Although Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift has long been thought of as a children’s story, it is actually a dark satire on the fallacies of human nature. The four parts of the book are arranged in a planned sequence, to show Gulliver’s optimism and lack of shame with the Lilliputians, decaying into his shame and disgust with humans when he is in the land of the Houyhnhmns. The Brobdingnagians are more hospitable than the Lilliputians, but Gulliver’s attitude towards them is more disgusted and bitter.
Gulliver’s tone becomes even more critical of the introspective people of Laputa and Lagado, and in Glubbdubdrib he learns the truth about modern man. Gulliver finds the Luggnuggians to be a “polite and generous people” (III, 177), until he learns that the Struldbruggs’ immortality is a curse rather than a blessing. Throughout the course of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver’s encounters with each culture signify a progression from benevolence towards man to misanthropy, resulting in Gulliver’s final insanity.
In the first part of the book, Gulliver arrives on a strange island and wakes up tied to the ground by a culture of six-inch tall Lilliputians. Gulliver is amazed by the skill of the Lilliputians in handling him, but he is offended by their disrespect: “in my Thoughts I could not sufficiently wonder at the Intrepidity of these diminutive Mortals, who durst venture to mount and walk on my Body, while one of my Hands was at Liberty, without trembling at the very Sight of so prodigious a Creature as I must appear to them” (I, 8).
However, Gulliver complies with every inconvenience that the Lilliputians bestow on him, because he allows them to take him prisoner even though he could destroy them with one stomp. It is rather amusing that Gulliver surrenders to these tiny people so quickly: “when I felt the Smart of their Arrows upon my Face and HandsI gave Tokens to let them know that they might do with me what they pleased” (I, 9). They also tie Gulliver up as if he were a dog, and search his pockets in order to confiscate any weapons, among numerous other actions in which Gulliver placidly succumbs.
No matter how respectful Gulliver is, however, it is negated by his lack of shame. By urinating on the queen’s palace to put out a fire, he does not realize that he offended the queen immensely, and this is the cause for his impeachment. By making these people small, Swift seems to be criticizing man’s petty nature, but Gulliver is oblivious and gullible, treating them as if they are bigger than they actually are. Gulliver’s attitude towards the Lilliputians shows that he has respect for humanity, no matter how small, even though the respect is not returned.
In contrast to the tiny, petty Lilliputians, the Brobdingnagians are huge and unexpectedly docile. Gulliver’s expectation when he sees the first Brobdingnagian is rather pessimistic: ” For, as human Creatures are observed to be more Savage and cruel in Proportion to their Bulk; what could I expect but to be a Morsel in the Mouth of the first among these enormous Barbarians who should happen to seize me? ” (II, 66). Gulliver’s expectations turn out to be the opposite, for he is treated as an object of wonder, instead of food.
Even though they are more cordial than the trivial Lilliputians, Gulliver notices more flaws in the Brobdingnagians, namely in the defects of their skin. By noticing this, Gulliver has in effect become as petty as the Lilliputians, because the outside of a person is the most trivial aspect to their much larger nature. Gulliver also behaves in a more shameful way about his bodily functions around the Brobdingnagians, for while he shamelessly urinates on the palace in Lilliput, in Brobdingnag he hides in a sorrel leaf.
Perhaps Gulliver’s attitude is a result of the dehumanizing way in which he feels small and insignificant in an otherwise huge world. His feeling of insignificance is magnified by the manner in which he is handled: as a toy, a thing, an animal, an alien, a freak, and a machine. Gulliver is startled when he sees himself and the queen next to each other in a mirror: “there could nothing be more ridiculous than the Comparison: So that I really began to imagine my self dwindled many Degrees below my usual Size” (II, 85).
From this statement it is apparent that the Brobdingnagians are as symbolically huge as the Lilliputians are small: they represent true moral human nature, but Gulliver is too small to see it. Where the first two parts of the book concern the physical size of people, the third voyage concerns the scientific, mental side, as demonstrated by the Laputians who inhabit a floating island. Gulliver finds them both impractical and difficult to communicate with: “I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy People, nor so slow and perplexed in their Conceptions upon all other Subjects, except those of Mathematicks and Musick” (III, 136).
