Gulliver's Travels

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Gulliver's Travels
Jonathan Swift

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Although in its abridged form Gulliver's Travels (1726) is known as a classic children's adventure story, it is actually a biting work of political and social satire by an Anglican priest, historian, and political commentator. Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift parodied popular travelogues of his day in creating this story of a sea-loving physician's travels to imaginary foreign lands. Structurally, the book is divided into four separate adventures, or travels, which Dr. Lemuel Gulliver undertakes by accident when his vessel is shipwrecked or taken over by pirates. In these fantastic tales, Swift satirizes the political events in England and Ireland in his day, as well as English values and institutions. He ridicules academics, scientists, and Enlightenment thinkers who value rationalism above all else, and finally, he targets the human condition itself.

Like all of Swift's works, Gulliver's Travels was originally published without Swift's name on it because he feared government persecution. His criticisms of people and institutions are often scathing, and some observers believe he was a misanthrope (one who hates mankind). Other critics have suggested that while Swift criticized humans and their vanity and folly, he believed that people are capable of behaving better than they do and hoped his works would convince people to reconsider their behavior. Swift himself claimed he wrote Gulliver's Travels "to vex the world rather than divert it." He succeeded in that aim, as the book is considered one of the best examples of satire ever written. Swift's sharp observations about the cor-ruption of people and their institutions still ring true today, almost three hundred years after the book was first published.

Author Biography

Swift was born in 1667 in Ireland of English parents. Swift's father died shortly before he was born, leaving Jonathan, his sister, and their mother dependent on his father's family. Their mother moved to England and left him with a nurse for his first three years. He attended Ireland's best schools, including Trinity College in Dublin, which is where he was in 1689, when civil unrest forced him and other Protestants to flee Ireland for England. In England, Swift began to work as secretary to scholar and former Parliament member Sir William Temple and lived at his home until Temple's death in 1699. Swift was exposed to many new books, ideas, and important and influential people during this time. Ordained as an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest in 1695, Swift wanted a career in the church. Unfortunately, his satirical writings, such as A Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books (both 1704) offended Queen Anne, who made sure he could not get a decent position. Swift found a job as an Anglican clergyman in Ireland instead.

During this period, Swift met a woman he called Stella, whose real name was Esther Johnson, and wrote his Journal to Stella 1710–1713). No one really knows if the two were just friends or were romantically involved, although rumors persisted that the two had secretly married. At this time Swift also changed his political allegiance from the Whigs, who were more religiously tolerant, to the Tories, whom he felt were more supportive of the Anglican Church. Still, Swift felt that each man should worship God according to his own conscience. His attitude toward the bickering over small religious differences is symbolized in Gulliver's Travels (1726) by the silly dispute in Lilliput over which end of an egg one should crack.

Swift became involved with another woman, Esther Vanhomrigh (called Vanessa), in 1713, but resisted her attempts to make the relationship serious. He continued to write important works, including A Modest Proposal (1729) in which he suggested that the wealthy eat the babies of the Irish poor. He was, of course, using satire to point out the callousness of the wealthy toward the poor. Swift's pseudonymously written The Drapier's Letters, published in 1724, denounced England's plan to force the Irish to use a new currency that would prevent the Irish from trading with other countries. Swift hated how England took advantage of the Irish. This popular and controversial essay actually forced the English to discard their currency plan, making Swift an Irish hero to this day (the Irish carefully guarded his anonymity to protect him). He spent several years writing Gulliver's Travels, inspired by an assignment to parody travelogues given him by his group of writing friends, the Scriblerus Club.

Although Swift had hoped for a better position in the church after Queen Anne's death in 1714, the Tories' loss of power meant he could not hope to improve his status. He remained dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral until 1742, when Swift was declared of unsound mind. Although some early biographers attributed his mental weakness to senility caused by syphilis (some say this disease had prevented him from marrying), modern biographers now suggest he was the victim of an inner ear disease which was compounded by memory loss and speech difficulty caused by a stroke. Regardless, he was sent to a mental institution, where he died in 1745. He was buried next to Esther Johnson in St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Plot Summary

At its simplest level, Gulliver's Travels is the story of Lemuel Gulliver and his voyages around the world. Prefaced by two letters attesting to the truth of the tales, the adventures are told by Gulliver after his return home from his final journey. Gulliver's Travels is divided into four Parts or Books, each about a different place. Because of this structure, the book as a whole has a very sketchy plot; it feels more like weekly episodes than one long narrative. The individual books also feel very choppy, since Gulliver has a habit of stumbling from one adventure or crisis to the next. The book seems more cohesive if readers recognize that each part reflects Gulliver's character and is related to all the other parts. For example, Part I discusses things being disproportionately small, and Part II discusses things being disproportionately large.

Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput

Part I, entitled "A Voyage to Lilliput," is the most famous section of Gulliver's Travels. Lured by the prospect of adventure and easy money, Lemuel Gulliver signs up as a "surgeon," or ship's doctor, for a voyage through the East Indies in Asia. Unfortunately for Gulliver, he is shipwrecked. He swims to an unfamiliar shore and, exhausted by his efforts, goes to sleep. When he awakes, he finds himself tied up by a crowd of extremely tiny and well-armed people. Gulliver is taken prisoner, shipped to the capital, and presented to the Emperor. A cross between court pet and circus attraction, Gulliver makes friends with many of the courtiers and learns about the history, society, politics, and economy of Lilliput. For many years, Lilliput has been at war with its sister island Blefuscu over whether to break soft-boiled eggs at the big or little end. This clash parodies the French-English and Catholic-Protestant conflicts of Swift's time, and many of the characters in this section correspond to actual political figures of the day.

Although he aids Lilliput by stealing the Blefuscudian navy, Gulliver is resented by many of the Emperor's courtiers. He eventually hears of a plot to accuse him of treason and sentence him to be blinded and starved to death. Frightened by this prospect, he swims over to Blefuscu and presents himself as a visitor from the Lilliputian emperor. The Blefuscudian emperor treats him well, even after a message from Lilliput demands his return. An Englishman-sized rowboat washes up on shore, however, and, taking advantage of the opportunity, Gulliver departs Blefuscu and Lilliput. He is eventually rescued by a passing English ship and returns home to England and his family.

Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

Gulliver is only home two months when he sets out on Part II, "A Voyage to Brobdingnag." After encountering a terrible storm, Gulliver's ship puts in to another unfamiliar shore for much-needed food and water. He goes ashore with the landing party but is abandoned by the crew when they discover there are giants living there. Gulliver is captured by a farmer, who displays him as a circus wonder at local fairs. The farmer's daughter, Glumdalclitch, teaches Gulliver to speak the language and the two become good friends. Eventually, the farmer sells Gulliver to the Queen of Brobdingnag, who allows Glumdalclitch to join the court as Gulliver's keeper.

Once at court, Gulliver has a series of violent, physical misadventures because of his size. Once, he is taken into the country and allowed to walk around a meadow on his own. Poor Gulliver has not yet learned the limits of his size in Brobdingnag, however. As he reports, "There was a Cow-dung in the Path, and I must needs try my Activity by attempting to leap over it. I took a Run, but unfortunately jumped short, and found my self just in the Middle up to my Knees." Gulliver spends most of his time discussing history, politics, philosophy, and economics with the King. The King frequently dismays Gulliver by displaying his "ignorance," that is, finding certain aspects of Gulliver's England repulsive. When Gulliver offers to teach him about gunpowder so he can rule over his subjects with force, for example, the King rejects him in horror. In the end, Gulliver is carried off by a giant bird and dropped into the sea, where he is rescued again by an English ship. Disoriented by the size of things on shipboard and then in England, Gulliver takes some time to adjust to people of his own size. Eventually he gets used to other English people again and resolves to stay at home for the rest of his life.

Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan

As usual, however, Gulliver is unable to keep his resolution. He is tempted by the prospect of easy money yet again and embarks on Part III, "A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan." Gulliver's misfortunes begin when he and his crew are seized by pirates, who abandon him alone on a deserted island. In despair, Gulliver begins to make the best of his bad lot when he is astonished to see a giant floating island appear in the sky. The inhabitants carry him up to them and make him welcome on the island, which they call Laputa. The Laputans control a non-floating island named Balnibarbi and live entirely by the rules of science and mathematics: even their bread and meat are carved into geometric shapes. The men are so consumed in thought that they have servants, called flappers, to bring them out of a trance into conversation. Women, who are excluded from these activities and entirely ignored by the men, frequently try to escape to Balnibarbi. After some persuasion, Gulliver is allowed to descend to Balnibarbi, where he witnesses the destructive effects of not enough practical thinking on agriculture, economics, education, and architecture.

In the most famous section of Part III, Gulliver visits the Grand Academy, Swift's parody of London's Royal Society. There he meets men devoting their lives to absurd experiments such as extracting sunlight from cucumbers and turning human waste into its original components. Gulliver proceeds from Balnibarbi to Luggnagg via the island of Glubbdubdrib, which is run by magic. There the governor raises several historical leaders and philosophers from the dead, giving Gulliver a chance to wonder at the corruption and brutishness of these supposedly great men. In Luggnagg, Gulliver hears of a race of people called Struldbruggs, who live forever. Gulliver imagines what he would do if he were a Struldbrugg, but when he meets them he realizes that eternal life does not necessarily mean eternal youth. The Struldbruggs actually have both infinite age and infinite infirmity, and they are miserable, senile people. Disgusted with all he has learned about himself and different ways of thinking, Gulliver sets sail for Japan, where he catches a ship for Amsterdam and returns home.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms

Gulliver's last voyage, Part IV, is called "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms" (pronounced whin-hims). Part IV examines less what humanity creates, such as science or gunpowder or government, and more what humanity is. Appropriately, Gulliver is left on an alien shore by a mutiny, a betrayal and abandonment that sets in motion the wheels of Gulliver's detachment from his own people. He encounters two types of inhabitants: the rational Houyhnhnms and the vicious, crude Yahoos. The Houyhnhnms are talking horses who have established a society based on reason rather than emotion, while the Yahoos are hairy humanoids who are used by the Houyhnhnms as slaves. As usual, Gulliver learns the language and converses with the inhabitants about society, government, history, and philosophy. The Houyhnhnms do not know deceit, lying, or other vices, and are governed by reason. Neither, however, do they know fairness or love: certain color Houyhnhnms are restricted to a servant class and the race as a whole has no great attachment for spouses or children. Gulliver comes to admire the Houyhnhnms and loathe the Yahoos, who really are quite disgusting and violent.

Soon Gulliver is unable to appreciate the difference between humans and Yahoos:

When I thought of my Family, my Friends, my Countrymen, or human Race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and Disposition, perhaps a little bit more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech; but making no other Use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren in this Country had only the Share that Nature allotted them. When I happened to behold the Reflection of my own Form in a Lake or Fountain, I turned away my Face in Horror and detestation of my self; and could better endure the Sight of a common Yahoo, than of my own Person. By conversing with the Houyhnhnms, and looking upon them with Delight, I fell to imitate their Gait and Gesture, which is now grown into a Habit; and my Friends often tell me in a blunt Way, that I "trot like a Horse"; which, however, I take for a great Compliment: Neither shall I disown, that in speaking I am apt to fall into the Voice and manner of the Houyhnhnms, and hear my self ridiculed on that account without the least Mortification.

The Houyhnhnms also have difficulty distinguishing Gulliver from the Yahoos, however. In spite of his best efforts to learn to be like the Houyhnhnms, they eventually find Gulliver too much like a Yahoo and sentence him to exile. Devastated, Gulliver builds a boat and sets sail. Long after his rescue by a Portuguese ship and return home, Gulliver consistently expresses his deep hatred for humanity, whom he calls Yahoos. Part IV concludes with Gulliver very slowly learning to accept his wife, his family, and other humans again, but still full of self-hatred and misanthropy.



