Gulliver’s Travels was written in 1726 by Johnathan Swift. Swift was a very outspoken member of the Church of England. His previous book, The Tale of a Tub satirized the feuds between Catholics and Protestants, and ruined his chances of being a bishop with its unpopularity. Swift uses setting in Gulliver’s Travels to reveal his own criticisms of humanity and his views on society. He presents several different societies, which each represent an exaggerated aspect of 18th century Europe. The eponymous ‘hero’ is Lemuel Gulliver, whose name indicates his nature: He starts off extremely gullible.
As Gulliver travels through Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnugg, and the Land of the Houyhnhnms, he becomes disillusioned with his own humanity and ends up disgusted by other humans and spending his life talking to his horses.
In Lilliput, Swift draws parallels with England, the nobility and parliament in particular. The emperor is small-minded and probably represents George I. George I was German and never learnt to speak English.
He was reputed to be vain, like the emperor, who needs long introductions and fancy title to boost his ego.
In Lilliput, Swift also introduces the idea that the stature of a human is proportional to the generosity, kindness, and wisdom of a human, contrary to Gulliver’s expectations. At the start of his second voyage, he even says, “Human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk”. This is after he has been tied up, shot at, and trapped by the tiny Lilliputians, which enforces the idea that Gulliver’s observations are not always accurate. This incorrect observation highlights the almost perfect society of the Brobdingnagians, who are much bigger than Gulliver.
Swift mainly uses Lilliput to draw attention to the absurdity of religious wars, such as the conflict between the Catholics in Ireland and the English Protestants. The main way he does this is by giving an exaggerated example of a stupid religious war: Lilliput’s war with Blefescu. The war started because the then Emperor of Lilliput passed a law saying that everyone had to break their eggs at the small end. People who broke this law were discriminated against, and books by them were destroyed and not published. This is very similar to the situation in Ireland which Swift strongly objected to, despite the fact that he was a Protestant himself. Furthermore, the mutually sacred book of the Little-endians and Big-endians says, “All true believers shall break their egg at the convenient end”. This is blatantly Swift saying that war between Catholics and Protestants is foolish because they are only arguing about their interpretation of the same book. His point is convincing because he uses an obviously ridiculous example to demonstrate his idea.
As well as drawing attention to the absurdity of the conflict in Ireland, Swift also reflects on vanity in humans. The Lilliputians, though incredibly small, are so vain that they think they can imprison Gulliver. Another example is when Gulliver saves the Empress and her possessions but instead of thanking him, she is so proud that she cannot cope with the way he put out the fire, even though it was the only way to save her apartment. She pressures the government to get rid of Gulliver because of the harm he has caused her reputation. The Empress is thought to represent Queen Anne, who was displeased by Swift’s earlier book The Tale of a Tub because she thought that, while it might dissuade interest in Catholicism, it would do the same for Protestantism. Her disapproval meant that Swift would never become a bishop.
In contrast to Lilliput, Brobdingnag is almost utopian; all resources are pooled and divided equally, and the King and Queen are wise and just. During Gulliver’s stay in Brobdingnag, he attends the king several times to tell him about England and Europe. Gulliver recounts “He was perfectly astonished with the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last century, protesting it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, [and] the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, or ambition could produce”. These are incredibly strong words from such a kind king, which shows that he is very upset by the actions of a race that is so similar to his own.
Swift makes Gulliver seem stupid in Lilliput, by making him endure his captivity, be afraid of the Lilliputians, and other things related to his size in relation to his captors, and because Swift has given us the impression that Gulliver is a fool, we start to believe his opinions less and less, and start to interpret his narrative in different ways. This in turn helps us believe that the Brobdingnagian King is at least partly right in saying that “the bulk of your natives [are] the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth”. Gulliver then says that the king must be excused because he is so far from the rest of the world that his standards could not fit in our country.
Even though Swift portrays Brobdingnag as a sort of Utopia, and it is by far the most civilised place Gulliver visits, it is not perfect. The dictionary defines ‘Utopia’ as “an ideal and perfect place or state where everyone lives in harmony and everything is for the best”. There is still crime in Brobdingnag, because Gulliver himself watches the execution of a murderer, and there are still bad people, as in every society, like the dwarf, who drops Gulliver in a bowl of cream. Perhaps Swift is saying that even the best human societies cannot be truly perfect, because of the nature of humanity; some people are born bad. This is at odds with the thinking of the time, when people optimistically thought that human nature was basically good. Swift is suggesting that this is untrue.
