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The World, Gulliver, and the Critic

Nathalie Zimpfer


L’univers satirique des Voyages de Gulliver est constitué d’incertitudes et de dualités non résolues. Nous suggérons dans cet essai que, par homothétie, tout discours critique sur les Voyages se doit d’être régi par une logique similaire, faisant de la contradiction sa caractéristique majeure. De même que la vision obsessionnellement monofocale de Gulliver ne lui permet pas de restituer les réalités qu’il côtoie de manière adéquate, de même, les modèles interprétatifs univoques ne sauraient rendre compte de la complexité du chef‑d’œuvre de Swift, dont l’ambiguïté morale et les jeux de miroir sans fin lui assurent une paradoxale pérennité.

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1The critic writing about Gulliver’s Travels today finds himself/herself in the unenviable position of the ‘author’ of A Tale of a Tub, getting a sense that because everything intelligent has already been said, the hunt for the textual particular is all that is left. Unlike Swift’s author, however, the critic cannot help feeling somewhat dissatisfied at the idea that there might be a method that makes it possible “to become Scholars and Wits, without the Fatigue of Reading or of Thinking” (Swift, Tale 144‑45). Thus armed with this ironic warning, the critic might be well advised to leave Swift’s author and to return to Swift the author.

2“The satirical part of mankind,” Swift claimed, “will needs believe, that it is not impossible to be very fine and very filthy” (Swift, A Letter 136). This points to a crucial dimension of Gulliver’s Travels perceptively emphasised by Jonathan Coe. “Our palates are [no longer] conditioned to respond to [Gulliver’s Travels],” Coe noted, because “from start to finish – but never more than in its final section – Gulliver’s Travels is permeated by the quality that characterizes all true masterpieces: ambiguity” (Coe, “Jonathan Swift”). Labelling away Swift’s text as “horrible, shameful, unmanly, blasphemous” (Thackeray 381) as “flagitious and obscene” (Harris 582) or as “rightwing polemic” (Eagleton 414) hardly does justice to this “labyrinth of irony and deceptive appearances” (Hopes, blurb). After all, to take up Claude Rawson’s scathingly ironical wording, who except “a few thesis-grinding simplifiers” (Rawson 218) would deny the elusiveness of the Travels? Gulliver himself, both as the embodiment of man and as author, is probably best described in the words of his ‘Houyhnhnm master’: “He observed in me all the Qualities of a Yahoo, only a little more civilised by a Tincture of Reason; which however was in a Degree as far inferior to the Houyhnhnm Race, as the Yahoos of their Country were to me” (IV.9). In other words, he is not a monolithic creature, but an in‑between, complex one. The satiric logic is one that makes it possible to account for a world whose creatures are both “very fine and very filthy,” both Yahoo and Houyhnhnm. Swift’s satiric world is one of uncertainties and unresolved dualities. We argue here that, in a homothetic manner, critical discourse on Gulliver’s Travels should be governed by a similar logic, one that not only accommodates contradiction but reclaims it as its essential logic.


3Gulliver’s Travels is replete with epigrammatic statements and aphorisms. Among these, the quotes placed under the portraits of Gulliver figure prominently, but this “graphic self‑promotion” proves to be unreliable (Barchas 265). In point of fact, both internal and external evidence suggests that the reader would be well advised to beware of wisdom that fits neatly into pithy phrases. The ideal which is upheld in Gulliver’s Travels is not the (over)rational Houyhnhnms who never say “the Thing which is not,” but the messy complexity of the world, of which the satirist makes his playground. What these aphorisms say or do not say – is Gulliver a splendide mendax or not, for instance? – is less important than the fact that these pithy statements are shown wanting.

4While maxims are conventionally the favoured tool of moral didacticism, conveying collective wisdom and self-evidently rational ideas, throughout Gulliver’s Travels they are made to suggest individual confusion rather than collective wisdom. When Swift first parodied Francis Bacon’s aphoristic style in A Tale of a Tub (1704), his concerns were anthropological rather than literary. At the time, aphoristic writing was associated with the kind of new scientific inquiry pursued by Bacon, who popularised the notion that presenting knowledge in a ‘broken’ manner, as a series of disconnected propositions, would encourage rather than quell scientific discovery. Swift never ceased to deride the mode of knowledge production whereby autonomous intellectual labour was alleged to liberate individual minds from impediments, allowing them to reason at once more purposefully and more freely (Swartz). “Digestion:” such is the term derisively used by Swift throughout A Tale to disparage it. This deconstructive enterprise is pursued in Gulliver’s Travels, in which the subversive use of sententious phrases ironically gives form to a mode of interiority defined by laborious incoherence: Gulliver is characterised by his inability to access the full meaning of what he has written down. Crucially, this also applies to the reader and the critic, who may be tempted to approach Gulliver’s Travels aphoristically, as it were, and favour univocal interpretative strategies. “The experience of the Travels [is] the participation in various points of view” (Oakleaf 178), thus defeating one of the main expectations that we typically bring to satire: a clear apportioning of blame along well­-defined moral lines. Because satire “reinterprets the ridiculous in an ethical light” (Guilhamet 8), it traditionally rests on a series of binary oppositions: reality versus appearances, truth versus profession, fools versus knaves. Gulliver’s Travels, on the other hand, demands that we renounce any kind of either/or logic.

