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Analyzing The Means and Significance of Satire in Gulliver's Travels

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Throughout the four parts of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift employs the eight types of satire – parody, understatement, invective, irony, hyperbole, sarcasm, inversion/reversal, and wit – to add historical and thematic depth to Lemuel Gulliver’s fantastic voyage.

Explaining the tensions between Liliput and Blefusco in part I, for instance, Swift writes:

Which two mighty powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six and thirty moons past… During the course of these troubles, the Emperors of Blefusco did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Brundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text: for the words are these; That all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end. (Swift 85)

Here, Swift uses parody to ridicule the religious schism between the Catholic and Protestant Church which permeated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Swift’s mockery lies in that his narrator initially validates the arguments offered by Blefuscu against Lilliput’s preferred way of breaking eggs – at the smaller end – by citing the authority of the Brundecral, equivalent to the “Alcoran”, or, more likely, the Bible. However, the reader undoubtedly recognizes the momentous religious rift created over egg-breaking as pure nonsense. By parodying England’s ecclesiastical system, namely, the Catholic-Protestant split, through the Big-Ender/Small-Ender split, he desires for the reader to recognize the ridiculousness of quarreling over religion, particularly when the argument occurs over such a minor discrepancy as which end of the egg to break, or, he infers, Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist (which is the cause for divide between Catholics and Protestants). Although himself a Catholic clergyman, Swift perceived the situation critically. By imitating the vague world of theological interpretations in the form of a rather concrete, yet ludicrous dispute that pits two empires against each other, Swift reveals to the reader the ridiculousness of the religious battles of the British Isles. The above passage at once exaggerates and undermines the Catholic-Protestant schism by drawing an analogy between a seemingly formidable disunion and a trivial problem of eating habits, in this way heightening satire in Gulliver’s Travels.

To expand the satirical value of the novel, Swift uses parody once again to imitate and poke fun at not only religious, but also political aspects of England and Ireland (the two being notoriously intertwined in 17th and 18th century Europe). For instance, he writes:

I was diverted with none so much as that of rope-dancers, performed upon a slender white thread, extended about two foot, and twelve inches from the ground…This diversion is only practiced by those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favor, at Court…Flimnap, the treasurer, is allowed to cut a caper on the straight rope as least an inch higher than any lord in the whole Empire. (73-74)

In describing the jests of the “rope-dancers,” Swift actually parodies the antics of candidates running for office for the Court of England. He points out the great mastery involved in executing jumps and somersaults on the rope in order to emphasize the schemes of intrigue and deception carried out by candidates in order to win the favor of the King, and thus, an ascent to a position of power. Swift uses the name “Flimnap” to perhaps craftily allude to George II’s prominent Whig prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who at one point in his political career served, appropriately, as first lord of the treasury in the government1. Although the games of the Lilliputians appear bizarre and laughable, Swift’s purpose entails exposing the corruption and fraud that ran rampant through the English Monarchy, specifically during the reign of George II. 2 For instance, the term “caper” carries a connotation of thievery and deceit, and this precisely explains Walpole’s – and indeed many other British office holders’ – ability to obtain and maintain power by resorting to what were essentially political contortions. In fact, despite George II’s allegiance to the Tories, he never fired Walpole, a proud Whig, due to strong favoritism; thus, Swift mocks the political institution in this way.

Also in Part I, Swift uses the satirical device of understatement. Introducing his tale, Gulliver takes note of the political structure of Lilliput, at one point reporting on tyrannical monarchs. The reader cannot help but acknowledge the similarities between Lilliput and Gulliver’s homeland, England, when he informs the reader that the Emperor of Lilliput proposes the punishment of removing Gulliver’s eyes, a conviction viewed by the Lilliputians as minor and actually merciful. It stands as a gross understatement when one of the king’s court comes to warn Gulliver of his forthcoming arraignment for treason, revealing to Gulliver that:

[His] majesty, in consideration of [Gulliver’s] services, and pursuant to his own merciful disposition, would please to spare [his] life, and only give orders to put out both [his] eyes…to signify the great lenity and favour of his Majesty…which his Majesty doth not question [he] will gratefully and humbly submit to; and twenty of his Majesty’s surgeons will attend, in order to see the operation well performed, by discharging very sharp-pointed arrows into the balls of [his] eyes as [he] lay on the ground. (106-107).

