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An introduction to Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift initially did his best to conceal the fact that he was the author of Gulliver's Travels. John Mullan explores how Swift constructed the work to operate as an elaborate game, parodying travel literature, pretending to be an autobiography and containing obviously false facts presented by a deeply unreliable narrator.

Game playing: A delicious fake

The strange circumstances in which Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726 tell us a great deal about the kind of book it was designed to be. Its author, Jonathan Swift, arranged for the manuscript of half the book to be dropped off in secret by an intermediary at the house of a publisher, Benjamin Motte. An accompanying letter, signed by Gulliver’s supposed cousin Richard Sympson, offered Motte the whole of the Travels in return for £200 (a very large sum at the time). Motte read the manuscript and accepted the offer, paying the money and receiving the rest of the book via the same intermediary. He published it without knowing for sure who had written it.

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

Title page of the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels printed by Benjamin Motte in 1726.

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Portrait of Jonathan Swift c. 1718

Portrait of Jonathan Swift c 1718

This portrait of Jonathan Swift was painted by Charles Jervas in around 1718 when Swift was about 41 years old.

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The element of game-playing in this was characteristic of Swift. It was not as if he thought he could keep his identity as the author hidden for long. Indeed, there is evidence that he was irked when, at first, some readers attributed Gulliver’s Travels to other authors. But it was important to the book’s effect that it be a kind of highly elaborate practical joke. It was presented to the 18th-century reader as if it were an authentic travel book. On the title page of the first edition it was called Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, and its author was named as Lemuel Gulliver, ‘first a Surgeon, and then a CAPTAIN of several Ships’. It was a kind of delicious fake.

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

Fictional portrait of Lemuel Gulliver in the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels.

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Swift was 58 years old when Gulliver’s Travels appeared, a writer with an established reputation. His new satire was immediately successful, and it was not long before it was confidently attributed to him. (He would officially claim it as his own nearly a decade later by including it in his Works of 1735.) All of Swift’s satirical creations were published anonymously or under a pseudonym. Swift absented himself from these works and left his readers – now, as much as in his own day – to puzzle over what to make of his narrators. As we have seen, he went to great lengths to sever Gulliver’s Travels from his authorship. He left it behind in England, to be published and to do its mischief, while he travelled back to his home in Dublin.

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal – Swift's attack on the British government's inability to solve the problem of poverty in Ireland – is one of the literary canon's most famous examples of satire.

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The anonymity of Gulliver’s Travels allowed it to be a mock-book. It parodied examples of voyage literature that were popular in the period, and which Swift appears to have enjoyed reading. These accounts were ‘true’ stories of travels to remote areas of the globe. A New Voyage Round the World (1697) by William Dampier was particularly influential. In the supposed letter to his cousin that serves as a preface to Gulliver’s Travels, our narrator mentions advising ‘my Cousin Dampier’ on the style of his famous work. Dampier’s book described a series of voyages, lasting some 12 years and taking him buccaneering around the globe.

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

First edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1726

The fictitious lands that Gulliver explores on his voyages were depicted at the fringes of the known world as Europeans understood it: for example, this is a map showing Houyhnhnm Land just off the southern coast of what is now known as Australia.

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Dampier announced that though he brought knowledge of ‘Remote Regions’, his account was ‘this plain piece of mine’. Stylistic plainness guaranteed ‘the Truth and Sincerity of my Relation’. ‘Choosing to be more particular than might be needful’, the narrator has stuck to the facts. At the beginning of the final chapter of Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver declares that he has ‘not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth’ (Part 4, ch. 12). ‘I could perhaps, like others, have astonished thee with strange improbable Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style; because my principal Design was to inform, and not to amuse thee’ (Part 4, ch. 12). He echoes the proud plainness of his ‘cousin’ Dampier: ‘As to my Stile, it cannot be expected, that a Seaman should affect Politeness; for were I able to do it, yet I think I should be little sollicitous about it, in a work of this Nature’.

Facts and truthfulness

Gulliver’s addiction to facts, including grid references and measurements, has its roots in these strange-but-true voyage narratives, whose authors tried to convince readers of their truthfulness by providing factual details. In his prefatory address to the reader, Richard Sympson calls attention to Gulliver’s veracity, explicit in his narrative style:

There is an Air of Truth apparent through the whole; and indeed the Author was so distinguished for his Veracity, that it became a Sort of Proverb among his Neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a Thing, to say it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoke it. (The Publisher to the Reader).

Yet, while he is pedantically recording ‘curious’ facts, we should notice how his attention to recording things leads to his remarkable failure to be surprised. ‘I felt something alive moving on my left Leg ... I perceived it to be a human Creature not six Inches high, with a Bow and Arrow in his Hands, and a Quiver at his Back’ (Part 1, ch. 1). His ‘curiosity’ ensures that if he is ever shocked it is by the wrong things. In Brobdingnag, he attends an execution, because ‘although I abhorred such kind of Spectacles, yet my Curiosity tempted me to see something that I thought must be extraordinary’ (Part 2, ch. 5):

The Veins and Arteries spouted up such a prodigious Quantity of Blood, and so high in the Air, that the great Jett d'eau at Versailles was not equal, for the Time it lasted; and the Head, when it fell on the Scaffold-Floor, gave such a Bounce, as made me start, although I were at least half an English Mile distant. (Part 2, ch. 5).

