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Gulliver’s Travels as a Critique of Government and Society

For this week’s readings in Gulliver’s Travels I’m choosing to focus on its absurdist aspects that allow it to serve as a parody of society and government. First, we see Gulliver is made to be a complete outsider in the land of Lilliput. Not only is his size a staggering difference, but he is unfamiliar with their culture. He can’t communicate with them, as he doesn’t know their language. Thus, Gulliver is established as an outsider who can see every practice from a fresh perspective. It is interesting to note that such a scenario has to be fictional, as any reasonably well educated human would have some preconceived notion or knowledge about a culture before they were to visit (or be held captive in) a distant land.

The first example that stuck out to me painting Gulliver as an outsider in regards to culture was his consumption of the first food and drink he is given by the emperor.

“He ordered his cooks and butlers, who were already prepared, to give me victuals and drink, which they pushed forward in a sort of vehicles upon wheels, till I could reach them. I took these vehicles and soon emptied them all; twenty of them were filled with meat, and ten with liquor; each of the former afforded me two or three good mouthfuls; and I emptied the liquor of ten vessels, which was contained in earthen vials, into one vehicle, drinking it off at a draught; and so I did with the rest” (p. 34).

Unlike other texts we have read, it is not the preparation of the food, or the state it is in (raw, cooked, rotting), but rather the amount consumed that presents the cultural difference. It is also worth noting that we see a class structure being established, with the government officials at top being served by waitstaff. Gulliver’s consumption presents a problem for the society, and the issue of famine is brought up if he is to be fed a full diet, yet the issue of a plague (rotting) is brought up if he is to be killed (p. 38).

On to a critique of government, I believe the absurdity of the situation intends to change the reader’s perspective on their own relationship to government. Gulliver is bound by many shackles that he himself is able to break, serving as a metaphor for many of the laws, rules, and regulations that bound us. The government officials themselves establish their ability to rule through an arbitrary system of sport:

“They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office” (p. 50).

Culturally, the values that are seen to make a candidate the most electable have no relation to the actual act of lawmaking. The first few chapters are not an obvious indictment of government ineptitude, but I believe the absurd scenarios intend to spur internal reflection about one’s relationship to government. In our world today, are all of our shackles imaginary? Is our system of election in fact based upon meaningless values?

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3 thoughts on “Gulliver’s Travels as a Critique of Government and Society

  1. I like how you found connections to both the government and culture in these stories. I hadn’t caught on to the fact that food does play a huge role in this story, in the beginning it seems to be the biggest problem facing this population of people. It’s almost as if these smaller people, or lower classes depending on how you define “little” are responsible for feeding the higher classes which in this case is just Gulliver. Should the lower classes be seen as such because they provide the food for everyone or should they be seen as equal because in reality they are the reason we can live the way we do?
    At the end of your post you ask if our election system based on meaningless facts; I’m not sure, isn’t our government built on the facts and ideas believed by people before us? What is meaningless and what isn’t is mostly determined by the person you ask, you’ll find people who say yes and people who will say no.

    wc 172

  2. Naki8788, what a great series of connections you draw in this post. I really appreciate your reach from the bulk of food and Levi Strauss (plague –> rotten, etc), When you note the issues of governance, i might ask what ultimately Swift might be saying about perception in general and if we as humans ever have a way to see how we interact in society and within social constructs. You mention the political acrobatics of the high rope games, and I know we only read the first two volumes, but in the fourth volume you might be interested to know that Gulliver visits a land of horses and falls in love with their culture. He returns home and refuses to speak to his wife and son, instead he spends the rest of his days in his stable talking to his horses. To the outside world he looks mad; to Gulliver the horses are the only sane entities in his world. I encourage you to read the rest of the novel if it appeals to you — books three and four only get stranger!!

    • Thanks for your feedback. I think Swift’s ultimate goal in writing Gulliver’s Travels in the fashion that he did was to cause us to reflect on our relationship to our own government. I believe he is encouraging us to *try* to view it from a different perspective that has not been tainted by the social constructs we were raised in. In literature, critiques of other cultures are not difficult to find. However I think that setting up a fictional scenario allows for better self-reflection. Another example of this from outside of class is Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem, which is set in a dystopia where the notion of the individual has been completely erased. This allows for the protagonist to rediscover individualism, and it carries a more powerful message than were it to be set in a non-fictional setting.

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