In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift has chosen Gulliver, a man who is neither a conqueror nor a politician, as the story's
hero. In doing so, Swift transforms the typical leading mythic role into something less commercial, less romantic, and far
more historically credible. The result of this choice is a hero who represents an author and individual in a struggle to
form an honest relationship with history, while avoiding the golden cloak that dramatically clothes the average leading man
Swift begins this endeavor by introducing his own creation, Gulliver, who he then places into a real history. Gulliver
is given a date of birth in 1660 (on the historical calendar readers know and recognize) and is placed in a context that can
be studied critically against a backdrop of other historical information. To contemporary readers this may not seem terribly
out of the ordinary, but at the time of its publication, Jonathan Swift was one of the few authors to avoid using a mythic
timeline to create his or her epic story. This is important for understanding the specific people and events in history that
Swift is seeking to critique, and to showcase Swift's intentional jab at history as a distorted tool of those in power (and
therefore not something to be trusted blindly).
In the third book, Gulliver visits Glubbdubdrib, the island of magicians. There, he meets with the governor, and finds
that he has somehow employed servants who appear and disappear like spirits. The convenience of their appearance and disappearance
at the whim of their master is immediately symbolic of the use of history as a theme in the whole story- for history, too,
is portrayed as something used selectively for the benefit of the user. This encounter in the story also provides Jonathan
Swift the opportunity to bring various historical figures into the satirical spotlight. In doing so, he can project his own
opinion of these figures onto their historical image in a safe and amusing way, much like Dante Alighieri uses the allegory
tactic to comment on certain historical events and figures in his own Divine Comedy.
Swift begins by examining Alexander the Great, who is summoned forth with the wave of the governor’s finger.
"My first inclination was to be entertained," Gulliver narrates, "with scenes of pomp and magnificence. (III-7)"
Gulliver's request to see Alexander the Great at the head of his triumphant army shows a certain respect and admiration that
anyone would have for such a historical figure famous for his majesty and powerful military. His desire to be entertained
by such an image certainly suggests that this image is not only awe-inspiring, but also pleasant and recreational. Imagine
Gulliver's surprise and disappointment when this iconic classical figure "[assures him] upon his honour" that he
was not, in fact, killed by poison as history and legend claim, "but died of a bad fever by excessive drinking (III-7)"-an
end much less romantic and far more deplorable than that portrayed in the common understanding of Alexander's life.
After meeting with Alexander the Great, Gulliver then asks to see the Carthaginian general Hannibal, as well as Caesar,
Pompey, and Brutus of Rome. All of these figures, or "characters," hold a certain romantic, epic quality in their
biographies, which provide for the generally heroic and magnificent "history" of Rome. Upon speaking to them, he
finds that many of the facts he had learned had been slanted for the sake of drama. While Gulliver expected to see additional
"heroes and demigods" of his imagination, he was instead served "a knot of pedlars, pick-pockets, highwaymen,
and bullies. (III-7)" At this point, he seems to ponder his na´ve experience with historical "truth". This
moment of struggle for Gulliver seems to speak from Swift's criticism of the validity of history in general, and serves as
a very specific seeding point for the satirical tone in the rest of the story's plot.
It is important to note that the movements of the character Gulliver to and from his home land of England coincide with
the true movements of the author during his lifetime. By placing his main character in the direct route of history, Swift
is in a much better position to comment on the major political, military, and social developments of Europe as they happen
during Gulliver's time away from England.
For example, Gulliver returns to medical practice in London in 1688 after serving as ship surgeon on The Swallow. This
recurring position of ship surgeon that Gulliver takes is, in itself, characteristic of his role as a non-commercial hero
at odds with a romantic world. On the basic ship of conquest in Imperialism, a surgeon would have been considered like a
servant- one with a job to do that, though heroic in principle, was not a fame-worthy plight. It is not these men who are
written into the history books and told of in epic poems from the classical Greek and Roman traditions. The same is also
true for the basic ship of Gulliver's time- it was the conqueror and the adventurer that were revered for the lands taken
and the treasures discovered. In this, lives ended were certainly more tale-worthy than lives saved. A reader of history
is not necessarily lead to the immediate discovery that the role of the ship's surgeon is just as vital to the voyage as the
slaying, stabbing, hurrah-ing conqueror. Still, this is the logical conclusion one must come to when viewing history without
the bias of the dramatic and the commercial. Surely, a surgeon must do his fair share of stabbing in a typical day! It is
also worthwhile to note that the date of Gulliver's first return from his bout as a ship's surgeon is the same year that Swift,
an antisocial non-politician, moved to London to escape overwhelming political unrest in Ireland, where his position in society
certainly did not grant him the privilege of being recognized.
The first "foreign land" that Swift acknowledges in Gulliver's Travels is the land mass housing the countries
of Lilliput and Blefuscu. Lilliput is a land where everyone is very tiny, and their concerns and ambitions very petty and
miniscule. Still, these Lilliputians are morally sound, religious, and honest, as the English people of Swift's time would
have claimed to be. There is yet another division of these people- the "High-Heels" (representing the English Tories)
and the "Low-Heels" (representing the English Whigs). Blefuscu then represents France, allowing Swift to show the
real current relationship between these two nations. The war between Lilliput and Blefusu is said to have been caused by a
difference of opinion about the "correct" way to crack an egg- an obviously trivial dispute. While the war between
Lilliput and Blefuscu can easily be symbolizing the war between the Anglican and the Catholic churches in England, the egg
certainly represents Christianity or Christian belief. The "Big-Endians" are a common depiction of the Catholics,
and the "Small-Endians" represent the Anglicans.
By bringing this particular dispute into the spotlight, Swift shows that there can be several different ways of interpreting
religious texts (the egg). However, this portion of the story can also apply as a general metaphor to emphasize how great
conflicts in history have risen from trivial and ridiculous things. Yet, they are somehow revered as important competitive
events in man's existence and considered worthy of admiration.
In the next land, Gulliver encounters a race larger than himself- the opposite experience to that in his last adventure.
The King of this land is also curious about Gulliver and asks him to tell him everything about English society, warfare, justice,
and its financial system. By having the King ask detailed questions, Swift reveals the problems of the British Empire and
criticizes the choice solutions and governing systems in England. The king of Brobdingnag is especially appalled by Gulliver's
offer to show him how to make gun powder- the concept of which inspires him to consider mankind the most pathetic race of
creatures ever placed on the earth:
(He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting "it
was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice,
faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce. (II-6))
This view of Britain is especially interesting when compared to the much more idyllic England described in much of the
historic fiction of Swift's time.
These attempts by Swift to criticize his own nation of residence in these fundamental ways is an obvious attempt to embrace
an unbiased honesty within the relationship of history and literature. Gulliver, in many ways, represents his maker on a
true-to-life journey through a real place and time. By balancing so much reality with a fictional story intended to entertain
and inspire, Swift has created an outlook on history that encourages us to find the joy that exists naturally in reality-