He ‘starts’ at the vibration, but seems rather entranced by the spectacle.

Spectacle case probably owned by King James II

Spectacle case probably owned by King James II

Gulliver is preoccupied with the mechanics of seeing, so much so that he fails to glean meaningful insights into his voyages. His reliance on his spectacles within the narrative comes to symbolise his incompetence as an observer.

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Without an authorial presence to guide us, we should keep our eyes on Gulliver. The voyage to Lilliput can be read as a satire on English politics of the time: the ‘high Heels’ and the ‘low Heels’ could be the Tories and the Whigs; the chief courtier Flimnap looks like the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole; the rival state of Blefescu, where exiled Lilliputians hatch their plots, looks much like France. Yet even here it is Gulliver’s failure to recognise what he observes that is essential to the satire. The king’s Principal Secretary Reldresal tells him about the endless conflict between those who believe that eggs should be broken at ‘the smaller End’ and those who believe that they should be broken at ‘the larger End’. We can see an absurd parody of doctrinal disputes between Catholics and Protestants, but Gulliver sees only material for the ‘greater Work’ that he intends to publish on the whole history of the Lilliputians, ‘with a particular Account of their Wars and Politicks, Laws, Learning, and Religion; their Plants and Animals, their peculiar Manners and Customs, with other matters very curious and useful’ (Part 1, ch. 4).

The Adventures of Captain Gulliver

The Adventures of Captain Gulliver

This woodcut, taken from an early children’s edition of Gulliver’s Travels, shows Lilliputian politicians jumping over sticks in order to impress the king and gain prominence at court.

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Jonathan Swift's letters to Henrietta Howard

Jonathan Swift's letters to Henrietta Howard

Despite mocking the patronage system at court, Swift tried to advance his career by cultivating the friendship of Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

An unreliable narrator

Gulliver is an unreliable narrator. The satire frequently depends on our being able to see that to which he is blind. At one point in his account of his second voyage he gives the king of this land of giants a proud account of Britain and its recent history. The king’s response proves to be rather different from what he expected:

As for yourself, (continued the King,) who have spent the greatest Part of your Life in Travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pain wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth. (Part 2, ch. 6).

The Adventures of Captain Gulliver

The Adventures of Captain Gulliver

This woodcut shows a miniature Gulliver sailing in a trough, entertaining the queen of Brobdingnag and her courtiers.

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At the beginning of the next chapter, Gulliver explains why he has told us this: ‘Nothing but an extreme Love of Truth could have hindered me from concealing this Part of my Story.’ (Part 2, ch. 7). He has put the king’s judgement into his narrative not because he feels chastened by it, but simply because he believes in recording things. He calls this his ‘extreme Love of Truth’, a boast that draws attention to his failure to understand how his boasts have revealed some of the worst aspects of human nature.

To justify his veracity, he has to tell us everything, including how he dealt with ‘the Necessities of Nature’ whilst in Lilliput:

The best Expedient I could think on, was to creep into my House, which I accordingly did; and shutting the Gate after me, I went as far as the Length of my Chain would suffer, and discharged my Body of that uneasy Load. But this was the only Time I was ever guilty of so uncleanly an Action; for which I cannot but hope the candid Reader will give some Allowance, after he has maturely and impartially considered my Case, and the Distress I was in. (Part 1, ch. 2).

Gulliver likes to feel that there is nothing that he shirks telling us.

The absence of religion: An experiment in godlessness

Swift was a man of God, an Anglican clergyman who eventually became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. He lived by professing his religion, and anyone who reads his sermons, to which he devoted great care, will be left in no doubt of the intensity with which he thought about Christian doctrine. Yet Gulliver, his most famous creation, never thinks of God. This absence is rarely noticed by modern readers, but it would have been very evident to many of Swift’s first audience. Gulliver is so self-sufficient, so confident in his own resources and his own intellectual powers, that he does not need religion. The book is an experiment in godlessness that leaves its narrator without humility or hope.

Children's illustrated edition of Gulliver's Travels, 1864

1864 illustrated edition of Gulliver's Travels [page: 274-75]

Illustrations of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.

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In his fourth voyage he reaches the land of the unpronounceable Houyhnhnms, talking horses whose virtues overwhelm him. Seeing the disgusting Yahoos, driven only by appetite, he sees a version of himself and turns to loathing of his species. There has been much debate about whether we should admire the Houyhnhnms, ascetic and rational as they are. They cannot ‘say the thing that is not’ – their phrase for lying that might as well be their description of irony (Swift’s own speciality), which must also be beyond their comprehension. But, as ever, what matters most is Gulliver’s thinking. He is utterly seduced by their truthfulness. Swift’s genius is to see that pride and self-disgust are near neighbours. Gulliver begins his voyages as a prideful modern man, confident in the values of his culture; he ends as a maddened misanthrope, and, disturbingly, the unwitting object of the book’s satire.

  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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