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“I shall not trouble the reader”: Gulliver’s Travels, readers and reading

Ruth Menzies


Judicieux, candides, curieux, indulgents, doux, courtois, ignorants… les lecteurs de Lemuel Gulliver sont caractérisés de diverses manières. Aussi convenus qu’ils puissent paraître, ces adjectifs font partie intégrante de la relation complexe que Jonathan Swift tisse avec ses lecteurs. Ces apostrophes, en proposant différents types de lecteur, mettent en évidence un procédé métatextuel par lequel Gulliver’s Travels étudie le rapport entre le texte et ses lecteurs, ainsi que sa propre textualité. Certains de ces adjectifs pourraient inciter les lecteurs réels à estimer qu’ils posséderaient de tels atouts, tandis qu’ils seraient sûrement tentés d’en attribuer d’autres uniquement à des lecteurs hypothétiques. La satire de Swift, pourtant, empêche pareille réaction, contraignant les lecteurs à examiner leur propre nature ainsi que leur statut de lecteur et à réfléchir à la lecture tout en la pratiquant. Bien que le narrateur affirme de manière répétée ne pas vouloir « déranger le lecteur », lire Gulliver’s Travels n’en demeure pas moins une expérience profondément troublante.

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1It is, of course, a truism to state that reading Gulliver’s Travels is a deeply unsettling experience. Even on a purely structural level, the contrast between the symmetry of the first two journeys and the “Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan,” with its diverse destinations and satiric targets, is rather disconcerting, while Gulliver’s stay in Houyhnhnmland is undoubtedly one the most frequently analysed episodes in literature, dividing critics for a time into proponents of the opposing “hard” and “soft” schools of interpretation. Proponents of the “hard’ school view Swift’s text, and particularly the fourth voyage, as a Juvenalian expression of Swift’s bitterly misanthropic view of humankind, while the “soft” school sees his satire as more Horatian in nature and thus as a more light-hearted critique of Gulliver’s idealistic admiration for the apparently rational horses.

  • 1 For a historical overview of studies of Swiftian entrapment in the twentieth century, cf. Smith.
  • 2 Much has been written about Swift’s modes of entrapment, but the analyses by Rawson and Rodino rema (...)

2Such clear-cut approaches are perhaps a little less prevalent now, having given way to increased recognition of the complexities of Swift’s text and of the deliberate ambiguities it enacts and reactions it provokes. Central to this are Swift’s modes of reader entrapment,1 a process described by David Veith as the deliberate effort “to assault, perplex, beguile, seduce, irritate or ‘con’ the reader into a response whose intensity seems out of all proportion to its cause” (230). These strategies of entrapment are fundamental to Swift’s wide-ranging irony, which often draws readers into laughing at a specific target and then shifts the focus onto them, heightening their unease as they become aware that they, too, are the butts of his criticism.2

3In order to analyse these strategies, this paper will study them from the perspective of reader-response theory, which is based on two key tenets, as explained by Lois Tyson: “(1) that the role of the reader cannot be omitted from our understanding of literature and (2) that readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature” (Tyson 170). It will borrow some of the terminology and categories established by Wolfgang Iser and adapted by subsequent critics, such as that of the implied reader, whom Iser describes as:

embod[ying] all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect—predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader […] The concept of the implied reader is therefore a textual structure anticipating the presence of a recipient without necessarily defining him. (34)

4Iser distinguishes between this implied reader, the real reader, who is known and whose reactions have been documented, and the hypothetical reader, whose reactions can be foreseen, and notes that the implied reader “ as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader” (34). Iser also refers to this concept as designating “a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text (34).

5This paper will focus on the portrayal of readers in Gulliver’s Travels as one example of such “response-inviting structures” and study in greater detail the various modes of address and adjectives that are used to identify them and endow them with specific qualities, establishing a disingenuous rapport between the narrator and the readers. It will also examine the narrator’s repeated assertions that he is concerned not “to trouble the reader,” with a view to better determining the ways in which such narrative devices contribute to the modes of reader entrapment at play in the text.

Characterised and implied readers in Gulliver’s Travels

  • 3 Although Swift and many critics refer to his reader as “he,” the plural pronouns “they,” “them” and (...)

6As I have suggested elsewhere (Menzies, “Pactes et pièges de lecture”), reader entrapment in Gulliver’s Travels relies upon the simultaneous presence of different readers within the text, as defined by W. Daniel Nelson (848) and used with reference to Swift’s text by Frederik N. Smith: the “characterised reader” (a subtype of fictive reader) and the “implied reader.” The former is directly addressed or described by the narrator, almost as though they3 were a character in the text, while Nelson defines the latter as “a less visible abstract reader,” one who possesses “the behavior, attitudes, and background – presupposed or defined, usually indirectly, in the text itself – necessary for a proper understanding of the text” (848). Neither characterised nor implied readers are to be confused with the inevitably heterogeneous real readers of a text. Swift’s text not only depicts a range of readers and reading strategies, but also provides metatextual commentary upon its own status as a written work, reliant on a language consistently presented as shifting and unreliable, and upon the role of the writer. As Richard Rodino points out, “At a minimum, we need to acknowledge that Swift the author writes the story of Gulliver the author writing the story of Gulliver the character, who in turn becomes an author of various texts for various readers within the Travels.” Identifying these different entities is one of the key complications for readers navigating Swift’s text.

