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Gulliver's Travels Background

by Jonathan Swift

About Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels, a misanthropic satire of humanity, was written in 1726 by Jonathan Swift. Like many other authors, Swift uses the journey as the backdrop for his satire. He invents a second author, Captain Lemuel Gulliver, who narrates and speaks directly to the reader from his own experience. The original title of Swift's novel was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships.

Gulliver's name probably is an allusion to King Lemuel of Proverbs 31, who was a weak-minded prophet. Swift may also be connecting his character to a common mule, a half-ass, half-horse animal that is known for being stubborn and stupid. A gull is a person who is easily fooled or gullible. At the same time, Gulliver represents the everyman with his average intelligence and general good humor. The reader is able to identify with him and join him in his travels.

Even though Swift constantly alludes to events that were happening while he was alive, the story rings true today, bringing light to our own societal issues and to patterns of human nature. Throughout Gulliver's voyages, Swift goes to great lengths to scrutinize, parody, and satire various aspects of human, and often English, society. He does this in two ways, first by comparing humanity's ways with those of cultures decidedly beneath it (such as the Yahoos and the Lilliputians); second, by comparing humanity with cultures that are far superior in intellect and political ideals (such as the Houyhnhnms).

Gulliver embarks on four distinct journeys, each of which begins with a shipwreck and ends with either a daring escape or a congenial decision that it is time for Gulliver to leave. The societies Gulliver comes into contact with help him (and the reader) to examine his own culture more closely. When Gulliver's Travels was published in 1726, this examination of English culture was not appreciated. The novel was highly controversial because of the light in which it presented humanity-and more specifically, the English. When the novel was first published, Swift's identity was hidden because of the novel's volatile nature. The people who saw that the book made it into print also cut out a great deal of the most politically controversial sections, about which Swift became extremely frustrated. In a letter written under the pseudonym of Gulliver, Swift shows his annoyance with the edits made to his novel without his consent: "I hope you will be ready to own publicly," he writes, "whenever you shall be called to it, that by your great and frequent urgency you prevailed on me to publish a very loose and uncorrect account of my travels . . . . But I do not remember I gave you power to consent that anything should be omitted, and much less that anything should be inserted." The version of the novel read today is complete.

Part of what has helped Gulliver's Travels to persevere since Swift's time has been its appeal to people of all ages. The book has been read by countless children and has been made into more than one children's movie. At the same time, it has been widely critiqued and studied by literary scholars and critics, politicians, and philosophers. In addition, much like the works of Shakespeare, the comedy of the novel has something for people of all intellectual levels, from toilet humor to highbrow satires of political processes and of ideas.

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