Critical Analysis of Jonathan Swift’s Satire Gulliver’s Travels

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In Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator Gulliver has long been a topic of interest for literary scholars, as he is not a character who develops or acts affectively and independently, but because he is strictly a tool used by Swift to serve “larger satiric purposes” (Rawson 73). Jonathan Swift puts great effort into characterizing his narrator and making his unreliability obvious to the reader, even before he starts reading the book. Swift chooses the telling name “Lemuel Gulliver”, indicating rather explicitly that Gulliver might be gullible and should not immediately be trusted by the reader. His narration can be described as overly exact, direct, and thorough, establishing this factual style as Gulliver’s “characteristic narrative mode” (Lawrence 96).

At the beginning of the first book, Gulliver introduces himself to the reader by lengthily describing his various studies, naming the people who played a role in his life and the events which led to the travels he later describes. Throughout the book, Gulliver keeps putting great emphasis on measurements, giving exact numbers in order to clarify that what he describes is real. This detailed introduction, the meticulous explanations of events, and explicit ‘over -reporting’ aim at disguising Gulliver’s unreliability, resulting in a preliminary feeling of trust in the reader. Gulliver generally acts as a good-natured, open-minded, and interested visitor to a strange people in Book I, gullibly accepting and putting up with everything he experiences and therefore, urging the reader to independently add the meaning which escapes himself. In the second book, Gulliver encounters the giant people of Brobdingnag and is confronted with his own insignificance. There, he experiences a loss of power due to his miniscule appearance in contrast to his influential position due to his size in Lilliput. Moreover, his behavior indicates that he innocently accepts his position as a curiosity and ‘pet’ apart from a general discomfort, emphasizing his unreliability in direct contrast to the reasonable Brobdingnagian King. However, in chapter six, he King clearly exposes Gulliver after his long commendation of the English government. He almost petulantly disagrees with the King’s ideas and arrogantly characterizes him and his people as rather provincial and narrow-minded, emphasizing his inability of receiving criticism, and therefore ultimately rendering him even more untrustworthy. The fact that Gulliver excludes his answers and only assures the reader that he eluded the questions asked by the king shows that he, in reality, was not able to defend his country and therefore avoids the admission of failure by deceiving his audience. In general, Gulliver’s gullibility is emphasized when he experiences constructive criticism by the King. At the beginning of the third book, Gulliver maintains his usual style of recounting the events of his arrival in Laputa and thoroughly describing the people’s strange appearances. The Laputans are told to be highly brainy creatures, even though their acumen is concentrated on mathematics and music. During these passages, it becomes evident that Gulliver is not satisfied with his inferiority in these fields and tries to prove himself by showing off his own knowledge in other areas, for example in language. He criticizes the Laputan’s etymology of the word Laputa and offers his own. His far-fetched etymology, apart from its satirical purposes, shows that Gulliver has developed a shift in attitude in comparison to the first book, in which he was a curious, and good-natured traveler who accepted all aspects of Lilliput and its people and did not question or judge. Just as in Book II, Gulliver shows that he struggles to deal with the feeling of inferiority. The fact that he leaves the island suggests that he feels rather uncomfortable with the Laputan’s lack of interest towards him. However, Gulliver maintains his factual and detailed way of narration, while momentarily lapsing into emotion and bias.

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Upon reading the fourth book, though, the reader is urged to distance himself from Gulliver’s point of view in order to understand the meaning behind the Houynhnhnms, the Yahoos, and Gulliver ’s position. Gulliver’s description of the Yahoos at the beginning disguises their true human appearance. In contrast to the Yahoos, Gulliver describes the Houyhnhnms in an admiring way, emphasizing their reasonable actions and orderliness. In contrast to Gulliver’s stance in Brobdingnag, he does not question any criticism the Houyhnhnms have towards human actions; his tone even suggests his agreement and shows the great distance he now has towards humankind (Chase 332). According to Claude Rawson, “the sober, placid, complacent Gulliver, lover of his kind and of his dear country, whom we meet in the largest part of the first three books, no longer exists” (72). He has turned into an annoyed and disappointed misanthrope. This becomes clear, for example, when he exaggeratedly describes the ways humans kill each other in war. Calling the English “my own dear Countrymen” in this context, is extremely ironic, giving the impression as if Gulliver were rather confused by and unaware of what he says. Therefore, Swift imposes contradicting statements on Gulliver, in order to emphasize his satiric criticism and clarify Gulliver’s unreliability. Moreover, Gulliver still is also not aware of the meaning behind his experiences.

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Critical Analysis of Jonathan Swift’s Satire Gulliver’s Travels. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
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