  • 4 All references to Gulliver’s Travels are to this edition, as per the Agrégation syllabus for 2021, (...)
  • 5 Smith finds 62 instances (with a further 3 in the prefatory material) in Gulliver’s Travels where t (...)
  • 6 In the original 1726 edition of the Travels, there are 12 such references to Gulliver’s desire not (...)
  • 7 There are 76 references to readers in the Tale of a Tub; 52 contain adjectives.

7The 2005 Oxford World’s Classics edition of Gulliver’s Travels4 (which uses the text from the 1965 reprint of Herbert Davis’s edition of the Prose Writings, based on the 1735 Faulkner edition of Jonathan Swift’s Works) contains 74 references to reader(s).5 Of those, 16 identify the characterised readers by means of one or more attributive or predicative adjective(s), and no fewer than 11 others are references made by Lemuel Gulliver to narrative choices carried out so as not to “trouble the reader.”6 Reading is, of course, at the heart of much of Swift’s extended prose writing, from the enactment of the conflict between Ancients and Moderns in the Battle of the Books to A Tale of a Tub, where he takes it upon himself to divide all readers “into three Classes: the Superficial, the Ignorant, and the Learned” (357). As the number of references to readers and the presence of multiple adjectives to define them show, characterised readers occupy almost as prominent a position in Gulliver’s Travels as in A Tale of a Tub.7

  • 8 As Wayne C. Booth highlights, pride is one of the pitfalls when reading irony: “Successful reading (...)

8This foregrounding and classification of readers and their presumed abilities is a central element in Swift’s satire and irony. Referring to and defining the characterised readers encourages the implied readers to presume some form of privileged connection with the implied author. Moreover, the humour intrinsic to the discrepancy between the expressed and intended meanings of an ironic statement is reinforced by a perceived bond between author and readers, based on their shared understanding of what remains unsaid. This presumption of shared understanding between the implied author and implied readers often includes a sense of superiority on the latter’s part, heightened by their supposition that other, more obtuse readers might read less insightfully than they, missing the implicit meaning and therefore failing to get the joke. However, Swift’s writing works in particularly intricate and unsettling ways, as it simultaneously encourages just such a reaction on the part of the implied readers and yet hints that their sense of satisfaction at decoding the intended meaning might itself be not only unjustified but also symptomatic of pride, a target of much of the satire in the Travels.8

  • 9 For more detailed analysis of the paratext of Gulliver’s Travels, see Holly; Menzies & Patel; Mezci (...)

9Swift’s text also trips readers up by depicting the characterised readers in a range of ways, applying modifiers that identify specific traits but leave the implied readers to interpret such descriptions and determine their range and meaning, forcing them to construct their own strategies of critical reading. This process is made more unsettling by the tactics Swift constantly deploys to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction. The prefatory material,9 with its bewildering series of documents which concurrently defend the text’s authenticity and denounce its material corruption, and with its changing portraits of Lemuel Gulliver, plays a key role in this, generating confusion over Gulliver’s identity, reality and connection with Swift himself, as well as over the ability of texts to convey meaning in a world where language is so fluctuating and “new fangled” that “upon each Return to mine own Country, their old Dialect was so altered, that I could hardly understand the new” (GT 9). Meanwhile, Gulliver unconvincingly insists that his account is a uniquely truthful exemplar of a genre – travel writing – renowned for its mendacity, while undercutting his own discourse by referring to “that infernal Habit of Lying, Shuffling, Deceiving, and Equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very Souls of all my Species; especially the Europeans,” and immediately afterwards confessing that “since my last Return, some Corruptions of my Yahoo Nature have revived in me” (GT 10).

10Reading Gulliver’s Travels therefore involves untangling strands of discourse that are constantly being re-entangled moments later by an author whose modes of address to the characterised readers lead the implied readers to mistakenly believe that some useful connection may be established with the author, only to see that illusion shattered repeatedly, no matter how warily they proceed. As Claude Rawson notes, “With Swift, we are always on our guard from the beginning (I believe this is true of sensitive first readings as well as later ones), and what surprises us is not the fact of betrayal but its particular form in each case. But if we are on our guard, we do not know what we are guarding against” (Rawson 9).

Introducing the characterised readers

  • 10 The manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels was originally dropped by hackney coach at Benjamin Motte’s Lo (...)

11The characterised readers of Gulliver’s Travels are mentioned from the outset in the prefatory document from “The Publisher to the Reader,” which underscores the latter’s importance and highlights the former’s apparent concerns over how best to adapt a travel account to the “general Capacity of Readers” (GT 11) – a comment that more susceptible readers might find somewhat condescending. While purporting to reassure the readers as to Gulliver’s reliability by describing his proverbial reputation for veracity, this document undermines trust in the material integrity of his travel account by relating that it was halved in length by the publisher, Sympson.10 He – apparently unilaterally – “made so bold as to strike out innumerable Passages relating to the Winds and Tides, as well as to the Variations and Bearings in the several Voyages, together with the minute Descriptions of the Management of the Ship in Storms, in the Style of Sailors; likewise the account of Longitudes and Latitudes” (GT 11). Sympson therefore “ha[s] Reason to apprehend that Mr Gulliver may be a little dissatisfied” (GT 11) – and, indeed, the indignant 1735 “Letter from Capt. Gulliver, to his Cousin Sympson” confirms that the 1726 text was “a very loose and uncorrect Account of my Travels” (GT 7). Although the “Advertisement” that also prefaces the 1735 edition claims that corrections have been made, readers cannot ascertain the accuracy of that statement, particularly as Gulliver mentions in his letter that the “original Manuscript is all destroyed” (GT 9).