Big-Enders and inhabitants of the island across the water from Lilliput, the Blefuscudians are supportive of the rebel Big-Ender refugees. They rep-resent both Catholic France—with whom England went to war several times—and Ireland—a mostly Catholic country to which English Catholics fled for political asylum.

Skyresh Bolgolam

High Admiral of Lilliput and counselor to the Emperor, Skyresh Bolgolam is the enemy of Gulliver from the start. He brings Gulliver a list of demands or conditions for Gulliver to stay in Lilliput and also teams up with Flimnap to draw up articles of impeachment, which are leaked to Gulliver by an unnamed member of the court.


The Brobdingnagians are a race of giants who live on Brobdingnag, a country in the Arctic Sea that Gulliver visits in Part II. Gulliver is repulsed by the flaws in their skin, which appear monstrous to him. He soon realizes their form of government is superior to those of Europe. Swift implies they are moral giants as well as physical giants in comparison to the Englishman Gulliver.

Emperor of Lilliput

A fingernail taller than his subjects, the Lilliputian Emperor is a handsome man with strong features, an olive complexion, and a regal bearing. He wears Low Heels as an expression of his political beliefs. (Swift intends him to represent King George I, who was sympathetic to the Whig political party, represented by the Low Heels.) He is corrupt, petty, arrogant, obsessed with foolish ceremonies and political shenanigans—in short, a symbol of bad politicians everywhere.

The emperor is not quite twenty-nine years old but has ruled successfully for seven years. One controversy the emperor has faced is a religious conflict caused by a debate over which end of an egg to open—the big end or the little end. After his grandfather was injured by a Big End, the government outlawed their usage. Rebel Big Enders (representing Catholics) have been persecuted by Little Enders (representing Protestants) and many have fled to Lilliput's enemy, Bledfuscu (representing France).

The emperor wants to punish the Big-Ender Blefuscudians, just as the Whig party wanted to be harsher toward the Catholic French and Spanish than the Tories wanted to be when England was settling the War of the Spanish Succession. Gulliver helps repel an attack by the Bledfuscudian navy but refuses to conquer and enslave the attackers. As a result, while the emperor is respectful toward Gulliver, he is easily persuaded by his counselors to turn against him.

Media Adaptations

  • A live-action miniseries Gulliver's Travels was made for television in 1996 by Charles Sturridge from a screenplay by Simon Moore. The film starred Ted Danson as Gulliver, as well as Mary Steenburgen, Peter O'Toole, Ned Beatty, Alfre Woodard, Geraldine Chaplin, Ned Beatty, John Gielgud, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Omar Sharif. Longer and containing more of the book's plot than other film versions of Gulliver's Travels, this version nevertheless takes some big liberties, adding a secondary plot featuring Gulliver's wife (Steenburgen) and son. However, much of Swift's satire is maintained and the special effects are far superior to those in earlier versions (much of the work was done by Jim Henson Productions). Available on two videos from Hallmark Home Entertainment.
  • The 1939 animated film Gulliver's Travels, directed by Dave Fleischer with screenplay by Dan Gordon, Ted Pierce, Isidore Sparber, and Edmond Seward, featured the voices of Lanny Ross and Jessica Dragonette. Nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Score and Best Song (for the song "Faithful Forever"). The film cuts several episodes from the plot and eliminates most of Swift's satire, but the animation is of exceptionally high quality for the era. Available from Congress Entertainment, Moore Video, and Nostalgia Family Video.
  • The partially animated Gulliver's Travels (1977), directed by Peter Hung from a screenplay by Don Black, starred Richard Harris (as Gulliver), Catherine Schell, Norman Shelley, and Meredith Edwards, and the voices of Michael Bates and Denis Bryer. The film cuts much from the plot and eliminates most of Swift's satire, making the movie cloying and childish at times. Available from Video Treasures, Hollywood Home Entertainment, and Reader's Digest Home Video.
  • Containing animation effects from Ray Harryhausen, The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960; also known as The Worlds of Gulliver), was directed by Jack Sher from a screenplay by Arthur Ross and Jack Sher, and starred Kerwin Mathews (as Gulliver), Jo Morrow, and June Thorburn. The film cuts much from the plot, focusing on Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and adding a character as a love interest for Gulliver. Much of Swift's satire is maintained, however. Available from Columbia Tristar Home Video.
  • Two animated versions of Gulliver's Travels from 1979 include a short version aimed at children and narrated by Vincent Price, available from AIMS Multimedia on video, and a slightly longer version from Hanna Barbera Productions featuring the voices of Ross Martin and Janet Waldo, available on video from Worldvision Home Video, Inc. and Goodtimes Entertainment.
  • An unabridged audio reading of Gulliver's Travels, narrated by Norman Dietz, is available on eight cassettes (10 hours, 45 minutes) from Recorded Books, Inc., 1989. Abridged versions include an audio dramatization originally presented on NBC Theater (a radio program), narrated by Henry Hull, available on one cassette from Metacom audio library classics, 1991; and a dramatization read by Ted Danson, available on two cassettes from Simon & Schuster Audioworks, 1996.

Empress of Lilliput

The empress likes Gulliver at first; he charms her by kissing her hand. However, when he extinguishes the fire in her quarters of the palace by urinating on the building, she is repulsed and turns against him. She represents Queen Anne, who denied Swift a position in the Church of England because she thought his satirical writings were vulgar, even though one of those writings, A Tale of a Tub, defended the Church of England against the Puritans and Roman Catholics. Queen Anne also ungratefully exiled Swift's friend, Bolingbroke, after he'd gone through the trouble of negotiating a peace with France, thereby ending the War of Spanish Succession.

Quinbus Flestrin

See Dr. Lemuel Gulliver


Flimnap is Lord High Treasurer of Lilliput and the best rope dancer in the emperor's cabinet. Swift meant him to represent politician Robert Walpole, leader of the Whigs (represented by the fictional Low Heels). Walpole is recognized as England's first prime minister, and Swift considered him a corrupt symbol of an oppressive party. Political office in Lilliput is gained through rope-dancing competition, and Flimnap, the ultimate politician, can turn somersaults in the air. He would have hurt himself in his acrobatics had he not been caught by a cushion, which is Swift's allusion to how George I's mistress, the Duchess of Kendall, helped save Walpole's political career in 1721.

Flimnap is an archconservative who gets upset when he realizes how much it will cost the kingdom to continue to support Gulliver, and thus turns against him. He is suspicious of Gulliver as well, thinking that his wife is somehow having an affair with him. He urges the emperor to get rid of Gulliver by any means necessary and helps draw up charges of treason against Gulliver. Unlike Skyresh Bolgolam, Flimnap is two-faced—pleasant to Gulliver's face but secretly his enemy.


Glumdalclitch is the nine-year-old daughter of the Brobdingnagian farmer who discovers Gulliver in his field. Gulliver names her Glumdalclitch, meaning "little nurse." She is kind to Gulliver, whom she treats like a precious doll, and is allowed to continue being his nursemaid when he becomes the possession of the king and queen.

Governor of Glubbdubdrib

The governor of Glubbdubdrib, whom Gulliver meets on his third voyage, is the most powerful sorcerer on an island of magicians. He is able to summon spirits of the dead and calls up famous politicians and philosophers of old for Gulliver's entertainment. Swift included this section mostly to show how modern historians gloss over the corruption of conquerors and kings and "how degenerate the human race was in the past."


See Emperor of Lilliput

Golbasto Momaren Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue

See Emperor of Lilliput

Dr. Lemuel Gulliver

Dr. Lemuel Gulliver is a medical doctor with an itch to sail the seas rather than make money by cheating his patients—a practice of many of his fellow doctors. He is honest, hardworking, and curious, good with languages (which helps in his travels), and has a well-rounded education. Swift portrays Gulliver as a typical middle-class Englishman of the time, complete with wife and children. In his fictional letters at the front of the book, we see a cranky, eccentric (perhaps crazy?), and misanthropic Gulliver, but the letter from his editor suggests to us that Gulliver is an honest person, well-liked by his neighbors, and hints that we will learn much more about him in the pages that follow.

As a character, Gulliver is quite inconsistent. At times he seems to be the mouthpiece for Swift himself, voicing the author's opinions. At other times, he is quite proud and arrogant, even unlik-able. Often, he is naive and easily influenced by others. Even his name, "Gulliver," suggests he is gullible. (As for his first name, "Lemuel" is a character in the Bible who is urged by his mother to judge rightly and plead the cause of the poor and needy; morality figures greatly in Gulliver's adventures.) Swift intends for readers to be skeptical about Gulliver's perceptions and morality. Gulliver is a detailed person and seems honest, so we should not doubt his facts. How he interprets those facts, however, is something we should question. In doing so, readers will begin to question their own prejudices and human failings, their own opinions and beliefs, and their own institutions.

Gulliver is at first called Quinbus Flestrin (which he translates as Man Mountain) by the Lilliputians, and then is given the honorable title of Nardac by the emperor after he captures the enemy's fleet. The Brobdingnagian girl who takes care of him renames him Grildrig, meaning "little dwarf." The Brobdingnagians also refer to him as a splacknuck after an animal of the region that is about his size. By the end of the book, Gulliver is unmistakably a misanthrope (hater of humankind), preferring the company of horses to humans, even his own family. This "madness" is the result of his fourth and final voyage, in which he was confronted with the imperfections of humanity.

Mary Burton Gulliver

Dr. Gulliver's wife, daughter of Edmond Burton, figures little into the story. After the second voyage, Gulliver criticizes her for being too thrifty, since he left her with plenty of money. She is not happy about Gulliver's choice to keep going to sea, although she agrees to allow the third voyage because it will help the family.


Pronounced "Whin-ems," like a horse's whinny, the Houyhnhnm are a race of intelligent horses Gulliver encounters in Book IV. They are different from horses in eighteenth-century England because they are the masters over the humanlike Yahoos who toil for them. The Houyhnhnm have an nearly utopian or ideal society and are unfamiliar with the concepts of lying, deceit, jealousy, or hatred. They love all Houyhnhnm equally, enabling them to choose their partners not according to love or passion but according to genetics—that is, which pairings would produce the healthiest offspring. They school their children communally and govern themselves democratically.

Critics have long argued whether Swift presents the Houyhnhnm as an ideal society or whether they, too, are set up for satire. Those who argue the latter view point out how casually the Houyhnhnm treat the death of a spouse or loss of a child. Gulliver admires the Houyhnhnm greatly, but he can never be one of them any more than he can digest their horse's diet. He is a human, and hates this reality, but Swift implies that Gulliver ought to accept his human nature. After all, for all their positive attributes, the Houyhnhnm can't feel passionate love as humans can.


Inhabitants of the flying island encountered in Part III, the Laputans have one eye perpetually inward (symbolizing introspection) and one eye perpetually skyward (symbolizing lofty ideals). They are brilliant, completely impractical, and so caught up in their intellectual pursuits that their servants have to slap them around to get their attention so that they can have conversations. They wear ill-fitting garments with celestial symbols on them, worship science and music, and oppress other lands, demanding taxes. Those who don't pay up are pelted with rocks. Although the Laputans threaten to smash those below with their island, they never do so because it might hurt the island. The Laputans represent Enlightenment thinkers who worship ideas at the expense of practicality. Note that "La-puta" is a play on "La puta," which is Spanish for "prostitute": the Laputans have prostituted science by fixing on knowledge for knowledge's sake, instead of putting intellectual theory to practical use.


