The Political Characterization in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travel” Critical Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jun 26th, 2019

Though often treated lightly as a mixture of social and political satire, the first two parts of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel, in fact, conceals an array of references to the political controversies that surrounded the British Empire at the time, as well as contained numerous hints about the possible solutions to the conflicts erupting in Great Britain.

However, claiming that certain key events occurring in the two parts bear a direct relation to the time period in question would be quite a stretch, as some of the links seem to be much looser than Downie would like to admit in his article “Political Characterization in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.”

While the novel is politicized heavily, and most of the humor that it has to offer comes from ridiculing the political strategy of Britain and the rest of the world’s most powerful states on the specified time slot, the references to some of the historical events that Downie suggests seem a little farfetched.

For example, the “’Country’ manifesto” (Downie 120) regarding the “abuses and anomalies Swift sought to mend” (Downie 120) does not seem quite legitimate, as Swift offers a lot of harsh criticism in both of his books, yet hardly ever provides his solution to the problems outlined: “I hid myself between two leaves of sorrel, and there discharged the necessities of nature” (Swift “Part II” 81).

Nevertheless, Downie’s argument seems quite convincing due to the obvious parallels between the actual events in Great Britain and the scenarios created by Swift in order to mock the ridiculous choices made by the British government.

Seeing that a range of elements of Swift’s satire are on-the-nose and very straightforward, it is quite easy to assume that the rest of the narration serves merely as a foil for the social and political satire to evolve, and that the rest of the parallels are concealed under the guise of a much more sophisticated metaphor.

For instance, the revolt that Swift depicts in his Travel to Lilliput is clearly linked to the infamous Ministerial Revolution.

As Downie explains, “Tis, them, is Case’s interpretation of the Ministerial Revolution of 17010, and fundamentally antisocial reasoning permits him to equate Gulliver’s actions on his release of bonds with the character of the tory political recovery” (Downie 110).

In addition, the allusion to the Treaty of Utrecht and the following controversy regarding the role of Oxford and Bolingbroke in the given event have obviously been tackled in the novel, and these events have been displayed in a rather interesting fashion by the author as well.

Therefore, the claim concerning the characterizations of some of the people playing major part in the history of Great Britain, such as the Earl of Nottingham (Downie 110) seems rather legitimate.

Nevertheless, the gap between the obvious humor of the war between the two bellicose nations and the events that swept Great Britain at the time, particularly, the impending doom that the “tidal wave of war weariness” (Downie 111) triggered among the British people, is still evident.

While it is clear that Swift was attempting at making a satire for the British Empire of the time and parodying some of the characters that gained recognition the time that the book was written, the novel is still much more than a cautionary tale of the lack of balance in being at the helm of a state.

For example, the fact that the lad character interacts with the Liliputs and, therefore, undergoes a major character development, much like some of the Liliputs that he befriends, cannot be viewed as the means of making the satire any stronger. Instead, these elements forward the story and set the scene for the future conflict to evolve.

One might argue that a more complex design of the lead character contributes to the perception of the political innuendoes in the book greatly; however, the evolution of character can be traced even in the scenes that do not have any political issues attached: “I then had the honour to be a nardac,” (Swift “Part I” 56).

While the renowned novel acclaimed worldwide as one of the best specimens of political satire clearly contains a range of references to the British conflicts of the time, including the ones that were obviously driven against the policy that Great Britain supported at the time, claiming that every single event occurring in the story corresponds to a specific event in the British history would not be quite right.

However, as far as the key concepts are concerned, the novel can be viewed as a revelation of some of the mistakes that were made in the course of Queen Anna’s reign, especially those involving the communication with the French government.

Still, one must admit that even the most sophisticated and well thought out satire would have fallen flat without fleshed out characters delivering it, and the focus on the hidden innuendoes in the book would have caused a major impediment to the evolution of relationships between the leads in the noel.

Works Cited

Downie, John A. “Political Characterization in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.” The Yearbook of English Studies 7.1 (1977), 108–120. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. “Part II. A Voyage to Brobdingnag.” In J. Swift Gulliver’s Travel. 1999. 70–137. Web.

Swift, Jonathan. “Part I. A Voyage to Lilliput.” In J. Swift Gulliver’s Travel. 1999. 1–69. Web.




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