What Genre does Gulliver’s Travels belong to and why?

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What Genre does Gulliver's Travels belong to and why?
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Gulliver’s Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships is a 1726 prose satire by the AngloIrish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift, satirising both human nature and the “travellers’ tales” literary subgenre. It is Swift’s best known full-length work, and a classic of English literature. It is an adventure story (in reality, a misadventure story) involving several voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s surgeon, who, because of a series of mishaps en route to recognized ports, ends up, instead, on several unknown islands living with people and animals of unusual sizes, behaviours, and philosophies, but who, after each adventure, is somehow able to return to his home in England where he recovers from these unusual experiences and then sets out again on a new voyage.

The concept of genre in eighteenth-century English literature is beginning to receive the careful scrutiny it deserves. This great adventure story, fable and satire has entertained and confounded readers for the better part of three centuries. It is at once a parodic treatment of travel writing and a satirical exploration of politics, colonialism, human characteristics and human ideals. Sarah Smedman considers it as a children’s book, John Sena, as an illustrated book, and Paul Alkon, in its relations to science fiction. On one level, Travels appears to be a travel narrative and the subtext appears to be a political satire and fantasy, not a historical chronicle.

Swift makes a candid proclamation of the purpose of writing Gulliver’s Travels in his much quoted letter to his friend and the literary genius Alexander Pope. He writes: “The chief end I propose to myself in all my harbors is to vex the world rather than divert it…”. This piece of information is enough to make us understand Swift satirical design. Comedy may be part of this but main focus lies on arousing reader’s disgust at their own follies. Also he writes “upon this great foundation of misanthropy (though not Timmon’s manner), the whole building of my Travels is erected.” Misanthropy-a hatred for mankind is a serious subject which cannot be reckoned with a delectable comedy. So, to evaluate and understand this work fully the grim nature of Swift’s purpose should be taken into account.

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Character Sketch of Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels

At every stage of Gulliver’s Travels, the fantastic elements are subservient to Swift’s satire and critical thinking. Swift is hardly an exception in this regard. A satire is a fictional work that uses sarcasm and irony to poke fun at the general patheticness of humanity. In writing Gulliver’s Travels Swift does not have the mere purpose of generating fun out of comic treatment of the protagonist or the subject of the story. Satire is shown through the plot of journey and return. The Lilliputians symbolize humankind’s widely excessive pride in its own puny existence because, in spite of the small size of the Lilliputians, they do not consider the notion that Gulliver is enormous compared to them and could kill them with just a flick of his finger. Gulliver has learned that their society suffers from the same flaws inherent in the English society, but their society is more utopian compared to the English society. On the contrary, the people of Brobdingnag are peaceful and fair, and not violent and cruel as the people of Europe have been. This is illustrated with the King of Brobdingnag’s conclusion about European society, “I cannot but conclude hte Bulk of your Natives to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin” (121). In his fourth voyage, Gulliver has seen unusual societies. The most fiercest satire of Swift is found in Part IV, in the portrayal of Yahoos. This abominable creatures bear the similarity with human beings in their physical structure and thus represent human race in the most abased form. Unlike their masters, Houyhnhnms, they are irrational, incorrigible and vicious. Through their beastliness Swift has castigated human race baring their equally beastly characteristics. The pungency of the satire is no more comical but detestable. It can only arouse abhorrence of the readers. The female Yahoos’ lustfulness, their ignoble customs of licking the posterior and feet of the leader directly hint at the promiscuity of English ladies and man’s servility respectively.

Though the Travels is an extended prose narrative having a central hero, it is questionable whether it can be categorized as a novel. There is a definite change in the character of Gulliver throughout the book-a prerequisite in any novel but the change does not operate because of the plot-a further adjunct to the novel. In short, it is only the character of Gulliver that gains any dimension as the episodes ensue, though the episodes are not linked to one another except as they are foils for Gulliver’s acquired education. This is perhaps not enough to make the book a novel. There should be a continuous action that hinges upon a plot, some setting that is influential to the working out of the plot, and an array of minor characters that will gain in importance like the hero himself. Again, the details that Swift employs to provide the necessary realistic touch-in the conventional novel are never significant beyond themselves. While trying to gain our credulity through the buildup of circumstantial details, Swift at the same time strains it by the extravagant story he tells. And his satire, as effective as it is in supporting the rhetorical irony, is less effective in creating the proper framework for character, plot and action. For a book in which satire is everything leaves no room open for the other elements necessary to create novelistic situations. Consequently, it might be stretching the concept of the novel to call Gulliver’s Travels one.

Another genre through which Gulliver’s Travel can be explained as is the genre of travelogue. A travelogue is usually a single person’s account of a trip, journey or otherwise. We have numerous famous travelogues written by some of the European explorers. Gulliver’s Travels comprises four different books, each detailing accounts from a different voyage undertaken by the putative author, Lemuel Gulliver. Published anonymously by Swift, it was ostensibly just another travelogue, describing the new territories emerging as a result of progress made in technology and commerce. He provides a fictional biography of Gulliver in the prefatory dedication and provides maps of the territories discussed. It is only when Gulliver is shipwrecked and awakens on a beach with ‘arms and legs strongly fastened on each side to the ground’, captured by creatures ‘not six inches high’ (p.8) that the reader begins to question the veracity of the account. This is, of course, a description of Gulliver’s encounter with the Lilliputians, a race of people no larger than his middle finger. Gulliver is completely befuddled at the end of the Travels. He has reached for an unhuman ideal and has rejected the sub-human Yahoos as too thoroughly human. He believes that the Travels is a defense of himself, showing how morally he acted. Gulliver’s gullibility and his simplicity are responsible for his downfall. He does not realize that human beings are infinitely more complex than the Yahoos or the Houyhnhnms. F. P. Lock argues that Swift’s primary agenda in Gulliver’s Travels was to ‘record in an imaginative creation for posterity a vision of political wisdom he had been denied the opportunity of using in the service of his own time and country’.

