Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Jonathan Swift | Biography


Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667. Swift's father died before he was born, and his mother left the young Swift in the care of his uncle. The family was not wealthy, but it had good connections. Swift attended secondary school at Kilkenny College in Dublin, earning his bachelor's degree from Trinity College. He then moved to England, where he attended Hertford College at Oxford and earned a master's degree that would make him eligible to join the clergy, a backup plan to his political aspirations.

Swift was assigned a post as a parish priest for the Church of Ireland in Derry when he was 32, but he continued to work and write actively in politics. His first work of satire, "A Tale of a Tub," was published anonymously in 1704 and expanded in 1710. This publication earned him the scorn of Queen Anne of England, who misunderstood the work, even though Swift was active in the English Tory party (political conservatives whose policies Anne supported) throughout the early 1700s, dividing his time between London and Ireland. He became dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713, but in the following year, the queen died. George I took the throne, the Whig party dominated the English government, and these events effectively ended Swift's hopes for advancement in the church or government. He returned to Ireland and focused on his writing, pouring many of his political opinions and experiences into his best-known work, Gulliver's Travels.

When it was first published in 1726, Gulliver's Travels became an immediate success with adults and children, requiring multiple reprints in its first few months on the shelves. Adventure stories were all the rage at the time, made popular by the publication of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe a few years earlier. Almost 300 years later, Gulliver's Travels remains Swift's most famous work and is a staple of the English literary canon. The novel has remained in print consistently since 1726 and has been adapted to picture books, comics, and a number of films, including a 2010 adaptation starring Jack Black. The 1965 Japanese adaptation Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon places the title's character in outer space.

The novel also introduced new terms into the English language. Lilliputian, derived from the six-inch-tall Lilliputians Gulliver visits on the island of Lilliput, is used as an adjective to describe things that are very small, and Brobdingnagian, derived from the 60-feet-tall giants Gulliver visits in the country of Brobdingnag, is an adjective to describe something that is very large. Yahoo, derived from the term the Houyhnhnm horses use to describe humans, is perhaps better known as an exclamation or an Internet search engine, but it is also used as a noun for "a person who is very rude, loud, or stupid" according to Merriam-Webster.

In Ireland, Swift remained politically active, writing pamphlets supporting Irish causes, such as Irish independence from British colonialism. The most famous of these, "A Modest Proposal," published in 1729, brought attention to poverty in Ireland with its outrageous and sarcastic suggestion that starving Irish families sell their children as food for the wealthy English. This and other writings established Swift as an Irish political hero. Swift's commitment to social good extended beyond his death, through the money he donated for the establishment of a mental hospital in Dublin; St. Patrick's Hospital, known in its early days as "Dr. Swift's," remains in operation today.

In his personal life, Swift cultivated friendships with other prominent literary figures, including poet Alexander Pope and playwrights William Congreve and John Gay. His lifelong friendship with Esther Johnson, better known as Stella, has inspired scholarly and non-scholarly speculation over the years. When Swift died on October 19, 1745, he was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin next to Stella.

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