12This confusing prefatory discourse, which increases in complexity between the 1726 and 1735 editions, leaves the implied readers uncertain as to the exact conditions in which the published text was produced and how reliable it is. It also places both characterised and implied readers at the heart of the writing process, conferring upon them not only a degree of responsibility for the sweeping editorial changes that were apparently made for their personal benefit, but also, from the 1726 edition, sole responsibility for somehow requesting that the unidentifiable Sympson should show them “the whole Work at large, as it came from the Hand of the Author” (12). In the 1735 “Letter from Capt. Gulliver,” they are also, rather bewilderingly, informed that it is up to them to insist whether corrections be made or not, “as they please” (9). Thus deftly and explicitly delegated in the paratext, responsibility remains squarely on the readers’ shoulders throughout Gulliver’s Travels, as Denis Donoghue notes:

Swift has created in Gulliver one of the most memorable characters in fiction by giving him virtually no character at all, no imagination, no depth of feeling, no resources of inner life beyond the attributes of a hack reporter on a local newspaper. He has no sense of anything beneath the visible surface, no powers of divination, and no inkling of the need for such powers. […]

When we say Gulliver has no imagination, we also mean that he doesn't feel the lack or the need of it; he is too busy reporting events as if they had only to be reckoned, weighed, and counted. […] So readers must take an unusually active part in constructing the book. We can't take Gulliver's as the true last word on any subject, though as the first word we feel compelled to rely on it. In matters of judgment, discrimination, the relation between one thing and another, readers have to do most of the work for themselves. Gulliver has merely indicated that there is work to be done; he reports the occasions that call for judgment. (Donoghue par. 8-10)

Judicious and candid readers

  • 11 While attention has been paid to reader entrapment and related issues in Gulliver’s Travels (cf. Ra (...)
  • 12 As used here, the adjective “candid” means “free from bias; fair, impartial, just” or, archaically, (...)

13Along with these responsibilities, which grow more onerous as the text’s satiric targets and ironic discourse become increasingly difficult to decode, the implied readers are also encumbered by the adjectives used to define the characterised readers.11 In the “Letter from Capt. Gulliver,” for instance, the task of deciding whether corrections should be made is left up to “my judicious and candid12 readers” (GT 9). It is not entirely clear whether the two modifiers are intended to encompass all Gulliver’s readers, or whether the suggestion is that some readers may possess these qualities and may then “adjust [the text] as they please” (GT 9). While the notion that any readers might be in a position to determine what editorial alterations are to be made to the text is, of course, a typically Swiftian red herring, the adjectives are nonetheless significant. They posit apparently desirable qualities and may therefore encourage the implied readers to try and live up to them – or else to consider they already possess such qualities, a presumption that could paradoxically render them less judicious and candid as they progress through the text.

  • 13 The adverb is also used in Gulliver’s narrative, where he announces his intention to deal “candidly (...)
  • 14 The adjectives chosen by Swift are all found in works by other authors published before (sometimes (...)
  • 15 For analysis of this scene, cf., Menzies; Smith.

14The adjective “judicious” appears 6 times in Gulliver’s Travels, and is applied to the readers on 3 of those occasions, while “candid” features twice, in both cases as an attributive adjective describing the readers.13 The characterised readers are ascribed a range of other traits, some positive (“indulgent,” “gentle,” “courteous”), some ambiguous (“curious”) or seemingly neutral (“English”) and others negative (“ignorant,” “unwary”). Although Swift is by no means alone in using expressions such as these,14 which grew increasingly ubiquitous over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with some (“gentle reader,” “curious reader”) becoming clichés, little in his writing is unpremeditated or clichéd. As has been argued elsewhere,15 his choice of the term “curious reader” plays an integral part in the process whereby he incites the implied readers to imagine the breasts of a Brobdingnagian wet-nurse, only to highlight the voyeuristic curiosity behind such imagery by declaring, “I must confess no Object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous Breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious Reader an idea of its Bulk, Shape, and Colour” (GT 82).

15Reader entrapment of this kind obviously does not systematically include adjectives such as these: Swift’s methods are more varied than that and include other allusions to readers. For instance, when the narrator recounts how the Brobdingnagian maids of honour strip naked before him and the handsomest “would sometimes set me astride upon one of her Nipples; with many other Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse me for not being more particular” (GT 108), the readers may well be curious to know the exact nature of such tricks. The focus here is on the predicate (“the Reader will excuse me”), which appears to denote a shared and admirably polite distaste for details that might be deemed unsuitable or even obscene. And yet Gulliver first titillates the readers by referring to these apparently licentious “Tricks” and then abruptly draws a veil over their exact nature, leaving the readers, their curiosity aroused and then frustrated, feeling a little grubby. Although it has been argued that Gulliver is indicating here that the maid uses him as a sex toy, I would suggest that, while such a reading is certainly possible, to assume or attempt to define anything “particular” at all in this context is to fall deeper into Swift’s characteristic trap of encouraging us to believe we have successfully decoded a deliberately ambiguous and uncertain statement.

16Although Swift’s methods are multifarious, his use of adjectives to describe the characterised readers is nonetheless worth examining more closely. While the ambiguous use of the plural noun with its double modifier (“judicious and candid readers”) in the “Letter from Capt. Gulliver” is perhaps a subtler ploy than the description of the giant breast, it remains a highly effective destabilising device, as it distorts the lines of communication between narrator and readers and leaves the latter uncertain as to whether they themselves possess such qualities, or whether they should strive to.

