Patronizing, bullying, misogynistic and that is before you start discussing toilet humour which the 18th century seemed to be obsessed with. Yet we continue to treat Gulliver’s Travels as a children’s story. The land of the little people and of giants, deftly ignoring the other two lands which Gulliver goes to before he returns home. It is also a book full of historical and literary references which would have been obvious to the 18th-century reader but not familiar to modern readers.
When Gulliver lands in Lilliput he falls asleep on the beach only to find himself tied up when he awakes. Their first reaction is to capture and subdue this giant, shooting him with bow and arrows and attempting to stab him with spears. After partially breaking free, he causes a torrent by lying on his side to relieve himself. Later when he is chained up, he goes to the bottom of the garden to defecate and his excrement needs to be removed using several wheelbarrows. Although this sort of detail may appeal to young minds it is not something the reader needs to know.
The war with Blefuscu started concerning eggs and how they are eaten. This represents new life and is the symbol of Christianity, but the difference is between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Emperor’s grandfather is represented by Henry VIII and his split from Rome, ultimately ending in the Act of Settlement of 1701 in the reign of Queen Anne, which stated no monarch could be a Catholic. To defeat Blefuscu the Emperor asks Gulliver to bring him all his enemy’s ships so that he may rule over their land, Gulliver refuses as he says he will not be the instrument of bringing a free people into slavery.
In the second land of Brobdingnag Gulliver moves from a position of power to one of terror. He enters a field of corn which he describes as 40ft high, having to shout to stop one of the reapers from treading on him. Gulliver suggests the bigger the human the more savage their nature. However, he is taken home by the kindly farmer and is subject to the curiosity of the son, who holds him upside down, and the baby who tries to put him in its mouth. His description of the nurse breastfeeding the baby is one of disgust, the implication being when something is magnified it becomes truly repugnant. The famer’s daughter adopts a more maternal approach and makes him a bed out of her doll’s crib. This latter became a box that the farmer used to carry him around the area and display as a curiosity, much like a Victorian freak show.
When Gulliver meets the King and Queen they are fascinated by him. The Queen’s dwarf (probably a jester/fool) becomes jealous, picking Gulliver up he drops him into a bowl of cream where he nearly drowns. On another occasion, he puts Gulliver’s legs into the hollow of a bone standing it up on the table. He catches flies and lets them go in front of Gulliver’s face for the amusement of the Queen. This is not the sort of bullying behaviour we would encourage in any child. The King rules over a factionless society, much like Thomas Moore’s Utopia, with simple laws and a government of common sense and justice. In Lilliput, Gulliver had refused to turn a free people into slaves, but in Brobdingnag, he offers the king gunpowder to subdue his enemies. Swift is exemplifying the fickle nature of man. To his credit, the King is appalled and refuses the offer of gunpowder as evil.
The third book describes the floating island of Laputa separates different classes of people with very little mixing between the two. Here Gulliver is more of an observer of society rather than a participant, as we move away from a children’s story to the politics of the age. The intellectuals of the floating island are viewed as otherworldly, having their heads in the clouds and their minds on other things, specifically mathematics and music. They are cock eyed and led around by flappers carrying a fool’s bauble of a bladder on a stick. The intellectuals symbolize aristocratic absolutism, cut off from reality, comparing it to Louis XIV and the court of the sun King. Swift reverses the worship of the sun by making them fearful of its destructive power to consume the earth, following Haley’s prediction of 1705.
Balnibarbi is the land beneath and represents a combination of England and Ireland. Laputa can deprive the land below of both sunlight and rain, they can also hurl rocks below and ultimately lower themselves to crush any city beneath them. The only deterrent for Laputa is that lowering the island will result in mutual destruction. In the 17th century, legislation was passed limiting Irish exports to England, this effectively destroyed three-quarters of Irish trade and the collapse of the wool industry. In addition, Ireland was not allowed to tax English imports. Catholics were banned from holding any public office, with trade and ownership strictly controlled including the forbidding of primogeniture. The Declaratory Act of 1720 stated that an English Parliament could pass laws for Ireland. Swift argued the Irish could fight back by not buying English goods, but instead buying domestic products for domestic consumption. When Lindalino (Dublin) rebels Laputa contemplates descending and crushing the city but realises this will lead to its own destruction.
Glubbdubdrib is a detour while Gulliver is waiting to travel to the final island on his journey. Here the governor can summon the dead and Gulliver is shocked to be served by them. When he adjusts to the idea the governor offers to summon anyone who has passed away. Gulliver is able to meet Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Ceasar, along with other ancient warriors. The recognition of science and literature in England, Francc and Italy in the 18th century depended on how history was understood, either as progressive and better or declining and worse. Optimism saw human progress, where the linear decline was a downward slope and progress was a march to the summit. Gulliver becomes a spokesman for the ancients and not the modern scientists.
By far the strangest book is the fourth, the land of the horses. Gulliver begins by meeting the Yahoo’s who he describes as animals, not humans. The Houyhnhnms, or horses, in contrast, are given facial expressions of wonder, disdain, and frowning. In the 18th century, horses would have been familiar to readers, but the expression was limited to fear as shown by the flaring of the nostrils. Swift describes the Houyhnhnms as being confused by Gulliver’s clothing, believing it to be a part of his body. When he falls asleep, and his clothes fall away his resemblance to the Yahoos is confirmed. Gulliver explains man wears clothes for warmth and decency and nature dictates that they cover their bodies. The Houyhnhnms do not understand why he needs to cover something nature has made. This is a Christian principle that since the fall of man Christians have known shame. Theirophily states that animals live according to nature and that nature and reason are the same things. Primitivism is the negative suggesting humans have declined from the ideal standard. The noble savage is positive suggesting a natural simplicity with towns and cities bringing corruption in the form of civilization based on luxury, vice, and crime, corrupting man in spirit, mind, and body. Swift makes the Houyhnhnms a passionless race, having no concept of lying, doubting, or not believing. You cannot know the truth without deception, virtue without vice, or good without evil and to take love out of human existence means you are left with an automaton. This is the flaw in Houyhnhnm’s society.
Gulliver is banished from the land of the Houyhnhnms but has developed a reverence for them and extreme misanthropy for his fellow man, to the extent that he cannot tolerate his own wife and children. His initial desire is to find a solitary island where he can live alone and reflect on his time with the Houyhnhnms. However, the Portuguese captain returns him to England and Gulliver eventually learns to live with his fellow Yahoos. The complex nature of Gulliver’s Travels makes the illusions difficult for adults to fully comprehend and the first two books demonstrate some of the worst aspects of mankind which make it unsuitable for children.