Gulliver’s Travels

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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.

Gulliver’s last two journeys are less popular and more disturbing than the first two. During these excursions, Swift becomes more critical of human nature, and the reader tends to lose faith in Gulliver as an anchor of reason. Even so, Swift’s imagination and wit make reading these journeys fascinating and thought-provoking. For example, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, humans are subjugated by horses, a concept that turns 18th-century reality on its head, much like Planet of the Apes does for the 20th century.

Through Gulliver’s descriptions of these societies, Swift provides examples of a range of human traits from the contemptible to the admirable. He first presents these traits at a distance, enabling the reader to feel detached and laugh at the silly foibles of these Lilliputians or Brobdingnagians. Gradually, the reader comes to see that many of the contemptible traits of these strange races are human traits as well. Although Swift specifically satirizes 18th-century English society, his sweep is universal. A reader who understands the political history of England will certainly have a rich experience reading Gulliver’s Travels. At the same time, an intelligent reader will understand what Swift is saying about human nature while enjoying the fantasy world he has created.

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