17Other such adjectival phrases work in different ways to unsettle the readers. They are frequently part of a network of references to the textual and editorial choices ostensibly carried out by Lemuel Gulliver when writing up his travel account. The term “candid,” for instance, is used on its own to describe the characterised readers elsewhere in Gulliver’s Travels, when the narrator recounts how, in Lilliput, he deals with “the Necessities of Nature” while attached to a chain. Having explained in some detail how he does so (“the best Expedient I could think on was to creep into my House, which I accordingly did; and shutting the Gate after me, I went as far as the Length of my Chain would suffer, and discharged my Body of that uneasy Load,” GT 24), he apologises for defecating inside the accommodation provided for him (“an ancient Temple […] which, having been polluted some Years before by an unnatural Murder, was […] looked upon as profane,” GT 22). Gulliver, however, seems less troubled by the idea of defiling this formerly consecrated edifice than by the fact of excreting indoors:

But this was the only Time I was ever guilty of so uncleanly an Action; for which I cannot but hope the candid Reader will give some Allowance, after he hath maturely and impartially considered my Case, and the Distress I was in. From this Time my constant Practice was, as soon as I rose, to perform that Business in open Air, at the full Extent of my Chain; and due Care was taken every Morning before Company came, that the offensive Matter should be carried off in Wheel-barrows, by two Servants appointed for that Purpose. I would not have dwelt so long upon a Circumstance that, perhaps, at first Sight, may appear not very momentous, if I had not thought it necessary to justify my Character, in point of Cleanliness, to the World; which, I am told, some of my Maligners have been pleased, upon this and other Occasions, to call in Question. (GT 24)

18Once again, the terms used to describe the characterised readers are central to Swift’s strategy. In this instance, the adjective is reinforced by the two adverbs: the readers, it is hoped, will demonstrate sufficient candidness, maturity and impartiality to excuse Gulliver for going into such graphic detail. Although Swift appears to take schoolboy pleasure in conjuring up in the readers’ minds these mental images of Gulliver’s actions and their aftermath, the implied readers are tacitly rebuked for being anything other than mature in their response. Furthermore, the narrator stoutly denies being unnecessarily filthy, while doing just that, in a manoeuvre so implausibly brazen as to be deeply disconcerting.

19Meanwhile, the blurring of boundaries between truth and fiction, between Swift’s text and its wider context, continues apace. The allusion to the murder in the former Lilliputian temple was identified in early keys to Gulliver’s Travels as a reference to the execution of Charles I in front of the banqueting house at Whitehall, recognition of which flags up the text’s satirical context and works to remind the readers that it is frequently coded and concealed, but always present. Moreover, the comment addressed to “Maligners” appears to be not Gulliver’s but Swift’s own indignant and mocking response to those who accused him of “Filthiness,” “Lewdness” and “Immodesty” in his Tale of a Tub (Rawson 7). And there is perhaps yet another strand to this intricately woven web, insofar as it also conveys implicit commentary on the literary landscape of the day. There seems to be a jibe here at the hypocritical refusal of both travel writers – whose accounts were full of recondite minutiae – and proponents of the emerging novel genre – whose narratives professed to mirror real life – to address the more unpleasant physical realities of everyday human existence. While Gulliver discharges his body of its “uneasy load,” the readers are burdened with the uneasy awareness that Swift’s text advances in simultaneously explicit and devious ways to skewer its targets – which clearly include all its readers, characterised, implied and real.

The gentle reader

20A similar strategy, with similar themes, is used towards the end of the first chapter of the “Voyage to Brobdingnag,” where Gulliver states that, “pressed to do more than one Thing, which another could not do for me […], I hid myself between two Leaves of Sorrel, and there discharged the Necessities of Nature” (GT 84-85). The paragraph that follows is characteristic of Swift’s multipronged mode of entrapment:

I hope the gentle Reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like Particulars; which, however insignificant they may appear to grovelling vulgar Minds, yet will certainly help a Philosopher to enlarge his Thoughts and Imagination, and apply them to the Benefit of publick 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. But the whole Scene of this Voyage made so strong an Impression on my Mind, and is so deeply fixed in my Memory, that, in committing it to Paper, I did not omit one material Circumstance: However, upon a strict Review, I blotted out several Passages of less Moment which were in my first Copy, for fear of being censured as tedious and trifling, whereof Travellers are often, perhaps not without Justice, accused. (GT 85)

  • 16 As used by Swift here, “gentle” means “well-born” or “distinguished” and, as per the OED, was “[u]s (...)

21Unravelling the tortuous ‘logic’ behind this passage is a trying process (and one that entails the same risks as trying to explain a joke). The “gentle reader”16 is expected to forgive Gulliver for (again) mentioning his bowel movements, because it is assumed that the aforementioned readers (who presumably do not have, or will not admit to having, a “grovelling, vulgar mind”) will realise that analysis of Gulliver defecating amidst the fictional foliage of Brobdingnag is a philosophical process offering unspecified but enlightening insights, applicable not only to the readers’ own personal life but also to what is vaguely termed “public life.” Gulliver claims that his travel narrative (as well as other unidentified and as yet unpublished travel accounts by him) was written solely to achieve these exalted, altruistic aims; that his priority has “chiefly” been truth, rather than elaborate style or erudition; that his experiences were so memorable that his original written record was exhaustively accurate; and that he later removed some less significant passages, to avoid seeming “tedious and trifling,” like other travel writers. His comment about defecating between sorrel leaves was apparently deemed neither tedious nor trifling, as it has not been blotted out – a fact readers may well regret after reading both it and the subsequent maze of sarcastic pronouncements.

