If you read Gulliver’s Travels when you were younger, you may simply remember it as a strange book. But underneath the perplexing surface of the novel is a treatise against what the author thought are the destructive habits of humanity. The author of the novel, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglo-Irish satirist who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Satire isn’t a lost art, but it is underappreciated. Perhaps it’s also often ill-defined. Satire is an indirect method of critiquing something or someone, employing irony and exaggeration and often, as is the case with Gulliver’s Travels, it involves story telling.
Swift had a way of simplifying issues in an indirect and hilarious manner. In Gulliver’s Travels, he uses several different tools to accomplish this, but the main one is his use of perspective.
The reader and the protagonist share each other’s eyes throughout the book: each of the lands that the reader travels to with Gulliver offers the reader (and Gulliver) a different look at humanity.
First, it’s a look at humans from above. Although they aren’t humans at all, but 6-inch Lilliputians. Gulliver sees their small stature, of course, but more than anything he sees the smallness and pettiness of their politics. The great source of division amongst the Lilliputians, which divided them into two groups, is a silly one: which end of the egg is the proper one to crack. Is it the big end or the small end? The people of Lilliput could not come to an agreement, and therefore divided hostilely.
And Swift’s first message? Don’t squabble over things that don’t matter.
Next, it’s a look from below. The giants of Brobdingnag look horrific and ugly, especially from Gulliver’s point of view. But morally, they are far above him. The giants question Gulliver about his own country of Britain, which he stands for and admires, and expose it as manipulative, domineering, and evil. Gulliver doesn’t back down from supporting his country despite how clear they make it. Maybe they should have tried using satire to convince him?
At this point in Gulliver’s journey, Swift tries communicates that some who are gentle, attractive, or honored like the British Empire aren’t necessarily correct—while those who may be ugly on the outside like the Brobdingnagians are ones we can look up to morally as well as literally.
The Laputans and Balnibarbi
The men of Luputa love science and music and study it tirelessly. They love astrology too, but this obsession overtakes their life as they are terrified of the sun ceasing to shine. Because of their obsession, the women are entirely forgotten. Even though they study science, they apply none of it: their clothing, houses, and lives make little sense to Gulliver.
On the other hand, the people of Balnibarbi are oppressed by the Laputans and their flying city. The Balnibarbi try to do better than the Laputans and do practical things to make their society better, but all of their practical inventions are a far cry from genuine science or logic. All what their inventions do is hurt their culture, not help it.
Swift seems to be indicating the importance of both having knowledge and applying it—using it for a good purpose. Having one or the other by itself is useless and destructive!
The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos
The final perspective is one where Gulliver finds himself not above or below but, morally speaking, he finds himself in the middle. The Houyhnhnms are a species of intelligent, language-using, and morally innocent horses. Instead of being morally higher like the Brobdingnagians, they are unaware of evil and what use it is. Their only word for bad is yahoo, the word they apply to the humanoid Yahoos.
In contrast to the intelligent horses, the Yahoos, though human-looking, are savage and filthy beasts without language who Gulliver does not even want to associate with. But as he speaks with the Houyhnhnm, Gulliver realizes that he is more like the Yahoos than he would like to admit: he is often driven by his desires to hurt others and not compelled by only good as his equine companions are.
By contrasting the three groups, Swift seems to be illustrating what it is to truly be human and the danger of becoming beastly. Not to be beastly, of course, but also model the example of the Houyhnhnms. Because though they are beasts in form, they are not in their moral nature.
Instead of writing a whole book, why didn’t Swift just say all of his critiques directly and save a lot of ink? Because messages by themselves are bland, unadorned, and unlikely to convince someone. Swift realizes that, by writing a story, he holds up a mirror to the perpetrators so that they may realize who they are. He realizes that plain messages only serve to state one’s position rather than persuade.
So rather than being bland, Jonathan perplexes, amuses, and teaches the whole world in a single book that is Gulliver’s Travels.