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Textual Analysis of Gulliver's Travels

By GeminiMarshdevil Nov 17, 2013 1211 Words
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23 October 2013

“Analysis of Gulliver’s Travels”

On the surface Gulliver's Travels seems like a simple, almost Grimm-like bedtime fairy tale about a giant and some weird characters. In fact, most of its readers would even agree with that summary, but the truth is Gulliver's Travels is very much a shrewd satirical assault on a multitude of levels. From British political systems to man's deeply held beliefs to power and higher reasoning. Swift ruthlessly satirizes all highly coveted British morals, Standards of ethics and pretensions of goodwill, beckoning the reader to partake of his reasoning with a smile.

The narrative in Gulliver’s Travels starts off much like any other traveling records from his time. A description of Gulliver’s youth following his education lends background information, establishing Gulliver’s status in English society, and making the novel resemble a true to life account of his travels at sea. Imitating the style of a then standard travelogue all throughout deepens the satire. In his book, Swift creates a series of expectations in the reader's mind, primarily a short-lived understanding that Gulliver’s observations are true. Further in the novel, Swift makes use of the travelogue style to exaggerate the foolishness and raw absurdity of the people and places in which Gulliver comes in contact with. A wondrous fantastic style, one which made no attempt at truthfulness, accuracy, or maintained any amount of traditional writing, which normally would have degraded the satire by marking it irrelevant. However the serious, factual, reportorial style in Gulliver’s Travels manages to do the opposite.

Not particularly shocked, Gulliver’s surprise at discovering the Lilliputians sets the pace for the satire. This initial encounter being only the first of many throughout the novel in which we are beckoned to accept Gulliver’s amazing experiences as mere occasional oddities but otherwise business as usual. Witnessing the world through Gulliver’s experiences, we adopt, if only briefly, Gulliver’s view of the world. But at the same time, we are allowed to step back and remember that the Lilliputians are still nothing but figment derived from Swift’s imagination. The periods between these stances, the gullible Gulliver and the skeptical reader, are where the narrative’s multitudes of meaning are formed. On one level, we see a true-to-life tale of adventure; on another level, an entirely fictional tale, and on another, transcending the first two and precisely where Swift’s original intention lie, a satirical excremental critique of Western pretensions on goodwill and rationality.

Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels in a time parallel with Europe as the world’s dominant super power, and where England, regardless of its small size, was quickly rising with power thanks to its formidable naval fleet. England’s ever growing militaristic and economical power brought it into contact with a vast variety of never before seen places, plants, animals, and things. The greatest and significant change wrought in by the European expansion was with the previously unknown encountered peoples, like the native Americans, which had radically differing models of existence. The miniature Lilliputians can be seen as incarnation of these cultural differences. Swift’s choice in physical size as the method of manifesting these cultural differences has a series of drastic consequences. Mainly the consequences being the radical power differential betwixt Gulliver and the imprisoning Lilliputian nation. His size and strength placed Gulliver in a very unique position within the Lilliputian hierarchy which lent him capabilities and obligations beyond the capabilities of the Lilliputians who kept him prisoner.

Despite Gulliver’s supposed fear of the Lilliputians, his condescension through his willingness in being held prisoner by them, is still made plainly visible. Gulliver and the Lilliputians power differential possibly represent England’s position in respect to the people in the process of being newly colonized. It is possibly a way in which Swift reveals the importance of might in a society presumably guided by right, or it may simply be a way Swift uses to destabilize humanity’s position at the center of the universe via demonstration that size, power, and significance are all relative. Although the Lilliputians are humorously and pitifully small in Gulliver’s eyes, the Lilliputians are unwilling to see themselves in that way; rather, thinking of themselves as average and Gulliver as a gigantic freak.

Gulliver, learning about Lilliputian culture throughout these first moments, and the great differences in size, strength and ideals betwixt him and the Lilliputians are emphasized by a series of examples, most of which are direct satires of British government. For instance, Lilliputian officials are chosen through their skill at rope-dancing, which the Lilliputians see as absolutely relevant but Gulliver realizes is ridiculous, meaningless and arbitrary. Then the would-be officials are literally forced to jump through hoops so they may qualify for their positions. Clearly, Swift intended us to understand these episodes as satire of England’s political system of appointments and infer that England’s political system is similarly ridiculous and arbitrary. Gulliver, however, never directly implies that he finds the Lilliputians absurd. Throughout the novel, Gulliver tends to be entirely sympathetic with his descriptions of those cultures he visits, never criticizing or seeing any aspect of theirs as funny, no matter how ludicrous the foreign customs may seem to us. Neither does Gulliver point out the parallels between the absurd practices observed in his travels and the equally absurd customs of Europe. Instead, Swift lets us infer all the satire based on differences between how things seem to us and how they appeared to Gulliver.

The key difference in size amidst Gulliver and the Lilliputians adds emphasis to the significance of physical power, a recurring theme throughout the novel. Over time, Gulliver begins earning the Lilliputians’ trust, though clearly unnecessary; regardless of their threats, Gulliver could have crushed the entire Lilliputian nation by simply walking carelessly. The humor is found in the Lilliputians’ view of their situation, despite the clear evidence right in their faces, they never realize their own insignificance. They bind Gulliver and keep him bound, believing they have control over him, even though in truth he could have destroyed his bindings effortlessly. Its in this way that Swift satirizes the whole of humanity’s claim to power and any hopes of significance.

It is within these chapters that Swift plays with language in such a way that again makes fun of humanity’s beliefs in our own self-importance. When the Lilliputians begin drawing up the inventory of Gulliver’s possessions, the whole endeavor is handled as if it were a tremendously serious matter of state. The disparity in the tone of the inventory, which is provided in the Lilliputians’ own words, and the complete triviality in Gulliver’s possessions which are being inventoried, serves as a mockery to all peoples who carry themselves too seriously. Equally, the official papers that Gulliver is made to sign in order to attain his freedom are expressed in formal, self-important meaningless language. The document being nothing but a trivial, absurd, self-contradictory order. Each line emphasizing the fact that Gulliver is so strong that, had he desired to, he could very easily violate every article without concern for his own safety or retribution.

Works Sited
Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver's Travels”.
Online-literature. Web. 26 October 2013.

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