Setting in English Literature: Analysis of Gulliver's Travels

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Many authors in English literature use the novel’s setting as an important characteristic to the story. Setting means the time and place in which a story takes place. Two famous literary works mentioned in this course stand out when comparing their use of the setting. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen take place in various close small towns and cities in the English countryside. The women in this story rarely experience life outside of these towns, are reduced to socializing with the same few people within them and are bound to their maintained cultural norms and expectations. Because this story takes place primarily in the same location, the storyline and characters seem more limited. In Jonathan Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the main character travels from England to many foreign lands, trying to understand new cultures and help them understand his. While the worlds Gulliver travels to are fiction, the objective of the story is to use Gulliver’s socialization with new people groups to compare and contrast culture with his native home in England. When comparing these two works of English literature, one can see the author’s use of the setting presumes the groundwork for the storyline, is used as a tool to influence the reader and can serve a symbolic purpose.

In these novels, both of the authors use location to further their stories and influence the reader. In Gulliver’s Travel, the entire plot revolves around the different settings of Gulliver’s journeys. Each trip results in him drawing new conclusions about his English culture and the human race in areas such as morality and leadership. For example, in part 2 chapter 5, Gulliver reflects on “how vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him,” and sees “the moral of [his] own behavior very frequent in England,” once he returns home (Swift 152 part 2 chapter 5). The story furthers with each of the four trips, allowing Gulliver to continue narrating his adventures and comparing his early 1700s English culture to those of which he interacts. Jonathan Swift uses the four locations and their cultures to influence the reader into questioning their own society, just like Gulliver does. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses the setting to confine the characters to a narrow location. In the late 1700s or early 1800’s England, the Bennet sisters experience little-to-no life outside of their small community. Even in their uneventful world, however, they still face very relevantly, real-life problems just like other people around the world. In order to be seen as accomplished, women in this time were supposed to “have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word,” (Austen 71). The psychological drama and social constructs are just as equally impactful in a small community when compared to the rest of the world. A woman in this time period faced more cultural suppression than a man, thus the author’s use of setting helps influence the reader and their emotional appeal to the characters.

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The location of a novel does not always serve as a kind of symbolic purpose, but in Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver’s experiences are meant to invoke a realization about humankind in the reader. The first group he encounters is the Lilliputians, which are a prideful group of tiny people who use Gulliver as a kind of weapon to defeat their enemies. Gulliver is naïve and unable to address the flaws of these small peoples, but this particular setting is ultimately used to prompt the reader into drawing a comparison to our own prideful human race. The next setting is a land filled with giants, Brobdingnag, where Gulliver finds that normal physical human imperfections are much more grotesque when magnified to their size. This setting is used to symbolize humankind completely exposed under a watchful eye. The third location is Laputa and Balnibarbi, used by Swift to address the Enlightenment period and the new forms of knowledge being used in the 18th century. The people of these lands use theoretical knowledge instead of Gulliver’s more traditional preferences which he feels improve human life more effectively. Lastly, the final setting Gulliver reaches before returning home to England is an unknown land where he finds two kinds of creatures: the Houyhnhnms, an intelligent horse-like animal, and the Yahoos, a very unintelligent type of human. He begins to appreciate the Houyhnhnms and all their wisdom, but the Master Horse tells Gulliver that he “was convinced (as he afterward told [Gulliver]) that [he] must be a Yahoo, but [his] teachableness, civility and cleanliness, astonished him; which were qualities altogether opposite to those animals,’” (Swift). He is then banished, but this experience symbolizes the lack of rational existence the Yahoos maintain when compared to the ideal lifestyle of the Houyhnhnms and how Gulliver relates to them because of his physical appearance.

In Pride and Prejudice, there is no explicit symbolism behind the setting. There are time-period-related sensitivities used by the author in the setting, but no specific symbolic meaning. While Gulliver’s Travel consists of many symbolic connections to the location, a novel, like Pride and Prejudice, might not have setting-related themes. Some books take place in primarily one location like Pride and Prejudice, and others in many locations like Gulliver’s Travels. The setting is a tool used to provide space for the author to lay the groundwork for the storyline, influence the reader, or attach a symbolic purpose or meaning. In conclusion, using examples from the text helps the reader draw these ideas out from English literature like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Works Cited

  1. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003. Print.
  2. Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003. Print.
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Setting in English Literature: Analysis of Gulliver’s Travels. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from
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