Thursday, February 4, 2010

Gulliver's Travels: Society First

In reading about some of the historical background or incentive for writing this book, I came upon something I found really interesting. Apparently (if my sources are accurate) this book was written at least partially in response to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a popular book that was published about 7 years prior to Gulliver's Travels. It seems as though Swift sort of mimicked the whole shipwreck/adventure novel popularized by Defoe while at the same time attempting to refute some of the principal notions behind Defoe's work. Whereas Robinson Crusoe placed emphasis on individuality above and before society as a whole, Gulliver's Travels sought to reaffirm the idea that a functioning society is always prioritized over the individual. Swift saw the ideas presented in Defoe's work as threatening to successful society. That is why, upon encountering misfortune at sea and ending up alone, Gulliver found himself in well regulated and ordered societies, instead of on lonely and desolate islands.

To be sure, the book is meant to serve as a commentary (and in many ways a negative one) on the ruling class/lower class relationship in England at the time, however, these contemporary problems Swift had with his government do not imply that Swift's rejected government itself as an institution for regulating society as a whole.


  1. What I think the Author finding himself in ordered societies might also suggest is that the notion of British and/or European exceptionalism was inaccurate and that sophisticated societies could exist outside the realm of Europe.

  2. The two societies he encounters, however, are quite different in how they are ordered: Lilliput elects ministers by having them dance on a rope, while Brobdingnag is governed by a learned and practical king who refuses to learn about gunpowder. From this it seems the two societies satirize the British government in different ways: the first by parallel or allegory, the second by contrast or comparison.