Gulliver's travels

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The plot
Gulliver’s Travels recounts the story of Lemuel Gulliver, a practical-minded Englishman trained as a surgeon who takes to the seas when his business fails. In a deadpan first-person narrative that rarely shows any signs of self-reflection or deep emotional response, Gulliver narrates the adventures that befall him on these travels.
Swift’s masterpiece was published in London in 1726, though most of it was certainly written in the years 1721-25.
Gulliver’s adventure in Lilliput begins when he wakes after his shipwreck to find himself bound by innumerable tiny threads and addressed by tiny captors who are in awe of him but fiercely protective of their kingdom. He is presented to the emperor, who is entertained by Gulliver, just as Gulliver is flattered by the attention of royalty. Eventually Gulliver becomes a national resource, used by the army in its war against the people of Blefuscu. Gulliver gradually learns their language, their customs and institutions, and gains the favour of the king. He goes to Blefuscu, where he is able to repair a boat he finds and set sail for England.
Gulliver undertakes his next sea voyage, which takes him to a land of giants called Brobdingnag. Here, a farmer discovers him and initially treats him as little more than an animal. The farmer eventually sells Gulliver to the queen. Social life is easy for Gulliver after his discovery by the court, but not particularly enjoyable. Gulliver is often repulsed by the physicality of the Brobdingnagians, whose ordinary flaws are many times magnified by their huge size. He is generally startled by the ignorance of the people here, even the king knows nothing about politics. More unsettling findings in Brobdingnag come in the form of various animals of the realm that endanger his life. Even Brobdingnagian insects leave slimy trails on his food that make eating difficult. On a trip to the frontier, accompanying the royal couple, Gulliver leaves Brobdingnag when his cage is plucked up by an eagle and dropped into the sea.
Next, Gulliver sets sail again and, after an attack by pirates, ends up in Laputa, where a floating island inhabited by theoreticians and academics oppresses the land below, called Balnibarbi. The scientific research undertaken in Laputa and in Balnibarbi seems totally inane and impractical, and its residents too appear wholly out of touch with reality. The latter of which are senile immortals who prove that age does not bring wisdom, he is able to sail to Japan and from there back to England.
Finally, on his fourth journey, Gulliver sets out as captain of a ship, but after the mutiny of his crew and a long confinement in his cabin, he arrives in an unknown land. This land is populated by Houyhnhnms, rational-thinking horses who rule, and by Yahoos, brutish humanlike creatures who serve the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver sets about learning their language, and when he can speak he narrates his voyages to them and explains the constitution of England. He is treated with great courtesy and kindness by the horses and is enlightened by his many conversations with them and by his exposure to their noble culture. He wants to stay with the Houyhnhnms, but his bared body reveals to the horses that he is very much like a Yahoo, and he is banished. Gulliver is grief-stricken but agrees to leave. He fashions a canoe and makes his way to a nearby island. Gulliver then concludes his narrative with a claim that the lands he has visited belong by rights to England, as her colonies, even though he questions the whole idea of colonialism.
The sources
Swift looked to the extensive literature of travel, real and imaginary. There are recognizable elements of political allegory through allusions to people and events in the England of Anne I and George I.
Throughout the 17th century the imaginary voyage had been used by French writers as a vehicle for their theories. The traveller usually discovered some happy society where men lived a simple, uncorrupted life, following natural instinct and the innate light of reason. From these Utopias European man was seen as the victim of civilization. Gulliver’s experiences are different because the people among whom he is cast are in no sense children of nature. They all live in highly organized societies and are governed by institutions. If in the end he takes an aversion to everything at home, it is because Europe is losing its civilization and falling into a state of corruption, expressed in the novel by the constant opposition between rationality and animality. In addition, there are more general themes of moral satire: man’s pettiness and greed (Book 1), his pride (Book 2), the representation of pure reason (Book 4), the absurdities and evils of the various professions (Book 3).

The character of Gulliver
Although Gulliver is a bold adventurer who visits a multitude of strange lands, it is difficult to regard him as truly heroic. Even well before his slide into misanthropy at the end of the book, he simply does not show the stuff of which grand heroes are made. He is not cowardly, on the contrary, he undergoes the unnerving experiences of nearly being devoured by a giant rat, taken captive by pirates, shipwrecked on faraway shores, sexually assaulted by an eleven-year-old girl, and shot in the face with poison arrows. Additionally, the isolation from humanity that he endures for sixteen years must be hard to bear, though Gulliver rarely talks about such matters. Yet despite the courage Gulliver shows throughout his voyages, his character lacks basic greatness. This impression could be due to the fact that he rarely shows his feelings, reveals his soul, or experiences great passions of any sort.
What seems most lacking in Gulliver is not courage or feelings, but drive. One modern critic has described Gulliver as possessing the smallest will in all of Western literature: he is simply devoid of a sense of mission, a goal that would make his wandering into a quest: Gulliver’s goal on his sea voyage is uncertain. He says that he needs to make some money after the failure of his business, but he rarely mentions finances throughout the work and indeed almost never even mentions home. He has no awareness of any greatness in what he is doing or what he is working toward. In short, he has no aspirations. When he leaves home on his travels for the first time, he gives no impression that he regards himself as undertaking a great endeavour or embarking on a thrilling new challenge.
We may also note Gulliver’s lack of ingenuity and savvy. Gulliver seems too dull for any battles of wit and too unimaginative to think up tricks, and thus he ends up being passive in most of the situations in which he finds himself. He is held captive several times throughout his voyages, but he is never once released through his own stratagems, relying instead on chance factors for his liberation.
Gulliver is gullible, as his name suggests. Travelling to such different countries and returning to England in between each voyage, he seems poised to make some great anthropological speculations about cultural differences around the world, about how societies are similar despite their variations or different despite their similarities. But, frustratingly, Gulliver gives us nothing of the sort. He provides us only with literal facts and narrative events, never with any generalizing or philosophising. He is a self-hating, self-proclaimed Yahoo at the end, announcing his misanthropy quite loudly, but even this attitude is difficult to accept as the moral of the story. Gulliver is not a figure with whom we identify but, rather, part of the array of personalities and behaviours about which we must make judgments.
Levels of interpretation
Swift’s masterpiece can be read on different levels: as a tale for children, for Gulliver’s amusing and absurd adventures, especially in the first two books; as a political allegory of Swift’s time; as a parody of voyage literature or as a misanthropy and a reflection on the aberrations of human reason.
The critical ones have formulated, subsequently, different levels of interpretations.
The most important interpretation among Swift’s contemporaries and in 19th century was that Swift’s main satiric point was to ridicule the Europeans’ pretensions to rationality. many reputed this wrong vision and they admitted that Swift had a serious purpose and that Gulliver was his spokesman.
A second interpretation claimed that Swift was mad, mentally unbalanced, and therefore the reader does not need to consider the ending of the book seriously.
In 20th century, criticism established that his dislike of the Yahoos and his conduct are a sort of warning for us. This approach maintains the claim that Swift was a clever writer, in control of his literary medium.