5Nowhere is this truer than in the debate surrounding the allegorical possibilities, or lack thereof, offered by the Travels. While “the aim of satire was reformation through perceptive ridicule” and the reader “reciprocated” the satirist’s eye-opening endeavour by “agreement and amendment” (Morton 1), and while no one contested the power of satire to elicit laughter, many, however, “questioned whether those chortles so readily translated into an easily imbibed lesson or practical self‑correction” (Bricker 153). The debate over the actual effectiveness of satire raged throughout the period extending from the Restoration of the monarchy to the deaths of Jonathan Swift (1667‑1745) and Alexander Pope (1688‑1744). Similarly, from a critical perspective, the traditional definition of satire as “an attack by means of a manifest fiction upon discernible historical particulars” (Rosenheim 31) is not quite borne out by historical analysis. In his classical account of the relations between satirists and politicians in the early eighteenth century, Bertrand Goldgar refutes the notion that satiric works had any observable political effects, Charles Knight’s rendition of the taxonomic conundrum of satire, which mimetically replicated itself in the critical rift between the formalist Yale school of satire and the historical Chicago school, has lost none of its acuity:

Satire becomes problematic as a genre because of the tension between the self‑consciously formal character of its medium and particular reality of its attack. If satire were merely self-referential and ahistorical, readers might well wonder why one should bother; if satire were merely historical rather than formal, its issues could be resolved by libel courts rather than literary critics. The formal nature of satire abstracts its attack from mere particularity; its historical character undermines the enclosing walls of literary form. (Knight 22‑23)

6Gulliver’s Travels exemplifies a unique answer to the debate over the efficacy of satire. Its lack of moral assertiveness and its maze‑like deceptiveness paradoxically make for its endurance.


  • 1 For a very good synthesis of Swift’s models, traditions, and targets, see Ingram, Gulliver’s Travel (...)

7When Swift told his friend Alexander Pope that he was done with his latest work but needed to find “a Printer […] brave enough to venture his Eares” (Correspondence 1.372), he was, for once, not speaking metaphorically. The veiled attacks on various contemporary characters contained in the Travels would have been rather transparent to many readers at the time and having one’s ears cut off, or one’s nose slit, was common enough punishment for publishing material offensive to the government. It would therefore be a mistake to “downgrade the forces of Swift’s world to the level of contextual material against which a single fictitious mind may be witnessed in the process of breaking down” (Ingram 36). “Satire in Swift’s hands was a real and challenging force […] a dangerous business, both for its targets and for its authors” (Ingram 14).1

  • 2 On the interplay between the typical and the topical dimensions of satire and its evolution through (...)

8On the other hand, when Swift presciently observed a year later that “The world glutted itself with that book at first, and now it will go off but soberly; but I suppose will not be soon worn out” (Bernard xli), he was evidently referring to less topical aspects of his satire.2 Interestingly, Johnson’s Dictionary suggests that the more general dimension of satire is precisely what differentiates it from lampoons. Satire, Johnson argued, is “a poem in which wickedness or folly is censured. Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of its reections, from a lampoon, which is aimed against a particular person; but they are too frequently confounded.” Be that as it may, as Jonathan Coe perceptively remarked, Gulliver’s Travels is part of this rare category of “acknowledged literary masterpieces so full of extraneous material, so cluttered by the ephemera of their own time” (Coe, “Travels”). But then again, endeavouring to retrieve the contemporary world that Gulliver (mis)observes and (mis)judges is not enough to account for the endurance of his narrative. As a satire, Gulliver’s Travels is historically rooted; as an enduring satire, it subverts its own historical rootedness.