The Secretary informs Gulliver without particular passion or surprise, and in fact rather nonchalantly, suggesting that such a sentence serves as a commonplace, even lenient penalty. To this, Gulliver then satirically states: “…I was so ill a judge of things, that I could not discover the lenity or favor of this sentence, but conceived it (perhaps erroneously) rather to be rigorous than gentle,” (109) and later, “[Had] I then known the nature of princes and ministers…I should with great alacrity and readiness have submitted to so easy a punishment” (110). Clearly the loss of one’s eyes cannot be taken lightly; the threat of not being able to see, not to mention the physical torment of having one’s eyeballs punctured by sharp objects, would provoke anyone to outrage and panic. However, the Lilliputians regard such a punishment without protest. This can be attributed to the fact that in the land of Lilliput, much like in England, tyranny rules. Swift implies that irrational monarchs, fueled by their own whims, restrain the masses with the threat of violence and at the same time assume that their subjects will “gratefully and humbly submit” to them. In employing such an understatement, he comments not only on the brutality, but also on the sense of divinity that tyrannical monarchs generally permit themselves, thus satirically criticizing English politics.

In Book II, A Voyage to Brobdingnag, Swift employs the satirical element of invective to voice his disapproval of the British Empire. After explaining the history of Great Britain to the King of Brobdingnag, Gulliver explains that the King:

[Was] perfectly astonished… protesting it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, and very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition could produce. (172)

Swift relays his criticism through the King’s extreme impression of England, one which he expresses using a barrage of words with negative connotations. Although the King’s overly harsh opinion comes from a man unfamiliar with the country, Swift intends to show precisely that from an objective observer’s standpoint, England appears as a country historically corrupt.

At another point in chapter six, the King states, “[By] what I have gathered from your own relation… I cannot but conclude 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” (173). Through the King’s affirmation, Swift rather blatantly communicates that despite the facade of grandeur and dignity the British uphold in their history and affairs, they remain a generally abject and dishonorable people to him. Through the King’s reaction to Gulliver’s account of his motherland and his people, Swift stresses that just as the Lilliputians seem disagreeable to Gulliver, so, too does Gulliver and his race with respect to the Brobdingnagians. Furthermore, by showing the way in which people of varying sizes view England, Swift implies that despite a nation like Great Britain’s perception of superiority (as created by its political or military prowess, successful expansion, or general assertion of power), its may nonetheless be perceived as rather “odious” or morally flawed, when viewed from the side by others such as the Irish or the poor.

Although subtle, the irony in A Voyage to Brobdingnag surfaces in several notable examples, one of which occurs when Swift states:

[The] beggars, watching their opportunity, crowded to the sides of the coach, and gave me the most horrible spectacles that ever a European eye beheld. There was a woman with cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept, and covered my whole body. There was a fellow with a wen in his neck, larger than five woolpacks, and another with a couple of wooden legs, each about twenty foot high. But the most hateful sight of all was the lice crawling on their clothes… (151-2).

The situational irony in this passage presents itself in the size of these beggars and the other inhabitants of Brobdingnag. However, the beggars depicted abate the idealized and seemingly perfect existence of the Brobdingnagians. By portraying the wretched beggars as being such immense and grotesque creatures, Swift comments on the pervasiveness of poverty in England and Ireland. Yet this statement becomes even more ironic because the King of Brobdingnag condemns the English as “dimunitive insects”, refusing to acknowledge that his kingdom, too, has many ills to improve, such as the beggars on the streets. In addition, the beggars ambush the coach, flashing their big, nauseating abnormalities and diseases unabashedly in Gulliver’s face – they are impossible for him to miss. In this way, Swift intends to burn into the reader’s consciousness the horrid reality of the poverty that plagues the cities of England and Ireland, something that the literate person reading Gulliver’s Travels during the 18th century may have perhaps been too removed to comprehend.

An instance of verbal irony occurs during Gulliver’s conversation with the King, in which Gulliver states that

“[Great] allowances should be given to a King who lives wholly secluded from the rest of the World, and must therefore be altogether unacquainted with the manners and customs that most prevail in other nations: the want of which knowledge will ever produce many prejudices, and a certain narrowness of thinking, from which we and the politer Countries of Europe are wholly exempted.” (174)

This statement presents itself as verbal irony because the sheer size of Great Britain and “the politer Countries of Europe” makes it impossible for them to be “wholly exempt” from prejudice and narrow-mindedness. On a larger level, the passage above exemplifies verbal irony because by making such a rash overgeneralization about Europeans, the narrator, in effect, stands guilty of the very ignorance he professes Europeans do not possess. Thus, Swift satirically hints at the ignorance and perceived superiority of the British.

