During the late 17th and early 18th centuries in England, colonization and sea voyages were huge parts of English society. One popular fad that went a long with colonization and voyages could be found in literature, as many voyagers wrote books depicting the lands they had been to. A lot of the time, these depictions were exaggerations and falsehoods. Jonathan Swift, an author of this time period, was very critical of this type of literature, and of English colonization/voyaging in general.
Thus, he wrote the novel Gulliver’s Travels as a satirical and sarcastic look at English colonization and colonial literature. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, a satirical masterpiece that follows a strange, yet intriguing plot with a major anti-colonial theme, and centered around an extremely dynamic character, Gulliver, who changes many times throughout the novel.
Gulliver’s Travels is centered around the Englishman Lemeul Gulliver, who was a surgeon turned voyager. He had headed many successful seafaring expeditions, but the novel tells the story of his last 4 voyages, which were strange and life-changing for Gulliver.
The first of the four voyages is interrupted when a storm destroys Gulliver’s ship. He washes upon the shores of a land which is he completely unfamiliar with. This is the land of Lilliput, and it is inhabited by miniature people, of about 6 inches in height. Gulliver is quickly found by these people who are very scared of this “giant” man they have found. However, the King/Emperor of the land quickly takes a liking to Gulliver, and he becomes educated in Lilliput’s language in culture.
Gulliver rises through the ranks of the island nation by destroying the attacking fleet of invaders from neighboring island Blefescu. Soon, the people of Lilliput turn sour on Gulliver, as he is informed by an entrusted Lilliputian man. The king and his people plan on making Gulliver blind by poking out his eyes. Thus, Gulliver flees to Blefescu, where the King there helps him to build a ship-like raft suitable to take him back to England. Soon after his return to England, Gulliver enlists in a new voyage. When Gulliver is abandoned by his crew on an island after a terrible storm, he finds himself in another strange situation with old people on an island called Brobdingnag.
However, they people here are not little like the Lilliputians, but they are giants. A farming family takes in Gulliver, and they teach him the language of the Brobdingnagians. Before long, the farmer takes Gulliver around the entire island, showing him off to people, and almost exhausting Gulliver to death. Gulliver is then sold by the farmer to the Queen. The Queen is very intrigued by Gulliver and wishes to learn about Europe. Upon speaking about his homeland, the king thinks that England’s history is a mess, offending Gulliver in the process. One day, along the beach, Gulliver is picked up in his cage-like carrier box by a bird, who later drops him in the ocean only to be discovered by Englishmen who return him to England and his home. Gulliver then decides to take on another voyage to the East Indies, although he had only been home for a couple weeks. Not long into his voyage however, Gulliver’s ship is ransacked by pirates, and after being sent into the ocean, he washes up on a completely deserted island. However, while on the deserted island he is found by a strange people who live on a floating sky island called Laputa. Gulliver is taken to Laputa, and is stuck there, growing more and more bored as the days go by, as all the Laputans care about are theology and philosophy and are always trying to think abstractly. Gulliver leaves the floating island to go the island below called Balnibarbi. He finds Balnibarbi to be much worse than Laputa, as the people there have had very little education, yet are trying their best to fix societal issues in outlandish ways, such as bringing the original food back from human feces. Gulliver finds this place somewhat disturbing and upsetting, and leaves to travel to a nearby island nation called Glubbdubdrib. Here, the people have magic powers, and can bring back the dead to speak with them and do things for them as ghosts. The leader of the island uses his powers to bring back several great historical figures which Gulliver speaks too. Gulliver then leaves Glubbdubdrib and decides to travel to Japan. On the way he is forced to stop at the island of Luggnagg. Here, Gulliver is brought in the presence of the king, and must lick the floor to approach the throne and speak to the king. Gulliver does this, though he is not excited by this. After three months stay in Luggnagg, decides to leave after he finds out about the immortals of the island who continue to get older and more senile forever. From here, Gulliver travels to Japan, the only real island nation in the book (besides England). Lying about who he is in Japan, Gulliver hoists a ride to Amsterdam and then travels back home. After a few months’ time, Gulliver embarks on his final voyage, which is the most life-changing for him. Midway through the voyage, his crew has a mutiny, and he is left, once again, on a strange island. This island’s people are hyper-intelligent horses, who use intellect and reasoning to rule over the Yahoo creatures on the island (who are an uncivilized, violent people, meant to symbolize Europeans). Gulliver lives among these horse people, the Houyhnhnms for a period, without ever gaining their trust, as they believe him to also be a Yahoo. He learns the language and customs of the horse people, like on the other islands, and grows to believe he is also a Yahoo and resents this, promising himself never to return to the other Yahoos in England. However, he is eventually kicked out of the Houyhnhnm society and forced to return to England and his family when discovered by a Portuguese ship. After this voyage, he never fully returns to his original self, as he loved the way the horse people lived, using only reason to dictate their actions and leadership, and hates the English, which he deems as Yahoos. The book ends as Gulliver decides that he now likes horses much better than people, including his family.
