Plausibility in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

If I was to sit down and read Harry Potter, or the Lord of the Rings, I would not be surprised to find humans-like creatures about a twelfth of the size of a typical human climbing around on a character’s body, as in the realm of fantasy this does not seem suspicious or implausible. It is very easy to accept characters or action such as this in a world that is very different from our own. It is interesting then that in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, that the presence of a “human creature not six inches high” (2494) is not disarming in a world that – up until Gulliver’s arrival in the country of Lilliput – appeared very similar to our own.

Swift narrates the events of Gulliver’s life in such factual and reporter-style detail that we do not question their validity, we accept the narrative as being the truth. By noting that Gulliver received an education at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, as well as from the “eminent surgeon” (2492) Mr. Bates, Swift asserts that Gulliver is well educated, and that he is trustworthy. The great detail Swift describes each character in aids in the soundness of Gulliver’s past. Gulliver does not simply mention his wife but notes that his wife is “Mrs. Mary Burton” who was the second daughter of the hosier “Mr. Edmond Burton” who lived on “Newgate Street” (2493). Swift’s penchants for detail contributes to the reliability of Gulliver’s story.

In a piece of fantasy the reader accepts the impossibility of characters and actions because we accept that this is real in that world. In Swift’s writing, however, we accept the unlikelihood of the situation of Gulliver waking up on an island with his arms and legs “strongly fastened on each side to the ground” (2494) by six-inch tall humans, each carrying a “bow and arrow” (2494), because we trust Swift to be a reliable narrator. Because the reader does not question the authenticity of Gulliver’s story prior to his arrival in the country of Lilliput, due to the great detail and apparent factuality of Swift’s writing, Swift’s narrative seems very plausible.

Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012. 2487-633. Print.

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One Response to Plausibility in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I agree, Gulliver’s narration is believable because of the details. It is almost less of a story, and more of a scientific account. At the time of its publication, I imagine that many people found the first few chapters as a non-fictional account. However, the encounter with the Lilliputians is definitely a shock, and confirms the functionality of the story. Some of the things they do are absolutely ridiculous, like how their status can be elevated or lowered depending on high they can jump. Though the detail of Swift’s account never changes, the absurdity of the Lilliputians actions are not that believable.

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