22It is surely no coincidence that when the term “gentle reader” is used again, in the concluding chapter to the Travels, some of the same themes are again addressed:

  • 17 For analysis of Swift’s sudden use of the pronoun “thee” here, cf. Rawson 11-12 and, for more detai (...)

Thus, gentle Reader, I have given thee17 a faithful History of my Travels for Sixteen Years and above Seven Months: wherein I have not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth. I could, perhaps, like others, have astonished thee with strange improbable Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact, in the simplest Manner and Style; because my principal Design was to inform, and not to amuse thee.

It is easy for us who travel into remote Countries, which are seldom visited by Englishmen or other Europeans, to form Descriptions of wonderful Animals both at Sea and Land. Whereas, a Traveller’s chief Aim should be to make Men wiser and better, and to improve their Minds by the bad, as well as good, Example of what they deliver concerning foreign Places. (GT 272)

23As before, the readers are assured of Gulliver’s didactic intentions and his uncharacteristic truthfulness as a traveller. By this point in the narrative, however, it is not possible – if indeed it ever was – to set any store whatever by the assertion that this text is a “faithful History” or that Gulliver has been “studious […] of truth.” Neither anything that precedes this passage nor the lengthy paragraph that comes after it – where Gulliver reiterates that travel writers are habitual liars but that he personally has sworn always to “adhere to Truth,” a resolution he can keep thanks to “the Lectures and Example of my noble Master, and the other illustrious Houyhnhnms” (GT 273) – is likely to convince the readers that Gulliver is more trustworthy than other travellers, certainly not his claim to be so because he has spent time amongst fictional, articulately whinnying, needle-threading, “rational” horses. While much emphasis has been justifiably laid on the extent to which this final chapter reveals Gulliver’s psychological breakdown, it is also significant because it exemplifies the psychological tricks played on the readers throughout the Travels, by means of Swift’s constant, antagonistic ambiguity and his paradoxical presentation of obvious fictions as truth.

The curious reader

24Swift’s descriptions of the characterised readers are frequently linked to explanations of editorial choices, in a process that gradually gains in complexity as the narrative unfolds. The first occurrence of the adjective “curious” is predicative and unusually neutral, with Gulliver simply stating that he translated the Lilliputians’ articles stipulating the terms of his continued residence in their country, “because the Reader may perhaps be curious to have some Idea of the Style and Manner of Expression peculiar to that People, as well as to know the Articles upon which I recovered my Liberty” (GT 37). Such decision-making is also foregrounded, less straightforwardly, in Chapter Six of the “Voyage to Lilliput,” where Lemuel Gulliver appears keen to withhold information for a future publication, while recognising that his “curious reader” cannot be left entirely in the dark: “Although I intend to leave the Description of this Empire to a particular Treatise, yet in the mean time I am content to gratify the curious reader with some general ideas” (GT 51).

  • 18 “Their tallest Trees are about seven Foot high: I mean some of those in the great Royal Park, the T (...)

25This apparently innocuous statement raises several questions. Is the curiosity referred to here a laudable or less acceptable trait? Where is the Treatise in question, also alluded to elsewhere in Gulliver’s Travels? Is this simply a ploy to avoid providing details of remote (and clearly invented) lands? Is it derisively parodying a recognisable trope of travel literature, announcing a forthcoming further volume? If Gulliver is, as he claims, content to gratify the readers with information about Lilliput, why does he abdicate responsibility once more, leaving them to estimate (better than Gulliver, one hopes…) the height of Lilliputian plants?18 These questions largely remain unanswered, reinforcing the impression that when the narrator refers explicitly to his relationship with the characterised readers, he neither provides clarity nor gratifies his real readers, but merely creates more uncertainty and confusion.

26Gulliver’s reader is once more described as “curious” a few pages later, when the narrator states, “It may perhaps divert the curious Reader, to give some Account of my Domestick, and my Manner of living in this Country” (GT 56). While also seemingly bland, this statement subtly indicts the readers, hinting that they may be seeking amusement and trivia rather than exact scientific data and that they are motivated primarily by curiosity, a trait that is traditionally deemed undesirable. A similar strategy appears in the “Voyage to Brobdingnag,” where Gulliver indicates that there are “fifty-one Cities, near an hundred walled Towns, and a great Number of Villages,” but that “[t]o satisfy my curious reader, it may be sufficient to describe Lorbrulgrud” (GT 101). In projecting an image of the characterised readers’ tastes and wishes, simultaneously claiming to pander to them and yet indirectly criticising them, Swift obliges the implied readers to reassess their own expectations of texts and reading, without providing any guidance for doing so beyond the intimation that it is foolish to trust authors and their narrators.

Ignorant and unwary readers

  • 19 The Captain’s name might seem entirely innocent, were it not for the presence in the first voyage o (...)

27This disquieting process also involves allusions to the characterised readers that are openly uncomplimentary. In the eighth chapter of the “Voyage to Brobdingnag,” after Gulliver has been rescued at sea, Captain Wilcocks19 suggests that he should “oblige the World by putting [his story] in Paper and making it publick” (GT 135). Gulliver replies that he does not intend to do so:

I thought we were already over-stocked 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. (GT 135)

28Swift’s text once again raises many questions and answers none. Are readers to understand that, having taken the matter into his thoughts, Gulliver changed his mind and published his Travels (as well as planning a separate Treatise and setting material aside to that end)? While this is not incompatible with the pretence that Gulliver is retrospectively relating his conversation with Wilcocks, it is nonetheless surprising when viewed in the context of his emphatic remarks on travel writing. His comment about “the Diversion of ignorant Readers” also seems perplexing when set alongside his earlier allusion, mentioned above, to his willingness to “divert the curious Reader” (GT 56). Are curious readers entitled to some diversion, while ignorant ones, too easily deceived by lying travel writers, are not? How are the implied readers, who are unlikely to identify with their “ignorant” characterised counterpart, to position themselves in relation to these contradictory portrayals of readers, other than striving not to be deceived by travel writers, particularly Gulliver? On another note, exactly which aspects of Gulliver’s extraordinary adventures are “common Events”? Giants, dwarves, immortals, flying islands, talking horses or human defecation? And while Gulliver does indeed provide relatively little description of flora, fauna or the “barbarous Customs and Idolatry of savage People,” the absence of such details scarcely makes his account any more credible.