9Allegorical readings are both inscribed in the text and ironically subverted. As David Bywaters has argued, satirists in Swift’s days were acutely aware of the fact that they were writing for a sophisticated audience who had read so many political parallels that they had to tread carefully not to weary their readers (719). Thus, the satiric game in Book I, in which the topical allusions are the most numerous, rests on the identification of the intertext. Indeed, it took less than two months after the publication of Gulliver’s Travels on 28 October 1726 for the first political reading to appear. A Key, being Observations and Explanatory Notes, upon the Travels of Lemuel Gulliver, was published on 5 December, connecting Townshend and Walpole with Flimnap and Reldressal, and the purple, yellow, and white threads of the Lilliputians with the orders of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath. Two centuries later, Robert Walpole’s biographer, J. H. Plumb deemed Gulliver’s Travels to be “one of the most able and virulent satires ever to be written against Walpole” (104).

10Yet, as Ronald Paulson observes, “the only trenchent allusion in Gulliver’s Travels to Walpole (aside from references to ministers as well as princes) was in the third voyage to his unsuccessful attempt to impose Wood’s copper coinage on the Irish, and this was mostly removed before publication” (79). This led Goldgar to make the point that anti‑Walpole satire was an after‑the‑fact ad hoc interpretation by contentious readers, who made particular Swift’s general satire on ministers and princes (49‑63). Besides, as A Key itself acknowledges, the “Voyage to Lilliput” was essentially an allegory of the last four years of Queen Anne. As such, it had in fact little to say directly about the Walpole regime of 1721‑26. Consequently, although the author of the Key had identified Gulliver with Oxford, Swift would have at least equally intended Bolingbroke, the actual architect of the Peace, who fled certain retribution into exile in France/Blefuscu. Finally, as Swift’s historical biographer Irvin Ehrenpreis notes, “The dispelling of Gulliver’s illusion as he learns more and more about the imperial court [of Lilliput] evokes the enlightenment Swift suffered during the years 1711‑14” (457), thus displacing the reader’s attention from Oxford and Bolingbroke to Swift himself.

  • 3 See above for Goldgar’s refutation of this thesis.
  • 4 The most recent synthesis on children’s versions of Gulliver’s Travels is Majersdorf.

11This shifting game of mirrors is merely one example among many of the aporias to which allegorical readings lead. While critical debates about the political dimension of Swift’s writing “have tended to dwell on party allegiance and ideological alignment,” in other words, to “focus on the social-political structures […] through which a satirist might hope to have an influence on public affairs” (Bullard 4), such readings are not borne out by historians.3 Besides, the political allusions are not a determining part of the meaning of the text, as proven by the enjoyability of abridged versions for children.4 That Gulliver’s Travels, like all good satires, should have universal meaning beyond its topical value is in full keeping with its generic belonging. However, we would argue that unique to Swift is the ironic intertwining of the topical and the typical dimensions of satire. Throughout the text, the deciphering of the intertext is perversely facilitated even as its identification is shown wanting. Thus, in the Lindalino episode (III.3) the text is interspersed with time notations. Of particular interest is Gulliver’s indication that the rebellion of the inhabitants of “the second City in the Kingdom” against the “great Oppressions” under which they were living occurred “about three Years before [his] arrival among them.” When put in relation to the probable date of writing of Book III (1725), this indication supports the interpretation of the passage as an allegory of the relation between London and Dublin in the instance of the Wood affair (1722). The impositions of Laputa on Lindalino may thus be read as a fairly transparent allegory of the British imposition on the Irish of William Wood’s poor‑quality copper currency, which Swift had fiercely denounced in his previous work, The Drapier’s Letters (1724‑25). That Faulkner had omitted this passage may indicate that he was not quite willing to venture his ears in publishing an anti‑British satire.

12Yet, for the most part allusions to contemporary political events remain vague in the Travels, thus invalidating a univocal allegorical reading. Allegory is therefore reduced to the modest rank of a tool in a broader satiric strategy which constantly defeats the reader’s “deciphering compulsion” (Phiddian 170). In other words, Gulliver’s Travels is “speciously allegorical” (ibid.) and puts the reader at perpetual risk of becoming the Gulliver of Book II, so mired in the specifics of his panegyric of England that he is incapable of seeing the forest for the tree. Just as the profusion of details given by Gulliver to the King of Brobdingnag cannot counterbalance his absence of lucidity and critical distance, the search for intertextual connections should not blind the critic to Swift’s overall satiric method.

13Central to this method is its indirectness. Swift’s religious orthodoxy and linguistic conservatism, as expressed most notably in the Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712), have at times obfuscated the centrality of his narrators’ unreliability. Thus, David Oakleaf’s suggestion that, for all the games of mirrors at work in Gulliver’s Travels, “a stable point of view” is ultimately offered to “the dizzy reader” by a “shared, Christian point of view” (177) somewhat oversimplifies the nexus constituted by referentiality, satiric strategy and unreliable narrator. His analysis exemplifies the critical misunderstanding regarding Swift’s relation to authority which has tended to subsist in spite of the corrective offered fifty years ago by Pat Rogers’s analysis of the satirist’s “idea of authority.” As critics, we are never quite immune from “substitut[ing] for the distortions of Thackeray […] an equally cramping orthodoxy of our own” (Rogers 25).