The Lilliputians are six-inch-tall people Gulliver encounters on his first travel in Book I. They live near Van Diemen's Land (Australia). Swift implies that with their petty politics, they are moral midgets as well as physical midgets in comparison to the Englishman Gulliver.

Pedro de Mendez

The captain of the Portuguese ship that rescues Gulliver on his fourth and final travel, he is extremely kind and sympathetic to Gulliver, helping him to return to England. Gulliver has been traumatized by his most recent travel and the realization that mankind in general is more Yahoo than Houyhnhnm. Thus, while Mendez is a contrast to the Yahoos, Gulliver has trouble appreciating the goodness of Mendez. Swift likely created this character to remind the reader that even if mankind is corrupt and selfish, individuals exist who are kind and good.

Lord Munodi

Lord Munodi is the former governor of the rebellious city Lagado on Balnibari, the island oppressed by the Laputans in the third voyage. Unlike his neighbors' fields and homes, Munodi's house and land are intact and prosperous because he ignored the newfangled advice of the Projectors, scientists who insisted that farmers try new "improvements" that in the end were disastrous. Munodi represents the sensible man who does not toss away tradition and insist that newer is always better.


Lilliput's Principal Secretary of Private Affairs, Reldresal is second only to Flimnap at rope dancing. He explains to Gulliver many of the Lilliputians' customs and the origin of the war against the Blefuscudians, asking him to help in the war effort. When Gulliver falls out of favor with the court, Reldresal proposes "mercy" in the form of putting out his eyes instead of taking his life. Reldresal represents one of George I's counselors.


Lilliputians who belong to the Low Heels political party, representing the real-life Whigs of England.


In Book III, Gulliver encounters the Struldbruggs in the kingdom of Luggnagg. The Struldbruggs have immortal life but not immortal youth, so they become senile and frail. Swift uses the Struldbruggs to examine society's fear of death.

Richard Sympson

Richard Sympson is Gulliver's fictional cousin, who gets the book of Gulliver's Travels published. In a letter to the reader, he defends his editorial work on the book, setting up the idea that Gulliver is focused on details at the expense of a larger vision, which guides the reader into being skeptical about Gulliver's perceptions of events but not his facts. Sympson also defends Gulliver himself, who seems like a cranky character, suggesting that once the reader has read of these adventures he will have more sympathy for Gulliver. Thus, Sympson is less a character than a device.


The Tramecksans are Lilliputians who belong to the High Heels political party, representing the real-life Tories of England.


The Yahoos are a barbaric race of filthy, repulsive humanoids who live in the country of the Houyhnhnm. They resemble human beings so much that the Houyhnhnm have trouble believing that Gulliver is not one of them. They represent mankind at its very worst. Gulliver begins to use the term "Yahoo" to refer to any human who is barbaric, cruel, and immoral, and later calls all humans "Yahoos."


Human Condition

Gulliver's Travels is political satire in the form of an adventure novel. Swift creates several fantasy worlds to which his character, Lemuel Gulliver, travels, and where he learns that English institutions, such as the government and social structure, are not necessarily ideal.

Swift subscribed to the pre-Enlightenment, Protestant idea that man is by nature sinful, having fallen from perfection in the Garden of Eden. While man is a rational animal, his rationality is not always used for good. Therefore, one should not hold up rationality as the greatest human quality, as many Enlightenment thinkers did. It is the human condition, Swift felt, to sin: to be deceitful, cruel, selfish, materialistic, vain, foolish, and otherwise flawed. Rationality and institutions such as governments, churches, and social structures (schools, for example) exist to rein in man's tendency to sin, to keep him in line.

These beliefs of Swift's are evident throughout Gulliver's Travels. Naive Gulliver encounters his physical and moral inferiors, the Lilliputians, and sees that they have well-thought-out but illogical and even unethical ideas about justice, schooling children, and choosing political leaders. On the contrary, Gulliver's physical and moral superiors, the Brobdingnagians, do not suffer war or strife because their political and social structures are far superior to England's. Part III is a scathing indictment of how Enlightenment thinkers value rationality, science, discoveries, and new ideas over traditional, practical ways of doing things. Note, for example, that only Count Munodi's arm thrives because he does not embrace the Projectors' newfangled ways. Practicality and tradition, Swift believed, have great value. Finally, in Part IV, Swift contrasts the best that man was (in the Garden of Eden before the Fall), represented by the Houyhnhnm, with the debased state to which he can fall, represented by the Yahoo. While Swift suggests that we can never return to that state of perfection, because it is the human condition to sin, we can at least rise above our Yahoo-ness.


Swift was not only a clergyman but a political writer and activist, writing for the Tory paper at one point in his career and writing political pamphlets. He was deeply involved in the battles between the Whigs and Tories and active in trying to help England's oppression of Ireland. He and some of his friends were also the victims of petty politics. No wonder Swift chose to ridicule the worst aspects of politics in Gulliver's Travels.

Most of Swift's scathing political satire can be found in Part I, which mirrors the events in England in Swift's day. The petty Lilliputian emperor represents the worst kind of governor, pompous and too easily influenced by his counselors' selfish ambitions. He is also a stand-in for King George I, from his identification with the Whig party (the fictional Low Heels) to his betrayal of his friend and helper, Gulliver (who represents Swift and his Tory friends Oxford and Bolingbroke), to his ridiculous means of choosing his advisors and rewarding them with meaningless ribbons (which represent titles and other useless favors bestowed by George I on his cronies). The king and his cabinet demand a cruel and, Gulliver thinks, unjust punishment of the rebel Blefuscudians, just as George I and the Whigs wanted to punish France more severely than the Tories did when negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht that ended England's war against France and Spain.

Then, too, Swift explores the duties and purpose of government in Parts I, II, and IV. By having Gulliver discuss his system of government and compare it to the ones he discovers, Swift raises questions about government's role in public education, provisions for the poor, and distribution of wealth. Part of what makes Gulliver's Travels so provocative and timely even today is that Swift doesn't provide simplistic answers to these questions. His observations about partisan politics, unchecked corruption, and dubious qualifications of political leaders unfortunately ring true even in contemporary America.

Culture Clash

When people of two different cultures come in contact with each other, they often experience "culture clash": they are surprised and a unsettled when they are confronted with the other's customs. Gulliver is the odd man out whenever he travels to other countries, and is curious about the customs of the people he meets. He is quite surprised at times by the differences between his way of life and theirs. He discusses English institutions and customs at length with both the Brobdingnagians and the Houyhnhnm. He is confident, even arrogant, in his belief that once these foreigners hear of British ways they will be impressed by his people. To his surprise, disappointment, and frustration, they ask obvious questions about flaws and shortcomings of British institutions and customs. The Brobdingnagian king is horrified at the concept of gunpowder, and he tells Gulliver that his race must be "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." The Houyhnhnm simply can't understand the concept of lying, and are amazed and horrified to hear that in England, horses are enslaved by men, because in their country the humanoid Yahoos are their slaves. The more Gulliver tries to explain England's ways, the more shocked and repulsed the Houyhnhnm and Brobdingnagians are, and the more the reader sees how blind Gulliver is to the shortcomings of his own kind. The contrast between Gulliver's way of life and the foreigners', even that of the Lilliputians and Laputans, is intended to nudge readers into asking hard questions of their own culture.

Topics for Further Study

  • Discuss how Gulliver's travels change him and the way he perceives his fellow man.
  • Research actual historical explorers of the 1600s and early 1700s. Compare and contrast their voyages with Gulliver's journeys, and quote from actual historical accounts if you can find them.
  • Based on having read Gulliver's Travels, would you say Jonathan Swift was a misanthrope (a person who hated mankind)? Support your argument with quotes and examples from the text.
  • Investigate philosophical thought of the 1600s and early 1700s regarding the nature of man. Compare the analyses of philosophers such as René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Gottfried Leibniz, and John Locke with Gulliver's opinions as expressed in the novel.
  • Explain why Swift gave Gulliver the habit of describing people, places, items, and events in specific, sometimes almost scientific, detail.

Custom and Tradition

Swift is one of the most acclaimed satirists of the English language because of his clever use of language and symbolism to make his points in a humorous way. Satire, or holding up to ridicule human vices and folly, often involves irony, or words that mean more than the characters realize, or something entirely different altogether. The gullible Gulliver's straightforward reporting of absurdities creates this irony. For example, he tells us matter-of-factly that the Lilliputians bury their dead head first because they believe that when the end of the world comes the flat earth will flip upside down, leaving them right side up for the afterlife. He also notes that many Lilliputians no longer actually believe this is necessary, but follow tradition anyway. This passage is satirical as well, because it is representative of all sorts of traditions, religious and otherwise, that human beings create and cling to long after they've stopped believing in them.

Science and Technology

Swift also parodies the scientists of his day in order to make his point that science for its own sake is not a lofty ideal. Science, and the ability to reason, ought to be used for practical ends, he felt, to address and solve the many real-life problems. He drew upon actual scientific experiments in Part III, when the scientists of Balnibarbi defy the law of nature with such ludicrous experiments as extracting sunshine from cucumbers. The absurdity of their impracticality—for example, they can't even sew clothes for themselves that fit because their way of measuring is so screwball—makes them objects of ridicule.


Point of View

Lemuel Gulliver himself narrates the story of Gulliver's Travels, but this first-person narrator is not completely reliable. Though Gulliver is very exact with the details of his travels, and we know him to be honest, sometimes he doesn't see the forest for the trees. Swift deliberately makes Gulliver naive and sometimes even arrogant for two reasons. First, it makes the reader more skeptical about the ideas presented in the book. Second, it allows the reader to have a good laugh at Gulliver's expense when he doesn't realize the absurdity of his limited viewpoint. He certainly sounds foolish when extolling the qualities of gunpowder to the peaceful Brobdingnagians, for example. Also, at the end of the novel, the reader can see that Gulliver has turned into a misanthrope (hater of humanity), but can hear in his voice both here and in the introductory letter to his publisher that he is proud and arrogant in his belief that humans are Yahoos. Because by the end of the book readers are accustomed to being skeptical of Gulliver's perceptions, one can guess that his misanthropy has something to do with his arrogance. Humans simply can't be perfect and if we hold ourselves to that ideal we will hate humanity, but Gulliver can't see this truth. Swift claimed that it was not he that was misanthropic, but Gulliver, the narrator he created.


Although the fantastic lands that provide the setting for Gulliver's Travels seem unreal today, modern readers should keep in mind that the settings would not have seemed so farfetched to Swift's contemporaries. The novel was written in the 1720s, and Gulliver travels to areas that were still unknown or little explored during this time. The book was written before the discovery of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, for example, where Brobdingnag is supposedly located. It was also before the discovery of an effective means of measuring latitude, which meant it was very difficult for sailors to navigate and explore new territory accurately. Travelogues, or accounts of journeys to foreign lands, were very popular at this time, so the reading public was accustomed to hearing of new geographical discoveries. Thus Gulliver's explorations to new lands, while unusual, would have seemed little different than the strange tales of "exotic" lands in America, Asia, and Africa. Like the travelogues it parodies, Gulliver's Travels even provides maps of Gulliver's journeys in the book to lend more truthfulness to the story.