Book III, entitled A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan, contains hyperbole, characterized by the use of exaggeration for emphasis or effect, to satirize both the European way of thought and the stifling nature of Great Britain. He exaggerates the preposterous theories that pervaded English culture throughout the Age of Rationalism. For example, Gulliver takes note of how the floating island of Laputa punishes other, rebellious islands, stating:

[The] king has two methods of reducing them to obedience. The first… course is, by keeping the island hovering over such a town, and the lands about it, whereby he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and diseases: and if the crime deserve it, they are at the same time pelted from above with great stones, against which they have no defence [sic]…while the roofs of their houses are beaten to pieces. But if they still continue obstinate… he proceeds to the last remedy, by letting the island drop directly upon their heads, which makes a universal destruction both of houses and men. (214)

Swift intentionally furnishes the island of Laputa with the special capacity to float, in this way suggesting that the Laputians and their king – who has never been to the world he governs below – disengage themselves from society. Thus, Swift emphasizes the idea that by concentrating solely on the abstract, theoretical aspects of problems and investing their energies in unnecessary scientific advances, they ignore the practical concerns of the wretched people below. The author voices his distaste with European governments that neglect poverty and social ills in his fantastic account of the island of Laputa. Precisely, England’s treatment of the Irish surfaces in Laputa’s excessive punishment of Balnibarbi; just as Laputa restricts sunlight and rain from reaching Balnibarbi, so, too did England restrict Irish trade, leaving the country barren and the people impoverished. In this example of hyperbole, Swift exaggerates the physical extremity of Balnibarbi’s punishment by describing, in great detail, the overkill that results at the hands of Laputa – the island descends, as though signaling the apocalypse, physically crushing revolting masses. The image evoked by Swift’s embellishment, one of intense suffering, echoes the struggle of the Irish to rid themselves of England’s oppressive presence. Another example of hyperbole occurs when Swift expresses that “When parties in a state are violent, [a professor] offered a wonderful contrivance to reconcile them…Let the occiputs thus cut off [from party leaders] be interchanged, applying each to the head of his opposite party man” (234). Clearly, the professor’s proposal to join half-brains in order to settle political rifts, among others mentioned, sounds simply outrageous. However, Swift’s intention in exposing the ludicrous plans of scientists and philosophers through exaggeration lies in satirizing the European preoccupation with theory in the eighteenth century. While combining two minds may, theoretically, work, in practice such an act will probably kill both men involved. The reader recognizes this as extreme and excessive, hence the hyperbole.

In addition to hyperbole, Swift uses sarcasm liberally in Book III. At one point, when Gulliver makes the acquaintance of numerous legendary men such as of Homer and Alexander the Great, he realizes that the history surrounding such notable figures is often manipulated and falsified in the interest of upholding an illusion of grandeur. Disenchanted by this new information, Gulliver remarks:

[But] when someone confessed they owed their greatness and wealth to sodomy or incest; others to the prostituting of their own wives and daughters; others to the betraying of their country or their prince; some to poisoning, more to the perverting of justice in order to destroy the innocent: I hope I may be pardoned if these discoveries inclined me a little to abate of that profound veneration which I am naturally apt to pay to persons of high rank, who ought to be treated with the utmost respect due to their sublime dignity, by us their inferiors. (245-246)

Here, the reader witnesses Swift’s use of biting sarcasm, as presented in a situation in which the protagonist denounces the follies of historical records and the sense of superiority such “heroes” possess over the common man. Swift portrays an array of appalling characters revered by a society ignorant of the ways in which such figures achieved fame. Gulliver catalogues some of the sordid offences of these men, such as “sodomy or incest” and “perverting of justice in order to destroy the innocent” (125). When he then mockingly apologizes for his disgust, affirming that all high-ranking figures “ought to be treated with the utmost respect due to their sublime dignity, by us their inferiors,” the reader can clearly detect the bitterness in his tone. Undoubtedly, Swift’s reproach for the demand placed on commoners, to honor glorified, arrogant – and all too often corrupt – superiors, and, at the same time, these commoners’ flawed perceptions, can be seen in his harsh sarcasm.