14Swift’s narrators are never embodiments of normative landmarks. They all illustrate the follies of modernity to a greater or lesser extent. The ‘author’ of A Tale of a Tub, constantly presenting himself as an enlightened philosopher, writing with no smaller ambition than the “Universal Improvement of Mankind,” but proving to be a pitiable hack writer, is only the most stridently transparent of them. As for Gulliver, he is too evidently an observer, doing more for the advancement of science than would a fellow of the Royal Society. Peering through windows, eye‑glasses and perspective glasses, he observes both nature and manners. He observes natural curiosities, courts, and learned societies before publishing his observations, quarrelling with his critics as he does so. The very title of his narrative appeals to the popular interest in observation fostered by voyages of exploration. Quite obviously, Swift utilised, mocked, and perverted the fashion for travel narratives in Gulliver’s Travels in the same manner as he did for utopia fantasies. Foremost in the mind of Swift when writing Gulliver’s Travels was probably William Dampier (1651‑1715), whose phraseology is parodied in the Travels. “It would not be proper for some Reasons, to trouble the Reader with the Particulars of our Adventures in those Seas,” says Gulliver when he sets off for the East Indies at the very beginning of his journey (I.1). Not only was the phrase a favourite of Dampier’s, but in June 1699 Dampier reported meeting off the Cape of Good Hope a ship, the Antelope, that was going from London to the East Indies.

15Rather soon in his narrative, however, Swift signals to the reader that this alleged travel book will be departing from some of the norms established by earlier examples of the genre. When the Lilliputians relax the cords holding Gulliver “to such a Degree, that [he is] able to turn upon [his] Right, and to ease [himself] with Making Water” (I.1), the ensuing urination scene, the first of a series that will be repeatedly played on in Books I and II, and returned to in Book IV, marks the beginning of the satiric game. Published seven years after Daniel Defoe’s highly successful Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels is on some level a systematic rebuttal of Defoe’s optimistic account of human capability. In Captives, Linda Colley introduces her account of British captivity narratives between 1600 and 1850 with the contrasting perspectives offered by Swift’s and Defoe’s texts, which she reads as two antagonistic parables of British Empire. Gulliver’s naïve empiricism pales in comparison to Robinson’s resourcefulness and busy ingenuity.

16Needless to say, this is hardly the point. Or rather, it is the very point made by Swift. Distortion of perspective is a far more obvious feature of Gulliver’s Travels than the transparent record of experience recommended by the Royal Society, and the observer’s point of view is the source of the dilemma. Like the resolutely unironic prose espoused by natural scientists, Gulliver’s text asserts a single, ‘clear’ point of view, a monocular gaze appropriate to the perspective glass or the linear perspective. On the other hand, the distortions of the Travels may be compared to those of self‑conscious perspective painting. What is required is not the mirror proudly proffered by Gulliver to his readers, but binocular vision which alone makes it possible to see man as he is, both man and Yahoo, or Houyhnhnm and Yahoo, both very fine and very filthy. The Yahoos may play in the final book of the Travels a similar role to that of the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors: they remind man of his animality much as the conventional skull reminds him of his mortality. Gulliver observes too much to understand that juxtaposed vision, although more disturbing, yields more faithful results than relentlessly single vision.

17At times, Gulliver comes close to apprehending the notion of perspective. While initially disgusted by the skin of a Brobdingnagian woman nursing her baby, Gulliver then questions his point of view: “This made me reflect upon the fair Skins of our English Ladies” (II.1). However, the conclusion to which he comes reveals not the enhanced vision of someone having discovered the conventions of perspective art, but further distortions. The skins of English Ladies appear as fair, Gulliver goes on to say, “only because they are of our own Size, and their Defects not to be seen but through a magnifying Glass, where we find by Experiment that the smoothest and whitest Skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured.” In other words, he conceives of what he sees through the glass not as another perspective on it, but as more real; no enhanced vision, but enhanced reality.

