Fractal Myth

An Exploration of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

[Michelle Chapman ©1997]

This essay focusses on Part 2, Chapter 7.

The meaning and significance of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is elusive, and ephemeral, evading easy description. The fascination for the reader lies in this ambiguity because to a large extent the text invites and encourages the reader to take power over its meaning. We view Gulliver from so many different perspectives - towering above us - cowering below us - that our impressions of him become distorted. His multiple roles as narrator, author, character, and reader, intertwine to conceal layers of meaning. The reader is given a choice between sailing off on Gulliver's sea of fancy, or delving into his narrative in search of that legendary hidden treasure, the truth. The significance of the work lies in Swift's ability to distract his readers from their detached enjoyment and draw them fanatically into the quest for meaning.

Indeed, as Richard H. Rodino shows in his article '"Splendide Mendax": Authors, Characters and Readers in Gulliver's Travels', criticism of Gulliver is never a straightforward enterprise. Rodino writes that:

During any given reading ... the reader is invited to play at least three roles: docile interpreter of Gulliver's authorial intentions; metacritic of Gulliver's motives and strategies; and metametacritic of Swift, who glimpses the levels and loops of textuality in which the Travel's other readers, authors, and characters are situated. ... slippage is always occurring among the various roles, during individual readings as well as over the readings of a lifetime.(1)

Gulliver's Travels provides a literary kaleidoscope, where the constant shifting and recombination of perspectives replaces authoritative closure with an emphasis on individual reader responsibility. This is not done prescriptively. Swift does not provide us with a clue to his labyrinth. Instead, "he continually creates occasions in the text which, one way or another, encourage or coerce the reader into a consciousness of his own commitments."(2)

On the surface, Gulliver's reading of Brobdingnagian literature, and especially Glumdalclitch's "little old Treatise" on Brobdingnagian morality, appears unremarkable. As the levels of textuality develop, however, the quest for meaning becomes more complex. Characteristically, Gulliver presents himself as an expert on the subject of morality (as on every other subject). Professing to be motivated by purely intellectual curiosity, Gulliver prepares his readers for serious discussion. At the same time he claims to be "much diverted" by the text, although his author merely "went through all the usual Topicks of European Moralists", with which we assume (from the authority in his voice) Gulliver is already familiar. The result is a vaguely uncomfortable feeling of inconsistency, alerting the reader to the possibility of unreliability in the narrative. Looking around, we realise we are already deep in the labyrinth, and must make our own choices if we are to find a way out. We rely on Gulliver to transmit the Brobdingnagian text to us, but it is up to the individual reader to decide how much weight to give to Gulliver's mediation. In his lightly didactic tone, Gulliver glosses over the traditional moral arguments asserting human inferiority to the natural world: "How much he was excelled by one Creature in Strength, by another in Speed, by a third in Foresight, by a fourth in Industry", and envisioning a Brobdingnagian Golden Age "far exceeding the common dwindled Race of Man in our Days." This prioritising of natural prowess over human endeavour, in its contemporary political correctness, probably irritated an eighteenth-century reader, as much as it does a self-aware Post-Modernist. Swift's appeal to his reader's subconscious prejudices is a remarkable precursor to modern psycho-analysis, over one hundred and fifty years before Freud! In viewing our reversed image in this early psycho-analytic mirror, the reader is clearly invited to look 'through a glass darkly', peering for reflections of his or her own soul, as well as Gulliver's and Swift's.

Throughout this summary, Gulliver builds up his own authority as reader, purporting to offer an impartial transmission of the text, attributing the words to his source: "He added"; "He said"; "He argued". The source author's authority is also reinforced by the quasi-scientific language of 'fossil evidence': "confirmed by huge Bones and Sculls casually dug up in several parts of the Kingdom". Even the imperative tone of the treatise's author is communicated to the reader, as Gulliver repeats the author's appeal to cosmic authority: "the very Laws of Nature absolutely required ..." However, as the passage continues, the examples become progressively more ridiculous, ending with the giant Brobdingnagian Moralist lamenting the possibility "of being drowned in a little Brook." The reader is forced to seriously question the ethical repercussions of such morals, and their utility for everyday life, searching not only for their own responses, but Gulliver's, Swift's, and the Brobdingnagian's as well.

