Social satire in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
I. Life and work
2.1. The Enlightenment
2.2. Literature of the Enlightenment
2.3. Political context
3.1 Plot Overview
This paper takes a look at a book enjoyed by generations of readers, a multi-sided book which is still relevant to today’s society.
The topic under discussion is: “Social satire in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels”. Swift’s masterpiece is a sophisticated satire on human nature, often criticized for its apparent misanthropy. Each of the four books has a different theme, but they are all meant to deflate human pride. Some of the critics consider this unique work to be a satiric reflection on the shortcomings of Enlightenment thought.
The author’s early years had a strong impact on his whole life. This is why the first section deals with Swift’s background and career.
Swift’s life was closely connected to politics and church. His religious and his political preoccupations have their roots in his personal history and in the history of his time. He wrote Gulliver’s Travels, his greatest achievement, at the height of the Enlightenment. The author’s work can be fully understood only if placed in the cultural, social and political context of the time. This is what the second section does in the three subchapters it contains.
The third section contains a plot overview of Gulliver’s Travels while the fourth section aims at studying the particular aspects of social and political life, the actual events in British society at that time which are being satirized in the book.
The fifth section draws conclusions on the above mentioned issues and the importance of Swift’s work in British and world literature. At the same time it attempts to decide whether Swift was a ferocious misanthropist or his work proves his deep concern in understanding human nature and explaining human behavior.
I. Life and work
Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667, in Dublin, of Protestant Anglo-Irish parents. He was an Irish author, clergyman, political pamphleteer and satirist, a major figure in literature and politics in both Ireland and England as he spent part of his adult life in England. He returned to Ireland in his mid-40s and became an advocate for the independence of Ireland.
His father had died a few months before Jonathan was born. Left without a steady income, his mother had to accept aid from relatives. She struggled to provide her son with the best upbringing possible, so she gave him over to Godwin Swift, her late husband’s brother, who sent young Jonathan to Kilkenny Grammar School (1674–1682), the best school in Ireland at the time. Later he was sent to Trinity College and obtained a degree only by “special grace”.
Jonathan was an unhappy young man and did not excel in his studies. He hated academic scholasticism and pedantry. He detested the curriculum, reading only what appealed to his own nature. The fact that he had never known his father and he had rarely seen his mother contributed to the resentment he later expressed towards his relatives and authority figures.
In 1689 King James entered Ireland after being dethroned in England. All members of Trinity were given permission by the college authorities to withdraw from school on grounds of security. Swift then moved to England, first to stay with his mother, who was living in Leicester, later on at Sir William Temple’s house in Moor Park.
Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat and member of the Whig party, who was also a distant relative to Jonathan, gave him the position of private secretary, largely on account of the relationship. Swift soon became acquainted with many politically influential figures of the day in Temple’s household near London. Later on he was bestowed a great deal of responsibility by Temple, who was impressed by the young man’s abilities. Jonathan spent ten years in Moor Park as a private secretary, reading and studying widely.
It was during his stay at Moor Park that the twenty-two year old Swift met the young daughter of Temple’s housekeeper, Esther Johnson. When they first met she was 15 years Swift’s junior. He became her friend, and mentor. When she was a child, he acted as her tutor.
When she was of age, some critics say they would become lovers for the rest of their lives. There is much controversy over Swift’s relationship with Esther, but anyway, it is known that their friendship was profound and affectionate, as evidenced in Swift’s series of letter-diaries which he entitled Journal to Stella.
When Swift returned to his home in Ireland, in the autumn of 1701, Stella came over to Ireland to reside in his neighbourhood together with her companion, Rebecca Dingley, to continue that bond of untiring and unselfish affection which was to link the name of Stella for ever with that of Swift, in a close and mysterious tie.
It was rumored that they married in 1716, but there is no reliable evidence to support this story. In speaking of Stella, Swift always expressed friendship, attachment and devotion, not romantic love.
His Journal to Stella contains the letters he wrote to her as well as very touching poems. Apparently Swift kept a lock of her hair in his possession at all times. Other critics maintain that the two had a close but ambiguous relationship for all Esther’s life.
Nevertheless, Swift also had a romantic relationship with Esther Vanhomrigh (Vanessa), who inspired his long poem, “Cadenus and Vanessa.” In 1723 Swift broke off the relationship and she never recovered form his rejection.
Anyway, Stella seems to have been the only shiny star in his tormented life. He rushed to her bedside and was overcome by grief when, on January, 28, 1728, Esther Johnson died. In Gulliver’s Travels Stella was embodied by Glumdalclitch, the daughter of the giant farmer in Brobdingnag, one of the few characters whom the author and the main hero admired.
As Sir William Temple was a scholar and former Parliament member, a powerful and influential figure, he assisted Swift in gaining entrance to Oxford University, where he earned his M.A. in 1692. Under his influence, he also began to write, first short essays and then a manuscript for a book.
In 1694, he took religious orders in the Church of Ireland and then spent a year as a country parson. Busy with clerical duties, Swift was also immersed in Dublin society and politics. He became an outspoken critic of many social aspects.
He wrote several religious and political pamphlets on the side of the Whigs. In 1709 he went to London to campaign for the Irish church but was unsuccessful. The Whigs rejected his suggestion concerning the removal of taxation on the income of the Irish clergy.
Under the influence of his mentor, Sir Temple, he started his political career as a supporter of the Whigs, who opposed absolute rule, but by 1709 the Whig closeness to the Dissenters (i.e. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers) disturbed him greatly. He switched to the Tories, the conservative supporters of Charles II, who endorsed a strong monarchy as a counterbalance to the power of Parliament as he didn’t want the Crown to be entirely dependent upon Parliament.
The restoration of the Catholic monarchy was a real threat during Swift’s lifetime and he was afraid that it would lead to loss of liberties and privileges that the Protestants had been given. He was highly interested in politics mainly because it could affect the strength of the Anglican Church of which he was a member
The Tories invited Swift to support their cause as editor of the Examiner when they came to power in 1710, which opened an advancement perspective in Swift’s career. When the Tory ministry replaced the Whigs, the Tory Prime Minister promised Swift that Queen Anne would offer him a bishopric in England for his endeavors and he became the chief Tory pamphleteer in the struggle between the two parties. According to F. P. Locke, Swift is “Whiggish by nurture but Tory by nature.^^1^^”
However, he refused to accept the Tory belief in the divine right of kings, and continued to believe that political power in England derived from the people, and manifested itself in a carefully maintained alliance between King and Parliament. That was, in his opinion, the only system which protected individual liberties and avoided tyranny. As the Whigs feared his satire and the Tories feared the loss of his support, Swift became one of the most important figures in London. As publicist of the Tories, Swift attacked the Whigs, especially Walpole, in many pamphlets.
The Queen finally rewarded him for his efforts but it was with the deanery of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ireland, an important Irish post, but not a position which would allow him to remain in England. It was not what he wanted, but it was the best he could get because, after his merciless satire on religion in The Tale of a Tub, any ecclesiastical position in England became impossible to get.
Swift had still been hoping to be assigned a position in the Church of England, but in 1714, when Queen Anne died and George I came to the throne, the Tory government fell and out of power and he fell out of favor despite his fame. The Whigs reestablished their power and the best thing for Swift to do under the circumstances was to leave England, as his position became uncertain. He understood advancement in his career was no longer possible and he returned to Ireland in great disappointment.
There are many contradictions in Swift’s life and in his writing. The Walpole administration in London suspected Swift of having connections with the Jacobites and Catholic Irish, although he was an Anglo-Irish, Protestant and pro-English. That is why he had to burn many of his documents and letters before leaving.
Probably Swift finally realized that in England he would have always been an outsider who did not benefit personally, whether the Tories or the Whigs were in power.
The preferment in England that he had hoped for never materialized, not even when the Tories were in power. Swift came to understand that he actually belonged to Ireland and decided to play a greater role in Irish politics. After making this decision he committed himself to the Irish cause and his writing after 1720 increasingly focused on Ireland.
He spent nearly all the rest of his life in Ireland, where he devoted himself to exposing English unfair treatment of the Irish.
