You might have heard people call Gulliver's Travels a satire. A satire is a (generally funny) fictional work that uses sarcasm and irony to poke fun at the general patheticness of humanity – our weakness, our stupidity, all that jazz. Some of our favorite satires include The Onion and The Daily Show. But if you love twenty-first century satire (like we do), you should check out the eighteenth century – those guys were huge fans of a good satire. In fact, some of the greatest thinkers of the eighteenth century, including poet Alexander Pope, mathematician John Arbuthnot, and our main man, Jonathan Swift, could not get enough satire. They even started a club, the Scriblerus Club, to express their general contempt for humanity and for bad writing in particular.
Thus, we think it's fair to say that the early eighteenth century was a good time for haters. This was lucky for Jonathan Swift, since he's like the king of haters – one of the greatest writers of satire that English literature has ever seen.
In fact, Swift had a lot of cause to despise people, because he had a somewhat disastrous public life. Swift was an Irish clergyman who regularly came to London to participate in the political and literary scene under Queen Anne. While Jonathan Swift began life as a Whig (Britain's liberal party in the eighteenth century), he eventually became a prominent Tory (a member of England's conservative party).
Tories favored royal authority and the national church (Anglicanism). The Tories also opposed increased power for the Parliament, the English equivalent of the American Congress. Swift may not have believed as strongly in the divine right of kings as some dyed-in-the-wool Tories (as you might guess from his satire of kings in Gulliver's Travels). Still, he did generally side with political conservatives on the issues of the day.
Everything seemed to be going relatively well until George I took the English throne in 1714. With George came a strongly pro-Whig Parliament. The Whigs were the political enemies of the Tories, and Swift found himself up a creek without a paddle. Facing the end of his political life, Swift headed back to Ireland, becoming dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin (source). This feud between the Whigs and the Tories provides the primary political material for Gulliver's Travels – for more specifics, check out our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians.
Swift completed Gulliver's Travels in 1725 and published it through London printer Benjamin Motte in 1726. Swift wrote to Motte under an assumed name, Richard Sympson, to arrange the novel's printing. Motte was so concerned with being charged with treason for publishing Gulliver's Travels that he tried to tone down the political content of several parts of the novel (source). The fact that Swift couldn't even use his own name when planning his book's publication, and that the publisher tried to censor its content, gives us a sense of exactly how offensive Gulliver's Travels must have been when it was written.
Outraged that Motte rearranged his original text, Swift finally sent Gulliver's Travels to another press for printing. The 1735 edition, printed by George Faulkner in Dublin, restores the novel in its complete form and includes a nasty little letter supposedly from "Captain Gulliver" criticizing the 1726 edition's changes. But even Motte got a happy ending: Gulliver's Travels sold out its first printing in 10 days. Everybody read it, and now here we all are, ready to get to the nitty gritty of Lemuel Gulliver and his travels.
Why Should I Care?
When we first started seeing ads for director James Cameron's CGI extravaganza Avatar, we were like, warrior Smurfs? But now that we've seen it, whoa, are we impressed. It's not just the beautiful visual material that kept us riveted to our seats. We were also fascinated by the whole idea of the avatars: when wheelchair-bound Jake Sully gets to walk, run, and jump using his new, better body? It was as though we were running and jumping for the first time in who knows how long. We take a lot of things for granted in our daily lives. The great thing about science fiction or fantasy is that it can take totally familiar aspects of human experience and show them to us again in a fresh light. Avatar makes basic movements of the human body – walking and running – seem new and remarkable.
But, you may be saying to yourselves, what does Avatar have to do with Gulliver's Travels? Well, James Cameron is drawing on a long fantasy tradition of bending reality to make ordinary things seem strange and unfamiliar. And Gulliver's Travels is one of the granddaddies of this genre: Swift takes regular topics like politics, international relations, math and science, and even old age and twists them. He makes political differences seem tiny by sending Gulliver to Lilliput and he makes math and science seem airy and far from daily life by floating the island of Laputa overhead. By depicting human customs we take for granted as weird and alien, Gulliver's Travels is asking us to look at them again as though for the first time.
But what Gulliver uncovers during his travels is nowhere near as lovely as James Cameron's Pandora. He finds nearly everything about people – their desires, their interests, even their smell – totally repulsive. Gulliver's Travels reflects human beings back to us in all kinds of creatively disgusting ways. This is a book to read when you're feeling mad at people in general, because boy, Swift is right there with you, hilariously hating all the while. Swift uses his creative reorganization of daily life to create the meanest, funniest, dirtiest rant of the entire eighteenth century – and we have to tell you, this novel has to be read to be believed.