Looking for Gulliver's apparent authorial intention, the reader finds that Gulliver is not actually interested in the conclusions of his source: "the Author drew several moral Applications useful in the Conduct of Life, but needless here to repeat." Instead, he 'involuntarily' ("I could not help reflecting") twists his response into a generalised criticism, which, while seeming logical, also constructs his own understanding as superior to all that has gone before, both European and Brobdingnagian: "how universally this talent was spread of drawing Lectures on Morality, or indeed rather Matter of Discontent and repining, from those Quarrels we raise with Nature." Recognising that Gulliver and Swift are also "drawing Lectures" is only the first step into the hall-of-mirrors that Gulliver's Travels creates. The effect of this hyper-reflectivity is superbly described in Richard Rodino's article:

Gulliver's more pressing complaint, that the book quarrels with the author of humanity, also rings true - at least until we realise that Gulliver's quarrel repeats the treatise's. ... Likewise, since the treatise is an interpreter's quarrel with the authorship of nature, so it echoes Gulliver's quarrel with its own quarrelsomeness, not to mention the quarrel that the critic of Gulliver has with Gulliver's quarrelsome criticisms, the quarrel that the interpreter of intention has with the quarrelsome criticisms advanced by the critic of Gulliver, and on into the critical commentaries of the critics of Swift and Gulliver's Travels, and eventually so back into the text, in a circle of quarrelling by readers made authors by virtue of their quarrels with other authors.(3)

Gulliver is given a privileged position in the worlds of 'otherness to himself' that he visits, because he has access to, and the ability to understand, the language and literature of almost every culture he encounters. However, the breadth of his understanding is limited by his extremely subjective approach to experience. The reader's understanding of the cultures Gulliver encounters is even further limited by his selective transmission of those experiences. Although Gulliver assures us he has "perused many" of the Brobdingnagian's books, the only subjects he mentions are "History and Morality". The only text he chooses to describe is on a subject he himself characterises as "in little Esteem except among Women and the Vulgar."

This treatise is the province of the female world and the lower classes, the property of a girl-child, and a "grave elderly Gentlewoman". It is therefore other to the masculine, middle-class Gulliver, so no criticism of him can be imputed from it. In his pride, Gulliver is free to criticise what he reads, for although the text treats the "Weaknesses of Human kind", it is obvious to Gulliver this means 'humankind minus Gulliver'.

The feeling of 'innate otherness' Gulliver cultivates around the worlds he visits pervades his language, showing just how subjective is his apparent objectivity. The Brobdingnagians' language and writing style may be "clear, masculine, and smooth but not Florid; for they avoid nothing more than multiplying unnecessary Words, or using various Expressions." However, the reader is never allowed to experience this paragon of discourse, for we only see the contrast between what Gulliver 'admires' in their style, and his own writing. This illustrates Rodino's "slippage" between the reader's metacritical exploration of Gulliver's motives in describing Brobdingnagian discourse, and the metametacritical realisation of Swift's method in manipulating both Gulliver's language and his reader's response. The sentence describes writing in one style, while being written in a style that is its mirror image - if nothing else, Gulliver does tend to multiply words unnecessarily.

This ironic echo behind Gulliver's narrative voice alerts the reader to the absurd element in Gulliver's self-complacency. Although nowhere obvious in the text, this echo arises from the language as a whole, showing the implicit contrast, the ironic gap between Gulliver's self-confident subjectivity and any view of him from a perspective outside his own mind. The words of moral obloquy that permeate the passage: "diminutive, contemptible, and helpless", "unable to defend himself", and "degenerated", having no obvious target, attach themselves to Gulliver. Indeed, these expressions, especially "small abortive Birth", are characteristically used about Gulliver by the "large and robust" Brobdingnagians.