Gulliver himself as a character is extremely dynamic, changing with each island he goes to. He starts out as a somewhat arrogant man in Lilliput, looking down on the Lilliputians (literally and figuratively), seeing himself as better and more capable of them, believing his country of England to be better cultured and well-kept, yet still respecting their high-functioning society. However, he cannot bring himself to attempt to capture and destroy another nation as the Lilliputians wish to do with Blefescu. He views much of the way the Lilliputians act as strange, especially the Prince releases a speech glorifying Gulliver’s Punishment. Gulliver believes to still be much superior to the people however, casting the idea of his punishment to the side saying, “…the whole Strength of that Empire could hardly subdue me, and I might easily with Stones pelt the Metropolis to Pieces…” (Swift 45). This superior feeling changes drastically however as he is brought to the island of Brobdingnag, where is he greeted by giants, and suddenly feels lesser and scared for his life, realizing how the Lilliputians must’ve felt when they first saw Gulliver. One thing about Gulliver that still does remain the same in this section however is his feeling about England. When Gulliver describes the government and culture of his homeland, the king of Brobdingnag shares his disgust of the way this country is run and what the people are like. This greatly offends Gulliver, as he says, “…I was forced to rest with patience, as my beloved country was so injuriously treated,” (Swift 93). As Gulliver continues on his voyage, he grows to resent intellectual life, although he enjoyed it prior, in both Laputa and Balnibarbi as well as England, as he realizes outside-the-box thinking is a bore and obnoxious in some ways, and yet the thoughts of the uneducated are ridiculous. The most important change in Gulliver however, occurs when he is with the horse people or the Houyhnhnms. Here, he grows to highly respect and appreciate a society run completely by pragmatism and reason, rather than politics, religion, and opinion. In this way, he begins to resent England and how it is run. Gulliver also begins to hate the English people, as after learning more about the Yahoos, he feels as if he, and all the other English people, are Yahoos, and that they are despicable people with no morals. Gulliver says, “When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos…When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form… I turned away my face in horror… of myself…” (Swift 211). This is a huge change in the character of Gulliver, as someone who once took pride in the people of his country, but now detests their way of thinking and living, and of the people in general, disgusted at the idea of returning to England. Once back in England, he decides not to turn in his findings of new lands to the English government, in fear they would conquer places like Lilliput, and be destroyed by places like Brobdingnag. This ties in to the overall anti-imperialist theme of the novel, that the colonial acts of England at the beginning of the 17th century were detestable to Jonathan Swift, and he shows this through Gulliver’s want to keep these newfound nations a secret. Overall, as Gulliver has returned to England from his final journey at the end of the novel, he has completely changed – now hating Europeans and preferring the company of horses. This shows how dynamic of a character Gulliver really is, as he goes through multiple personality and emotional shifts in the novel, from superiority, to fright and offense, to shame of his country.
To conclude, I would highly recommend Gulliver’s Travels to others. With that being said, I do think it was a hard read, and is more suitable to high school level and up readers. I recommend especially listening to an audiobook as reading this, as hearing a British man read this novel adds an extra piece to the novel that I felt was otherwise missing when I read this book alone. The main reasons I would recommend this book is because first, it is very satirical and sarcastic, meaning there are frequent moments during my reading of this novel where I genuinely laughed at the sarcasm of Jonathan Swift, which I find to be rare in British Literature. I also believe this book gives a great insight into what colonial writings were like in Britain during this time period. Many authors published outlandish stories of their journeys, but unlike Swift, were being completely serious about them. I find it very intriguing that this story is almost completely a parody of other literary works of the same time period. I would also recommend this book because of its unpredictability. Although it does seem repetitive that Gulliver just continues to go on journey after journey, always ending up in a strange place, his experiences are so different each time that the book is completely unpredictable and gives something drastically new to the reader with each page turn. Swift’s creative genius paints a wonderful picture in the reader’s mind with great imagery and an exciting plot.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a satirical masterpiece about British colonization in the late 17th early 18th century, including an extremely dynamic main character, an anti-colonial theme, and strange yet very creative plot. It gives a different, negative look at colonization and Britain, and in doing so, creates a novel with lots of sarcastic undertones. All in all, this book is a must read for anyone interested in British Literature!