Discontinuities in 'Gulliver's Travels'

Anthony J. Hassall


Ten days after the publication of Gulliver's Travels in November 1726 the author's friend John Gay wrote to Swift in Ireland: "From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the Cabinet-council to the Nursery." From the beginning the audience with which the book has been popular has been unusually diverse, and different parts of the work have evoked very different responses. Thackeray's celebrated denunciation of the Fourth Voyage as "horrible, shameful, unmanly, blasphemous . . . filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene," is hardly the description one expects to find of a book that was and is a children's classic. Children enjoy the story and keep it one-dimensional by skipping through the passages which are sometimes bowdlerized for them, but adult readers find themselves alternately fascinated by the narrative and distracted by the invective. Gulliver's Travels is both a marvellously realized account of fantastic adventures in imaginary lands, and a searching, brutally reductive account of the delusions, follies, and vices of men, and of the radical limitations of human nature. It is a strangely discontinuous book, and it is the effect of this on the reader that I want to explore.

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