As part of this effort, he took action to support the Irish against English attempts to weaken their economy and political power. His satire turned against the exploitation of his fellow-countrymen, whom he tried to stir out of their passivity.
The political pamphlets which he wrote while living in a strange kind of exile in his native Ireland made him extremely popular in a country where actually he didn’t want to live. In satires like “A Modest Proposal” he defended the interests of his church and his country against what he had denounced as English colonialism. He was loved, respected and appreciated by a people the vast majority of whom, since they were Roman Catholics, he would have denied religious and political freedom.
His writings on the unfair treatment of Ireland, his preaching and his generous contributions to charity made him very popular in Dublin. He became a national hero ever since his lifetime and was perceived as having been a nationalist leader.
In 1742, Swift suffered from a stroke and lost the ability to speak. He died in 1745, and he left all his property to found St. Patrick’s Asylum for the mentally ill. He was buried beside his beloved Stella in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and was mourned by everybody.
Swift wrote throughout his life on matters relating to the Anglican Church, religion, worship, and discipline. He lived in a kingdom the overwhelming majority of whose inhabitants were believing, observing Christians. In England the greater part were baptized and practicing members of the Anglican Church, the church established by law (the case in Ireland was both demographically and politically rather different). And Swift, for virtually all his adult life, was an ordained member of the Anglican priesthood, engaged in its daily duties and its high political interests and for three decades, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Actually, works of theology and biblical commentary were, in the seventeenth century and through most of the eighteenth century, the class of writings best represented in Britain.
Swift defended the causes he believed in (mainly literary, religious and political) by making use of biting irony. He wrote satires on the political and religious corruption surrounding him. Swift could not remain silent at the sight of what he perceived as any kind of indignity or injustice. His pen proved to be his most efficient weapon.
He wrote essays, pamphlets, tracts, poems and remarkable sermons. Here are some of the best known of his works:
A Tale of a Tub (1696-97) is a satire against the Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. Three brothers share an inheritance (Christianity) but they all betray their father’s will that the clothes bequeathed to them (the Bible) should not be altered. The author supports the position of the Anglican Church against its critics on the left and on the right.
The Battle of the Books, published 1704, is his contribution to the quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns. Swift argues for the supremacy of the classics against modern thought and literature. The dispute is transformed into a burlesque battle between an ill-tempered spider (the Moderns) and a bee (the Ancients) that got entangled in its web in the King’s Library.
A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720) made Swift a national hero.
The Drapers Letters (1724) is an exposé of a patent to introduce a new copper coin that would have devalued Ireland’s currency. It is also a model of political harangue which prevented the politicians’ plan of debasing the Irish coinage and strengthened Swift’s image as a national hero of the Irish. The Drapers Letters kept alive the memory of an episode of Irish politics.
A Modest Proposal, published in 1729, is a satire in which the author ironically makes absurd suggestions with apparent sympathy. He suggests that the Irish problems of famine and overpopulation could be easily solved by having the babies of poor Irish people sold as delicacies to feed the rich English landlords. The general tone of this absurd plan is businesslike; it sounds like the author believes he has a credible solution to Ireland’s problems. The author denounces the weakness of the Irish people and the tyranny of English oppression. The satire forces the reader to look at the world from an intolerably uncomfortable perspective as Swift is trying to mend the world by vexing the people in power into realization. His purpose is to reveal the horror of the Irish situation in a way that will make people question their own morals.
Gulliver’s Travels or, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver, published after Swift’s return to Ireland (1726), is his masterpiece. It is a culmination of his active years in politics, laden with symbolism and rife with socio-political commentary, a timeless illustration of the pettiness of politics and people. The book was in instant success which entered the popular culture iconography.
2.1. The Enlightenment
As previously mentioned, Swift published Gulliver’s Travels at the height of the Enlightenment. That was a cultural movement in the 17th and the 18th centuries whose purpose was to reform society by using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and to promote knowledge through scientific methods.
Belief in human progress through education was a fundamental concept of the Age of Reason. The writers and philosophers of this age thought that human beings were virtuous by nature and they were designed to act rationally. Vice was due to ignorance only, so they started a public movement for enlightening people.
Enlightenment thinkers thought society would become perfect if people were free to use their reason, as reason was the key to truth. According to them, human happiness required freedom from restrains imposed by the state or the church. As a result, they were hostile towards religion, denied the absolute authority of monarchs and emphasized natural human rights. The formula for perpetual human happiness was letting people act freely in accordance with their nature, which would do away with all the evils of society. Individual freedom permitted the operation of natural laws and social harmony would be achieved.
The amount of new knowledge that emerged in fields like mathematics, astronomy, physics, politics, economics, philosophy, and medicine was staggering. Intellectual salons popped up, philosophical discussions were held. The very concept of freedom of expression had to come from somewhere, and it had firm roots in the Enlightenment.
More goods were being produced for less money, people were traveling more, increasingly literate population read books and passed them around feverishly. People were able to get more in return for their labor, so their lives improved materially. Book production and newspaper distribution increased. The first modern lending libraries began to dot the provincial capitals of Europe, citizens had frank conversations about their nation’s policies and the course of world events.
Many of the new ideas were political in nature. Freedom and democracy were considered by many intellectuals as being the fundamental rights of all people and not gifts bestowed upon them by beneficent monarchs or popes.
Egalitarianism was the promise of fair treatment for all people, regardless of background, a promise much spoken about. Citizens began to see themselves on the same level as their leaders, subject to the same shortcomings and subject to criticism if so deserved. The idea that common people had rights became widespread in England and among people in England’s American colonies.
Discussion and debate were considered necessary as people thought there was a collective, national intelligence which could solve all the world’s serious problems and the combined rationality of the people would elect the best possible representatives. Britain’s bourgeoisie debated religion and politics in literary societies and academies, as well as in coffeehouses, clubs and salons.
Science and engineering developed rapidly, which helped much to establish the famous British Empire. The Empire originated in the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the 16th-17th centuries and became the largest in history. The expansion of the empire received a tremendous impetus when India, Australia and a great part of North America became British dominions. This expansion and its further development were facilitated by the Industrial Revolution and other social, economic and cultural changes during the Enlightenment era.
Never had England had such great prestige in Europe. The success of its armies and its prudent revolution were inspiring other nations to respectfully study England’s institutions and ideas.
Empirical data started to eliminate people's superstitious notions of how the world functioned by explaining phenomena such as lightning, eclipses, disease, etc. Research and science replaced Church and God as new authorities- a step away from the belief. Society valued truth, ethical behavior and the acquisition of knowledge as worthwhile pursuits.
Philosophers tried to discover the universally valid principles governing humanity, nature, and society and considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. As the Enlightenment introduced new paradigms of morality, philosophers also attacked spiritual and scientific authority, censorship, economic and social restraints.
To Enlightenment thinkers what was interesting was only what could be understood, explained, and proved. The only reliable scientific method was objective observation which was supposed to lead to verifiable conclusions and to spur developments in astronomy, philosophy, medicine, physiology, transportation, chemistry, and ethics.
Still, Enlightenment thinkers did not necessarily share the same views. Many intellectuals, like John Locke, favored the constitutional monarchy. But England still had its republicans and many people were dissatisfied with the liberal so-called Glorious Revolution.
Thomas Hobbes was a pessimistic English political philosopher who argued that man in his natural state is selfish and savage and therefore a single absolute ruler is the best form of government.
John Locke was the political philosopher of the Whig Party, the most optimistic Enlightenment philosopher who argued for man’s essentially good nature and advocated representative government as an ideal form of government. Locke showed that man, as a rational being, must respect natural law, and he maintained that property is a natural right which derived from labor. His purpose was to oppose what he called the natural right to the divine right of the Stuart dynasty. John Locke, was to become the master of all European philosophers.
Social life also changed a lot and developed in a new direction. The typical Englishman had lived much by himself in earlier times; his home was his castle, and in it he developed his intense individualism; but in the first half of the eighteenth century about three thousand public coffeehouses and private clubs appeared in London and many others all over England.