Structurally, Gulliver's Travels is divided into four parts with two introductory letters at the beginning of the book. These letters, from Gulliver and his editor Sympson, let us know that Gulliver is basically a good person who has been very much changed by the amazing journeys to follow. Part I follows Gulliver's journey to Lilliput and its tiny people; Part II to Brobdingnag and its giants; Part III to several islands and countries near Japan; part IV follows Gulliver to the country of the Houyhnhnm. The first and second parts set up contrasts that allow Swift to satirize European politics and society. The third part satirizes human institutions and thinking and is subdivided into four sections that are set in Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, and Luggnagg. The first two sections are seen as a critique of sciences and scholars; the Glubbdubdrib section looks at history; and the Luggnagg section at Swift's fears about getting old. The final section moves from criticizing humanity's works to examining the flawed nature of humanity itself.


The idea of a perfect society, with institutions such as government, school, and churches that are flawless in design, began with the ancient Greeks and was explored by Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Many writers before and since Jonathan Swift have toyed with the idea of utopia, and some contemporary writers have even written novels about anti-utopias (properly known as dystopias), in which utopian visions have gone terribly wrong—for example, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Both of these authors were fans of Gulliver's Travels.

Gulliver finds a near-utopia in the land of Brobdingnag, where war and oppression are unheard of. In this section, Swift incorporated many of the ideas of the social engineers of his day. Swift's impatience with utopian theories is also evident, however. Because the Brobdingnagians are humanlike, their utopia is not completely perfect. They can be insensitive, treating Gulliver as some sort of pet or toy, and their society includes poor beggars. In Luggnagg, Gulliver is told of a race of men who are immortal, and he imagines that their wisdom must be great, making their society well-ordered and their people happy and content. Unfortunately, everlasting life does not combat the effects of old age, and the immortals are objects of pity and disgust. Swift comes close to creating a perfect utopia with the Houyhnhnm, but suggests that man can never really fit in a perfect society, because he is by his nature flawed. Therefore, he can only strive for the ideal, and never reach it.

But would we want to? The Brobdingnagian society is imperfect, but the people are wise and humane. While the Houyhnhnm society does not have grief, lying or deceit, greed or lust, ambition or opinion, it also doesn't have love as we know it. All the Houyhnhnm love each other equally. They chose their mates according to genetics rather than love or passion, and they raise their children communally, because they love all the children equally. Gulliver wants to rise above the human condition and be a Houyhnhnm, but Swift implies that this is neither possible nor necessarily desirable.


An allegory is when characters or events in a work of fiction represent something from reality, such as actual people, places, events, or even ideas. In Gulliver's Travels, and especially in Part I, many of the things Gulliver experiences can be linked to actual historical events of Swift's time. For in-stance, the religious/political controversy between the Big Enders and Little Enders corresponds to actual conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that led to several wars. Lilliput stands for England, while Blefuscu stands for England's longtime enemy, France. The two-faced Treasurer Flimnap corresponds to the Whig leader Sir Robert Walpole, while the Empress's outrage at Gulliver's extinguishing a palace fire with his urine mirrors the complaints Queen Anne had about Swift's "vulgar" writings. The numerous allegories to be found in the novel added to satire Swift's readers would have enjoyed. They have also provided critics throughout the years with valuable material for analysis.

Historical Context

England in the 1720s

While Swift was writing Gulliver's Travels in the 1720s, England was undergoing a lot of political shuffling. George I, a Hanoverian prince of Germany, had ascended the British throne in 1714 after the death of Queen Anne ended the Stuart line. Although he was not a bad or repressive king, he was unpopular. King George had gained his throne with the assistance of the Whig party, and his Whig ministers subsequently used their considerable gains in power to oppress members of the opposition Tory party. Swift had been a Tory since 1710, and bitterly resented the Whig actions against his friends, who often faced exile or worse. Understanding how events in Europe and England led to this political rivalry can help the reader of Swift's novel better understand his satire.

The Restoration

The Restoration era began in 1660, a few years before Swift was born. At this time Charles Stuart (King Charles II) became king of England, restoring the Protestant Stuart family to the throne. Charles II supported a strong Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. He was supported by the Tories, a political party made up mostly of church officials and landowning noblemen. Protestants who did not support the Anglican church teamed with Roman Catholics to form the opposing Whig party. The main source of contention between the parties was the Test Act of 1673, which forced all government employees to receive communion according to the Anglican church's customs. In effect, this prevented non-An-glicans from holding government jobs. Swift himself supported the act, and even switched from Whig to Tory in 1710 because he believed a strong Church of England was necessary to keep the balance of power in the government. Throughout his life, he felt that institutions such as the church and government had to be strong in order to rein in people's tendency toward chaos and sin; he explored this idea in Gulliver's Travels. Over the years, however, Swift came to believe the Tories were as much to blame as the Whigs for engaging in partisan politics, locking horns over minor issues and bringing the government to a stalemate. Whenever one party was in favor with the reigning king and in power in the Parliament, it attacked the other party, exiling and imprisoning the opposition's members. Swift satirized their selfish and petty politics in Part I of Gulliver's Travels, where the Lilliputian heir (who represented George II, the future king of England) has to hobble about with one short heel and one high as a compromise between the two parties that wear different heights of heels.

The Glorious Revolution and War of Spanish Succession

Charles II's brother King James II, a Catholic, came to the British throne in 1685. He immediately repealed the Test Act and began to hire Whigs for his government. The Anglican-dominated Parliament secretly negotiated with William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch husband of James's Protestant daughter Mary, to take over the throne. In December 1688, William did so, and James II fled to France without a fight. This was called the Glorious Revolution because no one was killed in the coup.

Soon after King William III and Queen Mary II came to power, the Catholic Louis XIV of France declared war on Spain over trade and religious issues. William entered the war on the side of Spain, a war the English called William's War. This conflict was satirized by Swift in the war between the Lilliputians (England) and Blefuscudians (England with the Spanish, Dutch, and Germans as allies) was fighting France, it was also warring with Ireland. Irish Catholics wanted freedom from British rule, and England feared that France could invade their country through a sympathetic Ireland. Peace came about in 1697, but England got almost none of the spoils of war—land in Spain. In order to appear strong, William declared war again, this time on the Spanish and the French. This began the War of Spanish Succession.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1720s: Robert Walpole is England's first prime minister, and German-born King George I gives him a great deal of authority to run the country.

    Today: Britain's ruler is only a figurehead and the prime minister is the leader who wields real power. The House of Lords and House of Commons still make up the Parliament.
  • 1720s: The Great Awakening begins to sweep the American colonies, as people are converted to Protestantism by charismatic evangelists. In England, John Wesley, an Anglican priest, begins to form the Evangelical Methodist movement in 1729.

    Today: Worldwide, of 1.9 billion Christians, almost half (968 million) are Roman Catholic, 70 million are Anglican (Episcopalian), 218 million are Eastern Orthodox, 395 million are Protestant, and 275 million belong to other denominations.

In 1702 William died and his daughter Queen Anne ascended the throne. The war waged on while at home the Whigs and Tories fought amongst themselves. Many of the Whigs were merchants who were profiting from the war, and they wanted the fighting to continue. The landowning Tories wanted the war to cease, because it devalued their property. Swift helped the Tories in their efforts to stop the war by becoming editor of their newspa-per, the Examiner. His influential writings, along with his friend Bolingbroke's secret negotiations with France, helped end the war in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht. Queen Anne seemed ungrateful for these efforts, as she later exiled Bolingbroke and destroyed Swift's chances of a career in the Church of England. Swift was forced to return to Ireland to find a job as an Anglican priest.


Catholic Ireland had been dominated by the British since the fifteenth century, because England had always been paranoid about a French or Spanish invasion coming through Catholic Ireland. England's restrictive policies had driven Ireland and its people into poverty, which angered Swift. He was incensed when the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, given the task of overseeing the economics of Ireland, supported a currency law that would further destroy the economy of the Irish. His anonymously written The Drapier's Letters, inspired the Irish people to unite against England and force the law to be repealed. The Irish protected Swift's anonymity, and for his role, Swift is a hero in Ireland to this day.

The Enlightenment

In the midst of all this political back and forth, the optimistic Age of Enlightenment was flourish-ing. Intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists such as John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton were opening the doors to exploration in many fields, asking new questions, and experimenting. They discarded the old idea that man is by nature sinful because of Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Man's ability to reason, they claimed, could save him from his tendency to sin. Man could create a utopia, or perfect society, that solved the problems of humankind. Swift vehemently disagreed. He felt that reason could just as easily be misused for foolish or selfish purposes as good ones, and man could never rise above the tendency toward sin to be able to create utopia on earth. His satire of the folly of Enlightenment scientific and theological musings and experiments in Part III of Gulliver's Travels is followed by his portrayal of a utopian society, the Houyhnhnm's, into which man can never fit.

Critical Overview

Gulliver's Travels was quite a success in its time. The first printing sold out immediately and the book was translated into French, Dutch, and German. It appealed to people from all social classes and ages, and readers thought the book was a humorous adventure tale, suitable even for children to read (the separate category of books especially for children did not come about until a generation after Swift's death). Gulliver was perceived as a "happy fellow." (Note, however, that the original editor of the work had toned down some of the satire, which was not restored to the text until 1735.) By the end of the 1700s, however, people were beginning to see past the fun adventure plot and become aware of Swift's hidden messages. Many were shocked by the negativity of the book and condemned it. Writer William Makepeace Thackeray said the message of the book was "horrible, shameful, blasphemous … filthy in word, filthy in thought" and "obscene," and certainly proof that Jonathan Swift was "about the most wretched being in God's world."

Sir Walter Scott obviously thought Gulliver's Travels had some merit or he wouldn't have published a collection of Swift's works in 1814. He noted that the work was "unequalled for the skill with which [the narrative] is sustained, and the genuine spirit of satire of which it is made the vehicle." He also declared, however, that the book was "severe, unjust and degrading" and dismissed early fans as people who, like Swift, had obviously been in a "state of gloomy misanthropy." Swift was accused again and again of being a bitter misanthrope who hated mankind, a pessimist who wouldn't acknowledge the good qualities of human beings. For a time only Part III was considered acceptable reading, and Part IV was considered exceptionally offensive right up through the 1800s. In 1889, Edmund Gosse urged "decent" people to avoid reading Part IV because of the "horrible foulness of this satire." And in 1882 Leslie Stephen speculated that the "oppressive" tone of "misanthropy" in Parts III and IV must have been the result of Swift's bitterness over ill health and dashed ambitions and suggested that readers skip them altogether. His contemporary, Churton Collins, said the book had "no moral, no social, no philosophical purpose." The novel's controversial messages about politics and the nature of man even led to censorship. In later editions, right up until 1899, the Lindalinian revolt at the end of Part III was excised because it was (probably correctly) interpreted as a symbol of the righteousness of a potential Irish revolt.

However, despite the early controversies, critics over the years have come to hail Gulliver's Travels as the greatest satire by the greatest prose satirist in the English language. An early fan, William Hazlitt, said in 1818 that Swift's object had not been to spew venom but to "strip empty pride and grandeur" and "to show men what they are, and to teach them what they ought to be." Novelist Aldous Huxley (author of the anti-utopian novel Brave New World) said in the early twentieth century that Swift was an incurable sentimentalist and romantic who resented reality. Indeed, most critics today think that Swift has been misunderstood, probably since many readers have mistakenly assumed that Gulliver, who certainly is a misanthrope at the end, is a mouthpiece for Swift.

