Gulliver’s Travels overview
Gulliver’s Travels is a four-part prose travelogue, narrated by the fictitious persona of Lemuel Gulliver, who tells the story of his extensive global voyages, the places he has been and the people (and other creatures) he met. The satire was first published in 1726 under the title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World ‘By Lemuel Gulliver’.
‘Gulliver’ announces, in a letter prefixed to the novel, that he has only allowed his story to be published under great pressure, and he denies any suggestion that it is ‘a mere fiction out of mine own brain’. In this preface he also issues several corrections and clarifications to the narrative we are about to read. Gulliver carries this fussiness over into his assessment of the various cultures and individuals he becomes acquainted with on his travels.
Gulliver’s travels take him to Lilliput, an island on a miniature scale where he appears as huge as a giant; Brobdingnag, where everything and everyone is enormous, and Gulliver is comparatively minuscule; the flying island of Laputa, inhabited by philosophers; the kingdom of Balnibarbi, full of obsessive scientists; the island of Glubbdubdrib, where a magician enables him to speak with the ghosts of important figures from antiquity and the modern world; Luggnagg, where he meets the immortal (and deeply unhappy) Struldbrugs; and finally the Country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of highly intelligent, refined talking horses, who rule over a brutish race of humanoid beasts known as Yahoos. Gulliver is so depressed by humanity’s resemblance to the Yahoos that after he returns home from his final voyage he becomes a recluse. Barely able to go near his own wife and family, he is convinced that human beings are nothing more than ‘a lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride’.
Swift’s book is a satirical commentary on his own society’s fascination with travel and exploration – riffing, in particular, on the pious optimism of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which had been published seven years earlier – but it also fantastically magnifies, diminishes, twists and inverts many ‘ordinary’ features of human life, in ways that are ultimately hilarious, scathing and remarkably humane.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Travel, colonialism and slavery, Satire and humour, Politics and religion, Rise of the novel
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.
- Article by:
- Jim Watt
- Travel, colonialism and slavery, Politics and religion
In the 17th century, London was at the centre of global trade, with goods and individuals arriving in the capital from all over the world. Jim Watt looks at how travel, trade and empire shaped the works of Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Josiah Wedgwood, Oliver Goldsmith and Ignatius Sancho.
- Article by:
- Andrew Macdonald-Brown
- Satire and humour, Language and ideas
Writers and craftsmen including Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift and Josiah Wedgwood found inspiration in the classical period. Andrew Macdonald-Brown explores how their works adopted the style, genres, aesthetic values and subjects of Greek and Roman writers.