Customers purchased a cup of coffee and admission for the price of a penny. The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which one could engage in serious conversation. The coffeehouse became the place which housed the community forum where great thinkers of the age met and where citizens discussed the news of the day, matters of mutual concern, debated their needs. Political groups frequently used English coffeehouses as meeting places.
The influence of this social life on literature was inevitable. London became a great center for the arts and fashion. Many writers frequented the coffeehouses, discussed politics, science, philosophy, fashion and many of the matters discussed there became subjects of literature.
But there were also pubs and alehouses. People in Britain drank and fought duels. With drinking, violence started spreading and it was even more dangerous since there was no police and the army was reduced to eight thousand people for the entire Britain, following the Utrecht treaty.
Another vice in fashion, which was present in all clubs and also in female circles, was gambling. Moralists worried about the rise in promiscuity and a decline in family values. Drinking, gambling and love intrigues were reasons for conflicts which often ended in duels. People were fighting everywhere, in ballrooms, coffeehouses, even in theatre corridors. The habit of killing a man just for one word disappeared only by the end of the century.
2.2. Literature of the Enlightenment
Augustan literature covers the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and George II. It begins in the first half of the 18th century and ends with the deaths of Pope and Swift (1744 and 1745, respectively). This literary epoch had certain distinctive features: the development of the novel, an explosion in satire, an evolution toward poetry of personal exploration. Still, it was an age of prose rather than of poetry, and in this respect it differs from all preceding ages of English literature.
Literature of the Enlightenment showed great interest in scientific progress and the new world. Monthly magazines were full of articles about new discoveries and inventions. The readers were entertained by travelling narratives, journals, thrilling descriptions of unexplored and distant places with fantastic creatures and people. They didn’t care if the writers would often take a professional liberty to freshen up factual texts with fictional elements and fantasies.
The term “Augustan” most commonly refers particularly to the literature of the early 18th century which is explicitly political in ways that few others are. Moreover, political writings in all genres were exceptionally bold. Writers were frequently politically active and they dealt specifically with the crimes and vices of their world. Satire was the genre that attracted the most energetic and voluminous writing and it was frequently specific critique of specific actions, policies and people.
Consequently, readers of 18th-century English literature need to know and to understand the history of the period more than readers of literature belonging to other periods, because the authors were writing for an informed audience and only secondarily for posterity. Therefore, history and literature are linked in a way rarely seen at other times.
This overtly political literature reflected the worldview of the Enlightenment, which was characterized by a rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues while promoting a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.
Many prominent writers of the Enlightenment were greatly interested in the political agenda. An effective method to criticize what they saw as immoral or uncivil practice was the political satire, of which Jonathan Swift was the master.
Swift was a profound skeptic both about the present and the past. Modern world was to him a madness of vanity and lies while history was a record of vanity and other lies. His prose style is clear, unmannered and direct. He believed that Christian values were essential and they had to be loud and assertive. Swift often referred to the Enlightenment as “the Age of Reason” ironically and went after man’s capacity (or incapacity) for critical thinking.
Swift was one of the main contributors to the English literature of the Enlightenment and his monumental work is a prominent example of how the writers of the era endeavoured to enlighten people.
As the eighteenth century came to an end, the calls for social reform and a utopian, egalitarian society quieted down. People were tired of the bloodshed in France and a variety of other upheavals which demonstrated that Enlightenment principles were not practical.
2.3. Political context
Charles II died in 1685 and his brother James II (a Roman Catholic) mounted the throne. Although he had promised to maintain the political and religious status quo and to protect the Church of England, he started reintroducing Roman Catholicism which resulted in the threat of “popery”. It became clear that the crown would pass to his male hair, a Roman Catholic, rather than to the king’s Anglican siblings, thereby raising the possibility of an English Catholic Dynasty. Two factions appeared in Parliament: the Tories (royalists) and the Whigs (liberals).
In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Whigs deposed James II, helped by some of the Tories, who had initially supported the king. They invited his daughter Mary with her husband William, the Protestant Prince of Orange, to become monarch. William of Orange, proclaimed himself the defender of English freedoms and landed in England with troops while James II fled to France.
However, for the next 100 years England would feel constant threat from France, threat of an invasion that would restore the Stuarts, and thus Roman Catholic rule. In 1715, during the reign of George I and in 1745 under the rule of George II, there were two Jacobites’ rebellions supported by France. However, in 1745 the Jacobites were defeated, effectively ending the conflict forever.
After Mary’s death in 1694, William continued as sole monarch until he died in 1702. He was succeeded by Anne who ascended the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702. In 1707, under the Act of Union, the kingdoms of England and Scotland, were united as a single sovereign state, the Kingdom of Great Britain. Some institutions, however, such as law or church of each of them remained separate.
While Swift was writing Gulliver’s Travels in the 1720s, England was undergoing deep political change.
Despite seventeen pregnancies, Anne died in 1714 without surviving children, thus being the last monarch of the House of Stuart. She was succeeded by her cousin George I of the House of Hanover, who was Anne’s closest living Protestant relative. He was not interested in the affairs of his kingdom and he was not popular. He did not even learn English. George I brought the Whigs back to power. Sir Robert Walpole, First Lord of the Treasury, who became the first English Prime Minister, was his favourite. Walpole was corrupt, but he was a great politician in the meantime.
George I had gained his throne with the assistance of the Whig party. As a result of their dominant position, the Whig ministers started to oppress members of the opposition Tory party. Swift had been a Tory since 1710.
During George’s reign, the powers of the monarchy diminished and Britain began a transition to the modern system of cabinet government led by a prime minister. Towards the end of his reign, actual power was held by Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first de facto prime minister. George died on a trip to his native Hanover, where he was buried.
To sum up, the 18th century England was characterized by many political and religious conflicts, such as the Tories vs. the Whigs, Catholics vs. Protestants, the war between England and Ireland and a simultaneous war between England and France, controversy over the ruling of Ireland.
The Whigs origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule. The Whigs were the standing enemies of the Stuart kings and pretenders, who were Roman Catholics and played a central role in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
The most striking political feature of the eighteenth century England was the rise of constitutional and party government. The liberal Whigs were determined to safeguard popular liberty. The conservative Tories would leave as much authority as possible in the royal hands. There was a third party of zealots on the extreme of Torysm, called the Jacobites, who struggled to bring the Stuarts back to the throne and to this aim they frequently organized plots and rebellions.
Power shifted easily from one party to the other because only a few votes were necessary to overturn a Tory or a Whig cabinet and London was flooded with pamphlets to influence such votes.
Writers with a talent for argument or satire were hired by party leaders, who knew that the press had become a mighty power, to serve either the Whigs or the Tories. So the new politician replaced the old nobleman as a patron of letters.
3.1 Plot Overview
Swift invented Gulliver and his adventures in fantastic countries in order to safely satirize political conditions in the England of the early 18th century. The author ignored exterior veracity and cultivated inner truthfulness, combined the real with the fantastic in a work which became unitary only by virtue of his genius. The author’s permanent insistence over the precision of the measurements (expressed numerically) reconciles the reader with the fantasy.
During his time in England Jonathan Swift was a prominent member the Martinus Scriblerus Club, which was founded in 1712 and included famous writers such as Alexander Pope, Henry St. John , John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell. The Scriblerus Club was devoted to satirizing the faults of modern society, science and scholarship. An author by the name of Martinus Scriblerus was invented and a fictional autobiography of him was written. It was published in 1741 as The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus.
The aim of the Club members was to satirize the vices of society and the absurdities of science. Each member of the group was given a specific topic, and Swift was to satirize books describing voyages to foreign lands, which were numerous and very popular at that time. We might say that, somehow, this masterpiece developed out of an assignment. After ten years since the beginning of the Scriblerus project, Swift completed and published Gulliver’s Travels, a satiric work of art which become a classic book for children.
So, the book Gulliver’s Travels began as a group effort and not as the project of a single person. Although it was initially written as a Scriblerian endeavor of ridiculing contemporary science, the narratives of the journeys were composed entirely by Swift. It is known from Swift’s correspondence that he began the composition of the book at the end of 1720 and finished it the autumn of 1725.