In this book, Gulliver criticizes the culture more openly than he does in the previous two books, and he sums up the problem with this society as follows: “I rather take this Quality to spring from a very common Infirmity of human Nature, inclining us to be more curious and conceited in Matters where we have least Concern, and for which we are least adapted either by Study or Nature” (II, 137). As Swift satirizes the people who absorb themselves so much into the scientific world that they cannot communicate with others, Gulliver as a character becomes more aware of the dark side of human nature.
The floating of the island is a metaphor of the side of humanity that is the mind, which often floats away from the body and becomes isolated, which is a stark contrast to the previous two books which describe the more physical side of humanity. Gulliver becomes even more disgusted with the inhabitants of the country that lies below the floating island of Laputa. He discovers that the people are entirely absorbed in scientific experiments that are absolutely useless, since the people of Lagado are almost starving.
He then moves on to Glubbdubdrib, where the magicians allow him to summon great people from the ancient dead. Gulliver then decides to summon modern people, such as royal families, and he is genuinely disappointed: “I was chiefly disgusted with modern HistoryHow low an Opinion I had of human Wisdom and Integrity, when I was truly informed of the Springs and Motives of great Enterprizes and Revolutions in the World, and of the contemptible Accidents to which they owed their Success” (III, 170).
It is through the dead that Gulliver learns the truth about the corruptness of modern man, which would shatter any man’s hopes and crush his spirit. The facts that he learns contributes to his increasing hatred of the human race, both mentally and physically, for even the human body begins to sour in Gulliver’s mind: “How the Pox under all its Consequences and Denominations had altered every Lineament of an English Countenanceintroduced a sallow Complexion, and rendered the Flesh loose and rancid” (III, 173).
Despite Gulliver’s newfound contempt for humankind, his earlier optimism is revived in his visit to the Luggnuggians, where he learns of a race of people called the Struldbruggs, or the immortals. Gulliver’s extreme enthusiasm at the mention of eternal life is laughed at by the Luggnuggians, because Gulliver does not know the truth about Struldbruggs: they age continuously. This finding is essential to Gulliver’s attitude towards man, for the only joy he can extrapolate from life is knowing that some people never die, which turns out to be negative.
Therefore, even people that are elevated and praised in the imagination are corrupted and tainted in Gulliver’s world. The final book of Gulliver’s world is perhaps the most horrifying look into what Gulliver perceives as human. Called “Yahoos,” they are represented as more animal-like than human, even though they are technically human beings: “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my Travels so disagreeable an Animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy” (IV, 193).
His opinion of the Yahoos contrasts with his opinion of the Houyhnhnms, in that the Houyhnhnms are rational and logical, whereas the Yahoos are the debase and corrupt side of human nature. Though the Houyhnhnms perceive Gulliver as another Yahoo that is capable of amazing intellect, Gulliver is offended that they would even put him in the same class, because his hatred is so strong: “I expressed my Uneasiness at his giving me so often the Appellation of Yahoo, an odious Animal, for which I had so utter an Hatred and Contempt” (IV, 205).
However, Gulliver’s hatred for his own race begins to turn on him ironically when he describes the culture of his native country to the Houyhnhnms. The rational beings conclude that Gulliver really is a Yahoo because the civilized people of Gulliver’s culture are just as corrupt as the less civilized Yahoos. Upon realizing the morose fact that he is indeed a Yahoo dressed up like a civilized man, Gulliver’s psyche collapses and he is transformed into a misanthrope, forever alienated from the rest of society. All four books of Gulliver’s Travels form a rapid descent into the dark nature of man.
Swift is satirizing the elements that make men human, from small pettiness to corruptness and greed. When a sane man such as Gulliver is exposed to the different aspects of human immorality, Swift shows how these influence his life and the effect, ultimately, is the deterioration of his mind. At the end of the book, Gulliver cannot even look at his family without feeling disgust. Above all, he is disgusted with himself for being a part of such a corrupt race as man. But Gulliver is “an honest Man, and a good Sailor, but a little too positive in his own Opinions, which was the Cause of his Destruction” (IV, 191).