Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels Literature and Writing

By Jonathan Swift

Literature and Writing

Part 2, Chapter 1

I hope the gentle reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like particulars, which, however insignificant they may appear to groveling vulgar minds, yet will certainly help a philosopher to enlarge his thoughts and imagination, and apply them to the benefit of public as well as private life, which was my sole design in presenting this and other accounts of my travels to the world; wherein I have been chiefly studious of truth, without affecting any ornaments of learning or of style. (2.1.16)

"These and the like particulars" are the details of how Gulliver arranges his bathroom breaks when he first arrives to Brobdingnag. Everything is so large there that he has trouble, getting off the bed so he can go off and pee. Gulliver says that he wants to explain these vulgar details "to the benefit of public as well as private life." We find Gulliver's doody jokes pretty funny, but can you imagine any "public" benefit that the world might get from these details? Why might Gulliver use these details of his bowel movements as proof that he has been "chiefly studious of truth" in writing these Travels?

Part 2, Chapter 6

Imagine with thyself, courteous reader, how often I then wished for the tongue of Demosthenes or Cicero, that might have enabled me to celebrate the praise of my own dear native country in a style equal to its merits and felicity. (2.6.6)

Basically, in describing England to the Brobdingnagian King, Gulliver wishes he were more eloquent so that he could make England look good despite its actual shortcomings. Is the effort to embroider or persuade through artful language a kind of lying, then? How does Gulliver's wish to be more stylish in his writing in Part 2 compare with his later discussions of England in Houyhnhnm Land in Part 4?

Part 2, Chapter 7

Yet thus much I may be allowed to say in my own vindication, that I artfully eluded many of his questions, and gave to every point a more favourable turn, by many degrees, than the strictness of truth would allow. For I have always borne that laudable partiality to my own country, which Dionysius Halicarnassensis, with so much justice, recommends to an historian: I would hide the frailties and deformities of my political mother, and place her virtues and beauties in the most advantageous light. This was my sincere endeavour in those many discourses I had with that monarch, although it unfortunately failed of success. (2.7.1)

This reference to Dionysius Halicarnassensis (a.k.a. Dionysius of Halicarnassus) is a joke at Gulliver's expense. Dionysius was a Greek author who spent a lot of time praising the Romans and researching their history after they had conquered Greece. So, Gulliver's plan to "hide the frailties [...] of [his] political mother," England, shows the kind of hypocrisy Swift finds in Dionysius.

Part 2, Chapter 8

The captain was very well satisfied with this plain relation I had given him, and said, "he hoped, when we returned to England, I would oblige the world by putting it on paper, and making it public." My answer was, "that we were overstocked with books of travels: that nothing could now pass which was not extraordinary; wherein I doubted some authors less consulted truth, than their own vanity, or interest, or the diversion of ignorant readers; that my story could contain little beside common events, without those ornamental descriptions of strange plants, trees, birds, and other animals; or of the barbarous customs and idolatry of savage people, with which most writers abound. However, I thanked him for his good opinion, and promised to take the matter into my thoughts." (2.8.12)

When Gulliver sails away from Brobdingnag, the captain suggests that he should write a book about his adventures. Gulliver says, no, no, those books of travels are filled with so much exaggeration that they must be lies. Gulliver doesn't want to include "ornamental descriptions" "of the barbarous customs [...] of savage people." But Gulliver's Travels contains precisely these kinds of descriptions of the customs of people Gulliver meets.

In addition to parodying books of travels, Swift also seems to be poking fun at Gulliver's blindness to any irony in his tales. Gulliver lies to people all the time, but claims to be telling only the truth in his writing. Also, he suggests that he would write "little beside common events," but he also describes the most extraordinary and unlikely meetings with giants, little people, floating islands, and talking horses. Gulliver's language is kind of amazing, because even though he is our narrator, we can still observe little inconsistencies in his self-image that open up Gulliver himself to our criticism and mockery.

