The Plausibility of Gulliver’s Travels

First, I would just like to point this out to anyone who is unaware of its existence:

Allow me to save you all 95 minutes and just tell you that it’s Jack Black as a mail clerk who gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle and ends up in Lilliput. Hilarious (sorry, annoying) Jack Black antics ensue, everyone lives happily ever after, and I continue to use Netflix only for Breaking Bad and Community. Sound believable?

This brings me to Jonathan Swift’s narrative Gulliver’s Travels. Swift starts by making his story plausible with the title itself. He could have easily given the story a name that would have implied a fantasy adventure, but instead he titled it Gulliver’s Travels (or rather the original title of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) implying a historical or biographical context. Swift’s attention to detail in the introduction of the story also implies plausibility. Richard Sympson is the narrator that introduces Mr. Lemuel Gulliver as his “ancient and intimate friend” with “some relation between us by the mother’s side” (2491). The narrator goes on to explain the details of Gulliver’s life including his place of birth, Nottinghamshire, and the place from which his family came from. This information is all given before the beginning of Chapter One in the story when the narrator changes to Gulliver himself and he then explains “my father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire” (2492). So why is it necessary to repeat irrelevant information? What the reader doesn’t consciously realize, is that Richard Sympson is our “master” so to speak. He is the narrator that sets the story up and tells the reader exactly what to believe. Irrelevant information like Gulliver’s place of birth and where he lives is included and repeated to establish it as fact. Sympson is no different than the Chorus of a Shakespeare play that sets the stage. We are told as an audience/reader that, this is who the players are, this is what is happening, and this is how you’re supposed to feel about it.

When reading the beginning of Gulliver’s Travels, I was reminded of a book series that I used to read when I was a kid, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The way that the author of this series describes the events that take place, he establishes everything as fact; and it’s made even more plausible by the real author using a pen name which ends up being a key character in the story itself. I unfortunately don’t have a copy of the book that I can quote from, but the line in Gulliver’s Travels that set off that reminder for me was, “with the author’s permission, I communicated these papers, I now venture to send them into the world” (2492). Sorry if it sounds like I’m ranting to anyone who hasn’t read that book series, just curious if anyone else who has read it got the same vibe.

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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3 Responses to The Plausibility of Gulliver’s Travels

  1. Murtaza says:

    I like that you bring up A Series of Unfortunate Events in that there are a great deal of fictitious elements that are blended with reality there as well. I agree that by setting up the story with pretext from another person, followed by a journal-like first person voice from Gulliver it makes it easy for the reader to suspend disbelief. I think we can even take it a step further though. By establishing a realistic character, Swift can take other liberties as well, as long as whatever we would consider strange is also strange to Swift’s character (at least initially). I didn’t consider it before you mentioned it, but this is similar to Snicket’s series, but in a less hyperbolized manner (the book went through wildly outrageous scenarios). The effect however is the same: in both cases, whether we can relate to the character or not, we can sympathise with the characters and feel we would likely make very similar decisions in their situation. Further, this engages us as readers, who are likely to follow the character in their story. I know I read the whole Series of Unfortunate Events for this exact reason.

  2. teresastapor says:

    I really like how you have outlined all the different concepts that make Gulliver’s Travels seem plausible. The story is fairly outrageous and without those devices you have outlined, most readers would not have believed it. Is it just me, or is Gulliver’s profession a device to make Gulliver seem more plausible? Who is more trust worthy then a highly specialized doctor? The only thing that Jonathon Swift could have done is, like you have said, name the book about himself.

  3. Ali Bayne says:

    I think you were dead on in your idea about the necessity of revealing irrelevant information. Even though one might think that the author is simply wasting words and distracting from the plot, it is hard to ignore the picture being painted in our minds, involuntarily, of the main character. This allows us to truly identify with the character, an aspect of plausibility discussed in Friday’s class, and ‘put ourselves in his shoes’ so to speak. Just like Murtaza said above, since Gulliver is so ordinary and relatable, Swift is free to play with the implausibilities regarding his journeys. The result of this is that the story then remains connected to one’s sense of reason, and thus is ‘believable’ in a sense.

    Would you say that the plausibility of Gulliver’s Travels relates more to Lemony Snicket’s ‘character’ or the Beaudalaire children? Or is it just the made-up facts that the author includes?

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