Gulliver’s Travels, which is regarded as his masterpiece, was published in 1726 anonymously. A great part of it was written at Woodbrook House in County Laois. It was an instant success, with a total of three printings that year and another one in early 1727, when French, German, and Dutch translations appeared and pirated copies were printed in Ireland.
At a first glance, the story looks like an ordinary children’s book. Actually, it is a multi-layered work in which every society encountered by Gulliver is a metaphorical image of the English society in the eighteenth century. The author chose to use allegory rather than to directly confront his contemporaries. He displays a charming humoristic approach which took his critics by surprise and consolidated his place in the history of world literature.
The book, which is known as one of the most controversial of Swift’s satires, was originally published under the title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World with no author’s name under it. The story is told in Gulliver’s own perspective. The protagonist, Lemuel Gulliver, embarks on several voyages throughout the four books. Each time he is shipwrecked or cast up on strange lands due to hazards. The action in the novel covers a period from 1699 to 1715.
Each chapter of the book is briefly advertised. Gulliver begins his story using typical patterns of the travel narratives of that time. He gives the reader much background information, such as his birthplace, schooling and his profession. The reader learns that Gulliver has a very ordinary life in the beginning. He is an average middle-class man, a practical-minded Englishman who has to work to support himself, an ordinary person whom the reader can relate to. In a first-person narrative which rarely, if ever, shows signs of self-reflection or emotional response, Gulliver tells the reader about the adventures he had been through.
The story begins with the protagonist describing his childhood and the event which made him want to pursue a career as a seaman. He tells the reader he is the third child of five siblings and he went to a Puritan college when he turned fourteen. After that he became the apprentice of a surgeon in London. During his apprenticeship he also studied navigation and mathematics in preparation for future sea voyages. Afterwards he studied medicine because he considered it “useful in long voyages”
Gulliver marries Mary Burton and begins his work as a surgeon, but when his business falls apart he embarks on trips to the sea for six years, during which he serves as a surgeon on two ships and travels to East and West Indies. Much of his time is spent observing other nations and learning their languages.
His troubles begin in 1699 when he sets sail on a trip which quickly takes a dangerous course. There are violent storms, the food is bad and the crew get weak, with twelve sailors dying. Gulliver and six of the ship members get into a boat and row until they are flipped over by a sudden flurry. Gulliver manages to swim until, almost exhausted, he comes across an island.
Book I describes his voyage to Lilliput where his is taken as a giant prisoner by the six-inch-high natives. He is dubbed “the Man-Mountain” and brings himself into the good favours of the arrogant and vain Lilliputians by capturing the invading enemy fleet of the neighboring Blefuscu, whom the Lilliputians hate for doctrinal differences concerning the proper way to crack eggs.
At first, the emperor of Lilliput is entertained by Gulliver and Gulliver is flattered by the attention of royalty. He quickly falls into dislike when he puts out the fire which threatened the empress’s palace by urinating on it. He soon learns that several court members plot to charge him with treason and he is forced to escape from the island. Gulliver eventually is picked up by a merchant ship and taken home where he makes money by showing people the Lilliputian-sized livestock which he has carried home in his pockets.
Book II. After staying in England with his wife and family for two months, Gulliver undertakes his next sea voyage, which takes him to Brobdingnag, a place inhabited by giants. At first he is treated more like a little animal which is kept for amusement. Even though a nine year old girl named Glumdalclitch takes very good care of him, due to his tiny size he is constantly exposed to indignities, embarrassment and dangers such as being attacked by giant rats or getting caught in a baby’s mouth. Small physical imperfections of the giants’, such as large pores, are highly visible to him and he finds this very disturbing. He manages to return home by being accidentally picked up by an eagle and then dropped in the sea.
Book III. Gulliver’s third voyage is to the flying island of Laputa, which is a mysterious land inhabited by scientists and magicians engaged in abstract theorizing, who conduct ill-advised experiments, based on flawed calculations. Laputa’s distracted inhabitants are in constant danger of accidents because they are too preoccupied with deep speculations. The scientists he finds here seem totally insane and impractical as they are engaged in absurd studies such as reverting human excrements to original food, or extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers. They appear to be wholly out of touch with reality. Gulliver also visits the Academy of Lagado which is actually a metaphor for England’s Royal Society.
In Glubbdubdrib, another place which Gulliver visits, it is possible to summon the dead and to meet such figures as Aristotle and Julius Caesar. He also travels to Luggnagg, where he encounters the immortal Struldbrugs, who are condemned to live out their eternal existence trapped in feeble and decrepit bodies. They are senile immortals who prove that age does not necessarily bring wisdom. Then he goes to Japan and from there back to England.
Book IV. Gulliver sets out on his fourth journey as captain of a ship, but after the mutiny of his crew and a long confinement in his cabin, he arrives in an unknown land. He meets the virtuous and rational horses from the Utopian land of the Houyhnhnms. They treat him with courtesy and kindness and he is delighted and enlightened by exposure to their noble culture.
The island is inhabited by a second race called the Yahoos, looking very much like people. They are repulsive, vicious, physically disgusting, feral and brutish humanlike creatures who serve the Houyhnhnms. At first Gulliver pretends not to recognize them. He is reluctant to consider himself one of their own, but in the end he is forced to accept the Yahoos as human beings.
He finds happiness with the Houyhnhnms, but his naked body reveals to the horses that he is very much like a Yahoo. Being considered just a more advanced Yahoo, Gulliver is eventually rejected by the Houyhnhnms who gently insist that Gulliver should return to live among his own kind. Grief-stricken, he agrees to leave. Upon returning to England he no longer finds himself able to tolerate the society of his fellow people and he cannot adjust to everyday life because all people everywhere remind him of the Yahoos.
The ironic depth of the book and its sober air of reality make simplistic explanations impossible. The author uses the different races and societies encountered by Gulliver in his travels to satirize the many flaws and vices that human beings are inclined to. Even though he questions the whole idea of colonialism, Gulliver considers that the lands he had visited should rightly belong to England, as its colonies.
The Liliputians with their warrior-like personalities, always engaged in trivial disputes and the mad, impractical intellectuals and pedants from Book III are seen as imbalanced beings, lacking common sense and decency.
The Houyhnhms are the embodiment of reason and virtuous simplicity. At first Gulliver proudly identifies himself with them, but his subsequent contempt for his fellow human beings shows that he has become imbalanced as well, which seems to demonstrate that humans are simply incapable of such virtuous rationality.
Throughout his journeys, Gulliver’s inability to fit in is partly a matter of size, of being different, of being from elsewhere. He is the only giant in Lilliput, he is the only little man in Brobdingnag. The years spent with the Houyhnhnms, whom he considers better in every way than humanity, make him an outsider, a different person in England too, disgusted with everybody around, his own wife and children included.
The word satire derives from the Latin satira, meaning “medley.” A satire holds prevailing vices and follies up to ridicule; it employs humour and wit to criticize human institutions or humanity itself, in order that they might be improved. Common targets of satire are: types of people, individuals, social groups, institutions and human nature.
A form of literature which rose out of necessity, satire uses irony, wit and sarcasm in order to bring about a change in society, to reform human institutions and human behaviour. As any criticism of the government during the 18th century would have brought punishment, writers turned to satire in order to voice their opinions pointing out errors, falsehoods, foibles, or failings.
One can easily notice that satire plays a central role in all Swift’s writings. You can hardly find any work by him which does not contain any ironic observations, either explicit or hidden. The author’s “obsession” with this device is explicable. He was fully aware that you cannot overtly criticize those who are in power if you want to keep your position in society and to stay alive. However, Swift’s ingenuity allows him to refer to current problems of his time and state his point of view, although sometimes that point of view was very radical and not politically correct. He knew that satire protected him from direct accusations and from the possibility to end up in jail.
According to Swift, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason so few are offended by it”. That is, you don’t understand the satire is about yourself and you find it funny because you are sure it is not about you.
According to Feitlowitz “Satire consists of a mocking attack against vices, stupidities, and follies, with an aim to educate, edify, improve.”^^2^^ Swift’s satire is closely tied with Gulliver’s perceptions and adventures.
