British Literature I
Gulliver’s Lost Identity
J.R.R. Tolkien once said, "Not all who wander are lost." It is to be assumed then that he was not talking about Capt. Lemuel Gulliver. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift is a narrative of the identity crisis. Captain Gulliver is indeed lost, both literally and metaphorically. He sets out on a voyage seeking a way to fulfill his identity as the financial supporter of his family, but once he leaves the structured society of England, his sense of identity is lost. At times, he does not even consider his family back home. He is misplaced in strange countries with strange inhabitants. In his misplacement, an interesting identity-void is created; Gulliver has no way to define himself as a foreigner in a new society. The need to belong overwhelms him, and he accepts any identity that is thrown his way, no matter how degrading it is. Through this void, Swift explores how society and politics systematically function to disassemble and reinvent the individual. In each of the countries Gulliver travels to, he is isolated from a sense of kinship and alienated from acceptance, the degree of which increases with each voyage. This alienation and isolation is surprisingly first apparent in his home country, England. In an unemotional tone he describes his family: "My Father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons... my father now and then sending me small sums of money..." (p. 1). Likewise, his attachment to his wife is just as dispassionately observed: "I married Mrs. Mary Burton, second daughter to Mr. Edmond Burton, Hosier, in Newgate-street..." (p. 2). Even in his professional life, Gulliver has no real connection. He comments, "But my good Master Bates dying in two years after, and I having few friends, my business began to fail; for my conscience would not suffer me to imitate the bad practice of too many among my brethren" (p. 2). Though he tries to connect to society by participating in a respectable profession, he remains alone. This alienation and isolation is a minor theme throughout his voyages; it is the first step in the systematic approach Swift takes towards dealing with the broader theme of identity. In each of the cultures Gulliver encounters, this sense of alone-ness increases. In Lilliput and Brobdingnag, for example, Gulliver is even more marginalized from society by their fear of his physical appearance - he is a giant compared to the six-inch Lilliputians and an insect to the sixty-foot tall Brobdingnags. He is constantly aware of his differences from his hosts, creating a conscious sense of alienation. In the articles of his freedom, the Lilliputians point out: "they concluded from the similarity of their bodies, that mine must contain at least 1728 of theirs, and consequently would require as much food as was necessary to support that number of Lilliputians" (p. 22). His differences isolate him from the Lilliputian society; he physically does not fit anywhere, viewing their country as a sort of "theatre" (p. 9). His senses are also different, for he can see much further away than the Lilliputians, and likewise they can see much nearer than he. In Brobdingnag, he has to convince his master that he is not a lowly animal. The Brobdingnagian reaction to him highlights their repulsion of his differences: "The farmer by this time was convinced I must be a rational creature... Then he called his wife, and shewed me to her, but she screamed and ran back as women in England do at the sight of a toad or a spider" (p. 58). Gulliver is different from the native inhabitants of Lilliput and Brobdingnag and is alienated as such. In his voyages to Laputa and Houyhnhnm, Gulliver's societal isolation drastically increases, until he reaches the apex with the Houyhnhnms. In both countries he is openly condescended for both his physical and his intellectual "limitations," and because of this condescension he is...
Cited: Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver 's Travels. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
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