Saying the Thing Which is Not

Gulliver is correct in predicting that when he shares his experiences with his fellow humans they “would believe that I said the thing which was not,” and that they would think he had “invented the story out of [his] own head” (2598), as we see in Don Pedro’s reaction to Gulliver’s tale on page 2627. This issue of truth and falsehood works on several levels. Firstly, that Gulliver’s experiences are so ridiculous that they are unlikely to be taken seriously. This ridiculousness is an effect of the satire which is present throughout Gulliver’s Travels. Swift reverses and exaggerates the characteristics of Man and Beast in order to show the errors and pettiness of his own society. There is also a reference to truth and the ignorance of the Houyhnhnms to lies, which is a mark of decency but also shows their naivety. The Houyhnhnms are a simple race that has no ambitions or wild emotions such as humans do. They are very reasonable and have no need for lies. This aversion to falsehood is imprinted on Gulliver, who repeats often that he has “not been so studious of ornament as of truth” (2629). Truth is a crucial element with many layers in this story. It allows Swift to present these satirical Travels under the impression of reality, which makes them more powerful. Swift uses detail and phrases which place the Travels within a recent time period and constantly remind the reader of their supposed truth. For example, he compares his methods of relation with other travel books, and explains why it is necessary to relate certain details by explaining “it was necessary to mention this matter, lest the world should think it impossible…” (2594). Swift is pulling a tricky manoeuvre, acknowledging that while the story may seem unbelievable it is not, though Gulliver and his adventures are in fact a fiction intended to satirize human nature and society. Swift is himself saying the thing which is not, though he does it in order to show truth, as all fiction does.


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

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2 Responses to Saying the Thing Which is Not

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I like how you point out that Swift is writing a fictional story, or lying, in order to reveal truths about society. I think overall, this is what fiction aims to do. It reveals aspects of the world that the reader may not have considered before and gives perspective to a deeper level of thinking to our lives.

    I’m wondering if you agree with Gulliver’s new perspective by the end of the tale. Not that you are going to scorn humanity for the rest of your life, but so you think some of Gulliver’s new observations are correct, or over exaggerated?

  2. dagny says:

    Sorry I’m so late in replying to this!
    I think Gulliver’s observations are correct, but of course they are also incredibly exaggerated. Exaggeration is a trademark device of Swift’s, after all. But perhaps they carry more truth because they are exaggerated? I’m reminded of ‘A Modest Proposal’ here, another of Swift’s remarkable satires.

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