In Rodino’s opinion, Gulliver himself “is neither a fully developed character nor even an altogether distinguishable persona; rather, he is a satiric device enabling Swift to score satirical points”^^3^^
A work with profound political implications, Gulliver’s Travels is a masterfully disguised satire directed against the Whig Government and a dazzling adventure story. All the meanings are well hidden in the text.
Throughout the reign of Queen Anne, Swift was one of the central characters in the literary and political life of London. Political abuses in England were not his only concern; he directed his satire against the spirit of his age as well. The first half of the 18th century displayed an optimistic trust in reason which was considered the only instrument for understanding man, God, and the world. This changed Religion into a purely rational affair. Swift’s novel is also a satire on contemporary European civilization and the perennial vices of humanity.
Swift’s intention was not to entertain the world, but to inform it by pointing to the vices and the stupidity of mankind. The author thought that by comparing ourselves to others, we would manage to see our own true nature, which would enable us to see what is wrong in our own lives and society. As his major concern was about political and social issues of his country, his subject matter in Gulliver’s Travels consists in politics, economy, religion, education, poverty, literature, knowledge.
Voyages I and II criticize various aspects of English society at the time, while voyages III and IV are more preoccupied with human nature itself.
Each of the societies that Gulliver encounters has a metaphorical relation to the eighteenth century England and much of the material in the book reflects the author’s political experiences. Swift uses the characters of the Lilliputian Monarchy, to criticize England’s own monarchy and the way the country was being run at the time.
When Swift wrote this book, England was the most powerful nation in the world, with a large fleet and constantly in search of new lands to conquer. In this context, it is of some significance that although Gulliver comes from the most powerful nation at the time, he is still held captive by six-inch people.
Although he could have certainly escaped if he had tried to, Gulliver chose to stay in Lilliput, probably because he was curious about the Lilliputians culture, or perhaps because he enjoyed the power that came with being a giant. Power is something many people desire and they may become evil in their attempts to acquire it.
The hypocritical, greedy, morally corrupt, mean, deceitful, and vicious Lilliputians have all the pretensions of full-sized men. They are filled with pride — they are, in fact, completely human. Their Emperor is meant to represent King George I. He is a symbol of bad politicians everywhere as he is corrupt, arrogant and obsessed with foolish ceremonies.
The importance of physical power is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and it is often referred to by critics as”might versus right”. At first the Lilliputians keep Gulliver tied up, believing that they can control him, but the truth is that he could have crushed them by simply walking carelessly. Despite the evidence, the Lilliputians never realize their own insignificance. Their view of the situation is a source of humour and a means by which Swift satirizes humanity’s pretensions to power and significance, the pettiness of human desires for wealth and power.
Swift seems to invite English society to reconsider the pride and power of the country in relationship to its colonies. A large number of small people can overpower a large person if they possess the right resources and the right motivation. This leads to the problem of whether England’s colonies are intelligent and strong enough to accomplish this or not.
The novel implicitly contains the problem of whether physical power or moral righteousness should be the governing elements in social life. In Book I and Book II, Gulliver experiences the advantages of physical power both as one who has it and as one who does not have it. The Houyhnhnms’ chaining up of the Yahoos is another display of physical force used against others and justified on grounds of moral correctness as the rational horses have a sense of moral superiority.
Gulliver signs a contract with the Lilliputians in exchange for his freedom; although he can easily destroy Lilliput, he chooses to act peacefully. Gulliver promises to serve the emperor, and so he does by capturing the enemy’s fleet, but he refuses to please the emperor and to satisfy his thirst for power when he is asked to go back and destroy the enemy. There is nothing the Lilliputians can do to persuade him. Power proves to be more important, and fortunately, Gulliver decides to use his power appropriately. This may be a hint to England as a colonial power.
The document that Gulliver had to sign is a self-contradictory and meaningless piece of paper as each article emphasizes the fact that Gulliver is so powerful that, if he wants to, he can violate all of the articles without much concern for his own safety.
Swift criticizes royal courts in general because they all had what he called “sameness” in them: all employments went to friends of the people who were in charge and had helped those people rise to power. Gulliver’s account of how people get high positions at the court of Lilliput is the best example of the story being a political satire. It is not difficult to see the likeness to the court of England.
The emperor of Lilliput entertains Gulliver by showing him a tradition at the court. Candidates who compete for a high position have to walk on a rope suspended above the ground and jump as high as they can. Whoever jumps the highest without falling qualifies for the position. The competitors are often injured and some of them die.
By describing a society which chooses its highest officials by such silly competitions, Swift mocks at the way officials are chosen in England. In order to gain favor in the court, politicians are willing to humiliate themselves if this is what it takes. The danger of ambition is also figured here as jumping badly can lead to death. The pettiness of the political system is mirrored in the diminutive size of its citizens.
Flimnap, the treasurer, who is said to be the best “rope dancer”, may be the representation of Sir Robert Walpole, who held the highest public office at the time in England and was considered by Swift a corrupt symbol of an oppressive party. His skill in “rope-dancing” alludes to his “political acrobatics” or to how well he could divert the court of King George with his great ability in speech.
The cushion which saved Flimnap from breaking his neck once when he fell is interpreted by some as being the Mistress of the King, the Duchess of Kendal, who admired Walpole. Others interpret the cushion as being the French ceremony of the King to bypass the parliament.
Reldresal, a high official, tells Gulliver of “two mighty evils” that threaten Lilliput. One of them is a violent and troublesome faction. There were two opposing parties: the Tramecksan and the Slamecksan, who distinguished themselves by wearing high and low heels on their shoes. The emperor had decided that only low heels could take part in the administration of Lilliput.
Swift targets the political parties of England. The High Heels represent the aristocrats, the Tory party, while the Low Heels represent the merchants, the Whig party. The Lilliputian Emperor expresses his political beliefs by wearing Low Heels, which is an allusion to King George I, who was sympathetic to the Whigs.
When Swift himself changed parties, he must have considered political allegiance as being important, but he finally came to the conclusion that political bickering is often about such unimportant matters as the height of one’s heels.
Reldresal also informs Gulliver that there is fear of an invasion by those living on the Island of Blefuscu, “the other great Empire of the Universe”. The inhabitants of Liliput are unable to get along with those of Blefuscu after an accident suffered by the emperor’s son, years ago. While trying to break an egg at the smaller end, in the traditional way, the emperor’s son cut his finger. The emperor decreed that everybody had to break eggs at the bigger end, which caused much trouble and bloodshed. The “correct” way to break an egg is a petty argument that leads to the formation of two separate empires.
Swift meant his work to be a wake up call. Squabbles over unimportant matters offer the author opportunities to direct his satire against deceitfulness, selfishness and indifference, which are characteristic human traits.
The war between England and France is ridiculed and mirrored in the conflict between Lilliput and Blefuscu. The conflict over which end of an egg should be broken reflects the old conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants. In Swift’s opinion, religious conflicts are as pointless as fighting over which end of an egg to break.
It must be clearly stated that the questions of religion, national identity and politics were extremely important to the author although all the confrontation between the two political parties, between Lilliput and Blefuscu, Big and Little Endians were pointless and meaningless in their essence.
The war between Lilliput and Blefuscu had been going on for years at the cost of many lives. The Lilliputians, who were called Little-Endians and were meant to represent the Anglicans, opened eggs at the smaller end. The Blefuscans, representing the Catholics, opened them at the big end and were called Big-Endians. Big-Endians were barred from holding office in the government, a situation similar to that of Catholics being denied office after the revolution in England.
When Gulliver refused to enslave the Blefuscans, the court discussed whether to punish Gulliver’s disobedience with death. The Lilliputians’ intention to indict Gulliver for high treason is a satiric attack on hypocrisy, ingratitude and cruelty. The court was split over the decision, as some ministers wanted him dead right away while others thought that they could show Gulliver mercy.
This alludes to George I’s Whig court in 1723 when the court was split over whether to impose the death penalty on the Jacobite Sir Francis Atterbury, who was suspected of trying to make peace with the French and on the capital punishment of suspected Jacobite Tories in the 1720s.
