In this article, we are going to study another text, Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift. In the course of our discussion, we will discover why scholars are reluctant to consider it as a novel. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is very popular with children because children experience the world from a point of view that is similar to that of Gulliver since they can make themselves Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians by playing with dolls or toy soldiers that are totally under their control. Jonathan Swift lived during the Age of Reason in England so we will discuss that Age briefly because of its influence on the author and his work. We will discuss yet another fictional work, Gulliver’s Travels and decide if it could be categorised as a novel or not.
Jonathan Swift (1677 – 1745) was a satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, an author, a poet and cleric. He was born in Dublin to a very poor English father but was supported grudgingly by his uncle. He received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Trinity College Dublin and later travelled to England where he published his first major prose works: A Tale of the Tub and The Battle of the Books (1704). His master piece, Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726. He lived during the Age of Reason and his life and character were full of surprising and ironic contradictions. For instance, his masterpiece became a popular children’s classic yet at 32, he vowed “Not to be fond of children, nor let them come near me hardly” (Murry, 1954, p. 5).
He did not have a happy and pleasant childhood as he did not grow up with his parents so this may have influenced his negative attitude towards children. Again, he was an ardent crusader against the abuse of reason but lost his mental powers three years before he died. He was a self-proclaimed misanthrope who gave away one third of his income to charity. Though he is a world famous author, he considered his life a series of bitter disappointments. In his own life Jonathan Swift seems to have swung between the swollen pride of great expectations and the deflation of last minute disappointments (Murry, 1954, p. 27).
Even with his enormous literary success and undisputed political influence, Swift still felt cheated. He remained a model of productivity and became one of the great writers his age despite a debilitating disease. His most memorable works include: Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), Drapier’s Letters (1724), and A Modest Proposal (1729). He died in 1745 and willed greater part of his fortune to establish a hospital for the mentally ill which still exists as a psychiatric hospital.
In Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift presents the story of Captain Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon whose business fails and he decides to go on a sea voyage. The novel presented in first person narrative as Gulliver narrates his experiences during the four voyages he undertakes in the book to imaginary lands. Swift uses the travel book form which hovers between fact and fiction. The first trip takes him to Lilliput where Gulliver wakes up after his shipwreck to find himself bound by innumerable tiny threads and addressed by tiny captors who were six
inches tall. There he observes their customs and traditions. They are ready for violence against Gulliver, though their arrows so tiny that they are little more than pinpricks. However, they are hospitable and feed Gulliver in spite of the famine in their land. Gulliver later becomes a national resource, used by the army in its war against the people of Blefuscu, whom the Lilliputians hate for doctrinal differences concerning the proper way to crack eggs. Gulliver is later convicted of treason for putting out a fire in the royal palace with his urine and is condemned to death. Gulliver escapes.
In the second voyage, he ends up in the lands of giants called Brobdingnag where a farmer discovers him and keeps him for amusement and initially treats him as little more than an animal. He sells Gulliver to the queen, who also uses him for courtly entertainment because of his musical talents. He is generally startled by the ignorance of the people as he observes that even their king knows nothing about politics. He is not happy in Brobdingnag and gains his freedom during a trip with the royal couple to the frontier his cage is plucked up by an eagle and dropped into the sea. Gulliver sets sail again in the third voyage, encounters the ghosts of great historical men from the past but he is no impressed by them.
He gets to a floating island inhabited by theoreticians and academics who oppress the land below, called Balnibarbi. The scientific research undertaken in Laputa and in Balnibarbi seems totally inane and impractical, and its residents too appear wholly out of touch with reality. He also visits the Luggnaggians and the Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs grow old but live forever in horrible senility and prove that age does not bring wisdom.
Finally, Gulliver sets out as the captain of a ship, but after the mutiny of his crew and a long confinement in his cabin, he arrives in an unknown lands populated by Houyhnhnms, rational-thinking horses who rule, and by Yahoos, brutish humanlike creatures who serve the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver learns their language, and when he can speak he narrates his voyages to them and explains the constitution of England. He is exposed to their noble culture as they treat him with great courtesy and kindness.
He wants to stay with the Houyhnhnms, but his bared body reveals that he is very much like a Yahoo, and he is banished. Gulliver departs in grief to a nearby island in a canoe where he is picked up by a kind Portuguese ship captain. Guiliver realises that the captain and indeed all humans are shamefully like the Yahoos. Gulliver therefore concludes his narrative with a claim that by right, England owns all the lands he has visited as her colonies in spite of the fact that he questions the idea of colonialism. In the novel, Swift present graphic details of places, events and actions.
Gulliver’s Travels presents a criticism of humanity and insists that for a healthy relationship to exist in life, people should realise that everything is a matter of proportion and balance of keeping proper perspective. Human beings claim to value reason which but Gulliver sees it as an ideal which we pay lip service to. He therefore points out the discrepancy between the ideal and actual experience which has made it impossible for him to function in his own society.