Read in this manner, the cumulative effect of the passage so far is to establish that Gulliver is speaking from a position of presumptive pride. To a large extent, criticism of Gulliver's Travels has characterised Swift's satire as an attack on a tradition of humans considering themselves to be purely rational beings, with no physical limits.(4) Pride is seen as the ultimate sin, for "Swift is concerned to expose [Gulliver's] failure in knowing, to satirise man's perennial desire to elevate himself above his fellow men, while refusing to include himself in his own pronouncements about human nature and society."(5) Having reduced Gulliver to the lowest of the low, despite his insistent claims for superiority, readers may be tempted to relax into a complacent smugness of their own. Swift, as always, forestalls this in the final sentence of the passage, which brings the reader full circle in his or her perceptions of Gulliver. "I believe upon a strict Enquiry, those Quarrels may be shewn as ill-grounded among us, as they are among that People." Gulliver's plausible, reasonable tone reminds us of his common brotherhood with faulty humanity, and therefore of ourselves. These myriad shadings of language constituting the text of Gulliver's Travels give Swift's satire its necessary and amazing flexibility.

William Eddy, in describing this effect said "In Gulliver every paragraph is essential. The reader is surprised by satire within satire, with the ingenious wit which turns the subject over and over, always revealing something new."(6) Gulliver is big or little, moral or immoral, subjective or objective, depending on the moment, and his environment. His very instability forces the reader to take a standpoint and defend it against Gulliver's vagaries. In the words of Swift to Thomas Sheridan, equally applicable to Gulliver and the reader, "How came you to claim an Exception from all Mankind?"(7) The reader, fully engaged in the struggle for concealed meaning, has no choice but to take an active role in interpretation. The results are entirely the reader's own responsibility, for Swift's genius in Gulliver's Travels lies in inciting this active response. In his artistry, Swift has created a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured crystals which have fascinated adults and children alike for two centuries. Every new reader, in voyaging with Gulliver, spins the glass slightly and looks through it from their own perspective. The depth to which the reader thereby becomes engaged in the work is evidence of Swift's great craftsmanship.


1. Rodino, R.H. ''Splendide Mendax': Authors, Characters, and Readers in Gulliver's Travels' in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 1991 Oct. 106:5 p.1057.
2. Uphaus, R.W. 'Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, and the Problematical Nature of Meaning' in Papers on Language and Literature 1974 10:3 p.275.
3. Rodino, R.H. Splendide Mendax op. cit. p.1063-4.
4. Walker, B.H. 'The Physical Limitations of Human Reasoning: Imagery of Debasement in Gulliver's Travels in Emporia State Research Studies 1985 33:3 p.18.
5. Cook, T. 'Dividing the swift mind: a reading of Gulliver's Travels in Critical Quarterly 1980 22:3 p.43.
6. Eddy, W.A. Gulliver's Travels: A Critical Study (Princeton UP 1923, reprint 1963) p.47.
7. Swift, J. 11-9-1725 in Williams, H. (ed) The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift v.3 p.94.


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Swift, J.
Gulliver's Travels
(Norton Critical Edition, 1970)

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Berman, David
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Billeskov Jansen, F.J
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Carnochan, W.B.
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Cook, Terry
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Eddy, William A.
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Fishelov, David
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Higgins, Ian
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Holly, Grant
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Salvaggio, Ruth
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Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1988 15:4 p.417-434

Smith, Frederick N.
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Papers on Language and Literature 1985 21:4 p.383-398

Starkman, Miriam K.
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Philological Quarterly 1981 60:1 p.41-52

Taylor Jr., Dick
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Todd, Dennis
'The Hairy Maid at the Harpsichord: Some Speculations on the Meaning of Gulliver's Travels'
Texas Studies in Literature and Language 1992 34:2 p.239-283

Uphaus, Robert W.
'Gulliver's Travels, A Modest Proposal, and the Problematical Nature of Meaning'
Papers on Language and Literature 1974 10:3 p.268-278

Walker, Becky Hayes
'The Physical Limitations of Human Reasoning: Imagery of Debasement in Gulliver's Travels'
Emporia State Research Studies 1985 33:3 p.16-35

Marker's comments.

83% - An excellent, well-written essay, demonstrating understanding of the text and good use of secondary readings. A joy to read!

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