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Definition: Gulliver's Travels from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Satirical novel by the Irish writer Jonathan Swift published in 1726. The four countries visited by the narrator Gulliver ridicule different aspects of human nature, customs, and politics.

Gulliver's travels take him to Lilliput, whose inhabitants are only 15 cm/6 in tall; Brobdingnag, where they are gigantic; Laputa, run by mad scientists; and the land of the Houyhnhnms, horses who embody reason and virtue, while the human Yahoos have only the worst human qualities.

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Gulliver's Travels

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Swift, Jonathan


Summary Article: GULLIVER’S TRAVELS from The Dictionary of Alternatives

Between 1714 and 1726 Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) wrote this extraordinary series of fictional travels which mostly satirized Hanoverian England, but also opened the possibility of different ways of living that might be kinder and more rational. Earlier satires like Bishop Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem (Another World and Yet the Same, 1605) had contained slapstick parodies of countries populated by fat people or drunks, but Swift’s book is really the first serious DYSTOPIAN novel. When complete the book contained tragicomic accounts of Lemuel Gulliver’s visits to various islands, usually by means of a shipwreck. Most of the visits are written as thinly disguised accounts of Swift’s world. The pomposity of the minute Lilliputians (and their enemies in Blefuscu) exposes the self-importance of the English in their pointless battles with the French. The grand perspective of the gigantic inhabitants of Brobdingnag shows Gulliver’s world as small and verminous, even if the Brobdingnagians’ contempt for human beings betrays their own self-importance. In Laputa, the flying island, and its fiefdom Balnibarbi, the fetishisms of technology and abstract speculation are shown to be so much hot air (a likely target of Swift’s satire here was the Royal Society, see NEW ATLANTIS). Glubbdubdrib provides an opportunity to see that the grand figures of human history are just as sordid as its present ones, whilst Luggnagg’s long-lived Struldbrugs show why it is better that human beings die rather than live forever.

Yet, at the same time, there are elements to these worlds that are often rather praiseworthy. The Lilliputians not only punish bad behaviour (with particularly severe penalties for lying and breaking trust) but reward people who have never committed any offences. They also have public nurseries and little sex distinction in education. The Brobdingnagians have a system of knowledge and law that only values pragmatic application and clarity, and they are contemptuous of the sophistries of the academics and lawyers that Gulliver describes. This UTOPIANISM becomes clearest in the last voyage, to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of calm and rational horses who use primitive people (Yahoos) as slaves. These horses have no words in their language for lying, power, government, war, law, punishment, and so on, and hence they are appalled by Gulliver’s increasingly critical account of his Yahoo ‘civilization’. This is not because they blame their Yahoos for being Yahoos – that is their nature, after all – but that these Yahoos who claim reason should fail so badly in being reasonable suggests a greater corruption. The Houyhnhnms live a simple ARCADIAN and egalitarian existence and practise a form of voluntary eugenics by choosing mates who will result in a desirable mixture of characteristics. They educate foals virtually the same, regardless of sex, value exercise and athleticism, and make decisions through four-yearly assemblies. (They do keep the Yahoos as slaves, however, and even consider exterminating them.)

In general, human beings do not come out well in Swift’s worlds. It would be easy enough to classify him as a witty misanthrope, and certainly not a utopian in any simple sense. However, what the stylistic cleverness of Gulliver’s Travels reveals neatly is the utopian impulse buried in dystopian accounts. Swift may be endlessly disappointed by the present state of human beings, but he appears to hope that they learn something from the distorting mirror that he usually presents them with, and cultivate their kinder and more rational aspects. Gulliver’s inability to live amongst his family of Yahoos when he returns from his final voyage suggests that he, at least, has been changed. Perhaps the lonely misanthrope is the only one able to be realistic about the possibility of social change, unlike the relentlessly cheerful utopians who present a tidy final solution to all social problems, often without much reference to how we get from the dirty world of ‘here’ to the completed utopia over ‘there’. Paradoxically, then, dystopians needs more optimism than utopians, because they know how difficult the journey will be.

Copyright © Martin Parker, Valerie Fournier, Patrick Reedy, 2007

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