Free College Essays - The Hidden Meaning of Gulliver's Travels

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The Hidden Meaning of Gulliver's Travels     

Gulliver's Travels is one of the most beloved satires of all time (Forster 11). Yet, careful analysis shows it to be very complex with not one definite interpretation. A very surface reading may leave one feeling that the point of the book is "don't be Yahoo." This is the message that David Ward feels Gulliver the character is giving and says that it is no more complex than Orwell's, "four legs good, two legs bad." But this grows out of the fact of Gulliver's nature. A synthesis of the opinions of the writers I read paints Gulliver as an average man of average courage, honesty, compassion, and intellect, a typical Englishman. But there is nothing typical about Gulliver's Travels.

What Swift has accomplished by making Gulliver the embodiment of common English values and beliefs and then having him visit far away lands that are really the mirrors of English society is an interesting satirical device. He forces the English reader to unknowingly judge English society, not according to some higher law or pristine observer, but through the lens of their own cherished values. This effectively turns English beliefs and values in on themselves as a test of their merit. Swift echoes this structure by first having Gulliver visit a land of little people, which causes one to observe them with scrutiny. Then Gulliver immediately travels to a land of giants which causes scrutiny of Gulliver, who is now the little one.

After a series of different looks at society through the first three voyages, Gulliver travels to Houyhnhnmland where the nature of people themselves are given the strongest censure, by being directly paralleled with the loathsome Yahoos. Here Swift bluntly attacks almost every aspect of society, which is then compared to the Yahoos point by point by the Grey Mare. Gulliver and the reader finally identify themselves completely with the Yahoos (see close commentary), and Gulliver decides to abandon Yahooism forever. But, he is then immediately banished from the island by the Houyhnhnm assembly.

This poses an interesting question (see close commentary). What is Swift's final message then about man or his future? The fact that Gulliver is unable to stay with the Houyhnhnms or adhere to their principles after leaving the island, does not mean to me that man is doomed. I think Swift is saying that man will always be Yahoo, but at the same time I think he is advocating an awareness of our Yahoo nature.

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And, if we can see ourselves through an unmuddied reflecting glass and be honest about our Yahoo nature then we can strive honestly for Houyhnhnm values and abandon saying, or believing in ourselves, "the thing which is not."

But, in a truely satirical and comic manner, Swift has Gulliver just reject the presence of Yahoos (including himself) and wish for death or solitude. Thus to the very end Gulliver doesn't "get it." Richard Gravil puts it that in the end Gulliver embodies all the bitterness of Swift and sees clearly the Yahoo nature of man, but in doing so he looses his humanity, whereas, Swift can keep a sense of humor about the whole thing and therefore is decidedly different from Gulliver (19-22).

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