Most of us read Gulliver’s Travels during childhood, being fascinated by the traveler’s peculiar adventures when reaching strange lands, dominated by completely different rules from ours and populated by strange characters. The tiny inhabitants of Lilliput, the giants living in Brobdingnag, the flying island of Laputa, and, of course, the talking horses – all these impregnated our memory and amazed us. Following Gulliver, while trying to accommodate in the most unusual situations made us hold our breath while amusing us at the same time.
However, Gulliver’s Travels, one of the greatest novels of all time, is far from being a simple children’s book. The novel constitutes a powerful satire for the eighteenth century’s reality, inviting the reader to reflect upon topics such as morality, science, politics, while also raising questions about human nature.
The development of science
In the third book, A Voyage to Laputa, Swift expresses his disapproval at the way in which science has evolved. In his opinion, science does not have a practical use any longer and does not lead to the development of society, losing its true aim. This can be seen by analyzing the floating isle of Laputa and the practices of its inhabitants.
The isle, a structure that is meant to induce a feeling of power and authority, is sustained by highly advanced technology, which maintains it suspended into the air. However, the isle is unable to land, as its bottom will be broken by the buildings the moment it touches the ground. This flaw is the result of the scientists’ ignorance and disinterest in practical matters, architecture being a domain that is completely neglected, along with agriculture.
Not only do scientists focus only on two domains, namely mathematics and music, but they also use the resources and waste their time on creating useless gadgets, the purpose of which is only to enrich their financial status. Meanwhile, the rest of the community is forced to live in ruins, devoid of food or proper clothing. The unnecessary development of science is also emphasized in the fourth book, which presents the seemingly perfect society of the Houyhnhnms, although they lack knowledge in science and are unaware of the existence of some of the most basic inventions.
In Gulliver’s voyage to the Houyhnhnms, the protagonist encounters two races living together, one resembling the humans in appearance but being dominated by animalic drives (Yahoos) and the other being represented by horses who are endowed with reason (Houyhnhnms). The first time Gulliver meets a Yahoo, he is completely engrossed by the creature’s appearance and does not see in him any resemblances to humans. However, as the story unfolds, Gulliver realizes that there may be more correspondences to be established between the human race and the Yahoos, rather than between humans and the rational horses, who have been living in a peaceful community, dominated by mutual love and respect.
The race of horses becomes a paragon of virtue, as they do not even have any notion of lying, wars, or weapons, while the Yahoos are deceitful, hateful, violent, and quarrelsome. The resemblances between the way in which both the Yahoos and humans function in their communities, the similitudes between the two races’ habits and behavior induce the idea that mankind is also naturally dominated by the vices characteristic for the Yahoos, such as avarice, pride, and egoism. Humans are reduced to the status of mere beasts, who unjustly demand to be regarded as rational creatures.
Gulliver’s travel to Lilliput constitutes a political allegory through which Swift criticizes the political reality of eighteenth-century England. The first book makes allusions to the war between England and France through the wars between Lilliput and Blefuscu but also parodies the Whigs and Tories. The fact that the end on which a person cracks an egg becomes a problem of national interest and produces a political rift may be amusing for children, but in reality, it represents an allegory through which Swift criticizes the trivial matters which become too great a concern for political figures, while other important problems are neglected and remain unsolved.
Another aspect that is criticized is the way in which offices are distributed among political candidates. The episode which corresponds to this critique is the satirical representation of the rope dance. In order to gain a high office, Lilliputians are asked to dance on a rope and jump as high as they can without falling, the choosing of this type of game representing the arbitrariness and corruption which are characteristic of the system.
Gulliver’s Travels represented a source of entertainment during our childhood, but it surely deserves a second reading in order to be allowed to become a source of inspiration and reflection and reveal its true potential.