Research Paper: Perfect Society in Gulliver's Travels

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Perfect Society in Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift was first published in 1726 and was a major success in England, despite the controversy that surrounded it, or perhaps it was because of this controversy. During the time that Swift was writing Gulliver's Travels, there was major political strife in England having to do with the monarchy and political parties. First of all, in 1714, George I, a prince from Germany, had ascended the British throne the death of Queen Anne's, putting an end to the Stuart line. George I was not a bad king; he was not oppressive or cruel; he was just widely disliked -- plain and simple. George I had ascended the British throne with the help of the Whig party and the Whig ministers who used their power to oppress members of the opposition party -- the Tories.

The entire first half of Gulliver's Travels is an allegorical account of British politics during the unstable part of the early 1700s when the Tories and the Whigs were fighting with each other. In Swift's time, the Tories were a more conservative party and they supported a very strong monarchy and a strong Church of England. The were bitter about the new middle classes and most of their support came from the upper classes and the clergy (Fox 32). The Whigs focused on the parliamentary aspect of the government and they supported the rise of the middle class. In general, the Whigs were more religiously tolerant and, overall, more tolerant of people of the middle classes than the Tories. Essentially, the Whigs found their support in the new middle class. During the years 1710 to 1714, Swift was a Tory himself though he was born a Whig and had been one until 1710, and he was one of the most influential members of the English government (33). Knowing that Swift was quite involved with politics during his time helps the reader of Gulliver's Travels understand some of the satire in the text.

There was early interest and controversy centered on the object and identity of satirical allusions to contemporary figures in Gulliver's Travels (Fox 26). Though Gulliver goes to many remote locations in the book, there were many who noticed that the period of his travels was nearly contemporary with Swift's experiences of England (26). As mentioned, however, in spite of this, the book was widely successful.

Lemuel Gulliver's travel adventures begin when he takes to the ocean in search of adventure and a better way of life -- chiefly, a better society (utopia). Journeys often provide the principal narrative structure for literary works as diverse as the Odyssey, Frost's "The Road Not Taken," and, of course, Gulliver's Travels (Jones). There are many writers who have written about adventures to nonexistent places and, like them, Gulliver's Travels explores the idea finding a utopia and settling happily in that place. Journeys can symbolize a quest for truth or the progress of an individual from cradle to grave; some journeys take the form of pilgrimages with characters seeking enlightenment -- or redemption. Gulliver is special as he is seeking a sort of truth as well as enlightenment, but there is also the idea that he is looking for redemption. He has made a mess of his life and he needs to find a place to belong in order to make sense of life once again. As well, Gulliver wants to find a place where people are more equal and the government isn't as ridiculous as he seemed to see England's government during the time.

Swift has written Gulliver as a character in search of the ideal community where he can live, in a society that he can respect (in other words, nothing like England). Though Gulliver is in search of this perfect society, he appears to be very skeptical about the whole business of it. Can a perfect society really exist? There are some obvious examples of utopias in the novel, but the most obvious is the Houyhnhnms, but Gulliver's biggest flaw in the journey seems to be that he is constantly trying to improve his own position in the hierarchy of the place in which he inhabits, to be on equal footing with the people (or creatures) that Swift establishes as his betters (Jacobe). This proves to be sort of ironic as Gulliver is looking for a place without the kind of class system and hierarchy as England, but yet it seems like this is the only way that he knows how to operate. He, in a sense, brings England with him wherever he goes and thus he can never get away from it. This is the reason that Gulliver must keep travelling around -- and even when he returns to England, his true home -- he must leave again. He is not happy with his homeland, but he does not understand that he carries his homeland inside of him and he cannot help but act according to what he is used to.

Like Plato's Republic, where children are raised in a communal fashion, Swift has the Lilliputians raise their children in the same manner, but the results of this kind of childrearing are anything but perfect (Houston). The Lilliputians are riddled with jealous impulses and they are constantly scheming. On the same note, when we meet the Houyhnhnms, another society that has rules about children -- for example, parents with two children of the same sex are asked to change one child with a family that has two children of the same sex as well (but opposite to the other family) so that the male-female ratio will be perfectly kept -- Gulliver sees them as rational and quite simplistic, and while this seems somewhat ideal, there is something that is not right about the Houyhnhnms. They do not have distinct personalities. As a matter of fact, each person there could be switched with another and nobody would even know the difference. This, however, doesn't seem to really bother Gulliver, as he wants nothing more that to stay.

Gulliver is the exact opposite of the Houyhnhnms because Gulliver does not seem to belong to any society. He is, essentially, a loner. When Gulliver is asked to leave the Houyhnhnms, he becomes very upset at the thought. He wanted so badly to be a part of a community that it probably did not matter that the community he found wasn't perfect; at least it was a community of some sort.

Gulliver's Travels is often thought of a modern novel about alienation, illustrating the way individuals try to become part of a society, yet how they consistently fail no matter how hard the individual tries to fit it. Gulliver has lost his business and does not have any means to support him so there is no doubt that he feels that there is nothing left in England for him -- not even a family. The reader never hears Gulliver talk about his homeland or his family much, showing us that he feels completely detached from that life that he once knew, or just life in general. In fact, Gulliver appears to not only be alienated from a larger community, but he appears to even be alienated from himself. His narrative is very matter-of-fact, lacking any kind of self-understanding or awareness. He does not ever mention how he feels about things -- no emotions, nothing that he hopes for in the future. Gulliver describes his adventures fully, but he never tells us how he feels about those adventures. For this reason, it is difficult to read Gulliver's Travels without feeling like we are being cheated of an essential element, but it is very likely that this was Swift's whole point in the novel. Because Gulliver himself is so empty inside, it doesn't matter where he goes; no matter what society he finds, it can never be perfect because he is so out of touch with his own self. Because of this, Gulliver will never -- can never -- find utopia.

Charles H. Hinnant sets out the thesis that Gulliver's Travels, using the idiom of early study of mankind (anthropology), explores the essentially contextual and relative relationship between the methodical and monstrous peculiarities through the fictional realization of the taboos of various societies, in Purity and Defilement in Gulliver's Travels (15-17). A recurring element in Gulliver's Travels is something that is not the most pleasant to talk about: bodily waste. The constant message of this must have some kind of importance and it is perhaps a symbol for everything that is unpleasant about humans. The mention of excrement may be a way in which Swift is trying to keep the reader thinking that there is not anything spiritual about mankind, because of the fact that the mere mention of excrement quickly turns our stomachs. During the Enlightenment period in England and thus thereafter, English philosophers expounded on the ideas that all humans were spiritual beings and Swift's constant mention of the excrement… [END OF PREVIEW]

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