Reldressal, Principal Secretary of State for Private Affairs and Gulliver’s “true friend,” proposes and eventually carries a more lenient motion. Gulliver is merely to be blinded after which, if the council finds it necessary, he may easily be starved to death. . Reldresal, the second most dexterous of the rope dancers, probably represents either Viscount Townshend or Lord Carteret. Both were political allies of Walpole.
Blinding is the equivalent of barring Oxford and Bolingbroke from political activity for the remainder of their lives. Reldressal’s pretended friendship is a reference to the behavior of Charles, Viscount Townshend, Secretary of State in the Whig cabinet, whom the Tory leaders at first regarded as a friend at court after their fall from power. However, his sincerity soon came to be mistrusted.
The “mercy” of the Emperor is a jab at the execution of a number of the leaders of a rebellion in 1715. These executions occurred shortly after the House of Lords, in an address to George I, had praised his “endearing tenderness and clemency.”
Gulliver flees to Blefescu. This refers to Bolingbroke’s flight to France. Like Bolingbroke, Gulliver ignored a proclamation threatening that he would be labeled a traitor if he did not return and stand trial for his alleged crimes.
A ridiculous idea was, earlier, that of having Gulliver stand with his legs apart so that the Lilliputian armies can walk through. This is an allusion to the pomp of the English armies which, in Swift’s opinion, were often more concerned with looking impressive than with being impressive.
However, Gulliver never suggests that he finds the Lilliputians ridiculous, nor does he point out the similarities between the ridiculous practices he notices and the ridiculous customs of Europe. Swift leaves us to infer all of the satire based on the difference between how things appear to us and how they appear to Gulliver.
The Lilliputian Empress, who reaches her hand out to be kissed by Gulliver when he shows himself at the palace, seems to represent Queen Anne. Swift mainly criticizes the court of George I. Queen Anne has her share, although the author had friends within her government.
Swift has a dig at the queen as a “royal prude” with the incident when Gulliver extinguishes the fire and saves the palace from burning down by urinating on it. The little Empress was not thankful to Gulliver for having saved the palace this way and thought it was disgusting. This is an allusion to Queen Anne who had misunderstood the purpose of Swift’s story A Tale of a Tub. She had mistaken it for profanity and apparently had taken offence at some of Swift’s earlier, signed satires, too. This made the author fall from her favour and, as a result, she blocked Swift’s advancement in the Church of England.
The episode in which Gulliver puts out the fire at the palace by urinating on it can be also seen as a metaphor for the Tories’ illegal negotiations with France, resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. The peace treaty was a good thing which was done in an unfortunate manner.
Swift’s satire is also directed against the educational system in England. In Lilliput parents are not allowed to raise their own children. Instead, they are sent away to some sort of “boarding school.” The type of school they go to is chosen by the child’s parents’ status in society; the wealthier the parents, the better the school their child will attend. Children of poor families do not attend school. Children are allowed to see their parents only twice a year, for just one hour. Teachers are not allowed to tell fairy tales in school and if they do, they are immediately fired.
In Brobdingnag Gulliver finds himself in the same relation to the inhabitants as the Lilliputians were to him. His diminutive scale is a reminder of how perspective and viewpoint can alter one’s condition and one’s claims to power in society. In Lilliput Gulliver was referred to as the “Man-Mountain.” By contrast, in Brobdingnag, he is treated like an unusual insect.
The Brobdingnagians are described as being the least corrupt of all the nations he visits. They are calm, virtuous and good-willed. Their laws encourage charity. But do they really have big souls? Of all the inhabitants, only Glumdalclitch (Stella), the embodiment of childish innocence, and the king of Brobdingnag, the ideal monarch, are good-hearted.
The wealthy farmer who shelters Gulliver is mean, greedy and ready to exhaust Gulliver in circus shows to make as much money as possible. Even to the King, he is nothing more than an entertaining, silly little fellow, who is not to be trusted. The maids of honor at the court treat Gulliver as a plaything because to them, he is a toy, not a man.
Gulliver describes European civilization to Brobdingnag’s King. He especially refers to England’s political and legal institutions and how they work, as well as to some of the personal habits of the ruling class. Although he presents the information in the most favorable light, the King thinks every strata of society and political power is infested with corruption and draws his famous conclusion: “…the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”^^4^^
Throughout the book the author discusses details of human body and its functions. Especially in Brobdingnag, when he is small, Gulliver can look closely at the body as a material thing. By paying attention to the ugly details of peoples’ bodies and to what humans do on a daily basis, Swift makes it impossible to look at humans as exclusively spiritual or intellectual beings.
In Laputa and Lagado people live a life which has no normal purposes. The insane inhabitants of Laputa keeping the lower land of Balnibarbi in check through force because they believe themselves to be more rational illustrate the idea that claims to moral superiority are as hard to justify as the random use of physical force to dominate others. The author suggests that claims to rule on the basis of moral righteousness are often completely arbitrary and sometimes they are disguises for simple physical subjugation.
Swift makes some observations on imperialism pointing out the arrogance of European nations when they claim to civilize, through brutality and oppression, people who were often mild and harmless and he implies that the real cause of imperialism is greed.
The Enlightenment was a period of great intellectual experimentation and theorization. Swift preferred traditional knowledge that had been tested over centuries and was a critic of the new ideas.
Swift’s target in Voyage III is the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, which was founded in 1660. Its members were influential promoters of scientific theories that were at the heart of the Scientific Revolution. Interestingly, many of the experiments parodied by Swift had actually been proposed or carried out by British scientists at the time of his writing.
Swift satirizes those who pride themselves on knowledge above all else by offering the reader the disagreeable image of the self-centered Laputans who show blatant contempt for those who are not sunk in private theorizing.
Man’s habitually irrational conduct is the target of Swift’s sarcasm. The author satirizes knowledge which does not produce practical results, as in the academy of Balnibarbi, where the experiments for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers amount to nothing. They excel at theoretical mathematics, but they can’t build houses with straight walls and square corners, because they build them from the roof down.
In the description of the projects carried out in the cities below Laputa, Swift continues his mockery of the academia, whose entirely useless projects promote science for no real reason.
Their misuse of reason makes them worry instead about when the sun will burn out and whether a comet will collide with the earth. The satire here attacks both the deficiency of common sense and the consequences of corrupt judgment.
Brobdingnag and Houyhnhnmland are highly rational societies but their description does not emphasize the inhabitant’s knowledge or understanding of abstract ideas, but their ability to live their lives in a steady way. The Brobdingnagian king knows next to nothing about political science, yet his country seems prosperous and well governed.
The Houyhnhnms know little about subjects like astronomy, but they know how long a month is by observing the moon, since that knowledge has a practical effect on their lives while higher levels of knowledge would be meaningless to them and would interfere with their happiness. It appears that humans need that amount of knowledge which is useful for a happy and well-ordered life.
Laputa symbolizes the absurdity and the uselessness of purely abstract knowledge which does not have a practical end and is not related to the improvement of human life. The Laputans are parodies of scientists whose excesses of theoretical pursuits and exaggerated systematizing represent manifestations of proud rationalism. Laputa is the Spanish word for “whore”. The name of the island was not randomly chosen; it makes the author’s argument about pointless thought even stronger.
According to Downie, the floating island that drifts along above the rest of the world is a metaphorical representation of Swift’s point that an excess of speculative reasoning can cut one off from the practical realities of life.
In the description of the Struldbrugs of Luggnagg, Swift satirizes human desire for eternal life. The primary benefit of old age is, according to an old cliché, the ability to use one’s accumulated wisdom to help humanity. The reality is less glorious as, instead of growing in wisdom, the immortal Struldbrugs grow only more selfish and sad.
There is a hostile relationship between Laputa and Lindalino, the second city in the Kingdom and the Laputians fail to stave off the Lindalinian rebellion. This is a hint to the relationship between England and Ireland. Gulliver is not critical at all of the rebellious Lindalinians. Instead he tells us that they were united and well organized and they were making a project that would ensure their victory over the Laputians.