  • 20 “The Epimenides Paradox is sometimes called the Liars Paradox. Epimenides was a Cretian who stated (...)

29Gulliver’s statement, in the final chapter of the Travels, that some travel writers, “to make their Works pass the better upon the Publick, impose the grossest Falsities on the unwary Reader” (GT 272) continues this process. He reminds the readers yet again that the genre they are reading is notoriously unreliable, warning them to be alert to potential lies, and then, as described above, claims to be exceptionally truthful because he has spent time amongst the clearly fictional Houyhnhnms. This assertion, like the Epimenides Paradox,20 highlights the problems intrinsic to self-referencing statements and further muddies the waters for readers, however wary they try to be. In both these instances, the direct reference to and classification of the characterised readers by means of a pejorative adjective (“ignorant,” “unwary”) is part of Swift’s confusing design and leaves the actual readers feeling that they are the butt of some sly and indefinable joke.

Troubling the reader

30As references to editing processes aimed at fulfilling the readers’ expectations are so central to Swift’s entrapment strategy, it is perhaps unsurprising that his narrator states 11 times in all that he is keen not to “trouble the reader.” W. H. Bonner, cited by Paul Turner, indicates that this is “one of Dampier’s favourite phrases” (GT 288), but this seems to be something of an overstatement. According to my findings, Dampier uses the expression twice in his New Voyage Round the World (1697), three times in his Voyage to New Holland (1703) and never does so in his Continuation of a Voyage to new Holland, Etc. in the Year 1699 (1709). The phrase is, however, found in a range of non-fiction texts published before Swift’s Travels, from Thomas Cranmer’s A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament (1550) to James Drake’s Ancient & Modern Stages Survey'd (1699), and Woodes Rogers’ A Cruising Voyage around the World 1708-1711 (1712). Most of these works contain just one instance of the phrase, whereas its repeated use in Gulliver’s Travels indicates that it was above all one of Swift’s favourites – though he may well have been slyly mocking writers such as Dampier in overusing it.

31Dampier is, of course, explicitly identified in the “Letter from Capt. Lemuel Gulliver to his Cousin Sympson”:

I hope you will be ready to own publicly, 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, with directions to hire some young Gentleman of either University to put them in Order, and correct the Style, as my Cousin Dampier did, by my Advice, in his Book called A Voyage round the World. (GT 7)

  • 21 Dampier’s New Voyage Around the World was published in London in 1697 and ran to four editions with (...)

32This reference, while apparently providing Gulliver with a foothold in extratextual reality by alleging kinship with an identifiable individual, and a successful travel writer at that,21 appears less reliable when one notes that the publisher Richard Sympson is also presented as Lemuel’s cousin, a rather unlikely genealogical coincidence. However, although Dampier does not appear to have been the main source for the phrase “trouble the reader,” there are several parallels between the references to readers in his prefaces and in Gulliver’s Travels. In the preface to his New Voyage Around the World, Dampier writes:

In the description of places, their product, etc., I have endeavoured to give what satisfaction I could to my countrymen; though possibly to the describing several things that may have been much better accounted for by others: choosing to be more particular than might be needful, with respect to the intelligent reader, rather than to omit what I thought might tend to the information of persons no less sensible and inquisitive, though not so learned or experienced. (Dampier para 2).

33It seems at least possible, given Swift’s knowledge of Dampier’s texts, that the comments in the letter from “The Publisher to the Reader” deliberately contain distorted echoes of Dampier’s words. Sympson’s explanation that many of the more technical passages were expunged to fit the text to “the general Capacity of Readers” (GT 11) stands in stark contrast to Dampier’s assertion that he chose to cater to the “intelligent reader.” Similarly, Dampier’s remarks that “any considerable omission that I shall recollect or be informed of I shall endeavour to make up in those accounts I have yet to publish; and for any faults I leave the reader to the joint use of his judgment and candour” (Para 8), bear a striking resemblance to the reference to “judicious and candid Readers” (GT 9) in the “Letter from Capt. Gulliver.” However, whereas Dampier suggests that there may be errors in his text, which he will undertake to correct, but that in the meantime his readers are to exercise candour and judgment in reading the text, and whereas he appears to hint that they should inform him of any mistakes they notice, Swift twists that logic to assert that the judicious and candid readers are responsible for having corrections made to the text.

