Although Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift was for a long time regarded as an adventure story for children, it is in reality a satire of political and social events that occurred in England and Ireland during his time. The story is based on the travels of Gulliver to fanciful foreign lands. The fantastic tale is divided into four parts, each talking about a different place visited by Gulliver.
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Gulliver’s narrates his adventures on his returning home. When his ship is seized by pirates, his adventurous journey starts from then. Swift satirises the values and institutions of the English.
He pokes fun at the academicians, scientists and the Age of Reason intellectuals for valuing freethinking above everything else. Most importantly, Swift targets the conditions of humanity. This essay aims to give a detailed discussion of the story’s social context.
The first part is Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput where he encounters minute individuals. The community was fighting with its neighbouring island, the Blefuscu. Since he is seen as a giant, Gulliver is used by the emperor as a weapon to fight against their opponent (Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, 1992).
The conflicts between the two communities represent the conflicts that were going on between France and England as well as the Catholics and the Protestants during Swift’s time. What is more, most of the characters in this part coincide with the actual politicians of his time.
This was during the reign of Queen Anne, and the tiny people represent the England’s littleness of its government and nationals acts (Knowles, 1996). Moreover, by depicting the conflicts between the Lilliputians and their neighbours, Swift ridicules the religious conflicts in the English community that were happening then (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1826).
Gulliver’s second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag where he encounters extremely huge creatures. The huge humans have an offending smell which causes Gulliver to think that the Lilliputians may have also found him filthy.
Here, the lousy mental and physical features of man are displayed. Gulliver is owned by a man who constantly uses him as an object of business. He displays him in public so as to make profits and when Gulliver finally becomes weak, he immediately disposes him at a costly price. This shows the self-interestedness of man (Wedel, 1926).
Gulliver’s next journey is to the floating island of Laputa. In this circumstance, Swift finds fault with the England’s royal society which as he points out, comprises of ineffectual scholars, discoverers and scientists. The floating island denotes how the dwellers are comprised of the impractical establishments just as their own surrounding (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: Further Voyages, 1995).
Experiments done by such individuals are summarized by the general artist who leads his following into turning utile things into completely different things thus resulting into ineffective achievements. Therefore, the flying island is an expression of the defection of the world of realness and also the transformation of the universe into a mechanically skilful living (Wedel, 1926).
Gulliver’s last travel is into the land of the Houyhnhnms. On reaching this land, he comes upon a group of the Yahoos who scandalise him at once as he says; “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable and animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy” (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: Further Voyages, 1995, p. 215).
This assertion is ironical as Gulliver did not find out any similarities betwixt the Yahoos and himself. After meeting the Houyhnhnms is when he realises the features he shared with the Yahoos, and it is then that he acknowledges; “my horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abdominal animal, a perfect human figure” (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: Further Voyages, 1995, p. 220).
This study demonstrates a case of two opponent sides where their natural states differ. The yahoos represent the fact that man is controlled by his desires thus constantly seeks pleasances and avoids nuisance. As for the Houyhnhnms, they represent the conception that man lives in the Age of Reason (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1826).
In addition, the fourth voyage has some spiritual moral lessons to learn from. According to Christian teachings, man became so corrupt in the beginning that his sins were beyond redemption. This is what led to the fall of Adam. His desires are what led him to commit sins and his reason, despite the fact that it brought him salvation, led him deeper into vice.
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These shows that, though man is sinful by nature, his reason can save him from sinful acts and guide him through the path of divine revelation (Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, 1992). Therefore, the Yahoos signify man as an unmanageable evildoer whilst the Houyhnhnms, on the other hand, signifies man as guided by reason into the path of morality.
This case study of the Houyhnhnms and the yahoos also represent something like a colonial government with the Houyhnhnms as the rulers and the Yahoos as the native inhabitants of the land.
The two coexist within a society nothing like a British colony of the time. During that time, the colonialists looked down upon the native community just as witnessed in the Houyhnhnms who despise the Yahoos because of their lifestyle and culture that is uncivilized and inferior (Wedel, 1926).
Consequently, it can be said that each of the lands that Gulliver visited is characteristic of the world where swift lived only that it is presented and shaped in a satirical manner. The irrationality of man is a theme in Swift’s book. However, this is not directly expressed but rather suggested in form of satire.
The sizes of persons in the first and second voyage are a representation of how man has pride. First, the six-inch tall persons are looked down upon by Gulliver but the opposite happens to him on the second voyage where he is despised by the sixty-foot tall individuals. This thus indicates the irrationality of man who is only (Knowles, 1996).
Jonathan, through Gulliver presents how corruption is spread in some parts of England as represented by the four foreign lands that Gulliver journeys to. The corruption in the governments, religions, societies and humanity in general is criticised by Swift.
He not only criticises the traditions of each of the nations but also laughs at the unenlightened man who is not able to puzzle out repeat thinking of matters. Gulliver is himself naïve and thus easily deceived into believing all the things he is told. This signifies the irony within the organisation of England.
In conclusion, the book is not only a children story as viewed earlier by some people, but serves a criticism of the society’s religious, political and moral institutions that existed during Swifts time within the English contexts. Evidently, Gulliver’s Travels is socially commentary just as it is satirical.
Brown, J., Novick, N., Lord, K., & Richards, J. (1992). When Gulliver travels: Social context, psychological closeness, and self-appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 717-727.
Knowles, R. (1996). Gulliver’s travels: the politics of satire. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Swift, J. (1826). Gulliver’s Travels. London: Jones & Company.
Swift, J. (1995). Gulliver’s Travels: Further Voyages. (K. McGovern, Trans.) London: Oxford University Press.
Wedel, T. (1926). On the Philosophical Background of “Gulliver’s Travels”. Studies in Philology , 434-450.