5 Questions in Response to Gulliver’s Travels

by Sophia Natasha Sunseri

5 Questions in Response to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

  1. Throughout Swift’s novel, references to the human body—and its various functions—abound. In particular, the text seems especially preoccupied with the scatological. In Part 1, for example, Gulliver tells us that he had been “extremely pressed by the necessities of nature,” causing him to “discharge[d]” his body of an “uneasy load” (35).* Later, he urinates on the Queen’s palace in Lilliput to extinguish a fire (Part 2), describes how the scientists in Lagado turn excrement into food (Part 3), and makes it known that the Yahoos hurl feces at one another (Part 4).

In emphasizing the body/the scatological, is Swift merely trying to entertain his readers? Or, he is making a larger point about aspects of our non-   corporeal selves, that is, the spiritual and/or intellectual? How might the latter fit into an Enlightenment context?

  1. Building off of the last question, what are we to make of the ways in which the female body is represented? Gulliver frequently discusses women’s bodies in terms that are less than complimentary. For instance, when Gulliver encounters a nurse breastfeeding, he remarks: “I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast” (97/Part 2). And later, upon seeing a beggar-woman, he states: “There was a woman with cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept, and covered my whole body” (117/Part 2).

Significantly, such descriptions occur in the land of Brobdingnag, where everything is enlarged, as though seen through a microscopic lens. Thus, it  can be inferred that Swift may be satirizing various scientific innovations of his time, including the microscope. As Chloe Houston confirms in her essay,       “Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-utopia?”, “…scientific experiments…become objects of ridicule” (429) in Swift’s novel. If this is the case, why does Swift choose to express his scientific critique in terms that are gendered?

  1. What is the significance of Gulliver addressing the reader? It is not uncommon for Gulliver to say things like, “It was necessary to give the reader this information, without which he would be at the same loss with me,” (163/Ch. 2, Part 3). How do comments like this function rhetorically?
  1. What does Swift’s portrayal of the relationship between people and animals suggest? Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, people are often compared to, or contrasted with, animals. In Part One, for example, as Gulliver prepares to leave Blefuscu, he states that he will take: “six cows and two bulls alive, with as many ewes and rams, intending to carry them into my own country, to propagate the breed…. I would gladly have taken a dozen of the natives, but this was a thing the Emperor would by no means permit” (82).   What are the colonial, economic, and/or philosophical implications of such comparisons?
  1. In God, Gulliver, and Genocide Claude Rawson comments on a letter that Swift wrote to Pope, in which Swift expresses a “death-dealing sentiment about humans, sufficiently establishing that it isn’t ‘for real’, but in a way near enough.” Rawson writes that, “The words express with unusual explicitness the mixture of meaning it, not meaning it, and not not meaning it” (262). Rawson’s observation underscores the ambiguous nature of Swift’s writing—and of satirical writing in general.  In what ways is the elusiveness of Swift’s satire potentially troubling or problematic, and in what ways does it potentially succeed?

*Page numbers refer to the following edition of Gulliver’s Travels:

 Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.