34Similarly, while the phrase “trouble the reader” occurs now and then in Dampier’s publications, Swift employs it so frequently that it seems clear he is parodying travel writing – as well as providing a convenient excuse for Gulliver’s skimming over certain aspects of his experiences abroad. In the 1726 edition, the phrase appeared twice in the same paragraph, before the second occurrence was replaced in the 1735 edition with “I shall not interrupt the Reader” (GT 48) and it recurs four times between pages 66 and 71. It is frequently used as a pretext for omitting details of sea voyages – though not, logically enough, at the start of the journey to Brobdingnag, which contains the tedious and technical description of a storm that Swift lifted verbatim from Sturmy’s Mariner’s Magazine. It does, however, appear at the start and end of the journey to Lilliput, at the end of the journey to Brobdingnag and at the start of the journey to Laputa:

It would not be proper for some Reasons, to trouble the Reader with the Particulars of our Adventures in those Seas: Let it suffice to inform him, that in our Passage from thence to the East-Indies, we were driven by a violent Storm to the North-West of Van Diemen’s Land. (GT 16)

I shall not trouble the Reader with a particular Account of this Voyage, which was very prosperous for the most Part. We arrived in the Downs on the 13th of April, 1702. (GT 71)

Our Voyage was very prosperous, but I shall not trouble the Reader with a Journal of it. (GT 136)

The next day I sailed to another Island, and thence to a third and fourth, sometimes using my Sail, and sometimes my Paddles. But, not to trouble the Reader with a particular Account of my Distresses, let it suffice, that on the 5th Day, I arrived at the last Island in my Sight, which lay South-South-East to the former. (GT 143)

35The phrase also allows other details to be alluded to briefly, such as the exact conditions of the peace treaty between Lilliput and Blefuscu (GT 48), the reception at the court of Blefuscu and Gulliver’s subsequent difficulties finding a place to sleep (GT 66), the problems he encounters trying to row, using paddles he has made himself, to the Royal Port of Blefuscu (GT 68), the ceremonies marking his departure from that land (GT 69), some of the curiosities he sees at the Academy of Lagado (GT 169) and the number of illustrious deceased individuals he meets in Glubbdubdrib (GT 183).

36These allusions to aspects of the traveller’s experiences that the readers are “spared” reinforce the impression of direct interaction between narrator and readers, while simultaneously raising unanswerable questions about the relationship between the two and between Gulliver’s account and the reality it claims to represent. Allusions such as these can, I would suggest, be identified as “response-inviting structures,” as defined by Iser, and they impel Swift’s actual readers to grasp the text, insofar as they repeatedly remind those readers that nothing in the Travels is what it seems or can be easily identified.

37The work is clearly not a travel account, and yet it repeatedly claims to be. Gulliver is not the author, for all he pretends he is, but he is not exactly a character either – at least not the type of character that readers of novels have come to expect, for he lacks the requisite psychological depth. Swift does not consistently speak through Gulliver, and yet we are constantly aware of his shadowy presence. We are not the characterised readers – judicious, ignorant or otherwise – whom Gulliver describes with his carefully chosen adjectives and whose boredom threshold and tastes he claims to know, and yet we are never entirely certain where we stand at any point in time in relation to Gulliver, to Swift or to the narrative. Just as Gulliver is neither Houyhnhnm nor Yahoo, we never know what we are, either, whether judicious, curious, unwary or ignorant, as the narrative shifts mercilessly between simulated complicity and savage attacks that inevitably, ultimately, include us amongst their targets. For all Lemuel’s reiterated protestations to the contrary – or rather, because of them – reading Gulliver’s Travels cannot fail to trouble his readers

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Primary sources

Dampier, William. A New Voyage Around The World. England, 1697.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Edited with an Introduction by Claude Rawson, Notes by Ian Higgins, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Swift, Jonathan. A Tale of a Tub (1704). Edited by Robert A. Greenberg & William B. Piper. W.W. Norton & Sons, 1973.

Secondary sources

Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Boucé Paul-Gabriel. “Gulliver Phallophorus and the Maids of Honour in Brobdingnag.” XVII-XVIII. Bulletin de la société d'études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles 53 (2001): 81-98. Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Donoghue, Denis. “The brainwashing of Lemuel Gulliver.” The Southern Review 32:1 (1996): non paginated. 18 Aug. 2020.

Frantz, R.W. “Gulliver’s ‘Cousin Sympson.’” Huntington Library Quarterly 1:3 (April 1938): 329-34.

Holly, Grant. “Travel and Translation: Textuality in Gulliver’s Travels.” Criticism: 21:2 (1979): 134-52.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978 [1976].

Karian, Stephen. “The texts of Gulliver’s Travels.Les voyages de Gulliver: Mondes lointains ou mondes proches. Ed. François Boulaire and Daniel Carey. Caen: Presses universitaires de Caen, 2002. 35-50 <>. Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Menzies, Ruth. “Pactes et pièges de lecture dans les Voyages de Gulliver.” Aux confins de l’Ailleurs, Voyage, altérité, utopie, Hommages offerts au Professeur Jean-Michel Racault. Ed. Marie-Françoise Bosquet, Serge Meitinger & Bernard Terramorsi. Paris: Klincksieck, 2008. 151-59.

Menzies, Ruth & Sandhya Patel. “Transparency and Truth: Prefatory Material in Fictional and Non-Fictional Eighteenth-Century Travel Writing.” XVII-XVIII 70 (2013). Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Mezciems, Jenny. “Utopia and ‘the Thing which is not’: More, Swift, and Other Lying Idealists.” University of Toronto Quarterly 52:1 (1982): 40-62.

Nelson, W. Daniel. “Readers in Texts.” PMLA 96:5 (October 1991): 848-63.

Rawson, Claude. Gulliver and the Gentle Reader, Studies in Swift and our Time. Routledge, 2019 [1973].

Rodino, Richard H. “‘Splendide Mendax’: Authors, Characters, and Readers in Gulliver’s Travels.” PMLA 106: 5 (1991): 1054-70.