Gulliver’s next voyage is to Laputa. Swift uses Laputa to show his opinion of the (then) current obsession with scientific knowledge and learning. The Laputians are so deep in thought all the time that they have to employ ‘flappers’ to bring them back into a conversation by flapping them on the ears and mouth. They are unable to carry out a conversation, or do anything physical, without a flapper. Because of this, their wives and daughters escape to the mainland underneath Laputa whenever they can, and some do not come back. Swift uses the Laputians to show the stupidity of science just for science’s sake; when scientists start to ignore the rest of the world because they are so concerned in astronomical and mathematical matter, they are not helping anyone.
The word ‘Laputa’ sounds like the Spanish word for ‘prostitute’, ‘la puta’, and Swift would have known this, so he may be suggesting that the Laputians have prostituted themselves to science. Laputa is also a floating island, kept up by a magnetic stone, so the Laputians literally have their heads in the clouds. After realising that Gulliver is not as clever as he is supposed to be (he is a doctor), the reader has begun to read into Gulliver’s descriptions and should see the ridiculousness and the comparison to scientists.
Also on this voyage, Gulliver visits a place called The Academy, which represents the Royal Society of London, a scientific institute set up by Isaac Newton. The experiments described Gulliver that take place in The Academy actually happened in the Royal Society, despite how ridiculous they are. They include extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, using spiders to produce silk, and ploughing the ground with pigs who are trying to find acorns that have been planted there. Each of the professors doing these experiments is odd in appearance, to draw attention to the strangeness of their experiment.
All of the places Gulliver travels to on this voyage are obsessed with knowledge, except Luggnugg, where those born with immortality are feared and looked down on. These people have realised the problems with immortality. At first, Gulliver imagines how he would spend an infinite lifetime, but he imagines himself eternally young, but this is a different thing to immortality. After seeing the aged Struldbruggs, he says, “My keen Appetite for Perpetuity of Life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing Visions I had formed, and thought no Tyrant could invent a Death into which I would not run with Pleasure from such a Life.”
Gulliver’s final voyage, and the most controversial one, is to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, which sounds a bit like the word ‘human’ when said by a horse. In this Land, Gulliver firsts sees the Yahoos, which he sees as some kind of animal and not as humans at all. He describes their appearance as he would an animal, and compares them to other animals, noting, as the Brobdingnagian scientists did, that they weren’t very well equipped for survival. Because of their wild appearance, he does not recognise them as human, and is shocked when he discovers that they are. In the Land of the Houyhnhnms, horses are the ruling species, and keep Yahoos as pets. The Yahoos emphasise everything Swift has implied about humanity; they show avarice, lust, and greed, the leader is always the slyest and disgusting one. The grey mare, Gulliver’s companion on this voyage, says that when more than enough food is given to a group of Yahoos, each one will try to get it all to itself.
The Land of the Houyhnhnms is by far the most ideal society Gulliver encounters, albeit not for the humans. However, it is almost completely devoid of emotion, and is the only place Gulliver visits where the ‘people’ do not have names. As well as this, if a family has two same-gender foals, they will trade one with a family that has two foals of the opposite gender, to keep the balance. This would be impossible in a human society, as nobody would trade his or her own child.
The closest a human society gets to this is in Lilliput, one of the most ridiculous countries Gulliver visits, where the children only see their parents for a few days a year, and live communally the rest of the time. Swift may be suggesting, by making this happen in Lilliput, that it is a bad idea, and that parents should keep their own children, even at the cost of society. the Land of the Houyhnhnms shows that a ‘perfect society’ is possible, but as Swift chooses to compose it of horses, with humans as a hindrance to it, he is probably suggesting that because of the nature of humans, we cannot possibly have an entirely perfect society, we can only try, as in Brobdingnag.
In conclusion, Swift uses each setting to emphasis one or more of humanity’s flaws. In Lilliput, he demonstrates pride in the Lilliputians, in Brobdingnag he shows us the stupidity of the vanity of the women by pointing out all their blemishes from close up (“Their Skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a Mole here and there as broad as a Trencher, and Hairs hanging from it thicker than Pack-threads, to say nothing further concerning the rest of their Persons.”) In his third voyage, the thirst for knowledge and immortal life is ridiculed, and in the Land of the Houyhnhnms, everything Swift has said so far is confirmed, in the disgusting Yahoos.