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Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels


by Jonathan Swift

Analysis: Writing Style

Parodic, Absurd

We've talked about the ways that Gulliver's Travels parodies the whole genre of the traveler's tale, but the book also includes lots of parodic language at the level of the paragraph. For example, when Gulliver discusses Laputa's lodestone in Part 3, Chapter 3, he writes:

By means of this loadstone, the island is made to rise and fall, and move from one place to another. For, with respect to that part of the earth over which the monarch presides, the stone is endued at one of its sides with an attractive power, and at the other with a repulsive. Upon placing the magnet erect, with its attracting end towards the earth, the island descends; but when the repelling extremity points downwards, the island mounts directly upwards. When the position of the stone is oblique, the motion of the island is so too: for in this magnet, the forces always act in lines parallel to its direction. (3.3.5)

Here, Gulliver describes how the island of Laputa moves using this giant magnet, which is attracted to the Earth on one side and repulsed by it on the other. If they stand the stone upright with the attracting side face down, the island goes down, and vice versa. Gulliver is using the formal mathematical and scientific language of his day with all of this stuff about parallelism, attraction, and repulsion. But it's clearly an imitation – none of Gulliver's regular descriptions of things sound this stiff and difficult. Swift imitates different kinds of jargon and technical writing to show that the weakness of mankind isn't just limited to politics and morals; we write pretty badly, too.

Of course, in addition to all of these abstract parodies and moral lessons, the style of Gulliver's Travels is also pretty absurd. Consider the Lilliputian soldiers' curiosity about Gulliver's penis size or the bizarre Luggnaggian assassination method of licking the poisoned floor in front of their King. A lot of Swift's humor comes from his surprising twists and turns as a writer. Gulliver spends a lot of time dwelling on apparently minor digressions, such as how he arranges to pee when he is kept inside a giant's home during his first night in Brobdingnag. The contrast of very basic humor – there are really a lot of bathroom jokes in Gulliver's Travels – with high moral philosophy keeps the reader interested in what's going to happen next. After all, it's guaranteed to be something unexpected.

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