Swift's bitterness, contemporary critics argue, is not the product of insanity or illness but the inevitable result of a caring, compassionate, religious man who had seen the worst side of human nature. As a young man, Swift had tried to serve his country through work with political parties, and wanted to serve in the Church of England, but petty politics destroyed his and his friends' plans and drove them into exile. In Ireland, Swift saw the greed of the British drive a country of people to poverty and desperation. He tried, in Gulliver's Travels, to alert people to the ugliness of human behavior. Yet at the same time, he hoped that the novel, and his other works, would rouse them to strive to do better. Swift denied that he hated people. He wrote, "I have ever hated all Nations, professions, and Communityes and all my love is toward individuals." His inclusion of the kindly, charitable Captain Pedro de Mendez in the end of the book supports Swift's claim that he believed there are good, admirable individuals in the world.

As for novel itself, critics have generally agreed that Part III is the weakest and least unified of the four sections, possibly because it was the last written. Some have claimed the fourth section of Part III is an unnecessary departure from the major themes of the book, focusing as it does on Swift's fears of growing old and senile (which, in fact, he did). Also, in Part III, Gulliver is merely an observer, which makes the voyage less engaging than the others.

Critics have agreed about what Swift was satirizing in each of the first three voyages. They have disagreed, however, on how to interpret the fourth voyage. Do the Houyhnhnm and Yahoos represent the dual nature of humanity, good and evil? Or do the Houyhnhnm represent Swift's view that utopian thinkers are foolish in their attempts to imagine a perfect human society? Critics since 1950 have generally agreed that the Houyhnhnm are symbols of unattainable human perfection which can be the ideal we strive for, even if we fall short, and the Yahoos represent how far into ugliness we can fall if we lose sight of our ideals.

Critics have suggested that Swift intended the novel to be both an attack on mankind and its follies and a honest assessment of mankind's positive and negative qualities. It is also considered a critique of the greatest moral, philosophical, scientific, and political ideas of Swift's time. The greatest and most lasting accomplishment of Gulliver's Travels may be its ability to encourage readers of any society at any time to raise important questions about mankind's limitations, how we can structure our institutions to bring out the best in people, and what it means to be human.


Dennis Todd

In the following essay, Bloom, a doctoral candidate at Emory University, explores the historical and cultural background of Swift's satire and explains the differing interpretations of the ending of Gulliver's Travels.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726, was an instant hit, one of the top three sellers of the eighteenth century. It was only one of Swift's many significant works, however. Of his prose writings, the most famous include his attack on modern literature, The Battle of the Books; a critique of English oppression of the Irish, A Modest Proposal; and A Tale of a Tub, his defense of Protestantism and the Church of England. He is also well-known as a poet, particularly for his poems criticizing romance, such as Cassinus and Peter and A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Gulliver's Travels addresses almost all of Swift's primary concerns and involves some of the most important questions in literature and the development of the novel.

Gulliver's Travels remains Swift's most famous and popular work. Ricardo Quintana calls it a "satire taking the form of four imaginary voyages," a formulation which explains why the story does not have the traditional plot structure of rising action-climax-denouement. Because Swift depicts the ills and sins of his society, Gulliver's Travels can feel like a string of episodes tied together. The book gets its unity from Gulliver himself, since his perceptions drive the story and the satire. Swift uses Gulliver and his voyages primarily to examine problems with contemporary society, such as the evils of politics, humanity's frequent foolishness, and the importance of a thoughtful, self-aware, balanced perspective. In this sense, Gulliver's Travels addresses issues that still worry people today. A recent television version also testifies to the book's continued appeal. Although this version is generally faithful in many places, however, it is no substitute for the book.

Swift's story takes place simultaneously at two points in time and at two levels of meaning. First, it is a recollection: Lemuel Gulliver tells the story of his adventures after they are finished. The story of Gulliver sitting at home writing about his voyages is the "frame narrative," the story of the telling of the story. Like a frame around a painting, it gives shape to Gulliver's character and to the events that he recounts. As Richard Rodino writes, "Swift the author writes the story of Gulliver the author writing the story of Gulliver the character." Second, all the events except the frame narrative take place in the past. These two levels of time enable Swift to create a work that also has two levels of meaning: the straightforward story of Gulliver's adventures, and the satire of Swift's world. By making Gulliver look back on his life and explain it, Swift allows readers to see Gulliver as unreliable, a man whose opinions must be questioned.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Many have said that A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729) is the best satirical essay ever written. In it, he suggests that the problem of poverty among the Irish (which Swift, incidentally, blamed on British policies) would be solved if Irish babies were treated as food and fed to the wealthy. Many of Swift's contemporaries who read the essay were horrified, missing the irony. Swift's real message was that the upper classes ought to change their deplorable callousness toward the poor.
  • Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704) is a religious allegory featuring three brothers who represent the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and dissenting Christians (who believe in a personal, non-institutional form of Christianity). Swift uses his satire and fiction writing abilities to make his point that Anglicism is the happy medium between the egotistic individualism of other Protestants and the rigid institutionalism of the Catholic church.
  • Swift's The Battle of the Books (1704), published along with A Tale of a Tub, is a satire about the purpose of history, which Swift believed was not to pile up facts and events but to develop a moral philosophy. Swift pits ancient books against modern ones in a war that takes place in a library.
  • Utopia by Thomas More (1516) is a classic work of western philosophy. Saint Thomas More wrote this blueprint for an ideal human society in the form of a dialogue between More and a fictional traveler, Raphael Hythlodaeus, who describes a foreign country where the inhabitants's customs bring out the best in their people.
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1865 and 1872 respectively) are, like Gulliver's Travels, works of satire disguised as children's adventure stories. Both books are fantastical stories about a little girl named Alice who travels through absurd worlds, having fallen down a rabbit hole or stepped into a mirror.
  • Candide by Francois Voltaire (1759) is a funny, satirical novel about a simple fellow named Candide who learns from his travels and his teacher, Pangloss, to be less idealistic and more pragmatic. He learns that work is rewarding and decides that everything is not for the best after all.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain (1889) is a satirical story about a young man, Hank Morgan, who wakes up in England during King Arthur's reign after suffering a blow to the head. He tries to bring democracy to feudal England with less-than-desirable results.

The two levels of meaning, the adventure and the satire, come from Swift's use of a popular kind of literature, the travel narrative. It is important to remember while reading Gulliver's Travels that Swift's world was very different from ours. Captain Cook had not yet sailed around the world; he would not be born until 1728. Lewis and Clark would not head west across North America for another seventy years, and much of the continent was still inhabited only by Native American tribes. It was not unusual to be the first westerners to discover new islands (the Dutch found Easter Island in 1722), to make the first maps of a coast, or to find strange and exotic people, plants, and animals. The eighteenth-century public was as excited to read about travels to strange lands such as Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as North and South America, as the twentieth-century public is to hear about celebrities. They were also used to a wider diversity of reading material, and, because it was so hard to prove things were true, were more comfortable with not knowing whether a story was fiction or not.

The travel narrative did more than allow Swift to create an exciting "true" story, however. It also gave him a way to criticize the familiar world of eighteenth-century England. Swift "defamiliarized" aspects of English life such as political or social practices by having Gulliver describe them to people who had never encountered them before, or as if they were things he had never seen before. In some cases, this defamiliarization is amusing. When the Lilliputians search Gulliver's pockets, for example, they find a "Globe, half Silver, and half some transparent Metal: For on the transparent Side we saw certain strange Figures circularly drawn, and thought we could touch them, until we found our Fingers stopped with that lucid Substance. He put this Engine to our Ears, which made an incessant Noise like that of a Water-Mill." What is this unusual object? A pocket watch. By making aspects of England such as fashions or the government seem strange to Gulliver or the people he meets, Swift could make those aspects seem strange to his readers, which in turn could make readers see how silly or bad these aspects of their lives really were.

But with his unreliable narrator, Gulliver, Swift could also extend his satire from the foolish things people do to the way they judge and think. When Swift wishes to criticize violence and wars, he has Gulliver describe something very comfortable and familiar to English readers—gunpowder—to someone who knows nothing about it. The response forces readers to question what they otherwise accept as part of life. Gulliver describes how the English put "Powder into large hollow Balls of Iron, and discharged them by an Engine into some City we were besieging; which would rip up the Pavement, tear the Houses to Pieces, burst and throw Splinters on every Side, dashing out the Brains of all who came near." The King of Brobdingnag does not react as Gulliver or the reader expects: "The King was struck with horror at the Description I had given of those terrible Engines, and the Proposal I had made. He was amazed how so impotent and groveling an Insect as I (these were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a Manner as to appear wholly unmoved at the Scenes of Blood and Desolation, which I had painted…." Confronted with the King's reaction, the reader can recognize that blowing people up really is appalling.

Swift uses perspective as his main theme. In the first two books, Gulliver himself is the wrong size, and Swift exploits the possibilities of Gulliver's inevitable difficulty in perceiving. In Lilliput, where Gulliver is so much bigger than everyone else, he has an exaggerated sense of his own importance and in the correctness of his understanding. In Brobdingnag, where he is so much smaller, Gulliver struggles to make everyone take him seriously. In the second two books, Gulliver thinks differently from the people he meets. The Laputans, for example, prize reason and the scientific method above even common sense, and even Gulliver understands the foolishness of his hosts. In Book IV, however, Gulliver is sucked in by the Houyhnhnms' (whin-hims) philosophy. Seduced into accepting a false either-or (he must be either a Yahoo or a Houyhnhnm, according to the Houyhnhnms, but in fact he is a third creature, a human), Gulliver becomes as extreme as the Laputans, learning to hate humanity, especially himself. Throughout Gulliver's Travels, Swift challenges his readers' acceptance of social, political, military, economic, and philosophical practices, and he concludes by reminding his readers of the frailty and foolishness involved in simply being human.

Book IV, the Voyage to Houyhnhnm-land, is considered the darkest and most controversial part of Gulliver's Travels. Critics disagree about how much of Lemuel Gulliver's hatred for humanity is really Jonathan Swift's hatred for humanity. This disagreement involves two issues: 1) how much of Gulliver can we equate with Swift, and 2) how should we read the end of Gulliver's Travels? Critics sometimes call Gulliver a "persona " for Swift, meaning that Gulliver is a mask which Swift can put on and from behind which he can make certain critical statements. Most scholars, however, agree that Gulliver is not a persona but a character who occasionally gets to say things Swift really means, but more often says things that are the opposite of what Swift means.

The question, how we are to understand the last book, has caused much disagreement among readers since it first appeared in print. There are two ways of reading the message at the end of Book IV, the end of Gulliver's Travels: the "hard" and the "soft" readings. The hard reading says that Swift and Gulliver agree about how horrible humanity is and that our last view of Gulliver, stopping his nose with tobacco to avoid smelling other people and afraid to socialize with other " yahoos," is Swift's pronouncement on humanity. Gulliver's description of his happiness living with the Houyhnhnms is an indictment of human society: with the Houyhnhnms, he says, "I did not feel the Treach-ery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the injuries of a secret or open Enemy. I had no occasion for 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 … " and so on.

The soft reading takes a very different stand. In this view, Gulliver is the butt of the joke just as other characters and even Gulliver have been elsewhere (think about his offer of gunpowder to the King of Brobdingnag, for example). His refusal to participate in human society is the result of his own unbalanced thinking, a cardinal sin in Swift's book. Instead of accurately depicting his fellow creatures as neither angels nor brutes and beasts, this reading says that Gulliver paints them with the unsubtle and unreliable brush of a fanatic. His daily conversations with his horses back in England are not the inevitable retreat forced on the sensitive man by the world, but a ridiculous affectation of a silly man.

