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  • Dual Focalization in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels
  • Xuan Gong (bio)

Traditionally, first-person travel accounts offer the promise of visual 'truth' with a metaphorical equation of the 'I' and the 'eye,' which makes seeing a functional technique serving a moral purpose. A parody of eighteenth-century first-person travel fiction, Gulliver's Travels not only uses the vulnerability of Gulliver's eyes as a guiding metaphor of his intellectual and moral failure, but also emphasizes the framework of travel writing within which Swift grounds his thinking on seeing and its moral implications.1

Central to first-person travel accounts is the traveler's claim that 'I' saw this, and 'I' am telling you the truth. Such a claim suggests the temporal distance between the experiencing self and the narrating self, making the distinction between who saw and who is telling the starting point for this essay. Drawing on Gérard Genette's theory of focalization and William F. Edmiston's refinement of Genette's terms, the first part of the essay contends that Gulliver's Travels deviates from the norms of focalization in eighteenth-century first-person travel fiction by overplaying the experiencing self's role of an eyewitness and downplaying the narrating self's role of a governing consciousness. Our analysis of Swift's manipulation of the dual focalization in the second part of the essay displays that Gulliver's Travels features a gullible Gulliver-character whose viewpoint is always merging with or is even drowned out by other characters' views and a Houyhnhnm-like Gulliver-narrator who observes his experiencing [End Page 1] self indifferently, identifying reality with the ensemble of empirical facts. Parallel to Gulliver-narrator's observation of Gulliver-character runs the English traveler's observation of the Irish Other. As Eugene Hammond points out, Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels while he was dean at St. Patrick's in Dublin and as he "gradually adjusted his geographical perspective," becoming "less and less interested in internal English political issues and more and more interested in internal English–Irish relations" (164). Based on the affinity between Gulliver's Travels and the dean's sermons and tracts which directly address Ireland's colonial predicament, the third part of the essay reveals how the whole novel works as a parody of English colonial travel accounts of Ireland.2 Anticipating the modern doppelgänger, Gulliver-character and Gulliver-narrator convey Swift's warnings, respectively, to the Irish people and to the English ruler. For the former, the warning is that intellectual blindness will deprive them of liberty; for the latter, the warning is that the English government's willful neglect of the Irish people is indeed a great sin in the sight of God.

Swift's Parody of Eyewitnessing

To distinguish between who sees and who speaks, Genette coins the term focalization and distinguishes three types of focalization: zero, internal, and external. He further suggests that this triadic typology is applicable to first-person narration, with focalization through the narrator as the norm:

The only focalization that [the first-person narrator] has to respect is defined in connection with his present information as narrator and not in connection with his past information as hero. He can, if he wants, choose this second form of focalization (focalization through the hero), but he is not all required.


Seymour Chatman challenges Genette's view by arguing that first-person narrators can only recount rather than see, for they are outside the constructed story world (194). Most narrative theorists, however, take focalization as a function of discourse,3 agreeing that first-person narrators, with their limited perceptual powers, can look back on the past. For Edmiston, a more interesting question is whether Genette's criterion of external/internal [End Page 2] focalization can be applied to first-person narration. As we know, Genette defines the three types of focalization in terms of the narrator's access to the minds of characters, making the knowledge of the narrator the only parameter of focalization. In the case of first-person narration, this criterion causes some confusion: first-person narrators always know more than their experiencing selves, whereas external focalization in Genette's term...


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