no deviations from the goal of objectively describing the island. The sentences in this passage are more simple and are noticeably smaller than the typical sentences of the novel. The author is obviously an educated man, as we observe from the use of words such as “rivulets” and the authors knowledge of various forms of measurement.
“ I enjoyed perfect health of body, and tranquillity of mind; I did not feel the treachery or inconstancy of a friend, nor the injuries of a secret or open enemy. I had no occasion of bribing, flattering, or pimping, to procure the favour of any great man, or of his minion; I wanted no fence against fraud or oppression: here was neither physician to destroy my body, nor lawyer to ruin my fortune; no informer to watch my words and actions, or forge accusations against me for hire: here were no gibers, censurers, backbiters, pickpockets, highwaymen, housebreakers, attorneys, bawds, buffoons, gamesters, politicians, wits, splenetics, tedious talkers, controvertists, ravishers, murderers, robbers, virtuosos; no leaders, or followers, of party and faction; no encouragers to vice, by seducement or examples; no dungeon, axes, gibbets, whipping-posts, or pillories; no cheating shopkeepers or mechanics; no pride, vanity, or affectation; no fops, bullies, drunkards, strolling whores, or poxes; no ranting, lewd, expensive wives; no stupid, proud pedants; no importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing companions; no scoundrels raised from the dust upon the merit of their vices, or nobility thrown into it on account of their virtues; no lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters.”
The language in this passage is very informal, as Swift satirizes human society in contrast to the utopian Hounyhmns. Swift is exceedingly descriptive in proving his point that the society of the horses is better than that of humans. This passage actually consists of two sentences. The first is normal, while the second sentence is a long compound/complex sentence which the author uses almost as a laundry list. The sentence is strung together with a series of colons, semicolons, and commas which give the narrator a rambling effect in his speech.
The tone of the novel is most significantly satirical. The novel is a result of a contest to make a satirical novel, and achieves that tone very well. Throughout the novel, Swift makes it a point to criticize the society he is a part of. "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." (2.4.10) Here, Swift criticizes England with little abandon. Its little jabs like this that comprise the body of the book. Another example,"And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together." (2.7.10) In these lines Swift basically describes politicians as leeches on the people, because they are not productive for the good of the people, the way the Brobdingnab King thinks politicians should be. The dominant tone of the book is basically a critical satirical tone.
9. Memorable Quotes
. ". . . there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some philosophers have not maintained for truth." (3.6.15)
Gulliver comes to this conclusion after he experiences the land of Lagado, which is located below Laputa. There, although the people are starving and in poverty, the scientists at the academy focus their energy on scientific trivialities and engage in stupid pursuits instead of practical pursuits to help the people of the island. Swift is criticizing the stupidity of the some of the science practiced during his life, which has no practical use and will provide no gain for mankind, outside some obscure knowledge or fact.
. ". . . as to those filthy Yahoos, although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at that time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them, the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in that country." (4.2.6)
This line is key to Gulliver’s growth as a character once he lives in the land of the Hounyhnms. Gulliver comes to realize that the barbaric Yahoos, are really very similar to humans. Coming to this conclusion, Gulliver begins to hate humans for their savagery and their unreasonableness. After this revelation, Gulliver struggles to live with Humans once he returns home and spends most of his time with his horses.
"It was a custom introduced by this prince and his ministry . . . that after the court had decreed any cruel execution, either to gratify the monarch's resentment, or the malice of a favourite, the Emperor always made a speech to his whole Council expressing his great lenity and tenderness, as qualities known and confessed by all the world. This speech was immediately published through the kingdom; nor did any thing terrify the people so much as those encomiums on his Majesty's mercy; because it was observed, that the more these praises were enlarged and insisted on, the more inhuman was the punishment, and the sufferer more innocent." (1.7.7)
This quote is an example of one of the many times that Swift criticizes the institution of monarchy. The King of Lilliput has just sentenced Gulliver to a slow and painful death, and in accordance with tradition, gives a speech describing how lenient and kind he is as a monarch. Its passages like this that are meant to show monarchs as tyrants and are meant to directly criticize the English monarchy.
“Nothing angered and mortified me so much as the queen's dwarf; who being of the lowest stature that was ever in that country (for I verily think he was not full thirty feet high), became so insolent at seeing a creature so much beneath him, that he would always affect to swagger and look big as he passed by me in the queen's antechamber.” (2.3.11)
This quote is an example of how Swift satirizes relationships between Humans. Everyone picks on the Dwarf for being the smallest but when Gulliver arrives, being only a few inches tall, the Dwarf picks on Gulliver. Swift is trying to show that everyone will always find someone to pick on.
10. Additional Comments and Analysis
I didn’t dislike the novel but I also did not really like it. I thought the prose too terse and somewhat archaic for me to read enjoyably. I did enjoy the adventure of the story however and found the locales of the novel to be interesting. I was also able to understand a significant portion of the satire despite not being an English history buff. Time dulls the venom of Swift’s pen but I can easily understand how this book would have been considered very offensive during the early 18th century. I am unfortunately fairly ignorant to the literature of this time period, and this novel does not bring to mind any other work that I have previously read. A major insight I received from reading several reviews and essays was the question of whether or not Jonathan Swift is a misanthrope. Throughout the novel, Swift criticizes humans and all associated with humanity. This ranges from the human body to the human system of government. Several believed that this was due to Swift becoming disillusioned with society as a whole and was emotionally a misanthrope like Gulliver becomes at the end. Others believed that Swift wrote this novel as a warning and that he wished to make society better. I believe the latter school is thought is more correct. After reading several biographies of Swift, I doubt that he hated mankind. I think that he meant the novel to be more of a social commentary. He wanted to increase awareness to the flaws he saw in society, not only to criticize them, but so that collectively society could find ways to improve upon these flaws and create a more perfect society. I don’t think that the dominant philosophy of this novel is misanthropic, instead I believe it to hopeful, that with a little work maybe we too can become like the Hounyhmns, despite our major flaws. Gulliver’s society doesn’t learn anything from his voyages, but our society can, lending what I believe to be, a hopeful tone to the end of the novel.
Fox, Christopher. The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
"Gulliver's Travels." Gulliver's Travels. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.
"Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels & The Depravity of the Human Animal." The AntiNietzsche. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2013. Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.