Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726 and written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), has been called one of the first novels in English, one of the greatest satires in all of literature, and even a children’s classic (though any edition for younger readers is usually quite heavily abridged).
How should we respond to this wonderfully inventive novel? Is it even a ‘novel’ in the sense we’d usually understand that term? Before we launch into an analysis of Gulliver’s Travels and consider some of these questions, it’s perhaps worth recapping the plot (briefly).
Gulliver’s Travels: summary
Gulliver’s Travels is structurally divided into four parts, each of which recounts the adventures of the title character, a ship’s surgeon named Lemuel Gulliver, amongst some imaginary fantastical land.
In the first part, Gulliver is shipwrecked and knocked unconscious on the island of Lilliput, which is inhabited by tiny people. They take Gulliver prisoner, tying him to the ground, and he encounters the rival factions among the Lilliputians, such as the Big Endians and Little Endians, whose enmity started because they disagree over which side of a boiled egg to cut.
Then, he is enlisted into a campaign the Lilliputians are waging against a neighbouring island, Blefuscu. Gulliver drags the enemy fleet ashore so their invasion is foiled, and the Lilliputians honour and thank him – that is, until he refuses to be further drawn into the two countries’ war, at which moment they turn against him. It doesn’t help when he urinates on a fire to help put it out.
Gulliver takes refuge on Blefuscu, until a boat is washed ashore and he uses it to return to England, where he raises money for his family before embarking on a second voyage.
This time, in the second part of Gulliver’s Travels, our hero finds himself in Brobdingnag, a country which is inhabited by giants, rather than miniature people. When his ship runs aground, it is attacked by giants, and Gulliver is taken prisoner and given to the princess of Brobdingnag, a forty-feet-high girl named Glumdalclitch, as her plaything. After arguing with the King over political matters – with Gulliver defending English attitudes and the King mocking them – Gulliver is picked up by a giant eagle and plopped into the sea, where he is rescued by a ship.
In the third part of the novel, Gulliver finds himself taken prisoner once again, this time by pirates, and taken to the floating island of Laputa. On a nearby island, Balnibarbi, he meets mad scientists and inventors who are engaged in absurd experiments: trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, or building a house from the roof down. On a neighbouring island, Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver meets some magicians who can summon the dead; they summon numerous historical figures for him, including Julius Caesar, Homer, and Aristotle.
After this, on the island of Luggnagg, Gulliver meets the Struldbrugs: creatures who are immortal. However, this simply means they are foolish and weak than old men back in England, because they’ve had much longer to develop more folly and more illnesses.
Gulliver leaves Laputa behind, becoming a ship’s captain and continuing his voyages. Next, he encounters apelike creatures who, when he attacks one of their number, climb a tree and start discharging their excrement upon his head. (Excrement turns up a lot on Gulliver’s Travels, and Swift seems to have been obsessed by it.)
Gulliver is saved from a literal shower of sh … dung by the arrival of a horse, but this turns out to be a horse endowed with reason and language. Indeed, Gulliver soon learns that these horses rule this strange land: the horses, known as Houyhnhnms, are the masters, and the apelike creatures, known as Yahoos, are their semi-wild slaves. What’s more, Gulliver is horrified to learn that the Yahoos bear more than a passing resemblance to him, and to the human form!
What follows in this fourth part of the novel is a lengthy debate between Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms, who repeatedly show up the folly or evil of human behaviour as Gulliver describes it to them: war, money, and the legal system are all calmly but firmly taken apart by the intelligent horses.
However, Gulliver comes to prefer the company of the Houyhnhnms to the Yahoos, especially when he discovers, to his shock, that female Yahoos are attracted to him as one of their own kind. Gulliver resolves to stay with his new equine friends and shun humanity forever. He admires, above all else, the Houyhnhnms’ devotion to reason over baser instincts or desires.
But he is not allowed to stay with them for long. Fearing that he may inspire the Yahoos to rise up against their horsy overlords, they tell him to leave, and Gulliver regretfully builds a boat, is picked up by a Portuguese ship, and makes his way back to England. However, he struggles to readjust to human society, after he has spent time among the Houyhnhnms, and he prefers to pass his time in the company of the horses in his stable.
Gulliver’s Travels: analysis
We often celebrate great works of literature for their generosity of spirit: we talk of Shakespeare’s ‘humanity’, of Wordsworth’s empathy, George Eliot’s humanistic ability to feel for another person. But Swift is in quite a different tradition. He was disgusted by us all with our filthy bodies and rotten, wrong-headed attitudes. Yet he wrote a great work of literature in Gulliver’s Travels, which tells us much about who we really are, especially through his depiction of the Yahoos, and who we could be, through Gulliver’s conversations with the Houyhnhnms.
Perhaps the key aspect of the novel here is its satire: it means that we can never be sure when Swift is being serious and when he is pulling our leg, when he is inviting us to share Gulliver’s views and when he wishes us to long to clout the silly fool round the head. That, too, is one of the signs of a timeless novel: its multifaceted quality. Gulliver’s Travels has more facets than you can shake a mucky stick at.
The same difficulty of interpretation – or divining authorial intention and meaning – often attends great works of satire. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), which was probably an influence on Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, is similarly difficult to analyse in terms of its author’s own views. Critics can’t quite agree whether More is pulling the reader’s leg in Utopia or sincerely offering a vision of a perfect world. There are, however, some clues that much of the book, if not the whole thing, is supposed to be satirical: it’s hard to see the staunchly Roman Catholic More seriously advocating divorce by mutual consent, something that is encouraged in the book, nor is it likely that he was in favour of women priests, very much a feature of More’s looking-glass island republic.
So the same issue probably attends Gulliver’s Travels. Is Gulliver right to view the Houyhnhnms as the pinnacle of rational humanism – something that actual humans should aspire to emulate? Or should we be shocked by the Houyhnhnms’ proposal that the Yahoos should be forcibly sterilised, even exterminated, as a decisively inhuman attitude towards their fellow living creatures?
Swift’s disgust with his fellow humans was real, especially in the last few decades of his life when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels, but this does not mean he was not acutely aware of the dangers attendant on such misanthropy. It’s one thing to have a dim view of the human race as falling short of what they could achieve; it’s quite another to suggest that, because they succumb to wars and other dangerous follies, they deserve to be wiped from the face of the earth. It’d be like a satirist writing in the present century suggesting that, because humans have been the main drivers behind climate change, the best thing would be for all human life to be annihilated from the planet. It’d be a solution to the problem (or part of it), but it wouldn’t be a very morally humane one.
And is Swift’s book, for all that, a novel as such? Like Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s pioneering work published seven years earlier, Gulliver’s Travels presented itself to the reader as a genuine account, recounting four voyages made by Lemuel Gulliver. Readers embarking on their journey of reading the book in 1726 may well have been forgiven for thinking it a travel book, like the bestselling books by explorers of the day such as William Dampier (who was one of the first to travel to Australia, around whose coast Swift locates the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu). But then the book takes a fantastical turn and we gradually realise we are in a work of the imagination.
So it’s perhaps best to answer the question ‘is Gulliver’s Travels a novel?’ with a cautious ‘yes … but only if we bear in mind it was written before the word “novel” had even first been applied to works like Gulliver’s Travels.’
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.