Part 3, Chapter 2

And thus, in a few days, by the help of a very faithful memory, I got some insight into their language. The word, which I interpret the flying or floating island, is in the original Laputa, whereof I could never learn the true etymology. Lap, in the old obsolete language, signifies high; and untuh, a governor; from which they say, by corruption, was derived Laputa, from Lapuntuh. But I do not approve of this derivation, which seems to be a little strained. I ventured to offer to the learned among them a conjecture of my own, that Laputa was quasi lap outed; lap, signifying properly, the dancing of the sunbeams in the sea, and outed, a wing; which, however, I shall not obtrude, but submit to the judicious reader. (3.2.6)

Gulliver's analysis of the development of the name "Laputa" provides a parody of writing about etymology, the history of words. He attempts to be so careful, but he misses the most obvious derivation: Laputa from "la puta," meaning "whore." Check out our analysis of why Gulliver does this under the heading, "How Much Swift Is In Gulliver?" in Gulliver's "Character Analysis."

Part 3, Chapter 5

The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered, "that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on." (3.5.21)

Those Laputian Projectors – you really have to give them credit for thinking big. Because they have decided that speaking shortens human life by damaging our lungs, they suggest that we should stop talking entirely. Instead, we should always carry the objects we want to talk about so that we can mime what we want to say, using a combination of Show-and-Tell and Charades.

Part 3, Chapter 8

I had often read of some great services done to princes and states, and desired to see the persons by whom those services were performed. Upon inquiry I was told, "that their names were to be found on no record, except a few of them, whom history has represented as the vilest of rogues and traitors." As to the rest, I had never once heard of them. They all appeared with dejected looks, and in the meanest habit; most of them telling me, "they died in poverty and disgrace, and the rest on a scaffold or a gibbet." (3.8.8)

The lesson of the Glubbdubdrib chapters seems to be that good men get punished for doing good things, while bad men with the money to pay for good advertisers get to make history.

I was chiefly disgusted with modern history. For having strictly examined all the persons of greatest name in the courts of princes, for a hundred years past, I found how the world had been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war, to cowards; the wisest counsel, to fools; sincerity, to flatterers; Roman virtue, to betrayers of their country; piety, to atheists [...] How low an opinion I had of human wisdom and integrity, when I was truly informed of the springs and motives of great enterprises and revolutions in the world, and of the contemptible accidents to which they owed their success. (3.8.5)

Gulliver's visit to Glubbdubdrib convinces him that "prostitute writers," writers who use their talents for money, have altered history to suit the wishes of the highest bidder. They make good men seem bad, and bad men, good. But Swift presumably wrote Gulliver's Travels at least in part for money – he didn't, like, reject the royalties when it became a bestseller. So, isn't this a little hypocritical? Isn't Swift also a "prostitute writer?" If not, why not?

Part 4, Chapter 9

In poetry, they must be allowed to excel all other mortals; wherein the justness of their similes, and the minuteness as well as exactness of their descriptions, are indeed inimitable. Their verses abound very much in both of these, and usually contain either some exalted notions of friendship and benevolence or the praises of those who were victors in races and other bodily exercises. (4.9.7)

The Houyhnhnms compose great poetry, which Gulliver admires for its exact truthfulness. But isn't this all a bit odd? Gulliver loves the Houyhnhnms' oral compositions and enjoys their poetry on friendship and benevolence. But Gulliver's Travels is nearly 300 pages of written text, and his own focus is on the lack of friendship and benevolence among humans. For a convert to Houyhnhnm philosophy, Gulliver doesn't exactly practice what they preach.

The Houyhnhnms have no letters, and consequently their knowledge is all traditional. But there happening few events of any moment among a people so well united, naturally disposed to every virtue, wholly governed by reason, and cut off from all commerce with other nations, the historical part is easily preserved without burdening their memories. (4.9.5)

Because the Houyhnhnms have no written language, they share all of their knowledge by word of mouth. But why should an oral tradition be any more truthful than the written one Gulliver learns to hate in Glubbdubdrib?

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