Smith, Frederik N. “The Danger of Reading Swift: The Double Binds of Gulliver’s Travels.” Studies in the Literary Imagination XVII: 1 (Spring 1984): 35-47.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

Veith, David. “Prospectus for Satires on Readers. Audience Entrapment in Poetry, Prose, Fiction, Biography, Drama.” Papers on Language and Literature 18:3 (1982): 230-33.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970.

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1 For a historical overview of studies of Swiftian entrapment in the twentieth century, cf. Smith.

2 Much has been written about Swift’s modes of entrapment, but the analyses by Rawson and Rodino remain particularly useful.

3 Although Swift and many critics refer to his reader as “he,” the plural pronouns “they,” “them” and “there” are used throughout this article to refer to characterised, implied or real readers. Swift’s – and Iser’s – presumption that readers of fiction are predominantly male, is inaccurate even for the early eighteenth century when, as Ian Watt (1970) and others have demonstrated, novels and other forms of prose fiction attracted a considerable female readership.

4 All references to Gulliver’s Travels are to this edition, as per the Agrégation syllabus for 2021, and are indicated using the abbreviation GT.

5 Smith finds 62 instances (with a further 3 in the prefatory material) in Gulliver’s Travels where the narrator directly addresses his readers. I have included all references to readers.

6 In the original 1726 edition of the Travels, there are 12 such references to Gulliver’s desire not to “trouble the reader,” one of which has been altered in the 1735 edition to “interrupt the reader” (GT 48).

7 There are 76 references to readers in the Tale of a Tub; 52 contain adjectives.

8 As Wayne C. Booth highlights, pride is one of the pitfalls when reading irony: “Successful reading of irony depends on reserves of tact and experience and even wisdom that are likely at any moment to prove lacking in any of us, and yet irony offers special temptations to our weaknesses, especially our pride” (44).

9 For more detailed analysis of the paratext of Gulliver’s Travels, see Holly; Menzies & Patel; Mezciems; Rodino; Wagner.

10 The manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels was originally dropped by hackney coach at Benjamin Motte’s London home, with a letter signed by one Richard Sympson, who claimed to be Gulliver’s cousin and offered the text for publication. Swift continued to correspond with Motte under this pseudonym. (cf. Karian). In the context of the travel narrative, the name Sympson may well have reminded contemporary readers of William Sympson, the fictitious author of A New Voyage to the East Indies, published in 1715, which claimed to be an authentic, autobiographic account but was plagiarised from one or more earlier travel accounts. At least one early key to Gulliver’s Travels made this connection (Frantz 330).

11 While attention has been paid to reader entrapment and related issues in Gulliver’s Travels (cf. Rawson; Rodino; Smith) and Anya Adair’s recently published article provides valuable insights into Swift’s use of second-person pronouns and their role in his satires, there has been little focus on the choice of specific modifiers used to characterise readers.

12 As used here, the adjective “candid” means “free from bias; fair, impartial, just” or, archaically, “favourably disposed.” OED Online, Oxford UP, June 2020, Accessed 18 August 2020.

13 The adverb is also used in Gulliver’s narrative, where he announces his intention to deal “candidly with the reader.” (GT 240)

14 The adjectives chosen by Swift are all found in works by other authors published before (sometimes hundreds of years prior to) Gulliver’s Travels.

15 For analysis of this scene, cf., Menzies; Smith.

16 As used by Swift here, “gentle” means “well-born” or “distinguished” and, as per the OED, was “[u]sed in polite or ingratiating address, or as a complimentary epithet.” OED Online. Accessed 18 August 2020.

17 For analysis of Swift’s sudden use of the pronoun “thee” here, cf. Rawson 11-12 and, for more detail, Adair.

18 “Their tallest Trees are about seven Foot high: I mean some of those in the great Royal Park, the Tops whereof I could but just reach with my Fist clinched. The other Vegetables are in the same Proportion: But this I leave to the Reader's Imagination” (GT 51).

19 The Captain’s name might seem entirely innocent, were it not for the presence in the first voyage of “Master Bates.” (Although P-G. Boucé notes that the OED does not provide evidence the verb was used during Swift’s lifetime, the Latin verb masturbor was used by Martial, whose Epigrams were in Swift’s library. The French verb is also attested as early as Montaigne’s Essais, which Swift also owned.) And yet the fact that neither Captain Vangrult nor Pedro de Mendez in the last two voyages has a similar name leaves the readers wondering whether they are immaturely spotting sexual innuendo where none is intended.

20 “The Epimenides Paradox is sometimes called the Liars Paradox. Epimenides was a Cretian who stated that all Cretians are liars. If all Cretians are liars, then so is Epimenides; but if he is a liar, then his statement regarding all Cretians lying is untrue. If that is so, then Cretians tell the truth; but then if Epimenides, a Cretian, says that all Cretians are liars, that statement must be true and he must be a liar. It can therefore be argued alternately that Epimenides and Cretians are liars and that they are not.”

21 Dampier’s New Voyage Around the World was published in London in 1697 and ran to four editions within two years. The second volume appeared in 1699, the third and fourth in 1703 and 1709. By 1727, seven editions of his works had been published.

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Ruth Menzies, « “I shall not trouble the reader”: Gulliver’s Travels, readers and reading »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 77 | 2020, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2020, consulté le 06 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Ruth Menzies

Ruth Menzies is a member of the LERMA (Research Centre on the English-Speaking World) and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anglophone Studies at Aix-Marseille Université, where she teaches literature and translation. Her research interests include 17th- and 18th-century fictional travel writing in French and English, as well as their afterlives, such as rewritings, adaptations and other appropriations.

Ruth Menzies, Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

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