Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-Utopia? Gulliver's Travels and the Utopian Mode of Discourse

By Houston, Chloe | Utopian Studies, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-Utopia? Gulliver's Travels and the Utopian Mode of Discourse


Houston, Chloe, Utopian Studies


Should his tall tales of marvellous voyages, newly discovered peoples, and fantastic societies be insufficient to call Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and utopian writings in general, to his reader's mind, "Lemuel Gulliver" refers to Utopia directly in a letter to his cousin printed with the second edition (1735) of his Travels into Several Remote Nations of the Worm (familiarly know as Gulliver's Travels):

   If the Censure of the Yahoos could any Way
   affect me, I should have great Reason to
   complain, that some of them are so bold as to
   think my Book of Travels ameer Fiction out
   of mine own Brain, and have gone so far as to
   drop Hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos
   have no more Existence than the Inhabitants of
   Utopia. (Swift 30)

The joke here is obviously on the naive reader, and underlines that the primary feature shared by the Houyhnhnms, Yahoos, and Utopians is their fictionality. If it is to be inferred from this feature that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos are similar to More's Utopians in any other way, then the comparison does little to help the reader (naive or otherwise) learn more about Swift's imagined peoples. More's Utopians, like the text which described them, are "shrouded in ambiguity," which nearly five hundred years of interpretation have yet to dispel (Manuel and Manuel 5). The reason for this is of course that ambiguity is integral to More's text, as recent criticism has recognised. (1) So, Swift's likening of his own invented people to those of Thomas More is more than a tongue-in-cheek aside; it serves to remind us that ambiguity and irony have always been a feature of the utopian mode of discourse.

The use of journeys, strange new societies and peoples, and a potentially mendacious narrator have made Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels an obvious subject for those interested in the development of the utopian mode of discourse in the eighteenth century. (2) Several modern interpretations of the text recognise its utopian nature or even understand it as consisting of a series Utopian Studies 18.3 (2007): 425-442 [C] Society for Utopian Studies 2007 of utopias. (3) Others have looked in detail at the relationship between Gulliver's Travels and Utopia, as the most obvious benchmark of utopianism during this period, to show that More's text is to some extent a model for Swift's. Such endeavours are predicated on an understanding that utopia, its features and its history, provides an important context for understanding Gulliver's fantastical journeys and his reporting of them. Brian Vickers, who has given a detailed reading of the relationship between the two texts by focusing on their satiric function, argues that, despite important differences--and in particular the divergent use of satire which involves Swift's satiric method of comparison becoming "almost an inversion of More's"--these two portrayals of other worlds share significant common ground (241). In Vickers' reading, Utopia, in its political and ethical attack on contemporary society through the juxtaposition of an imaginary equivalent, emerges as a source and model for Gulliver's Travels. (4) Even if Utopia's status as model is established, this relationship does not, of course, mean that Swift's novel is itself a utopia, or even utopian. Given the frequent critical arguments to which this text has been subjected, it is hardly surprising that there is no consensus on this issue. Those who reject its utopian nature may emphasise the wide range of genres with which Gulliver's Travels engages, or see it as "anti-utopian in outlook" (Donnelly 115). (5) Others, however, recognise a kind of fellowship between Swift's book and Utopia which rests on their shared utopianism, or mutual discovery of "the moral and spiritual reality of utopia in our everyday lives" (Traugott 145). (6) It soon becomes evident from the secondary literature on the utopianism of Gulliver's Travels that a uniform idea of what it means for a text to be "utopian" is lacking.

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