Jan 18

Synopsis of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver’s Travels (1726, amended 1735) is a novel by Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift. It is Swift’s best known full-length work, and a classic of English literature. It is full of different kind of satires.

Satire is the literary expression of disgust, amusement, or despair- all arising from a sense of discontent with the existing state of affairs. Jonathan Swift, a famous and talented writer of eighteenth century, is regarded as one of the world’s greatest satirists. He was a man of piercing intellect and this intellect never was blind to the chaos and confusion and corruption of the age. He satirizes the political parties and their corrupt practices and that engaged England at the time. All of his vigorous expressions against war and scientific inventions have portrayed perfectly in his greatest work Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver’s Travels tells the story of a ship’s surgeon named Lamuel Gulliver. During his first voyage, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself a prisoner of a race of tiny people, 6 inches tall, who are inhabitants of the island country of Lilliput. Though at first they seem very courageous and ingenious and so careful of Gulliver, in later the readers become aware of some other nasty traits of the Lilliputians namely- pettiness, greed, and favoritism. Swift is satirizing here the corruption of the Whigs in the political scene in England at that time.

In part I (a Voyage to Lilliput), it is founded that Swift is satirizing the manner in which political offices were distributed among the candidates by the English King in Swift’s time. That age was not famed for a calm and peaceful atmosphere. It had its disquieting events. There were two major political parties, the Whigs and the Tories. Not only the political aspect but also the whole fabric of society was enveloped by the interests of these two parties. Swift relates this trait to the situations of Lilliput where a dominant ruler oppresses the whole nation. Just as in Swift’s England, Lilliput is dominated by two rival factions, the high heels and the low heels. Lilliput and its rival kingdom of Blefuscu carry on as if their affairs are just as vital as those of European nations, and their nations just as capable, despite the fact that Gulliver could step on them all if he wished. As he records their society, court intrigues, religious disputes, and wars, it becomes clear that European politicians and aristocrats share much of the ridiculousness of the Lilliputians.

Although it is interesting to learn from history that Swift is specifically mocking the controversy between Tories and Whigs in contemporary politics, it is more important to note that he is ridiculing any political strife by making the Lilliputian conflict revolve over differences in the height of heels. Another target of Swift’s sharp pen is religion, particularly the conflicts between Roman Protestants and Catholics. In the visit of Gulliver to Mildendo, with the Big and Little – Endian dispute, Swift takes a crack at religious conflict by arising a question of which end of an egg should be broken before it is eaten. It is funny that, while one party believes that boiled eggs should be broken at the big end, the other party insists on breaking the eggs at the smaller end. Swift had a lot of experiences of religious conflict between Roman Protestants and Catholics in England, which he satirizes here. Swift also satirizes the political parties in England (the Whigs and the Tories) when he speaks of the two factions in Lilliput– the two factions being distinguished by their high heels and low heels respectively. Again Gulliver’s account of the annoyance of the Empress of Lilliput at his having extinguished a fire in her apartment is Swift’s satirical way of describing Queen Anne’s annoyance with him for having written A Tale of a Tub in which Swift had attacked religious abuses but which had been misinterpreted by the Queen as an attack on religion itself.

In part I, Lilliput is revealed to have degenerated from an almost Utopian state to its present condition. Here Swift is very clearly portrays a picture of civil conflict which indicates the civil conflict of England. Besides it Swift inserts his own opinions on wifely behavior, education, and child- education, pointing up all too well the lack of moderation and common sense in his contemporary society.

Swift also uses his satire to the mindlessness and cruelty that cause the nations to wage war. The battle between Lilliput and Blefuscu hints at the recurring battle between England and France. There was a prolonged war between England and France when Queen Anne was on the throne. In this war Swift played a significant role to promote peace and tried utmost to defend it which was made by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. For supporting this cause he shifted his political loyalty from Whig to Tory. His close association with the politicians brought him close to their nature and this got reflected in Part I.

Again Gulliver’s account of the conspiracy against him and his impending summons is Swift’s satirical description of court-intrigues which were a feature of political life in England at that time. Swift here gives us amusing glimpses of what went on at the court of George I when Sir Robert Walpole was the most influential of the politicians. The articles of charge against Gulliver may be a satire on the actual impeachment in 1715 of four Tory ex-ministers.

By the end of the final chapter of part I, Gulliver has become thoroughly wary of princes and ministers, indeed, all political institutions. He realizes that governments are corrupted by party antagonisms, the rivalries of functions, and malicious intriguing. Human behavior, he sees, is often motivated by jealously, vanity, lust, and ingratitude. Power controls their works as well as their passions. All of these are the reflections of the time of Swift on which he (the author) satirizes.

So throughout Gulliver’s Travels, Swift repeatedly satirizes human corruption and inadequacy from a variety of angles. Here Swift is able to satire English politics, religious conflict, social norms and Western culture masterfully. With his witty writing he portrays all of these in the novel very vividly.


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About the author

Sharna Quazi