Plausibility in Gulliver’s Travels

In Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift set out to write a parody of the popular travel genre with much more complex implications. He carefully and deliberately created elaborate kingdoms that satirized the state of 18th century Europe in order to offer an entertaining critique of politics and even culture. The key to his success in doing so, and why his novel endures, is because of the plausibility within the world of the novel. Even though the globe was still a large and mysterious place at the time when he wrote this (European colonialism and imperialism would not peak until after this novel was written) I find it unlikely that people believed it was real. However within the novel he offers so much consistent detail that the reader does not question the validity of the narrator. The plausibility of the Lilliputians creates a realistic parallel to the Europeans, allowing his fictional story to act as a successful commentary. If it had not been believable it would instead just be read as an absurd story and not necessarily something of cultural significance.

Swift accomplishes plausibility in two major ways. The initial way he does so is by establishing the background of the narrator. Much more so in the 1700s than now the credibility of a person was dependent on their background (family, wealth, education, etc.). So Swift writes an educated and relatively financially secure character. Gulliver details his background, how he “applied [himself] close to [his] studies” (2492) in his time at a college in Cambridge, later apprenticing under an “eminent surgeon in London” (2492). Next he would study abroad, begin his career as a surgeon, and read the “best” (2493) authors. So he is a credible character, but he is also humble. Gulliver is neither wealthy nor infallible, as parts of his career were not “very fortunate” (2493). He is not heroic but an average protagonist, and therefore relatable or at least sympathetic. He is already trustworthy before the narrative even begins.

The second way Swift makes his satire plausible is through the constant and consistent details given on his fictional islands. Gulliver paints a vivid picture of the Lilliputians. He describes their language, giving examples and explanations. One such example is with the word “Hurgo” (2495) which he explains means great lord. He also compares his proportions to that of the six inch Lilliputians (an example would be on page 2523 when he places the monarch of Blefescu and a chair in his coat pocket with no complaints) so we have a clear image of their size and differences. Specifics are even given on the proportions of their animals. At the beginning of chapter six he describes the “exact proportion” (2516) or at least gives comparison on the sizes of geese and horses, among others. Beyond physical descriptions of the inhabitants of this island the reader also receives summaries on certain aspects of their culture. Chapter six is again significant because it is where Gulliver details the education, social hierarchy, and customs of the Lilliputians. The explanation of the importance of “ingratitude” (2519) in their culture does more than just add relevant detail to the plot, it adds a dimension of reality to the Lilliputians and therefore a level of comparability.

To sum up in case you’re not in the mood for my essay-ish blog post: the main element of Gulliver’s Travels, the satire, relies on the plausibility and coherency of the kingdoms he invented. He accomplishes plausibility through a credible and realistic narrator, and the complex detail of the various islands. Without plausibility the novel would not have been a success.

About Athena G. Csuti

Third Year in English Honours with Creative Writing & History.
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One Response to Plausibility in Gulliver’s Travels

  1. bkmilne says:

    I agree whole heartedly with your reasoning behind why the book is plausible. It’s very important, especially back when the story was written, to have a believable narrator -who is portrayed as the writer of the novel- (as you mentioned as well in the original title), but also all the minute details ‘Gulliver’ writes throughout his voyages.
    I feel this book is plausible because it seems like he is recording what is happening, at the time it is happening. It doesn’t seem like he is recalling details -which gives person time to ‘lie’ or make things up, or embellish things more, if you will- but even in the instance when he discusses the size of the Lilliputians, or the contract agreement, those things seem written right down to the most insignificant detail, but that makes it all the more realistic.
    In the end, the plausibility of this story is important -as you mentioned- otherwise it would be taken as a hoax story, and it would be much harder to analyze and find the ‘morals’ within the story, instead it would just be comedic enjoyment.

    Good analysis. =) I enjoyed reading it and seeing similar thoughts to my own.

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