The Satirical Utopia in “Gulliver’s Travels”

From The Lecture Series: Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature

By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift employs many modes of humor. He evokes the laughter of incongruity in the first two books. He shows the foibles of European law and society from the perspective of the traveler abroad. And, in the end, he leaves us with the laughter of disruption.

An illustration of Gulliver and the Lilliputians.

With its use of journeys, detailed description of strange societies and people, and an openly unreliable narrator, Thomas More’s Utopia provided great inspiration to Gulliver’s Travels. (Image: Eugene Ivanov/Shutterstock)

In his essay, A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift suggests that the destitute Irish might raise funds by selling their children as food for the wealthy.

Swift suggests a number of different ways to prepare such a cannibalistic feast, fully lampooning the unfair treatment of the poor and also the utter lack of empathy in ideas of social engineering circulated in the day. Gulliver’s Travels isn’t quite that dark or angry, but it isn’t exactly a walk in the park either.

This is a transcript from the video series
Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Utopia in Gulliver’s World

Gulliver’s Travels is narrated by Lemuel Gulliver, a family man who loves the sea and visits four extremely strange lands. Like many satirical utopias, this book is hard to categorize, employing and often mocking conventions from travelogues, political philosophy, and even utopia.

Gulliver asks us to look out for the similarities with Thomas More’s Utopia in the preface. He bemoans the fact that some readers think the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos of his adventures are no more real than the Utopians of More.

Names matter in this book. And there’s some disagreement even about the name Gulliver. Are we supposed to look down at him from the start because his name is so close to gullible? Or, are we supposed to sympathize with him as he goes through fairly horrific adventures? Or, are we supposed to question our own gullible natures in paying attention to anything this obvious fabricator tells us?

Learn more about the definition and origin of utopia.

Gulliver in Lilliput and Brobdingnag

Engraving titled "Gulliver and the Lilliputians" by Jean Grandville.
Gulliver is a terrifying giant in Lilliput. (Image: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock)

In Lilliput and Brobdingnag, Gulliver meets creatures who are exactly like humans except for their size. The Lilliputians are only six inches tall, making him a terrifying giant.

The inhabitants of Brobdingnag, on the other hand, are 72 feet tall with appropriately sized surroundings. This makes Gulliver a little pet to be showcased at freak shows with his miniscule voice and his ability to live in the equivalent of a matchbox.

Some of the laughs are pretty silly. Gulliver is charged with treason in Lilliput when there’s a terrible fire in the queen’s quarters and he puts it out by urinating on it.

In Brobdingnag, on the other hand, he is traumatized when he’s placed astride a giant woman’s nipple. This is a bit creepy and leads to incongruous and uncomfortable laughter.

The Utopian World of Lilliput and Brobdingnag

Neither of these lands is particularly utopian, although they are better in many ways than England. Gulliver learns this when he finds himself at a loss to justify European customs and behaviors to the rulers of these new lands.

In Book 3, Gulliver visits the fantastic flying island of Laputa and surroundings. The author satirizes the everyday lives and customs of Europeans, focusing especially on the over-reliance on scientific teaching and the obsession with death. In Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver meets a necromancer, and in neighboring Luggnagg, he learns of the rare struldbrugs, or immortals.

Humor Turns Dark

After painting an enthusiastic portrait of the pleasures and productivities, Gulliver finds out that immortality is the worst of curses. The struldbrugs do not stay young and healthy and use their limitless time to become captains of industry, as Gulliver has imagined. They age normally, but are never afforded the sweet release of death.

The humor in Book 3 is dark. Here, the incongruity is less exaggerated, so there is perhaps a more complex movement between the laughter of superiority—look at Gulliver, with his wide-eyed optimism about immortality—to the laughter of community—the European society does have ridiculous beliefs, but we’re in this together.

Gulliver in the Land of the Houyhnhnms

It is not until Book 4 that we get the laughter of disruption. The land of Houyhnhnms is not meant to be pronounced by those with a human physiognomy, although this is an ability that Gulliver develops in his three plus years amongst the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos.

The Houyhnhnms, according to Gulliver, are creatures wonderful beyond compare. Etymologically, their name means horse, or perfection of nature. The Houyhnhnms are the most marvelous talking horses, living in the finest of societies, with friendship and benevolence, the two virtues universal to the race.

The fine Houyhnhnms are plagued by only one thing, and that is the Yahoos, humanoid creatures who lack language, dignity, any social graces. The Houyhnhnms initially imagine that Gulliver is a Yahoo, and living among these two species, he realizes that he—and all humans with their debased desires and uncontrollable foibles—has more in common with the Yahoos.

Learn more about the satire in Gulliver’s Travels.

The Unworthiness of Gulliver

A painting of Gulliver leaving the land of the Houyhnhnms.
Gulliver can’t live with the Houyhnhnms because he resembles the Yahoos. (Image: Sawrey Gilpin/Public domain)

The satire becomes especially explosive when the Houyhnhnms, trying to imagine what they might do to keep the Yahoo pests under control, recall a strange cruelty that Gulliver has shared with them regarding how humans treat horses: castrate most of the males before they reach adulthood.

That is where the book ends. Gulliver is forced to return to Europe, since the Houyhnhnms ultimately see him as unworthy of sharing their utopian community because of his resemblance to the Yahoos.

The Philosophical Pressure in Gulliver’s Travels

Swift satirizes two popular genres of his day: the travelogue and the utopia, which does nothing more than make the visitor—and perhaps the reader—miserable when he realizes that humans simply aren’t capable of attaining anything close to a benevolent social system.

Even as we laugh at Gulliver and his outlandish tale of talking horses, who are perhaps no more unlikely than More’s happy Utopians, we may feel the same philosophical pressure as when we laugh uncomfortably at Swift’s recipes for preparing Irish babies as sustenance for the wealthy.

Doesn’t the very act of writing utopia, even satirical utopia, suggest a kind of disruptive optimism? It can be argued that utopia, satirical utopia, and even dystopia, are all fundamentally underpinned by optimism.

Common Questions about the Satirical Utopia in Gulliver’s Travels

Q: Why do the Houyhnhnms send Gulliver back to Europe?

Gulliver is forced to return to Europe, as the Houyhnhnms see him as unworthy of sharing their utopian community because of his resemblance to the Yahoos.

Q: What is satirized in Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels?

In Book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels, the author satirizes the everyday lives and customs of Europeans.

Q: Does Swift satirize genres in Gulliver’s Travels?

Yes, Swift satirizes two popular genres of his day: the travelogue and the utopia in Gulliver’s Travels.

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