Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, November 30, 1667, of Anglo-Irish parents. He was educated in Ireland and graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with difficulty because he refused to study logic. His education at Kilkenny School and Trinity was financed by a generous uncle, casting Swift in the uncomfortable role of a poor dependent. This condition exaggerated his overbearing pride and later prevented him from easily finding contentment. In most cases he was his own worst enemy, satisfying first his need to speak out and antagonize, rather than placate, those who were in positions to help him.
Gulliver’s Travels relates the adventures of Lemuel Gulliver, an English surgeon, who, in the first quarter of the 18th century, embarks on four voyages to unknown parts of the world. In each case, events beyond his control interrupt his progress: a storm at sea, the cowardice of his shipmates, the cruelty of pirates, and the treachery of his own sailors. He is stranded in Lilliput, a land of very small people; in Brobdingnag, a land of giants; in Laputa, Balninarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan, lands of scientific speculation and magic; and finally in the land of the Houyhnhnms, where degenerate humans serve as beasts of burden for a master race of horses.
During Gulliver’s stay in Lilliput, the work’s most popular section, Swift depicts a common childhood fantasy-a world proportioned for very small people, the tallest being only about six inches. In Lilliput a child’s fascination with dolls or toy soldiers comes to life as Gulliver plays the role of benevolent giant for a little people who have exaggerated ideas about their self-importance. In contrast, when Gulliver reaches the land of Brobdingnag he finds himself surrounded by a race of giants, making him feel like a Lilliputian. In both worlds, Gulliver finds that he must use his wits to survive. Not only does he manage to feed, clothe, and shelter himself-all of which, considering the circumstances, require ingenuity and courage-but he also learns the languages and customs and turns them to his advantage.
The character who merits thorough discussion is Lemuel Gulliver. In many ways Gulliver is an average human being with a profession (surgeon), a family, and a desire to be comfortable and secure. He is middle-class with no special ambitions that separate him from his contemporaries. In many ways he is an ordinary person who we would hardly expect to experience the adventures described. In other respects, Gulliver is not so typical. His acute curiosity leads him to discover much more about the societies he encounters than most travelers would. He measures, weighs, scrutinizes, and compares, giving the reader an accurate picture of all that he sees. He enjoys sitting for hours learning the customs and procedures of other societies, and he is just as willing to describe his own to a curious listener.
Swift’s masterful use of satire is what has made Gulliver’s Travels the delightfully enduring work that it is. Satire has the advantage of allowing the readers to feel that the ridicule is aimed at everyone but themselves. What normally would be tedious and uncomfortable as a lesson can be enjoyable and satisfying when dished out as satire. This is not to say that Gulliver’s Travels is a completely comfortable literary work; readers will most likely be disturbed when they see their own flaws subject to ridicule. Swift’s use of the literary genre of a travelogue is well suited to his satirical observations. Travel accounts were especially popular during the 18th century when parts of the world were still unexplored and could conceivably be inhabited by the exotic creatures and cultures that Gulliver encounters. Thus, Swift was free to intermingle reality, fantasy, and satire with relative impunity.
Since any attack on human nature can be disturbing, some readers may have problems with Swift’s pessimistic view of humankind. Only a few admirable examples of humanity are presented in Gulliver’s Travels, and these characters do not receive any kind of recognition or praise from Gulliver. The Brobdingnagian king is kind and sensible, but Gulliver scorns his understanding. The people of Laputa and Balnibarbi, and especially Gulliver’s host in Lagado, are friendly, kind and generous, but Gulliver seems unaware that they are acting in an admirable manner. Don Pedro de Mendez, the kindest and most generous of all the characters, at best is tolerated by Gulliver. The Houyhnhnms, whom he admires beyond all reason, seem to us lifeless, ruled only by cold reason. Gulliver himself becomes an object of our scorn as he turns away from his fellow man. The reader, then, is left with a most depressing view of humankind.
1. What characteristics of the Lilliputians and their society does Swift present for ridicule?
2. In what ways does Gulliver act as the benevolent giant when he is among the Lilliputians?
1. Even though Gulliver is an accurate and honest reporter, he is not a reliable narrator. In what ways is he unreliable, and how do readers know when not to accept his judgment?
There are no other prose works by Swift that are actually connected with Gulliver’s Travels. Both A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books are difficult reading and require a substantial background in political, literary, and religious history. The most readable of Swift’s other prose satires is A Modest Proposal. Swift’s poetry is enjoyable for any perceptive reader who is not offended by scatological references.