Gulliver, Gulliveriana, and the Problem of Swiftian Satire

Article excerpt

Readers have wrangled over the "meaning" of Gulliver's Travels since it was first published in 1726. No critical consensus has ever been reached even on some very fundamental issues of interpretation. What can be done to extricate us from what appears to be a critical impasse? Many particulars of Swift's satire seem to be pretty well understood and agreed on, such as the attack on Walpole and the parody of travel literature. What remains contested, even after almost a century of serious modern criticism, are the larger issues of the overall object of the satire and what it tells us about Swift's values and his view of the world.

As a critical experiment, I propose getting a fresh take on these issues by looking at some exemplars of "Gulliveriana." The appearance of the Travels was followed by a spate of imitations and continuations, in part attempts to capitalize on its popularity and in part serious appropriations of Swiftian satire. Eighteenth-century satirists used the Travels in a variety of ways, and modern writers continue to use Swift as a satiric model. These works are usually more derivative than dazzling, but--so I will argue--they are not without interest for our understanding of the original. Attempts to replicate Swift's techniques are especially useful in reconstructing the ways in which his methods have been understood by readers. What sort of satire did these respondents think they were emulating, and what do the discrepancies between original and attempted duplications tell us about how that original has been--or should be--understood? Reading Swift alongside his imitators can demonstrate what is fundamental to his satire--including its difficulty. Parallels between imaginative imitations and standard scholarly approaches, moreover, suggest that imitators and critics share some assumptions; studying the efforts of imitators to replicate Swift's satire can help us understand critics' problems in explaining it.


Gulliver's Travels was an immediate sensation and remains a satiric exemplar. In the massive, seven-volume edition of eighteenth-century Gulliveriana, Jeanne K. Welcher and George E. Bush, Jr. acknowledge over sixty significant responses to Gulliver's Travels that endeavor "to reproduce something of its style, intent, and design." (1) Though Gulliver is not at the center of a literary sensation in the twentieth-and twenty-first centuries as he was in the eighteenth, Swift's voyager and other features from the Travels continue to appear in satiric or quasi-satiric works. Although these appropriations vary in the extent to which they use Swift's satire, comparisons between them and the Travels almost always demonstrate the profound oddity and difficulty of the original.

Some writers have been content to borrow only the best known features or language from the Travels. The Two Lilliputian Odes (1727), for example, are only slightly connected to the Travels;, they "parody Lilliputian diminutiveness by using trisyllabic lines," as Welcher and Bush suggest, (2) but otherwise have no connection to Swift's technique or themes. Other examples of this sort include The Lilliputian Widow (1729), The Pleasures and Felicity of Marriage, Display 'd in Ten Books, published under the nom de plume Lemuel Gulliver (1745), and Dreams in Lilliput (1790). (3) These and other works similarly exploit the popularity of all things Gulliverian, and though they are often fun and clever in their own right, most have very little to do with, or to tell us about, the original.

Such is the case, too, with those imitators who have borrowed Swift's most general objects for their own particular ends. Many of these writers allude to Swift in order to invigorate satiric attacks on those follies that Swift too undertook to expose. Writing under the pseudonym Doctor Bantley, for instance, the author of Critical Remarks on Capt. Gulliver's Travels (1735) uses Swift to make his own attack on pedantry in general and Richard Bentley (a prominent enemy of Swift and Pope) in particular. …