Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Context



Jonathan Swift built a strong reputation as a satirist with publications such as "A Tale of a Tub" (1704), Gulliver's Travels (1726), and the essay "A Modest Proposal" (1729). As a genre, satire dates back at least as far as ancient Greece. The term is often confused with comedy. While satire can include humorous elements, it does not necessarily have to be funny. Rather, the term refers to a text that uses literary techniques to provide criticism of political and cultural practices in a society. Common techniques used in satire include parody, or imitation of another source, usually the target of the satire's criticism; hyperbole or exaggeration to highlight absurdity; understatement, which minimizes an issue to point out absurdity; irony, which emphasizes the gap between intent and reality; and sarcasm, which uses a biting tone to express that the intended meaning of words may differ from what is actually said.

Gulliver's Travels contains humorous moments, most memorably those related to bodies and bodily functions, but its criticism reaches across a number of topics and uses a number of other techniques. For example, portrayals of ruthless and self-centered monarchs in Gulliver's Travels use parody to address the chaos of English government during the 1700s. Intellectuals whose thoughts and experiments divorce them from reality illustrate the irony of academic studies during the 1700s, which provided some theoretical benefit but little practicality. Each society Gulliver encounters adheres to a different moral code, providing ample basis for comparison with English morality and its strengths and shortcomings. Gulliver's Travels also addresses issues related to gender roles, war, religion, history, and literature itself.

While effective satire addresses issues specific to a particular time and place, the use of literature as the means of conveying criticism creates the potential for universal resonance. Gulliver's Travels directly criticizes the social and political problems of 18th-century England, but the novel has remained popular and relevant because so many of the issues it addresses—government corruption, needless war, academic ignorance—also remain relevant.

Historical Influences

Gulliver's Travels contains several examples of the tyrannies of monarchs and other leaders. Many of these examples reference the English monarchy of the 1600s and 1700s. The Anglo-Irish Swift saw how English oppression affected lives in his home country, and he was driven from Ireland to England by the violence that erupted after the Catholic King James II was deposed (and fled to Ireland) and replaced with the Protestant William of Orange. Armed conflicts erupted between the Jacobites, who supported James II, and the Orangemen, who supported William. But these conflicts were simply the latest wave in the battle between Catholics and Protestants that had been raging since Henry VIII's break with the church in 1534. Gulliver's Travels makes repeated reference to the absurdity of religious conflict between Christian factions.

Likewise, conflicts between the Whig and Tory parties in English government in the early 1700s affected Swift's own career aspirations. He rose to the rank of Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, but no higher. The Whigs and Tories attacked each other through a series of infighting, double-dealing, and treachery that inspired much of the criticism in the novel of governments mired in their own corruption, unable to serve the common good.

The novel also takes aim at the burgeoning expansion of scientific and mathematical inquiry, largely inspired by the work and writings of Swift's contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton, some of which Swift took more direct issue with in his other writings. Swift also references the creation of the Royal Society in London in the 1660s, criticizing facile learning and abstractionism, leading to incomplete knowledge as a danger to society. Beginning with the Age of Discovery at the end of the 15th century, Europeans who traveled to unfamiliar worlds frequently wrote accounts of their experiences, called travel narratives; these were not always accurate and often contained grossly exaggerated stories about the strange people and beings that travelers encountered. The fantastic beings Gulliver meets on his voyages simultaneously reference and mock these travel narratives.

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