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What are Gulliver’s Misanthropic Views in Book 4?

On the surface level Gulliver’s description of his fortuitous visit to Lilliput appears an interesting and comical account of incredible voyage. The minuscule kingdom of Lilliput where the inhabitants are only 6 inches high creates mileu of fantasy. But, taking a serious look at it we can recognise that these diminutive human beings represent the pettiness of human race. Swift’s socio-political views are suggested in the clash between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians and between the High-Heels and the Low-Heels. Their constant strife for power is suggested by the inveterate rivalry between them and their neighbouring country, Blefuscu this alludes to rivalry between England and France. Thus, beneath the comic war between Lilliput and Blefuscu lies a deeper implication. War means loss of life and this mini war is no exception. The jealousy cunningness and ungratefulness are the common characterstics of the Lilliputians. They represent the depravities of human beings. The Lilliputian King shows the lack of generosity in his later treatment towards Gulliver. The unscrupulous politicians of England appear in the form of cunning courtiers in Lilliput. Some ludicrous customs like jumping on the rope or crawling understick insinuate the sycophancy and biased patronage of English political leaders. In fact this is Swift’s implicit personal assault on Whig leader Robert Walpole and his coteries. Assessing the implicit satire in Book I, we may come to the conclusion that entire description of the vices of Lilliputian society is actually Swift’s indignation at human frailties.

Many critics have believed Gulliver’s Travel to highlight the genres of comedy as well as tragedy. Gulliver’s Travels does not have a clear tragic hero that fits the above criteria. Gulliver himself possesses hardly any noble quality, and is often extremely flawed and unreliable. Even his name prompts a mental connection with the word “Gullible”, and he himself and the way he reacts to certain events within the book only serves to further illustrate the human defects Swift feels so strongly about. One of his major weaknesses is his pride and an innate sense of superiority. This can be seen in Book II, where Gulliver describes to the King of Brobdingnag the concept of gunpowder, and “humbly offered” to help the King build some. However, the King was “struck with Horror” by the “terrible Engines” and is amazed how humans are “wholly unmoved at all the Scenes of Blood and Desolation”. In Book IV, Gulliver’s failings are once again shown.

However, upon Gulliver’s return to human society, he does not learn from the rationality of the Houyhnhnms but instead adopts their pride, identifying all humans as “offensive” and “brutish” Yahoos despite them possessing the same amount of reason as him. Furthermore, he descends into further misanthropy and madness when he tries to “converse” with Horses “four hours a day”, saying that the horses live in “great Amity” with him. Thus, the ending is no anagnorisis of Gulliver, but another opportunity for the reader to see how superficial humans can be. This inane behaviour Gulliver is absurd and once again emotionally remote from any reader. It can only be intended for a comic purpose. Swift also often employs exaggeration and amplification to expose the problems that he sees in us. Lilliputians are diminutive in size such that we can see the triviality of politics when stripped of all its superficial grandeur. The sashes of the ministers are reduced to mere ‘threads’, and exaggeration on another level draws a comparison between climbing up the political ladder and “a dance on the rope” – ministers gain their positions through competitions of “whoever jumps the highest, without falling”.In Brobdingnag, humans are gigantic and this exposes the physical imperfections and ugliness that causes Gulliver to become “disgusted” and “nauseous”. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a comedy. Its mechanism for achieving the purpose of Swift and for spreading his message to the reader is essentially exaggeration. Furthermore, Gulliver and all the other societies depicted are deeply flawed, and do not seem to possess any redeeming quality that ennobles them to allow the reader to identify with them. Thus, it can in no way provoke a cathartic response and its intended effect is definitely an emotional distance and a humorous reaction from the reader, classifying it as a comedy.

Swift’s acute condemnation of mankind lends the book a grim seriousness. Human beings depicted as cunning and crafty creature with all its other wickedness being highlighted, the book instills a tragic feeling in the mind of readers. It does not arouse the lighter spirit of comedy as some of which we experience in Parts I and II, In the later part of the book the satire becomes caustic with the growing note of tragedy. Taken on four voyages, Gulliver’s ultimate travels are to a greater understanding of human nature and its flaws through the use of political as well as topical satire. After the first voyage, his image of humanity is little changed, likewise for the 2nd, although after this point, Gulliver’s image steadily declines until the fourth voyage, when he meets the Yahoos. In this way, Swift presents his commentary on the human condition through Gulliver’s Travels. The human condition is a tragedy as it is extremely flawed, yet humans are capable of changing for the better due to our capacity for reason. However, in the end these same flaws of pride keep us from actually attaining the ideal embodied in Houyhnhnm Reason and Brobdingnaggian Morality, causing the human condition to be a pitiful and fearful thing to behold, evoking a cathartic response to its Tragedy.

The novel is arguably Swift’s greatest satiric attempt to “shame men out of their vices”. The structure and the choice of metaphors also serve Swift’s purpose of attacking politics, religion, morality, human nature and of course colonialism which is at the heart of the novel. Swift clearly undercuts the ideas endorsed by colonialism by putting forth a reverse scenario and demonstrating how the truth about people and objects is heavily influenced by the observer’s perception. Swift has the didactic purpose to make the readers aware of the vices of mankind and has done it by shocking the readers, bringing them closer to ugly realities of life. In doing so the comic tone of the beginning phrase gradually fades and that in place emerges a dark gloomy tone which reaches the highest point with Gulliver’s transformation into a misanthrope. In this context the literary genre of Gulliver’s Travels can be assumed as satirical tragicomedy as well as a travelogue.

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