The hard and soft readings are both functions of an anxiety that saturates and motivates Gulliver's Travels. After all, satire is the result of someone believing something is wrong with the world. While critics may disagree whether satire is positive—in other words, that it provokes improvement—or negative—in other words, that all it does is complain—they do agree that satire is the result of concern and dissatisfaction. Swift takes on issues that range all over the map of life, from politics and science to women's education and the production of literature. And although he was thinking of the problems facing the English at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Swift's combination of urgent social concern, creative imagination, and the possibilities of literary form appeals to readers of all ages and outlooks. It reminds us that great literature tells us as much about those who create it as it does about ourselves.

Dennis Todd

In the following excerpt, Todd draws parallels between the strange and alien sights Gulliver experiences during his travels and the popular entertainments of Bartholomew Fair, an area of early eighteenth-century London which put dwarfs, giants, and other "monsters" on display. The critic shows how Gulliver is similarly treated as a monster during his journey, and argues that Gulliver accepts and even encourages this role in order to distinguish himself as an individual.

When Gulliver first appears on the shores of the several remote nations he visits, the inhabitants respond to his monstrosity much as Londoners responded to monsters at Bartholomew Fair. The Lilliputians show "a thousand Marks of Wonder and Astonishment" when they first see him, and when he rises to his feet, "the Noise and Astonishment of the People … [were] not to be expressed." In Brobdingnag, Gulliver "was shewn ten Times a Day to the Wonder and Satisfaction of all People." The Laputans "beheld [him] with all the Marks and Circumstances of Wonder." Not even the rational Houyhnhnms are immune to astonishment: "The Horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself, looked full in my Face with manifest Tokens of Wonder."

These first reactions give way to another, equally mindless response. Astonishment and wonder are succeeded by a desire to be diverted—most obviously in Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is trundled around the country like dwarfs were in England, but also in Lilliput, where the king uses Gulliver like the kings of Europe used giants, as a way of "diverting himself and of "entertaining the Court." And the Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver reports "brought me into all Company, and made them treat me with Civility, because, as he told them privately, this would put me in good Humour, and make me more diverting."

Turning Gulliver into a diversion is a way of neutralizing the threat of his monstrous difference, a way of managing the radically alien so that it does not disrupt the comforting assurances of the usual. Tied down in Lilliput, Gulliver is addressed by one of the officials:

… I saw a Stage erected about a Foot and a half from the Ground, capable of holding four of the Inhabitants, with two or three Ladders to mount it: From whence one of them, who seemed to be a Person of Quality, made me a long Speech, whereof I understood not one syllable. This is a deliciously ludicrous moment, for to give a "long Speech" to a monster who obviously does not understand a word of it is to insist on the unexpungeable truth of the normal with a tenacity that verges on the solipsistic. But this is the strategy of the inhabitants in all the lands he visits. He is effortlessly assimilated into each society, leaving their quotidian realities unperturbed.

To be sure, very occasionally some of the creatures are willing to see Gulliver as a monstrous Other whom they allow, if not radically to critique or disrupt their own familiar reality, at least to comment on it. Like the Brobdingnagian king before him, the Houyhnhnm master is willing to listen to Gulliver because he thought "that it was no Shame to Learn Wisdom from Brutes, as Industry is taught by the Ant, and Building by the Swallow." But even the Houyhnhnms have their limits. They do learn from Gulliver the technique of castration that they can apply to their own local problem of pest control, but they appear to learn nothing at all about the confines of their own structures of thought and value that are exposed by the fact that the mere existence of Gulliver causes unprecedented puzzlement and disagreement. And so, in the end, all the creatures turn from his monstrosity and ignore what he might have to tell them about themselves.

In his encounter with monsters, Gulliver reacts much more complexly and in a greater variety of ways. Further, he tends (though this is not invariable) to react to the monstrous inhabitants he visits just oppositely from the way the inhabitants react to him, their monstrous visitor. If they assimilate him, thus leaving intact and unquestioned their own sense of the normal, he tends to take the monsters as normative and to assimilate into himself their realities. And yet, for all of this apparent openness to their difference, he gains no more self-knowledge from his dealings with monsters than they do from their dealings with him.

Gulliver achieves no awareness because in his dealings with monsters he is always anxious about his own identity, always caught up (like the gawkers at Bartholomew Fair) in the various strategies of defense against humiliating self-knowledge. Something of a paradigm of his psychology is revealed when he first sees the Brobdingnagians in the beginning of Book II:

I bemoaned my desolate Widow, and Fatherless Children: I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second Voyage against the Advice of all my Friends and Relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose Inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the World; where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my Hand, and perform those other Actions which will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire, while Posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by Millions. I reflected what a Mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this Nation, as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my Misfortunes; For, as human Creatures are observed to be more Savage and cruel in Proportion to their Bulk, what could I expect but to be a Morsel in the Mouth of the first among these enormous Barbarians who should happen to seize me. There are several peculiar features in this passage, not the least of which, given the context, is Gulliver's use of the word "mortification." For at this moment, he is on the brink of a literal death, fearful that he is about to be made "a Morsel in the Mouth" of the Brobdingnagians, who, like Grim Reapers, are advancing on him "with Reaping-Hooks in their Hands, each Hook about the largeness of six Scythes." But in the face of this death, Gulliver dwells on another kind of "mortification," and the fact that the two are linked by association in his mind (and by etymology in Swift's) is suggestive. For Gulliver's encounter with monsters at this moment precipitates anxieties about his personal identity. The sight of the Brobdingnagians causes him to swing hysterically from fears of the loss of his identity, "mortification," the "death" of the self, to hypertrophied fantasies of immortality (he thinks his actions "will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire"). And he swings so violently because he has delivered his sense of his own identity over to others. He is as he is perceived. To be "mortified" is to be seen as "inconsiderable"; to be "the greatest Prodigy" is to be so "attested by Millions." And the double meaning of "prodigy" reveals both the direction Gulliver takes to achieve a comfortable identity and the cost he is willing to pay to achieve it: in order to be distinguished, he is willing to play the monster.

For these reasons, it seems to me that throughout the book most of Gulliver's misperceptions of the significance of the creatures and events he witnesses in these remote nations, his inability to see any important relation between them and himself, his skewed and partial judgments, and his loopy misinterpretations seldom arise from naiveté or stupidity. For if his encounters with monsters provoke a blurring of his identity, these varieties of mis-seeings become ways, often unconscious, by which he reconstructs a sense of himself that he finds pleasing.

This strategy is most obvious in Book I. Gulliver quickly loses sense of the Lilliputians' monstrosity, accepting their perceptions and finally their values as normal, for to see the world as the Lilliputians see it is to see himself to considerable advantage. He can think of himself as having "performed … Wonders" simply by eating and drinking, and he can take pride in urinating, watching with awe that "Torrent which fell with such Noise and Violence from me." And so he willingly plays the monster. He begins "entertaining the Court with … Feats." He is pleased that he can find a way to "divert" the emperor and nobility "after a very extraordinary Manner" by turning his handkerchief into an exercise field. He willingly yields to the king's "fancy of diverting himself by acting the colossus. The longer he stays in Lilliput, the more he can entertain fantasies of what "so prodigious a Creature … I must appear to them." And the more deeply he implicates himself in the Lilliputian point of view, the more he can see himself as superior not only physically but socially as well. He fails to see the patent physical absurdity in the charge that he has had an affair with a Lilliputian lady not because he is stupid but because it is more flattering to mis-see it in this way; he can revel in visions of himself at the center of court society ("I have often had four Coaches and Horses at once on my table full of Company," he says, proving that the visits by the lady were by no means unique) and as an important player in Lilliputian social and court politics ("I had the Honour to be a Nardac, which the Treasurer himself is not; for all the World knows he is only a Clum-glum").

One can see Gulliver's strategy in little in the scene in which the Blefuscudian ministers ask him "to shew them some Proofs of [his] prodigious Strength, of which they had heard so many Wonders." Gulliver readily complies:

When I had for some time entertained their Excellencies to their infinite Satisfaction and Surprize, I desired they would do me the Honour to present my most humble Respects to the Emperor their Master, the Renown of whose Virtues had so justly filled the whole World with Admiration, and whose Royal Person I resolved to attend before I returned to my own Country. Accordingly, the next time I had the Honour to see our Emperor, I desired his general licence to wait on the Blefuscudian Monarch.First, Gulliver has normalized the monsters, fully assimilating himself into their point of view ("our Emperor"). He then attributes to them an inflated stature that is in no ways theirs ("whose Virtues had so justly filled the whole World with Admiration"). He then performs before them, seeing himself as he fancies they see him ("I entertained their Excellencies to their Infinite Satisfaction and Surprize"). From this he reaps "Honour" and "Admiration"—indeed, the honor and admiration mean something only because he has previously attributed to the monsters a worthiness that makes their honor and admiration worth receiving….

To be distinguished, Gulliver has made a spectacle of himself. He has not engaged in the dialectic of monstrosity at all. Refusing to see in the Lilliputians their monstrosity, their sheer difference, he cannot see their monstrous sameness to humans. And not recognizing in their pettiness, vainglory, and power hunger this monstrous identity, Gulliver allows himself to be governed by precisely these same passions and hence becomes a monster—literally, by "entertaining the Court with … Feats" and allowing the king to use him as a way of "diverting himself and morally by allowing his vanity to seduce him into the inanities of the Lilliputian social hierarchy and, even worse, into becoming an engine of war.

Gulliver's encounters with monsters are never this simple again. In Brobdingnag, he is so obviously treated as a monster that he himself complains of "being exposed for Money as a publick Spectacle" and of "the Ignominy of being carried about for a Monster." After Lilliput, Gulliver is increasingly mortified. His sense of his identity is continually under attack: he is "mortified" that the "smaller Birds" were not afraid of him, acting as if he were "no Creature at all"; he feels his "most Uneasiness" among the Maids of Honor, who treated him "like a Creature who had no Sort of Consequence." The Struldbruggs are "the most mortifying Sight" he had ever beheld. And among the Houyhnhnms, he is always haunted by his sense of identity with that "ugly Monster," the Yahoo. He is made so conscious of monstrosity both without and within that he can no longer deal in the easy self-deceptions by which he had fashioned his identity in Lilliput.

Still, he does manage his mortifying encounters with monsters by drawing from a repertoire of defenses. At times, he uses simple denial. It is not until he leaves Brobdingnag that he calls his traveling box what it really is, a "Dungeon," instead of what he usually calls it while he is in Brobdingnag, a "convenient Closet," and he never does allow himself to become aware that Glumdalclitch has treated him like a doll. At other times, he simply converts his mortification into anger against others. "Mortified" by the dwarf, Gulliver attacks him for his small stature. Classed among the "little odious Vermin" by the king of Brobdingnag, Gulliver condemns the king's "Short Views" for refusing the secret of gunpowder.

Gulliver even continues to try to play the monster, which worked so well in Lilliput. He voluntarily performs for his royal patrons, pleased that the Brobdingnagian queen was "agreeably entertained with my Skill and agility" when he performed his "Diversion" of rowing a boat, pleased that it was her "Diversion … to see me eat in Miniature." His stunts, particularly his flourishing his sword ("wherein my Dexterity was much admired,"), jumping over cow dung, playing the piano, and even dressing himself, recall the compensatory feats deformed dwarfs performed at Bartholomew Fair…. Such diverting tricks have their rewards. Gulliver thinks that he has "become a Favourite" and fancies that he is "esteemed among the greatest Officers." He even entertains the extraordinary notion that he "might live to do his Majesty some signal Service."

And yet such defenses become more and more insufficient. "I was the Favourite of a great King and Queen, and the Delight of the whole Court," he says of his tenure in Brobdingnag; "but it was on such a Foot as ill became the Dignity of human Kind." Increasingly, Gulliver seems incapable of silencing the voices of the monsters, and he begins to entertain "Mortifying Reflections." He realizes that the Brobdingnagians are a reproach to the petty pride of Europeans, including himself. By the end of his stay in Brobdingnag, having been surrounded by "such prodigious Objects," Gulliver "could never endure to look in a Glass … because the Comparison gave me so dispicable a Conceit of my self."