In the voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms, Swift’s ultimate satiric object seems to be man’s inability to come to terms with his true nature. In this voyage Gulliver becomes so alienated from the humanity represented by the Yahoos that it is difficult to sympathize with him.
The Houyhnhnms society is a utopian one, where there is no hate, no jealousy or lying, but there is no love, no positive emotion either. They have simple laws and they live untroubled by passion, greed or lust. They even choose their partners by cold calculation of which pairings would produce the healthiest offspring, not according to love, as they do not know what love is. Such a society is hopeless for humans.
The common good is the highest value here and all their actions are governed by total reason. Although the Houyhnhnms are brilliant, they are not wise because they use their knowledge for their own prideful glorification.
Swift uses the Houyhnhnms to satirize the belief that a man of pure rationality is the only complete man and to illustrate the idea that a man who relies purely on reason becomes filled with pride, which finally blinds him.
Gulliver’s idealization of the horses gives Swift the opportunity to mock blind devotion. Gulliver describes the way he said goodbye. He says: “ I took a second leave of my master, but as I was going to prostrate myself to kiss his hoof, he did me the honor to raise it gently to my mouth.”^^5^^
Much of Swift’s satirical focus is on people who cannot see past their own ways and their own beliefs. Even the Houyhnhnms, whom the hero admires, cannot believe there are other reasonable ways of living.
The Houyhnhnms have often been interpreted as symbols of an order which, although unattainable, is to remain an ideal, while the Yahoos may be the illustration of humanity’s potential fall if that ideal is abandoned. The horses lack the complexity of humans and with it, everything that makes human life rich. They live a dull and lifeless life.
Swift’s age showed a strong belief in the fundamental sanity of man and in the natural health of society.
Since deceitfulness is a common failing of man, selfishness and indifference are characteristic human traits, Swift opposed such optimism. The writer did believe in good sense and decency, but he considered such things did not exist at social level because man’s irrational instincts were not governed by reason. This view is not altogether pessimistic, but Swift seems to resent the exaggerated optimism of his age.
As Tuveson puts it, Swift’s satire shifts from “foreign to domestic scenes, from institutions to individuals, from mankind to man, from others to ourselves”^^6^^. Still, the author’s sense of humor charmed his readers, disarmed his critics, and cemented his reputation in the history of world literature.
Swift’s message is that man can live a life of fulfillment if he believes in God and relies on tradition. Otherwise, pursuing unworthy desires, humanity is bound to be lost.
Gulliver’s Travels has undoubtedly been Swift’s most discussed work by generations of critics who have provided a wide variety of interpretations of each of the four voyages and of Swift’s satiric targets.
Gulliver’s Travels is not only a political satire in the form of an adventure novel. The main object of Swift’s satire is human nature itself, mainly Man’s pride, manifested in pettiness, grossness, rational absurdity, and animality. His character, Lemuel Gulliver, travels to several fantasy worlds where he learns that English institutions, such as the government and social structure, are by no means ideal.
Rationalism was characteristic of late 17th-century England and this is where Swift’s intellectual roots lay. With its emphasis on common sense, its distrust of emotionalism, its strong moral sense, rationalism gave Swift the standards by which he weighed and appraised human conduct; but Swift did not believe that science and reason require absolute devotion. He thought there are natural limits of human understanding because humans are not meant to know everything and there is a realm of understanding into which humans are simply not supposed to venture.
The writer provided a description of reason’s weaknesses and of how people use it to delude themselves. Although his moral principles are not new, the quality of his satiric imagination as well as his literary art make his work original.
His power of inventing imaginary episodes and all their accompanying details is unfailing. He states his views through imagined characters like Lemuel Gulliver, whose voyages to nonexistent lands give the author the opportunity to explore the theme of the individual versus society and the idea of utopia – an imaginary model of the ideal community.
The countries of Lilliput and Blefuscu are complete societies with the same kind of issues and flaws as contemporary British society. Swift described those societies as seen through the eyes of Gulliver and we see them for what they are.
Brobdingnag seems to be less corrupt than Lilliput. Swift shows how much simpler things could be if people were not so greedy, although it is obvious that Brobdingnag is far from being perfect.
Swift’s attitude toward utopia is a skeptical one, with no tendency to privilege the collective group over the individual. The Lilliputians raise their children collectively, but the results are not utopian at all since Lilliput is torn by conspiracies and backstabbing.
The rational horses also practice strict family planning so that the male-to-female ratio is perfectly maintained. Although they come closer to the utopian ideal, there is something unsettling about the Houyhnhnms’ indistinct personalities. They are all good and rational and you feel they are more or less interchangeable as they have no individual identities; they do not even have proper names.
The Houyhnhnms, the bloodless, unfeeling creatures who embody pure reason are not only impossible but also useless models for humans, incapable of experiencing the Christian virtues of grace and charity that unite passion and reason.
Their complete lack of individuality make them the exact opposite of Gulliver, who has hardly any sense of belonging to his native society and exists only as an individual eternally wandering the seas.
The last voyage contains the hero’s ultimate rejection of human society. Here “Swift is attacking the Yahoo in each of us”.^^7^^
Gulliver’s intense grief when forced to leave the Houyhnhnms has been interpreted as his longing for union with a community in which he can lose his human identity. All the other societies he visits make him feel alienated as well.
Gulliver initially shows no interest in describing his own psychology to the reader; he makes no mention of his emotions, passions, dreams, or aspirations. He seems empty, remarkably lacking in self-reflection and self-awareness. It is possible for his personal hollowness to be part of the overall meaning of the novel. By the end, he comes to a twisted self-knowledge in his belief that he is a Yahoo who aspires to become a Houyhnhnm.
Don Pedro de Mendez rescues Gulliver and takes him back to Europe, but Gulliver can no longer recognize virtue and charity when he comes across them and despises Captain Mendez because he doesn’t look like a horse. His disgust with the human condition, shown in his treatment of the generous Don Pedro, extends to himself as well, so that he ends in a thinly disguised state of self-hatred.
Swift may thus be implying the idea that self-knowledge has some necessary limits just as theoretical knowledge does, and that if we look too closely at ourselves we might not be able to carry on living happily.
Most of the critics agree that the interpretations given to the fourth voyage refer to the central problem of Swift criticism.
The Yahoos have traditionally been viewed as a satiric representation of debased humanity, while the Houyhnhnms were considered to represent Swift’s ideals of rationality and order. The two races have been thus interpreted as symbols of the dual nature of humanity. According to some of the critics, Gulliver’s misanthropy was caused by his perception of the flaws of human nature and the failure of humanity to develop its potential for reason, harmony, and order. The hero’s desire to become a Houyhnhnm makes him a pathetic man who strives to become someone he can never be.
In the end, Gulliver experiences a dramatic change. He appears to be as equally flawed and absurd as the other beings he encountered because he cannot see the potential in his fellow human beings and he sees the human race all in bleak light.
Although he never complains about feeling lonely, the bitter and antisocial misanthrope we see at the end of the novel shows he is a profoundly isolated individual. By portraying a miserable and lonely Gulliver talking to his horses at home in England, Swift’s satire mocks the excesses of communal life and also the excesses of individualism.
The hero’s repeated failures to integrate into societies to which he does not belong could make Gulliver’s Travels one of the first novels of modern alienation. Gulliver is never eager to return to England, which is not much of a homeland for him. Every time he comes home, he can’t wait to leave again and he never speaks nostalgically about England.
“Alternately considered an attack on humanity or a clear-eyed assessment of human strength and weaknesses, the novel is a complex study of human nature and of the moral, philosophical, and scientific thought of Swift’s time which has resisted any single definition of meaning for nearly three centuries.”^^8^^
Swift strongly believed that man’s reason and common sense, which are his highest faculties, continually interfere with his tendency to act irrationally. Lack of faith, he said, is the consequence of vain pride in reasoning, while immorality is the consequence of disbelief. In Swift’s opinion, religion holds moral society together. A person who does not believe in God by faith and revelation is in danger of disbelieving in morality.
