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Historical Context in Gulliver's Travels

Travel Journal: As a subset of travel literature, the travel journal focuses on the author’s personal experiences and changes as a consequence of travel. First arising in Greece and medieval China, one of the most famous collections of travel diaries was written by Marco Polo as he explored Asia. Swift takes advantage of the form—which provides the opportunity to critique a number of alien cultures—to satirize British and European society, looking at aspects of its culture through the lens of an outside observer.

The British Whigs and Tories: In modern terms, 18th-century Whigs leaned liberal while Tories tended to be conservative. In Swift’s time, Tories supported the national Anglican church and the divine right of kings to rule—which also opposed increased power for British parliament. Whigs, on the other hand, sought greater parliamentary power. George I, king when Swift was writing Gulliver’s Travels, was a Whig supporter who filled Parliament with his chosen political party. As a Tory supporter, Swift took inspiration from the Tory-Whig conflict for the high- vs. low-heeled shoe conflict of the Lilliputians.

Historical Context Examples in Gulliver's Travels:


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"together with the minute descriptions of the management of the ship in storms, in the style of sailors: likewise the account of longitudes and latitudes..."   (Introduction)

This is Swift’s way of poking fun at popular travel narratives of the time, which were often lengthy in their descriptions of arguably “minute” details. It also attempts to assure the reader that there is a rational explanation for all events that occur in the tale. The publisher suggests that if an explanation has been omitted, it is simply a way to prevent the reader’s boredom—rather than an indication of the story’s fabrication.

"Mr. Lemuel Gulliver..."   (Introduction)

Though many of Jonathan Swift’s books, including Gulliver’s Travels, are now printed under his real name, he often initially published books under pseudonyms. Gulliver’s Travels was originally published in 1726 under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver, which is the name of the protagonist of the novel. The name may be an allusion to King Lemuel, a king who is featured in Proverbs 31 of the Bible.

"inuendo..."   (A Letter)

An “innuendo” is an allusive remark or an insinuation. During Swift’s time, authors could be punished if their work engaged with beliefs that contradicted the ideals or objectives of those in power. So, writers would include innuendos pushing back against elitist beliefs rather than outright stating opinions that might yield backlash. The genre of satire is an example of this: it pokes fun at and critiques the political or social power but via characters or settings that merely resemble these powers, thereby evading penalty (though not always successfully.)

" A Voyage round the World..."   (A Letter)

This is a reference to William Dampier, a British explorer and seaman who documented his travels and became one of the most popular authors in travel literature during his time. The book that Swift mentions here, A New Voyage Around the World, has influenced many writers, most notably, Swift and Daniel Defoe.

"Signet Royal..."   (Part I - Chapter I)

A “signet royal” was a personal stamp that could be used as a seal or signature. Since many people during this time were illiterate, this was a way of avoiding signing documents by hand.

"Leyden..."   (Part I - Chapter I)

The University of Leyden was well-known for its focus on the study of medicine.

"which, having been polluted some years before by an unnatural murder..."   (Part I - Chapter I)

Swift alludes to the 1170 murder of the English church leader, Thomas Becket, in Canterbury Cathedral. This is one of the first indications that Gulliver's Travels will contain criticism of British society and government.

"and I spoke to them in as many languages as I had..."   (Part I - Chapter II)

Swift satirizes King George's chief counselors' ignorance.  Due to the their position in government, these men should be able to speak several foreign languages.

"and I returned answers, but neither of us could understand a syllable..."   (Part I - Chapter II)

Even though George I spent years in England as monarch, he supposedly didn't bother to learn English.

"His features are strong and masculine, with an Austrian lip and arched nose..."   (Part I - Chapter II)

Gulliver is describing the current king of England, George I, originally from the area of Hanover in what is now Germany. King George I and his court become targets for Swift's satire throughout Gulliver's stay in Lilliput.

"if one of the king's cushions..."   (Part I - Chapter III)

Swift is referring to King George's mistress, who helped Robert Walpole, a Whig leader, return to power after his first political downfall.

"Whoever performs his part with most agility and holds out the longest in leaping and creeping is rewarded with the blue-colored silk, the red is given to the next, and the green to the third, which they all wear girt twice round about the middle, ..."   (Part I - Chapter III)

In another criticism of the court's corruption, Swift satirizes the granting of honors by the King to men who earn honors by doing nothing meaningful for society. The silk banners represent the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Bath, and the Order of the Thistle in the court of King George I.

"the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the Emperor of Blefuscu's court..."   (Part I - Chapter IV)

Many leading Catholics fled to France, a largely Catholic country, and continued to conspire against Protestant Great Britain.

"the King's levee..."   (Part II - Chapter VI)

A “levee” is a morning reception that is held by a person of distinction upon rising from bed. In Britain and Ireland, the term may also refer to an afternoon reception, in which only men attend. In this context, Gulliver seems to be referring to the former, as he mentions watching the king’s barber help him get ready for the day.

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