Gulliver's Travels the classic satire

Gulliver’s Travels1 is one of the most famous novels written in the 18th century. Its writer was the Irish Jonathan Swift. The book is divided in four parts: Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput, Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag, Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, and Glubbdubdrib and Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms.

Gulliver's Travels and its genre

Gulliver's Travels from 17262 is a product of the Ages of Enlightenment. In the same fashion as Robinson Crusoe, the story is presented as a memoir  (like Robinson, Gulliver is also finding himself deserted at an unknown place after a sea expedition had a mishap). It could be seen in the background of the exploration of the New World that was taking place during this historical era.

The novel is also similar to Robinson Crusoe in its way to depict in a realistic style, including detailed descriptions of new discoveries and experiences. When Gulliver for the first meet the peculiar Liliputs they could observe him–and so the human being–from a new perspective: “He said, he could discover great holes in my skin; that the stumps of my beard were ten times stronger than the bristles of a boar”. When Gulliver later visits the giant creatures in Brobdingnag, the experiences are the opposite: he watches the humanlike people whose dimensions are extreme as through a magnifying glass: “Their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously colored”.

The content itself is, however, most certainly unrealistic: the reader will meet the most extraordinary creatures. Jonathan Swift’s intention is not at all to create a science fiction story, the made-up world and the characters that inhabit them is rather to be seen as an allegoric depicting. The book must be read as from a time when the Scientific revolution still was ongoing and the world wasn't geographically as explored as it is today. Yet, the alleged testimonies of discovered places and their inhabits would not be taken all that serious by the most of the readers. Swift was not a complete pioneer in this genre: before Gulliver’s Travels had among others William Dampier published his A New Voyage Round the World.

The strength of Gulliver’s Travels is the imaginative scenarios and situations that occur in the contact with fantastic life and Swift deliver scenarios that we most probably never thought of before.

It can be seen as a satire, and we should therefore take a closer look on what characterize a satire.

Defining satire

Aristotle talks about satire in his Poetica and describes it as an early type of comedy in which the former was personal and the later generic. What can be a problematic issue with satires is that they are often dependent on their own time and, therefore, could be hard to comprehend and appreciate in later times. A satire can include timeless ingredients, but the genre also imply that the satire is directed to cast light on contemporary topics.

A distinction between satire and comedy is that a satire uses irony in a higher degree as a method to expose its “target”. A satire is trying to ridicule something, may it be a political act, a person or a contemporary morale. Comedy, however, is more sympathetic to its “clowns” and it is typically not irony that sets the agenda.

An early example of a famous satire is In Praise of Folly by the Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. Around two centuries later, Jonathan Swift would write A Tale of a Tub (1704) that in an allegorical way takes on Christianity and morals in a time that has experienced the Reformation. For its comprehension it should be seen into background of the concern of the many religious practices (the narrative includes three characters that represent three traditions connected to religion: Catholic Church, Angelic Church and radical dissent), which differed from Church of England on the time and would in many cases be notorious for excessive features. 3

Gulliver's Travels and its satire

The book is to a high degree a satire that reflex the political circumstances in Swift's own time. For a reader of today, many of the allusions are inevitably overlooked, but a knowledge about them are not at all necessary for the enjoyment of the book (nevertheless, an advice is to read a noted edition that inform about various allusions hided in the text).

The main character in the story faces different kinds of governments which illustrate alternative ways to rule things to ours. That going on in these worlds also reflect things that happened in Swift’s own country. He creates satirical elements by deliberately make associations which would serve as an interjection on the contemporary politics and the human nature.

Liliputs constructed by ´lilli´ meaning ´little´ and ´put´ that could derive from the slang word ´putt´as a silly fellow.4 The liliputs are a great contrast to the Houyhnhnms in the last parts. Whereas the liliputs are overly administrative about small subjects and even go to war for trifles, the Houyhnhnms have minimal administrative with few and short formulated laws. It could be said that Swift reflect in an exaggerated light the humankinds' disposition to fights for irrelevant things whereas a Houyhnhnms way of life is a picture of the ideal world according to the author.

This is one of the methods Swift uses for his satire: to cast new light of the human being and society by exaggerate a likeness of another people’s way of doing things. Another method he uses for satire is to let a representative from a strange race he meets ask him questions of his own people and by his answers make them seem peculiar. Especially, by letting the other put objections to the manners he has explained and arrange these objections to work as a critic.

It could also be made parallels to two other philosophers’ writings: Thomas Mores' Utopia and Francis Bacons' New Atlantis since both also put the existing world side by side with alternative ones. Although Swift is not primarily depicting a utopia in Gulliver's Travels but worlds that contrast in different ways with his own.

The author

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Dublin, but lived a part of his life in England where  he was politically active and somewhat influential. But after Queen Anne died and the Whig Party were taking back the political power, Swift return to Ireland.

As a writer he would use his pen for poems, pamphlets and prose. Many of his works were satires, but the foremost literary heritage from this Irish writer is the novel Gulliver’s Travels.

Jonathan Swift have for some been known as a misanthrope and this is apparently illustrated in his views about the Yahoos. Yahoos resemble the humans, but are on the same time more animal like. After Gulliver have left the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos he confuses real humans with Yahoos and do everything he can to avoid them. Where the horse-like Houyhnhnms are noble, his own spices are characterized by “vices and corruptions”.5 Although Gulliver finally reunite with his family after all hardships on the sea, he is not satisfied with human company: “I must freely confess, the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust and contempt”.

But in any circumstances, he would engage in the society and entertain many. Besides that, he gave a major part of his incomes to charity and his left lifesavings were used to build the first mental hospital in Ireland.6

< The Enlightenment


1. The full title is Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.
2. It was actually not originally published as a work of Lemuel Gulliver, which serve to give the content a light of genuine testimony.
3. Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Charlotte Sussman. 2012, p. 143.
4. "Notes", p. 226 by Doreen Roberts, Gulliver’s Travels (1992).
5. It may be said that in these times many believed the human being a degenerated from the previous eras of antique and not until the Enlightenment it would be seen as the humankind was making progress.
6. "Introduction", p. XXVII by Doreen Roberts, Gulliver’s Travels (1992).