18This further complexifies the debate over the allegorical interpretation of Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, the observer’s reliance on his sense impressions proves to be a more complex criterion of truth than it seems. Since it is not true that skin defects are visible only under magnification, Gulliver is vindicating his earlier comment on the weakness of his eyes at the same time as he celebrates the power conferred by the glass. By way of consequence, it exposes as vain the very process of the detection of topical allusions. As Allan Ingram put it:

Swift’s satire […] has the probable unique capacity to make us question not only those individuals and institutions under specific attack but our own assumptions and gullibilities, including our readiness, when we read, to suspend our incredulity and to give ourselves, albeit sometimes only for a short while, to the control of the author. Few writers, having been granted that control, choose, as Swift does, both to play fast and loose with it and ultimately to demolish it altogether. In doing so, though, Swift aspires to ensure that his reader eventually recognises that he is not only being looked to by the author as a member of the bench in judging this or that specific charge, but is himself a subject of judgement, by the author, and by the text he has been reading. (Ingram 31)

19The distortions of the observing eye concern the reader, too. What is foregrounded is not merely empirical scepticism about the evidence of the senses, but also the dislocations of point of view inherent in observation. In Gulliver’s Travels, the means of investigation becomes the main object of investigation. And yet, despite the succession of “continuous modulations and reversals” that characterise the text and leave the reader without any absolute, Gulliver’s Travels is not the kind of “logical muddle” that Dryden’s Discourses upon Satire and Epic Poetry (1692) is, but an “ironic triumph” (Carnochan 51). It is not the triumph of assertiveness, but that of provisional yet faithful truths.


  • 5 On labelling Jonathan Coe a satirist rather than a novelist, see Guignery 24‑26.

20Alexander Pope once privately shared with his friend the belief that philosophy, politics and divinity were all to a greater or lesser degree “vain at present,” and that satire only “moves strongly,” as “those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous” (Swift, Correspondence 2.290). As is well known, Swift himself was less sanguine and curtailed his ambition to “vexing” the world with his Travels. The debate over the effectiveness or even the raison d’être of satire is one in which contemporary satirists continue to engage. In today’s world, Jonathan Coe has argued, “laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but […] it actually replaces protest” because it tends to be “a substitute for thought rather than its conduit.” Having turned into “a unifying, not a dividing force,” satire thus paradoxically becomes “one of the most powerful weapons we have for preserving the status quo” (Coe, “Paradox”).5 However, the debate and “persistent swirl of controversy” (Rodino 1054) that Gulliver’s Travels continues to engender shows that Swift’s satire has lost none of its capacity to unsettle and provoke. In a short, witty piece published in 2004, the editor of the British Medical Journal has a dream – or should one say a nightmare? Swift publishes Gulliver’s Travels in the BMJ. Today as then, “moral outrage” and “scoffing” ensue. Soon,

seafarers, geographers, and meteorologists poin[t] out that the tale is mere fantasy.
An engineer submits his calculations, according to which 1500 horses 4 inches high could not have drawn the carriage on to which Gulliver was fastened.
The human rights movement condemns the author for making fun of Lilliputians, people who were disadvantaged in growth. A rapid responder uses the words “dwarf” and “unnatural.”
Hell breaks loose. For two days rapid responders are hurling insults at each other. The World Federation of Acromegalics protests, claiming that the description of the people of Brobdingnag is insulting to them. The animal welfare people deplore the mention of a cage.
Before long, rapid responders begin to refer to the Bible, some of them misquoting it and most of them interpreting it liberally.
One responder expands upon the subaquatic sexual attack of the young Yahoo female and discusses the positions in which the two would have been joined were it not that upon Gulliver's frightened roaring the nag came galloping and chased her away.
By the fifth day the row about what is and is not natural has been revived, the electronic debate has become global, and there is lively participation of people from the former colonies. (Loefler 179)

21The description made by John Wilson Croker of Swift’s role in Irish affairs in his “Sketch of the State of Ireland, Past and Present” may safely be extended to the entirety of Swift’s satiric œuvre: “His wisdom was practical and prophetic – remedial for the present, warning for the future” (Mason 348‑49).

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1 For a very good synthesis of Swift’s models, traditions, and targets, see Ingram, Gulliver’s Travels 24 ff.

2 On the interplay between the typical and the topical dimensions of satire and its evolution through time, see Bywaters.

3 See above for Goldgar’s refutation of this thesis.

4 The most recent synthesis on children’s versions of Gulliver’s Travels is Majersdorf.

5 On labelling Jonathan Coe a satirist rather than a novelist, see Guignery 24‑26.

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Nathalie Zimpfer

Dr Nathalie Zimpfer specialises in the links between theology and literature in the Augustan period and has written extensively about Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne. Her monograph on Swift’s sermons is forthcoming. She has also published a critical translation into French of Wollstonecraft’s works as well as several articles on the so called “mother of feminism” and been pursuing a long held interest in eighteenth-century travel writing, more particularly the travelogues of Captain James Cook and Samuel Hearne.

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