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Swift's Gulliver's Travels - a Critical Appreciation

Updated on August 3, 2016


Jonathan Swift’s landmark book, Gulliver’s Travels has been adapted in myriad ways, most common medium being cinema. In fact, the book has achieved its popularity in the twentieth century through Disney’s rendition of the first volume of the book, titled “Lilliput”, which appears suitable for viewership among children. However, the essence of the book as it appears in the original text is lost in that animation movie which glosses over the harsh realities faced by Gulliver in all four of his travels, which have been described in the book over four volumes. It is for this reason that it becomes necessary to follow a critical appreciation of the book by placing it within the socio-cultural and historical context of Swift’s own contemporary England.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift uses the mouthpiece of the protagonist, Lemuel Gulliver, to deconstruct the so-called notion of human progress, which had been propelled especially by scientific advent in the early eighteenth century. For undertaking this task Swift has been, more often than not, criticized by many for writing a text which reeks of misanthropy. However, a misunderstood Swift, who lived in an age that had proclaimed to be the ‘Enlightenment Age’ or the ‘Age of Reason’, shows deep concern for humanity as he probes the nuances of the project of the Enlightenment and puts the real human condition into perspective.

Lemuel Gulliver in Lilliput

Human progress deconstructed

The biggest achievement of the Enlightenment Age in Europe has been Newton’s theory of optics which further led to the inventions of the telescope and the microscope. It is a fact that in the eighteenth century, science and progress were almost synonymous. While scientific discoveries made by the Royal Society gave a sense of complacency about man’s mastery over the world, Swift used the same scientific concepts, such as those of the telescope and the microscope, to depict man’s vulnerability in the vast universe. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift shows how everything is only a matter of perspective, and that human perspective is just one of the many perspectives. Therefore, while Gulliver becomes the “Man-Mountain” in Lilliput, in Brobgingnag (the second destination in his travels), he is reduced to a mere toy to be kept in a cage-like house and played around by giant Brobdingnagian women to satiate their perverse voyeuristic fantasies. Also, Gulliver initially revels in the fact that man reigns supreme in every land while all other species are slave to his “animal rationale”. But on entering the Houyhnhnm land in the fourth volume of Gulliver’s Travels, his pre-conceived notions are shattered as he finds bestial human-like Yahoos inferior and enslaved to their rational counterparts – that is, the horses or the Houyhnhnms. This shattering of all human presumptions about their rational and moral superiority is experienced by Gulliver even in the third volume of the book, when at the end of his tete-a-tete with the dead in Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver realizes that human history too is not definitive, but only a ‘pack of lies we play upon the dead’, to borrow Voltaire’s phrase.

Furthermore, Science, during the Enlightenment, also boasted of the invention of the gunpowder which could be utilized for military purposes. This was seen by the Europeans as a great achievement as it enabled colonization of other parts of the world, trade expansion through conquests and massive inflow of wealth, thus conferring infinite power on Europe. Gulliver, while giving an account of the state of Europe to the king of Brobdingnag, suggests the use of “a certain powder”. But the king is visibly horror-struck at this abuse of power and condemns mankind as “the most pernicious race of little odious vermins”. It is ironic that the corrupt life of a power-driven tiny man is exposed by a giant king. Swift reiterates the bestiality and madness present in human nature when Gulliver describes the condition of war in Europe to his Houyhnhnm master. The “dying groans, limbs flying in the air, smoke, noise, confusion”, etc. caused by war shows the use Man has made of Reason which was hailed by the eighteenth century Enlightenment enthusiasts. Therefore, Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master correctly points out that “the corruption of the faculty of Reason… [is] worse than brutality itself”.

Swift extends his satire on science, the backbone of the Enlightenment, by attacking the Royal Society of England, which was the main centre for all the scientific experimentation. Some of those experiments being conducted were so outlandish and unnecessary for the progress of the society that Swift could not hide his indignation at the farce being carried out at the Royal Society in the name of human progress. Therefore, in Gulliver’s third voyage, Swift mocks at scientists who have sooty hands and face, long and shabby beards and hair which are even singed in several places, because they spent eight years upon a project which entailed extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers!

Gulliver explaining the art of war to a horror-struck King of Brobdingnag
Gulliver explaining the art of war to a horror-struck King of Brobdingnag | Source

Critique of western philosophy and theology

While Swift directs his satire at science in Gulliver’s Travels, he also indulges in the critique of the other two pillars of the Enlightenment- that is, philosophy and theology. Many eighteenth century radical thinkers promoted the philosophy of the natural innate goodness of Man as he was in his primitive state. This notion of the ‘natural man’ could be traced back to Christianity and to its foundation, the Bible. In the Bible, Man, before his fall, is shown to be pristine and good. However, Swift shakes the roots of this very foundation in the episode of Gulliver’s abduction in the second volume of the book by the giant female monkey that nurses Gulliver and forces him to suckle from her breast. This episode refers to the speculation, predating Darwin’s theory of evolution, about the origin of man. By linking man with a monkey, Swift deconstructs the Bible to expose man’s folly in believing in the myth of Man as ‘The Chosen One’. He does so, not out of mere spite, but to appeal to humankind to discard Pride, which even in Christianity is considered to be the second of the Deadly Sins, and realize its own reality. It is Swift’s compassion, and not his misanthropy, which instigates him to point out the vulnerability of the enlightened man, whose claim to knowledge comes mainly from books. For Swift, bookish knowledge alone is not enough; neither is theoretical knowledge of scientific concepts. For him, the best way to preserve knowledge, and by extension, even human history, is through the practice of tradition – human tradition – which promotes fellow-feeling, civility and humility.

Gulliver being abducted by the giant monkey in the second volume of Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver being abducted by the giant monkey in the second volume of Gulliver's Travels | Source


Thus, in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift opposes the Enlightenment notion of human progress by espousing the ancient idea of the Universal Decay of man and civilization, a decay which follows a similar pattern of human life from birth to old age and finally culminating in death. This pattern manifests in the book also in the journey of a gullible Gulliver claiming to be the representative of humanity, and ultimately transforming into a cynic who returns to England only to renounce his own species at the end of the book and willingly seeks the company of horses in his stable for the remaining days of his life. Through Gulliver’s four voyages, spanning across four volumes of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift artistically shows Man, instead of raising himself, degenerating into his bestial image, as represented by the Yahoos in volume four of Gulliver’s Travels. In this context, the animal imagery pervading the book becomes significant, for it is horses who prove to be the true epitome of what humanity should ideally be. It is no wonder then, that the word ‘Houyhnhnm’ should be homonymous with ‘human’.

In conclusion, in an age which boasted of providing definitive answers to all the problems through scientific rationale, Swift delved into the question of what it was to be human after all. It is true that in Gulliver’s Travels he scrutinizes the human condition by probing into man’s vices rather than his virtues. However, it should not be confused with misanthropy. After all, it was his compassion for humanity which led him to critique the Enlightenment; only so that he could shed light on the true spirit of enlightenment. This was later articulated well by William Blake, for whom ‘enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life’. In this light, Gulliver’s Travels truly becomes a seminal book which remains relevant to us even today, and hence, its popularity among readers worldwide sustains even in this age.

Yahoos and a Houyhnhnm
Yahoos and a Houyhnhnm


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