10 Oct 2023

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift


Literary background

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was an Irish clergyman. He visited England briefly and joined The Scriblerus Club along with Alexander Pope. Their aim was to write satires on modern knowledge. This was the Age of the Enlightenement in Europe when reason was king and traditional knowledge through faith and revelation was considered secondary. Swift was a Anglican cleric and satirised the widespread intellectual belief in reason.

Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a satire on the contemporary travel narratives which was a popular literary genre. Using the traditional picaresque structure they were presented as diaries and first-hand accounts of exploration, similar to Robinson Crusoe. Both novels use the technique of fictional realism where the narrator pretends to tell a true tale, although it is a fiction. Defoe had used this novel technique to tell his moral and economic tale of a self-made man in the guise of a shipwrecked sailor. Swift uses his four shipwreck tales to satirise his contemporary society. Readers were eager to learn about far-off lands, such as those explored by Cook. Swift ridicules these often exaggerated adventures by inventing the outrageous trips of Gulliver to entertain gullible readers and as a cover for his sharp social criticism. (His satire of contemporary adventure voyages is parallel to Cervantes' picaresque parody of chivalric novels in Don Quixote and the 19th. century mocking of romantic heroines by the realist novelist, Flaubert, in Madame Bovary.)

The adventures of Gulliver include political satire. In 1714 the liberal Whig party took over power from the conservative Tories. As a Tory, Swift satirised the opposition between the two parties, particularly in the Lilliput episode.

The satire also covers human nature and its pettiness. The Lilliputians are not only petty politicians, but small-minded human beings with their trivial morality. The second voyage to a land of giants includes satirical passages on English law and political system under the guise of comparison with Brobdingnag.

As a clergyman Swift is critical of the contemporary Enlightenment ideology which attempted to rationalise all aspects of life. Locke promoted theories of natural religion and Descartes based his thinking on doubt instead of on faith. A cult arose, which included Diderot and Voltaire, calling themselves Deists. They believed that people could observe the universe and understand it through reason which included religion, but excluded biblical revelation. However, Swift did not agree with the Enlightenment concept that science and reasoning could replace religion. He argued that the Age of Science needed limits, not devotion. The impractical scientists of Laputa and the reasonable, but impersonal, Houyhnhnms, were satires on scientific beliefs.

The French picaresque satire Candide (1759) is also based on travel and it parodies contemporary adventure stories. Voltaire satirises most of society in the novel, particularly Enlightenment optimism, as did Swift.

In Italy the satirical style was exemplified by Zaccaria Seriman's Viaggi di Enrico Wanton (1749–64). It tells the story of an imaginary voyage similar to those of Swift and Voltaire.

(N.B. Depending on the discussion the sessions normally last more than one hour.)

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