The Significance of Language and Detail: A Close Reading of How Gulliver Came to be Shipwrecked on Lilliput

It is convenient that our class discussion last Friday was about how and why Swift makes Gulliver’s Travels plausible, because it is something I was thinking about when I first started reading the text. As a result, the part of the book that I have found most interesting, thus far, occurs right at the beginning of Part 1 when Gulliver describes how he came to be shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput. The description of the event is detailed enough that one can understand the situation perfectly, however Swift does not provide so many details that the passage would seem irrelevant or full of rambling, minute details.

Swift’s account, or rather Gulliver’s, pulled me into the story right away, as I found myself questioning whether or not the shipwreck had actually happened. It may be useful to point out that I am one of those people who really gets into a story; for example, I found it difficult to walk around campus while reading The Hunger Games, as I was convinced that everyone was trying to kill me. Likewise, this specific passage in Chapter 1 of Gulliver’s Travels had me right from the start.

Is it the writing style that makes it so believable? Personally, I really enjoy when Swift, or any author, refers to the reader directly, breaking the “fourth wall” of the text. At the beginning of the passage I have chosen, which can be found on page 2493, Swift states that “it would not be proper, for some reasons, to trouble the reader with the particulars of our adventures in those seas”, and he follows with a description which is perfectly balanced between detail and comprehensive material. When Swift says “by an observation” (2493), and “I cannot tell; but conclude they were all lost” (2494), it feels like we are reading a blog post written by Gulliver himself, throughout which he is not sure of the exact details, but writes about what is important and what will make sense to the reader. For myself, this sense of colloquial discourse lends itself to a story that is more believable than one that is written with a more serious, precise tone. Not that I am trying to downplay the importance of facts and validity, but this language allows for a deeper understanding, in which the reader can utilize what the author has written, and further embellish these with more personal details that have been derived from those given in the text.

Perhaps it is the type of detail provided in this passage that makes it more comprehensive. Is it important that Swift includes that it was “the fifth of November” (2493) when this took place? Is the number of people who had already died on the voyage a relevant detail? I do not see these details as the be-all end-all of the text, but they do make the passage seem more legitimate. Like I said before, it feels like a travel blog, in which the traveler writes about the big events, which make it exciting, and the smaller details, which make it more genuine.

I see this passage of the text as an important part of the story, as it introduces the reader to the type of language of all four parts of Gulliver’s Travels. The story is already being set up to seem real, through both the language that is used and the details that are provided. Without passages like this one, I believe it would be hard to establish a connection with Gulliver, and the story would not seem as believable.


Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012. 2493-94. Print.

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2 Responses to The Significance of Language and Detail: A Close Reading of How Gulliver Came to be Shipwrecked on Lilliput

  1. hayleydunmire says:

    Hi Stephanie, I really enjoyed your post and your outlook with the connection to detail and how it relates to the text. I found when reading Gulliver’s Travels the description was very intense and it almost seemed too realistic to seem plausible. What I mean by this is that the measurements and fine details that Swift had put into his text seemed to backfire on me personally for how I could relate to it and see it as something that actually occurred. I do think similarly as you do that detail can make something seem genuine but I think in some aspects Swift went overboard with his description making me question the validity.
    However I think people can relate to it so much because of Gulliver. He is seen as a trustworthy person that people can easily put their faith into. Perhaps this is more important to a text rather than the fine details of description. If you are able to relate and connect with a character I think it is a lot easier to emerse yourself within a text and connect with it and see it from their perspective thus making it real.

    • stephaniestahl says:

      Yes, I definitely agree that connecting to Gulliver is important. And I definitely understand that too much detail can make a text seem alien to us. Although Swift tends to have some passages that are overly detailed, I find most to be fairly easy to understand. I do not enjoy reading texts that are packed with detail; I find it repetitive and often irrelevant. However, I do believe that the majority of Swift’s passages are a fine balance between necessary detail and relevant detail.

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