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“Gulliver’s Travels” : commentary

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'Gulliver's Travels': commentary

When it was anonymously firstly published in 1726, it had immediately an extraordinary success:

it was observed as “Gulliver’s travels” could be universally read, from the nurseries to the government cabinet. This thanks to Swift’s skill in hiding his real satirical aim behind the tale of

voyages in utopian islands where unimaginable things can be real, thus making even a parody of the

literary genre of journey accounts.

So it is clear that it can be seen by different points of view, even as a children book, anyway going trough and over the tale of voyages we can discover the real message Swift wanted to issue:  

“Gulliver’s travels” is the parody of the man and of the human society, of their claiming for rationality, of their struggling, of their everyday behaviour.

At first Swift makes satire on English politics and politicians (of his century) but then he enlarges his criticism to all the mankind.

Part One, “A voyage to Lilliput”, is the fantasy about the giant in the land where everybody else is a

dwarf ; Lilliputian society seems to be perfect but it has been corrupted by the inability of their rulers. The episode of emperor’s grandfather that for having cut a finger while he was breaking an egg on its larger end, forbade to any of his subject to break eggs on the convenient end, clearly recalls the ure of Henry VIII, who brought England to the schism in order to obtain the divorce. As Lilliputians divided into two factions: Big-endians and Little-endians, so in England they divided into Papists and Anglicans. The struggle between Lilliput and Blefuscu is the struggle between Protestant England and Catholic France.

Part Two, “A voyage to Brobdingnag” is Lilliput in reverse, here the most interesting part is the conversation Gulliver has with the king about the state of England. Gulliver would like to explain European civilization, but the king instead makes several observations, underlining how English system can be immoral, unfair and uncivil.

Part Three, “A voyage to Laputa”, is evidently directed against the scientists and the philosophers of  Swift’s age. The author describing Laputa’s people that are ever in contemplation, runs speculative philosophy down. But over all goes the description of the Academy of Lagado in which presumed scientists attempt to realize the most absurd and useless inventions and discoveries, till to

build houses beginning from the roof.

This is an open criticism to the academic world that, taken entirely in its want for research, has lost any principle of good sense.

The encounter with history characters is directed against who wants to modify historical events only for personal purposes, while the unhappiness of the immortal men shows how silly and irrational human wishes can be.

Part Four, “A voyage to Houyhnhnms  has been regarded as the most meaningful part of the book  and of all Swift’s works. In this world where the horses are rational and masters and men are brutes and servants, Gulliver discovers how that rationality men claim to have, can bring them to the most perverse actions. They have the same nature of the Yahoos, the brutes, but their spark of rationality is able to make them even worse. However, neither horses’ world is perfect because they have rationality without any kind of emotion.

An important aspect of Swift’s thought is the philosophical message: the object of his research, as for the philosophers of  his century, is the reason and the use the man can do of that.

Throughout the book we have a contrast between rationality and brutality. In Lilliput, Gulliver is the brute, he has only a big body but no mind; the little Lilliputians represents rationality but they corrupted it by their thirst of domination. In Brobdingnag is the opposite, people are brute giants while the rational being is the dwarf Gulliver even if he’d like to use his presumed superiority to kill and dominate offering the king the “great discovery” of the gunpowder. The king doesn’t need much reason to understand it would be evil and is struck by the fact a so meaningless being could generate a so perverse idea.

In Laputa, reason is used completely out of its natural directions and it doesn’t bring to any result or advantage. This is a criticism of abstract rationality.

In Houyhnhnms land we have the utopia, the perfect rational world, it would be perfect for men too, if they had no passions, but since the man is an emotional being, he’s more suitable to Brobdingnag king’s behaviour, that conceals rationality and passions.

Finally Swift is pessimist about the possibilities of human thinking and he is far from the idea the Enlightenment has of the Reason as a divinity: for him, Reason isn’t sufficient to guide men in their lives, because it would need to delete any passion and as it’s not possible, we should try to conceal mind and heart, finding so a compromise.      

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