He shows how morally intolerable social arrangements in fact are. Each of the four books representing the four voyages has a different theme. However one idea that is constant and stands out is pride and the attempt to deflate human pride. Critics hail the work as a satiric reflection on the shortcomings of the Age of Reason. Men in the Age of Reason pride themselves on their high intellectual ability.
He presents how situations affect the perception of human beings. He contends that the situation a people find themselves in help to determine their status, position and personality which in turn is dependent on how other people see them. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels questions the possession of physical power and the moral justification of the use of that power. In the land of the Lilliput, his giant size is an advantage as he defeats the Blefuscudian navy with ease. On the other hand, he finds himself in a disadvantaged position in Brobdingnag where his size becomes embarrassingly so tiny that even insects were very huge. Swift insists that generally in the society, those who claim to be morally superior in most cases use force to dominate others.
This takes us to the theme of the limitation of human understanding. Each society believes that it is more than others yet in an encounter with others, the limitations of their understanding is made manifest. The author also satirises practical knowledge which he argues does not yield fruitful result. A good example is the futility of the experiment by the academy of Balnibarbi in which the extracting of sunbeams from cucumbers is highlighted.
Gulliver: Jonathan Swift presents Gulliver as a member of the Middle class English society of the Age of Reason or Enlightenment Age who is a scientist and actually trained as a doctor, so is a very good representative of his age. He is the narrator and protagonist of the story. Unlike in the allegorical work we discussed in the last unit, most of the characters here are more developed as human beings. Through him, the author gives vivid and detailed description of events, incidents, characters and places in the work. For instance, the reader is informed that the Lilliputian king is strong, handsome, has good posture and graceful movements, along with “majestic manners”.
Mary Burton Gulliver: Mary is Gulliver’s wife but mentioned briefly at the beginning of the story and all we know about her is that about her social status.
James Bates: James Bates is surgeon in London under whom Gulliver did his medical internship and later set up a practice with him, but it failed after Bates died.
The Emperor: Another major character is the Emperor, the ruler of Lilliput who like his subjects is very tiny. His height is just a little above six inches and he believes that in spite of his size, he can control Gulliver. He does not hesitate to execute his subjects over flimsy political reasons which made him an autocratic ruler. The Farmer The Farmer is Gulliver’s first master in Brobdingnag. He exploits Gulliver as a labourer and almost starves him to death. He uses Gulliver in his show business and profits despite the fact that he has discovered that he could actually relate to Gulliver like a fellow human being. His nine year old daughter, Glumdalclitch, is friendlier towards Gulliver and takes care of him. She is forty feet tall. She sews very well, makes dresses for Gulliver and hangs him in her closest to sleep safely at night. Later she is invited to the court by the Queen who bought Gulliver from the farmer, to take care of Gulliver and she treats him like her doll.
The Queen: The queen of Brobdingnag is the one who bought Gulliver from the farmer with the intention of keeping him as a pet but is more considerate than the farmer. She is delighted by Gulliver’s beauty and charms, after the purchase, she invites him to live in the court instead of keeping him as a pet and invites the farmer’s daughter as a nursemaid to take care of him.
The King :The king of Brobdingnag, is presented as an intellectual who is well versed in political science and other disciplines. He discusses history and other socio-political issues with Gulliver.
Lord Munodi: Lord Munodi is a lord of Lagado, capital of the underdeveloped land beneath Laputa. He is another intelligent character and made Gulliver’s visit memorable by taking him on a tour of his country on Gulliver’s third voyage. His advice on agriculture and land management was rejected by his rulers but he applied it successfully in his own estate.
Houyhnhnms: Houyhnhnms are a set of intelligent and wise horses who exemplify pure rationality. They lead monotonous, orderly lives, with no need for disagreement or excitement. They however fail to provide solutions to human problems through their narrow commitment to reason which prove inhuman (Mack et al 241). They are the masters of the Yahoos. Gulliver discovers that he is closer to these horses than to his human family and his stay there makes it almost impossible to function in his own society.
The Yahoos: The yahoos comprise men of hairy bodies and women with long hanging breasts who are kept as servants in Houyhnhnms to perform manual labour. They are unkempt, naked grubby with very primitive eating habits and lascivious sexual appetites.
Don Pedro de Mendez: He is a generous man, the Portuguese captain who takes Gulliver back to Europe when he is forced to leave the land of the Houyhnhnms. He offers Gulliver his own suit to replace Gulliver’s tattered clothes. Other characters in the work include the Brobdingnagians, giants, who are basically a reasonable and kindly people governed by a sense of justice; The Lilliputians and Blefuscudians who are two races of miniature people whom Gulliver meets on his first voyage. Basically, they are not straightforward people but are involved in intrigues, conspiracies and jealousies so are quick to take advantage of people and situation; the Laputans who are absentminded intellectuals who are parodies of theoreticians. They are so inwardly absorbed in their own thoughts that they must be shaken out of their meditations by special servants called flappers, who shake rattles in their ears.