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A tragic-comedy:

“Gulliver’s Travels” is undoubtedly a satire. It is a satire on English politics, English

politicians, and religious disputes in England of the time of Swift. More than that, it is a satire
on mankind in general. Satire, by its very definition, has a certain comic quality because it
exposes the follies, absurdities and faults of human beings in a humorous and witty manner.
But, “Gulliver’s Travels” is not just a comic book; its serious and somber message has a tragic
quality. There is certainly much comedy in the book, and we laugh a good deal, especially in
the first three parts of it, but it also puts us in a serious mood, and Part IV is surely the most
melancholy piece of writing conceivable. However, we cannot describe “Gulliver’s Travels” as
a wholly tragic work, though it would be quite appropriate to call it a tragic-comedy.

A Pessimistic Book

In a letter which Swift wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, he said that the purpose of
all his labour was “to vex the world rather than divert it.” Now, satire aims at making the
readers laugh at the follies and faults of human beings. Swift, on the contrary, declared that
his purpose was to vex the readers. More than that, he said that the whole building of his
book was erected on the foundation of misanthropy. Misanthropy is a serious matter, not
just a matter for laughter, because misanthropy means hatred of the world and of mankind.
Swift shows himself to be , on the whole, a hater of mankind and the world in this book; and
that is a depressing fact.

Sadness beneath the Comedy in Part I:

Gulliver’s account of his voyage to Lilliput and his stay in that country is certainly very
funny. The very idea that the inhabitants of that country are pigmies hardly six inches in
height is amusing. All the amusing acts in the Lilliput such as conflicts between the Big-
Endians and the Small-Endians; High Heels and Low Heels are very funny. But basically the
whole account is a sad one. We can not help reflecting that the life of the Lilliputians is by no
means a happy one. In the first place, we recognize the Lilliputians to be human beings
reduced to a small scale. The Lilliputians are we. Secondly, the Big-Endians and the Little-
Endians only represent religious conflicts which are continuing till today. The High-Heels and
the Low-Heels symbolize the two major political parties in England of that time, and similar
political parties exist today also, though under different names, and they exist in all
countries. Then continuing war between Lilliput and Blefuscu represents the continuing war
in those times between England and France, but wars have not ended even today. In fact,
bigger wars have taken place since then. Any war is tragic, and the description of the war
between Lilliput and Blefuscu, though comic on the surface, is tragic in its deeper import.

The Depressing Effect of Part II:

The same is true of the account of Gulliver’s voyage to Brobdingnag. Undoubtedly

there are several amusing episodes in this part, but there are several elements in this part of
the book which depress and sadden us. The sight of the huge woman’s breast and the
ugliness of the human body are so much depressing for Gulliver. Still more depressing are the
comments of of the Brobdingnagian King on hearing from Gulliver, the history of his country.
Gulliver himself contributes the tragic effect when he points out in this part of the book that
the whole race of mankind has been subjected to a disease which is that the nobles have
often fought for power, the people have often fought for liberty, and the rulers have often
struggled for absolute control of their countries.

Tragic Elements in Part III:

Part III of “Gulliver Travels” is on the whole a pure comedy. We have light-hearted
satire on Royal society and those theoretical philosophers and scientists who are blind to the
realities of life. But even in this part, there are also certain tragic elements. The people of
Laputa, for example, are so engrossed in their meditations that they have no time to make
love with their wives and they are unaware of what is going on around them. The story of the
woman who leaves her husband and goes down to Balnibarbi to live with an man is
melancholy in its implications no matter how much we may laugh at the comic side of the

A much more pathetic case is that of Struldbrugs, or the immortals that are in a most
miserable condition because death does not come to them. The portrayal of these people is
almost heart-breaking.

The saddening Portrayal of the Yahoos in Part IV:

The part IV of the book is wholly tragic. The satire in this part of the book is not comic
but corrosive, fierce and offensive. The portrayal of the Houyhnhnms is certainly uplifting,
but the portrayal of the Yahoos is extremely depressing and saddening. The Yahoos symbolize
the human beings: they are described as the most unteachable of the brutes. They are
cunning, beastly and lustful.

Gulliver’s Final Misanthropic Outlook on Life:

Gulliver’s final outlook upon life as expressed in the concluding two or three chapters
deepens our sense of tragedy. Gulliver returns home most reluctantly. His reunion with the
family, instead of pleasing him, has a most saddening effect on him. Having lived among the
noble Houyhnhnms, he finds it impossible to reconcile himself to the members of the human
race, and even to his wife and children. The very odour of human beings has a disgusting
effect on him. And he discovers one more characteristic of human being which aggravates his
hatred of human beings, and that is pride. Gulliver has become a thorough misanthrope.

A Depressing Book:

At a deeper level, “Gulliver Travels” is, indeed a tragic work. But it is not tragic in any
commendable sense. It does not elevate or inspire or uplift us as a tragic work should. It does
not bring about any catharsis of the undesirable feelings in us. It does not show human
beings as glorious. On the contrary, it shows them as fools and knaves. It offers us a gloomy
and depressing picture of mankind.