The writer points out that rationalism leads to Deism, which leads to atheism and atheism leads to immorality. Where people worship reason, tradition and common sense are inevitably abandoned. Both tradition and common sense tell humankind that murder, stealing, whoring, and drunkenness, for example, are immoral. Yet, if one depends on reason for morality, that person can find no proof that one should not drink, steal, whore, or murder. Thus, reasonably, one would feel free to do these things. Actually, too often people are driven by will and lust rather than by reason.
Swift thought that man is by nature sinful, having fallen from perfection in the Garden of Eden, which is a pre-Enlightenment, Protestant idea .While man is a rational animal, his rationality is not always used for good. People cannot perceive accurately because they are filled with self-love and pride; they are incapable of being rational — that is, objective.
According to John W. Cousin, Gulliver’s Travels is probably the greatest satire in the English language, although its concluding part seems to be a savage and almost insane attack upon the whole human race. Meanwhile, the character of Swift is one of the gloomiest and least attractive among English writers, dominated by a ferocious misanthropy.
In a letter to his friend, Alexander Pope, Swift indeed once called himself a misanthrope, but it seems more likely that he was simply frustrated by people who choose not to use the logic and reason they have been endowed with.
The novel is obviously the expression of the author’s concern from various perspectives: it is in the meantime a political allegory, a satire on Walpole’s Whig administration and a merciless dissection of the human spirit. We can detect in it his own distress over the blindness and stupidities which had shattered his own career and threatened to destroy the societal values and aspirations which he valued most.
The author’s observations on man are sharp and the satire is disturbing. He wrote to Pope in 1725, “…the chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it”. Apparently, Swift was, indeed, a misanthrope to a certain extent. He himself maintained that he hated mankind but found it possible to love individuals, although he criticizes specific actions of particular people.
Swift has been criticized for being a pessimist who writes out of “a bitter mind and a bitter heart” and who sees only “man’s ineptitude and failure.” ^^9^^ To the casual observer, mankind and people appear to be the same. However, mankind is an abstract while people are specific and concrete.
George Orwell refers to Swift’s values and world-views as those of a reactionary who has come to believe that ordinary life is not worth living
On the other hand, Gilmore asserts that Swift’s primary aim is to make us laugh, something that modern critics hesitate to consider.
The critical attitude he maintains towards the world is the expression of Swift’s repudiation of false and immoral behavior, it is the indictment, by the moral rationalist, of man’s irrational conduct.
Swift meant his satire to be a genuine reforming force. Satire, he believes, must be evaluated by its real influence on moral sensibility. In discussing Swift’s ideas about the role of the satirist, Tuveson refers to Swift’s belief that the greatest test of a satirist is “to bring the message to readers’ bosoms, to make men see themselves as well as their neighbours in the glass of satire”^^10^^.
Indeed, Swift wished his satire to be more pragmatic than literary, that is, to anticipate social reformation.
Swift’s attitudes in affairs of church and state were influenced by his Irish perspective on English affairs as well as by his identity as a minister of the Church of Ireland. They were central to his writings. Oakleaf observes how Swift’s literary triumphs were also political ones. Placing Swift on the political spectrum of his time is very difficult as, in relation to contemporary party politics, he struggled not to compromise his independence. Swift’s satire has real targets and punitive intensity.
Swift was certainly an interesting and in some ways peculiar man who criticized and satirized what he felt was wrong in society and especially in politics. He felt that man is in his nature corrupt and those who get to power are often the ones who are the most corrupt. We may assume that his intention was to open people’s eyes and make them realize; he stood up for what he believed in and tried to raise people’s awareness.
His criticism is aimed at British eighteenth century society, but much of what he wrote is still relevant today. Gulliver’s Travels is depiction of the human condition and a timeless classic in many aspects.
Swift was different from the 18th century writers. It was during his lifetime that the literary scene was dominated by satire as a literary genre. Still “he stands supreme as a satirist in prose for he was simply louder than most men about his concern for mankind”^^11^^
Dobree concluded that “…he was an artist whose cause is finally one with that of humanity”,^^12^^ an artist whose work was successful with children as well as with their elders “from the cabinet council to the nursery” as Pope and Gay put it.
Swift reveals our self-deception and our pride, which is the source of all evil. As we travel with Gulliver, we are forced to see ourselves in the mirror of our consciousness. Swift brilliantly shows us what we are and challenges us to be better. Jonathan Swift vexes the world so that it might awaken to the fact that humankind has to save itself by means of a fundamental change.
Although such a bleak picture of humanity may be considered very depressing, there is a point in exposing the depth of our basic nature. Swift seems to be saying that although all of these things are wrong with humanity, they can be fixed. We have the power to change our nature if we choose to; it’s up to us to make the right decision. This message is like modern-day self-help groups: to be able to change, one must first admit the problem.
Swift’s style clear and direct. He moves with perfect ease from a cheerful mood to a grave or cynical one, from joy to misanthropy. His tone varies from the humorous to the savage and his irony reflects his vision of humanity’s ambiguous position between bestiality and reasonableness.
Swift is one of the most complex personalities in English letters whose disillusionment took an indignant turn. He wrote his satires to point out faults, to chasten, and to educate in an attempt to give the public a new moral lens and to “shame men out of their vices.”^^13^^
In the growing polish and decency of society, Swift saw only a mask for hypocrisy and he used his huge talent to point to the ugliness which he discovered under every beautiful exterior. Although Swift was considered by many a misanthropist, a work like Gulliver’s Travels could have been produced only by a man who cared deeply about humanity.
Paradoxically, his care shines throughout his work.
Bullitt, John M. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Davis, Herbert. Jonathan Swift: Essays on His Satires and Other Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Dobree, Bonamy. English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Downie, J. A. Jonathan Swift: Political Writer. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Eddy, William A. Gulliver’s Travels: A Critical Study. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1963.
Feitlowitz, Marguerite, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels, Barron’s N.Y., 1984
Lock, F. P. The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Monk, Samuel Holt. “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver.” The Sewanee Review, 1955
Oakleaf, David “Politics and History,” The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift, Cambridge University Press, 2003
Quintana, Ricardo. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1965.
Rodino, Richard H. Swift Studies, 1965–1980: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1984.
Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels, Everyman’s Library, 1940
Tuveson, Ernest. (Ed.) Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1964.
1Lock, F. P. The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels, Oxford University Press, 1980
2 Feitlowitz, Marguerite, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels, Barron’s N.Y., 1984
3 Rodino, Richard H, Swift Studies, 1965-1980: An Annotated Bibliography, 1984, p 124
4 Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels, Everyman’s Library, 1940, p 214
5 Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels, Everyman’s Library, 1940, p 274
6 Tuveson, Ernest. (Ed.) Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
7 Tuveson, Ernest. (Ed.) Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
8 “Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 42. Detroit: Gale, 1998, p 290
9 Quintana, Ricardo. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1965, p 34
10 Tuveson, Ernest, ed. Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1964.
11 Monk, Samuel Holt. “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver.” The Sewanee Review, 63 (1955): 48-71.
12 Dobree, Bonamy. English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1959, p 499
13 Bullitt, John M. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966. p 14
This paper takes a look at a book enjoyed by generations of readers, a multi-sided book which is still relevant to todayâ€™s society. The topic under discussion is: â€œSocial satire in Jonathan Swiftâ€™s Gulliverâ€™s Travelsâ€. Swiftâ€™s masterpiece is a sophisticated satire on human nature, often criticized for its apparent misanthropy. Each of the four books has a different theme, but they are all meant to deflate human pride. Some of the critics consider this unique work to be a satiric reflection on the shortcomings of Enlightenment thought. Swift is one of the most complex personalities in English letters whose disillusionment took an indignant turn. He wrote his satires to point out faults, to chasten, and to educate in an attempt to give the public a new moral lens and to "shame men out of their vices." In the growing polish and decency of society, Swift saw only a mask for hypocrisy and he used his huge talent to point to the ugliness which he discovered under every beautiful exterior. Although Swift was considered by many a misanthropist, a work like Gulliver's Travels could have been produced only by a man who cared deeply about humanity. Paradoxically, his care shines throughout his work.