Gulliver's self-loathing and misanthropy culminate in Book IV, of course, and to all appearances he seems to enter into the full dialectic of monsters, recognizing in the Yahoos their secret alliance with himself. Initially, he sees the Yahoo as a complete Other: "singular" and "deformed," an "ugly Monster," it appears to be a species other than man. Even after Gulliver recognizes in the Yahoo the "perfect human Figure," he resists identifying it with himself, insisting on distinguishing it from "my own Species." But Gulliver's certitude about what constitutes "my own Species" begins to erode. The more he observes the Yahoos, the more the two species begin to merge in his mind, and in spite of his attempt to keep them separate, he quietly elides them, so that he unselfconsciously begins to call humans Yahoos, and before too long, when he refers to "my own Species," he means "European Yahoos." By the end of his stay with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver believes that humans are Yahoos, and it is within the Yahoo species that he finally classifies himself ("I [am] a poor Yahoo," he tells the Portuguese crew when they find him on the island). His final assessment of man is that he is a "Lump of Deformity," exactly like the "deformed" and "ugly Monster," the Yahoo. His identification of the two species is complete, and he appears to be consumed by self-disgust: "When I happened to behold the Reflection of my own Form in a Lake or Fountain, I turned away my Face in Horror and detestation of my self; and could better endure the Sight of a common Yahoo, than of my own Person."

And yet, for all of his mortification, Gulliver never once truly entertains those "Mortifying Reflections" that Congreve did. Gulliver's apparent acknowledgment of the identity between the Yahoos and himself, it turns out, is his most elaborate defense. Indeed, Gulliver's willingness to see an identity between the two species is suspicious, if for no other reason than that, after his first gestures of resistance, he begins to pursue it with so much relish. Initially, of course, he is appalled. He hears the Houyhnhnms call him Yahoo "to my everlasting mortification." In Brobdingnag, when Gulliver was "mortified," his first impulse (in fantasy, at any rate) was to make himself singular in order to distinguish himself. And this is his initial reaction among the Houyhnhnms. Mortified to learn that the master Houyhnhnm identifies him with that species of monsters, Gulliver conceals the secret of this clothing "in order to distinguish myself as much as possible, from that cursed Race of Yahoos."

But soon, Gulliver no longer tries to distinguish himself. In fact, he presses for the identity. When he is assaulted by the female Yahoo, the incident becomes "Matter of Diversion to my Master and his Family, as well as of Mortification to my self"—but this is a "Mortification" that Gulliver has sought out (and one, significantly, that has led to someone else's "Diversion"). He has purposefully titillated himself by toying with the identification, much as the monster-mongers in London titillated their viewers with the promise of a hidden identity between them and the monsters: "And I have Reason to believe, [the Yahoos] had some Imagination that I was one of their own Species, which I often assisted myself, by stripping up my Sleeves, and shewing my naked Arms and Breast in their Sight." It is an identity he seeks with enthusiasm.

As I ought to have understood human Nature much better than I supposed it possible for my Master to do, so it was easy to apply the Character he gave of the Yahoos to myself and to my Countrymen; and I believe I could yet make farther Discoveries from my own Observation. I therefore often begged his Honour to let me go among the Herds of Yahoos in the Neighbourhood.

Armed with his observations, Gulliver returns to teach his master Houyhnhnm the truth that man is a Yahoo. Now, why Gulliver would "give so free a Representation of my own Species, among a Race of Mortals who were already too apt to conceive the vilest Opinion of Human Kind, from that entire Congruity betwixt me and their Yahoos" becomes clearer and clearer as Book IV draws to a close:

At fisrt, I did not feel that natural Awe which the Yahoos and all other Animals bear toward [the Horyhnhnms]; but it grew upon me by Degrees, much sooner than I imagined, and was mingled with a respectful Love and Gratitude, that they would condescend to distinguish me from the rest of my Species. "To distinguish me from the rest of my Species": here is the motive for Gulliver's misanthropy and self-loathing. In order to be distinguished, Gulliver must first identify himself and humankind with the Yahoos; once having done that, he can then distinguish himself from the identity he himself has created by conspicuously doing those things Yahoos cannot do: be self-critical, judge himself, loath his own nature. By identifying himself with the Yahoos, and then by attacking both them and himself, Gulliver distinguishes himself not only from the Yahoos but from the "self he claims to be, for he makes himself superior to that "self by condemning it.

In Book IV, Swift reveals that self-loathing can become a mechanism of self-love, that self-love can turn the dialectic of monster-viewing into a parody where the identification of the self with monsters becomes a way to deny any truly "Mortifying Reflections." But for all of its knotted intricacy, Gulliver's final construction of his identity is merely a variation on all his earlier constructions. When he takes leave of the master Houyhnhnm, Gulliver "was going to prostrate myself to kiss his Hoof, but he did me the Honour to raise it gently to my Mouth," and Gulliver is besmitten "that so illustrious a Person should descend to give so great a Mark of Distinction to a Creature so inferior as I." From the beginning, Gulliver has been driven by this desire for "Distinction," and throughout he has been willing to play the monster in order to be distinguished. In so doing, he really does become a monster, for Gulliver is proud that he "passed for a Prodigy" among the Houyhnhnms, proud that they "looked upon it as a Prodigy, that a brute Animal should discover such Marks of a rational Creature." And he makes sure that he continues to pass for a prodigy by identifying himself with the monstrous Yahoos in order to distinguish himself from them. In the end, he becomes to the Houyhnhnm, as well as to himself, the "wonderful Yahoo," the epithet recalling all those wonderful monsters that were on show at Bartholomew Fair.

Back in England, when he is laughed at for imitating the Houyhnhnms' gait and whinny, he can "hear [himself] ridiculed … without the least Mortification" because he has perfected an identity that has put him beyond mortification. Of course, in doing so, he has had to define himself out of the human species (as he reveals with the slip of his pen in the very last sentence he writes when he tells Sympson that he fears he shall be corrupted by continuing to associate with "your Species"). Gulliver, therefore, becomes, like a Yahoo, a true monster, utterly "singular," outside all species. And so it is appropriate that when he returns to England he, like all monsters, is plagued by "the Concourse of curious People coming to him at his House in Redriff."

Source: Dennis Todd, "The Hairy Maid at the Harpsichord: Some Speculations on the Meaning of Gulliver's Travels," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 239-283.

Robert C. Elliott

In the following excerpt, Elliott argues that Gulliver, an unreliable narrator who attacks others for his own faults, and who fails to make any distinctions between man in the particular and man in the abstract, is as great an object of satire as the beings he observes on his journeys.

If we ask who is the satirist of Gulliver's Travels, the answer obviously is Swift—or, if he is not "of Gulliver's Travels, he is the satirist who creates the satire of Gulliver's Travels. But in the extended sense of the term we are familiar with Gulliver is also a satirist….

This of course is the Gulliver of the Fourth Voyage, worlds removed from the ship's surgeon who was charmed with the Lilliputians and quick with praise of "my own dear native Country." That Gulliver, he of the early voyages, is so far from being a satirist that he is often the butt par excellence of satire: Swift's satire, of course, and, within the work, the King of Brobdingnag's; but also, in a sense, of his own—his, that is, when he is an old man, sitting down to unaccustomed literary labors to compose his memoirs….

The Gulliver who writes, then, is Gulliver the misanthrope who stuffs his nose with tobacco leaves and keeps a long table between himself and his wife. It is he who "creates" the ship's surgeon—a man capable of longing for the tongue of Demosthenes so that he may celebrate his country in a style equal to its unparalleled merits. Given the emotional and intellectual imbalance of the old seaman, he is remarkably successful in producing an objective portrait of himself as he was in time long past.

The actual, as opposed to the fictive, situation, of course, is that Swift has created two dominant points of view to control the materials of the Travels: that of his favorite ingénu (the younger Gulliver) and that of the misanthrope. The technique has obvious advantages. An ingénu is a superb agent of indirect satire as he roams the world uncritically recording or even embracing the folly which it is the satirist's business to undermine…. On the other hand, a misanthrope can develop all the great power of direct, hyperbolic criticism. By allowing Gulliver, an uncritical lover of man, to become an uncritical hater of man, Swift has it both ways.

The technique is not that of the novelist, however. Swift pays little regard to psychological consistency; Gulliver's character can hardly be said to develop; it simply changes. If one takes seriously the premise that Gulliver writes his memoirs after his rebirth, then many passages in the early voyages turn out to be inconsistent and out of character. "There are," says Gulliver of Lilliput, "some Laws and Customs in this Empire very peculiar; and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear Country, I should be tempted to say a little in their Justification." … (The laws from Swift's point of view, from the point of view of reason, are excellent.) Here Gulliver is trapped in a conflict between his patriotism and his reason; as he is an ingénu his patriotism wins. But note the tense: "I should be tempted"; that is, now—at the time of writing. Given this tense, and given the logic of the controlling situation, it must follow that this is the utterance of Gulliver as he composes the work. At the time he writes, however, Gulliver is committed so irrevocably to the claims of reason that the appeal of patriotism could not possibly have meaning for him—could not, that is, if we assume general consistency in Gulliver's character….

To define one's life, one enumerates the solid, unproblematic facts that have gone to make it, and one uses solid, unproblematic sentences—simple and straightforward as one's own character….

The lack of modulation is striking. The predominantly declarative sentences set out the things that happen in their concrete particularity, piling them up but making no differentiation among them. There is something monstrous in the way that Gulliver can describe the taking of a geographical fix, the deaths of twelve seamen, the wreck of the ship, the loss of his companions, his inability to sit up after his sleep ashore—all in sentences similar in structure and identical in tone. Ordinarily, by his style a writer judges his material, places it for his reader in the context of moral experience. Here, the lack of modulation in the style is a moral commentary on the writer—on Gulliver….

But while we may equate the impassivity of tone with an impassivity of sensibility, we are overwhelmed by the impression of Gulliver's commitment to hard, undeniable fact. Dr. Johnson speaks finely of Swift's "vigilance of minute attention"; we see it most impressively as Gulliver records his reaction to the Lilliputians. The pages are peppered with citations of numbers, figures, dimensions: I count over thirty such citations in the last three paragraphs of Chapter One, each figure increasing our sense of the reality of the scene; for nothing, we tend to think, is so real as number…. Swift (not Gulliver, now) is parodying the life-style that finds its only meaning in things, that lives entirely in the particularity of externals, without being able to discriminate among them. This explains in part the function of the scatological passages of Parts I and II which have been found so offensive. The style also helps prepare for the satire on language theory in Part III. But, parody or no, Gulliver's style is a marvellous instrument for narration, building easily and with increasing fluidity the substantiality of his world.

Gulliver, then, succeeds in the novelist's great task of creating the illusion of reality. But again we must recall that he is not a novelist. The reality he creates is one of externals only. He does not create a sense of reality about himself—or rather, to step now outside the framework of the Travels, Swift does not create a sense of reality about Gulliver. Gulliver is not a character in the sense that Tom Jones, say, is a character. He has the most minimal subjective life; even his passion at the end is hardly rooted in personality. He is, in fact, an abstraction, manipulated in the service of satire….

The paucity of Gulliver's inner life needs little documentation. To be sure, he is shown as decent and kindly and honorable, at the beginning: we are delighted with his stalwart vindication of the honor of the Treasurer's wife, whom malicious gossip accused of having an affair with him. But his life is primarily of the senses. He sees—how superbly he sees!—he hears, smells, feels. Poke him and he twitches; but there is little evidence of rational activity. The leaping and creeping contest at the Lilliputian court is a diversion for him, nothing more; he sees no resemblance between it and practices in any other court in the world. Except for an occasional (dramatically inconsistent) episode where he is startled into an expression of bitterness, Gulliver's is a life without nuance. The nuances are there, of course, everywhere, but must be supplied by the reader….

[The] over-riding function [of the climactic two chapters of the fourth voyage] is to develop with cold implacability the horror of English civilization as Gulliver sees it….

Against the destructiveness of Gulliver's onslaught, we look for the kind of positives that are evident in the episode of the Brobdingnagian King. We naturally turn to the Houyhnhnms who represent to Gulliver (and surely in some sense to Swift) one pole of an antinomy: "The Perfection of Nature" over against the repulsiveness of Yahoo-man. Both Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms are at pains to point out wherein Houyhnhnm perfection lies. It is first physical: Gulliver is lost in awe of the "Strength, Comeliness and Speed" of the horses, whereas he can view his own person only with detestation…. Houyhnhnm perfection is next mental: the horses' lives are "wholly governed" by reason, an infallible faculty, at least to the degree that there is nothing "problematical" about it; reason strikes them with immediate conviction, so that opinion and controversy are unknown. Their perfection is finally moral. They lead austere lives devoted to temperance, industry, and cleanliness; they have no idea of what is evil in a rational creature, have no vice, no lusts, and their passions are firmly controlled by the rational faculty. Their principal virtues are friendship and benevolence, which extend to the whole race; and love as we understand it is unknown. For Gulliver the Houyhnhnms are the repository of all that is good.

Here are positives in abundance, the only question being whether they are unqualifiedly Swift's positives. Most critics have felt that they are and that Gulliver's Travels (to say nothing of Swift's character) suffers thereby….

It seems likely that a close reading of Gulliver's fourth voyage is such a shocking experience as to anesthetize the feeling for the ludicrous of even the most sensitive readers (perhaps particularly the most sensitive readers). I do not mean to deny the horror of the work, which is radical; but the horror is ringed, as it were, by Swift's mocking laughter. For example, Coleridge is outraged at the way "the horse discourses on the human frame with the grossest prejudices that could possibly be inspired by vanity and self-opinion." Human limbs, Coleridge stoutly insists, are much better suited for climbing and for managing tools than are fetlocks. Swift lacks "reverence for the original frame of man." True, Swift did lack reverence for human clay; but he also wrote the scene of the Houyhnhnm's denigration of the human body as comedy. It is very funny. It is a kind of parody of the eighteenth century's concern over man's coveting various attributes of the animals, "the strength of bulls, the fur of bears." It is even connected, as we shall see, with the theme of man's coveting supra-human reason…. The equine chauvinism of the Houyhnhnms, amusing as it is, undercuts their authority; it must raise doubts in our minds about their adequacy as guides to human excellence, to say nothing of the adequacy of Gulliver, who wants to become a horse and whose capacities in matters requiring moral and intellectual discrimination have not been such as to inspire confidence.

Our dubieties are likely to be strengthened by a careful reading of the last part of the voyage. Although Gulliver presumes to doubt the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm decision to banish him, he builds his canoe of Yahoo skins and prepares, brokenhearted, to sail into exile…. He reaches an island, where he is the victim of an unprovoked attack by savages who wound him with an arrow, and is then picked up, against his will, by Portuguese sailors. An odd situation arises here if we remember that it is the misanthropic Gulliver who is writing his memoirs. It is he who in describing the Portuguese insists on their admirable qualities…. Captain Pedro de Mendez "was a very courteous and generous Person"; in his dealings with Gulliver he is shown consistently to be a wise and compassionate man. Yet Gulliver is unable to distinguish morally between the savages who had wounded him and this human being whose benevolence is worthy Houyhnhnm-land. Because the Captain is a man (a Yahoo in Gulliver's terms), Gulliver is perpetually on the verge of fainting at his mere presence…. But the Gulliver who is writing (five years, he says, after his return to England) is of precisely the same mind. He shows not the slightest compunction at his earlier fierce denial of spiritual kinship with the Portuguese; he still stuffs his nose against the hated smell of humanity, keeps a long table between his wife and himself, and talks willingly only to horses.

The violence of Gulliver's alienation, his demand … for the absolute, incapacitate him for what Lionel Trilling calls the "common routine" of life—that feeling for the ordinary, the elemental, the enduring which validates all tragic art. Each of Gulliver's voyages begins with a departure from the common routine, each ends with a return to it…. This commonplace family represents a fixed point of stability and calm in Gulliver's life, a kind of norm of humble though enduring human values. Gulliver comes from this life, his early literary style is an emblem of it; and it is against the background given by the common routine that his wild rejection shows so startlingly….

In short, Gulliver's idée fixe is tested in the world of human experience. The notion that all men are Yahoos cannot accommodate a Don Pedro de Mendez any more than it can accommodate the long-suffering family at Redriff. But this is our own ironic insight, unavailable to Gulliver, who has never been capable of evaluating the significance of his own experience. Gulliver persistently moulds the world according to his idea of it, instead of moulding his idea according to the reality of things—which must include the Portuguese. Such behavior defines comic absurdity as Bergson expounds it. In other contexts this kind of "inversion of common sense" is characteristic of insanity….

The last words of Gulliver's memoir are part of the complex process of discrediting his vision of the world. He ends with a virulent diatribe against pride, a sin of which he himself is conspicuously guilty. [He] whips his own faults in other men….

Gulliver's great function is to lay bare the rottenness at the core of human institutions and to show man what, in Gulliver's view, he is: an animal cursed with enough reason to make him more repulsive and more dangerous than the Yahoos. Satirists have always used the transforming power of language to reduce man to the level of the beast, but few have debased man as systematically and as ruthlessly as does Gulliver. To find parallels one must go to the theologians…. It would be possible in that case to think of Gulliver as a satirist of man within the Christian tradition. But Swift, as this essay has tried to show, writes as a humanist, not as a theologian. His satire undercuts Gulliver's vision of man, which is shown dramatically, concretely, to be incommensurate with man's total experience. The vision, to be sure, has a certain abstract cogency, and in Houyhnhnm-land it carries conviction; but Gulliver … fails to assume the human burden of discriminating morally between man in the abstract and John, Peter, Thomas, and Don Pedro de Mendez. Swift, in life and in this work, insists upon that responsibility.

This reading of Gulliver's Travels dissolves a logical paradox. Insofar as Gulliver's vision of man obtains, Swift is implicated: if all men are Yahoos, the creator of Gulliver is a Yahoo among the rest, and Gulliver's Travels (and all literary works whatsoever) are no more than the noisome braying of an odious beast. As a clergyman, there is a sense in which Swift might have accepted those implications; but as a humanist and an author he could not. He could accept his own involvement in the great range of human folly which Gulliver avidly depicts, but he could not accept the total Yahoodom of man.

Source: Robert C. Elliott, "The Satirist Satirized: Studies of the Great Misanthropes," in his Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, Princeton University Press, 1960, pp. 130-222.


Michael Foote, Introduction to Gulliver's Travels (includes quotes from early reviews), Penguin Books, 1985.

William Hazlitt, "On Swift, Young, Gray, Collins, Etc.," in his Lectures on the English Poets, 1818, reprinted by Oxford University Press, 1924, pp. 160-89.

Samuel Holt Monk, "The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver," in Gulliver's Travels: A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Edition, edited by Robert A. Greenberg, 1961 and 1970, pp. 312-330.

Sir Walter Scott, extract from The Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Dean of St. Patrick's Dublin: Life of Swift, Vol. 1, 2nd edition, A. Constable & Co., reprinted in Swift: The Critical Heritage, edited by Kathleen Williams, Barnes & Noble, 1970.

William Makepeace Thackeray, in his English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century, Smith, Elder & Co., 1853, reprinted in his The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century: The Four Georges, Etc, Macmillan, 1904, pp. 1-32.

For Further Study

Frank Brady, "Vexations and Diversion: Three Problems in 'Gulliver's Travels,'" in Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature, Vol. 75, 1978, pp. 346-367.

A good overview of approaches to Gulliver's Travels and an analysis of the humor, the sense of historical degeneration, and Swift's true intentions. A "soft" school interpretation.

Arthur E. Case, "The Significance of 'Gulliver's Travels,'" in Four Essays on "Gulliver's Travels" Princeton University Press, 1945, pp. 97-126.

A critical assessment of the book Gulliver's Travels.

J. A. Downie, "Political Characterization in 'Gulliver's Travels,'" in Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 7, 1977, pp. 108-120.

Downie argues against the usual reading of Gulliver's Travel s as a political allegory by demonstrating how such a reading fails in all four books.

Jenny Mezciems, "Swift's Praise of Gulliver: Some Renaissance Background to the Travels," in The Character of Swift's Satire: A Revised Focus, edited by Claude Rawson, University of Delaware Press, 1983, pp. 245-281.

A discussion of how Swift used Renaissance genres to write his book.

Frank Palmeri, Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift, G. K. Hall, 1993, pp. 1-10.

A useful collection of essays about Swift, his historical context, and major themes and techniques in his work, including Gulliver's Travels. Palmeri's introduction offers a very fine historical overview of criticism about Swift.

Ricardo Quintana, "'Gulliver's Travels': Sine Structural Properties and Certain Questions of Critical Approach and Interpretation," in The Character of Swift's Satire: A Revised Focus, edited by Claude Rawson, University of Delaware Press, 1983, pp. 282-304.

An excellent summary of formal and interpretive issues and a discussion of the main interpretations to date.

Edward J. Rielly, editor, Approaches to Teaching Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels', The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

An extremely useful guide, containing descriptions of materials for teaching the text, discussions of different methods for introducing students to the issues in the work, examinations of several themes and issues, and a survey of assignments and syllabi to be used in conjunction with the book.

Richard H. Rodino, "'Splendide Mendax': Authors, Characters, and Readers in 'Gulliver's Travels,'" in PMLA: Publication of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 106, No. 5, 1991, pp. 1054-1070.

A study of Gulliver and his relationship with language, writing, and readers to explain how the book can support both the hard and the soft interpretations.

Pat Rogers, "Introduction," Gulliver's Travels (includes quotes from early reviews), Everyman's Library Edition, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991.

An overview of the history of Gulliver's Travels, its writing, influences on it, and critical responses to it.

Peter J. Schakel, editor, Critical Approaches to Teaching Swift, AMS Press, 1992.

A collection of essays that model different critical approaches to reader Jonathan Swift's work. There are several essays on Gulliver's Travels and a bibliography for teachers.

Frederik N. Smith, "Vexing Voices: The Telling of Gulliver's Story," in Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1985, pp. 383-398.

Smith examines the relationship between Jonathan Swift and Lemuel Gulliver, questioning whether we should read Gulliver as a spokesman for Swift.

Frederik N. Smith, editor, The Genres of 'Gulliver's Travels', University of Delaware Press, 1990.

A collection of essays discussing the influence of different eighteenth-century genres, such as travel narratives and the novel, on the work.

Paul Turner, Introduction to Gulliver's Travels (includes quotes from early reviews), Oxford University Press, 1986.

A helpful overview of the work.

J. K. Welcher, "Gulliver in the Market Place," in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 217, 1983, pp. 125-139.

Welcher describes the book's best-seller status in the eighteenth century, and examines the way capitalism appears in the story.