Sarcasm also presents itself in Swift’s mockery of women. When discussing the habits of women in Laputa, Gulliver reveals that “[they] may perhaps pass with the reader rather for a European or English story, than for one of a country so remote. But he may please to consider, that the caprices of womankind are not limited by any climate or nation, and that they are much more uniform than can be easily imagined” (208). The narrator first exhibits sarcasm when mentioning that his reader may mistake such a description of women “rather for a European or English story,” thus mocking English society. Furthermore, Swift intends for his humorous displeasure with what he perceives as women’s fickle, flighty nature to appeal to his reader – primarily a male reader – as evinced through his playful statement that “he may please to consider,” (that female character “[is] not limited by any climate…”) (208). Thus, the narrator’s less than amiable comments about both commanding figures and women epitomize the satirical element of sarcasm, or bitter, witty statements intended to insult.

Finally, in Book IV, A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms Swift uses the satirical elements of reversal/inversion and wit. The book contains perhaps the most profound reversal of roles and ideas. In this book, Gulliver travels to a land in which filthy, detestable human-like creatures, called the Yahoos, are governed by virtuous, rational horses called Houyhnhnms. Thus, an obvious role-reversal exists, as man, who represent the most advanced, reasonable animal, submits to the dominance of a horse, a lesser animal. As Swift states, “[Our English] countrymen would hardly think it probable, that a Houyhnhnm should be the presiding creature of a nation, and a Yahoo the brute” (285). Clearly, Gulliver cannot comprehend this inversion of power, and this holds true for the Houyhnhnms also. For instance, Gulliver’s ability to mimic and eventually master their language astounds the Houyhnhnms, who assume that Gulliver, who otherwise resembles a Yahoo, possesses the same mental capacity. In fact, at one point, Gulliver states, “I asserted that the Yahoos were the only governing animals in my country, which my master said was altogether past his conception” (286). Swift creates such a dramatic role-reversal in order to emphasize the inherent animalism in human beings. The Yahoos do not have distinct social classes and, in this way, Swift implies that all humans, even the royal and wealthy who deem themselves superior, cannot escape their innate brutality. Indeed, the Yahoos champion malice, cowardice, greed and other prominent follies of mankind. Furthermore, the Houyhnhnm race, the epitome of virtue and benevolence, and the Yahoos, exemplars of evil and corruption, exist worlds away from each other, yet so close. Gulliver, then, seems wedged between the two; thus, Swift suggests that although humans have the ability to attain the virtue of the Houyhnhnms – or at least, to make such an attempt – they opt instead to remain in the realm of the Yahoos. In any case, Swift’s outrageous reversal attacks human nature, and in this way, serves to shock readers into self-examination and personal reform.

Speaking of the governing body of England, Gulliver explains, “The palace of a Chief Minister is a seminary to breed up others in his own trade: the pages, the lackeys, and porter, by imitating their master, become Ministers of State…and learn to excel in the three principal ingredients, of insolence, lying, and bribery” (303). In this instance, Swift strategically employs the phrase “breed up” to serve a dual purpose. Firstly, it literally signifies that by providing many menial court positions for young men, the Chief Minister’s palace jumpstarts their political careers, facilitating their ascent, usually undeservingly, to higher positions. More importantly, the rather coarse phrase “breed up” also connects to Swift’s implication of the savagery and animalism of humanity, which, according to him, is particularly prominent in the political arena. Swift’s clever play on the word “breed” reveals his denouncement of Britain’s governing body, which he progresses in his harsh generalization that prospective politicians “learn to excel in… insolence, lying, and bribery” by “imitating their master,” as if apes (303).

In another portion of Book IV, Swift criticizes the Catholic-Protestant division in his assertion, “Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent” (292). Swift once again uses wit in the form of a subtle play on words, this time skillfully connecting “difference” and “indifferent” in a statement tinged with a sense of melancholy humor. Swift certainly could have substituted “unimportant” or “of no consequence,” yet by repeating the word “different” in the later portion of the sentence, he lends it a rhythm and cohesiveness. In creating such a connection between the two words, he stresses the absurdity of arguing over petty, often negligible, discepancies, as the Catholics and Protestants quarrel over “[W]hether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh… whether whistling be a vice or a virtue… what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean…” (292). Thus, Swift’s cynicism toward both politics and religion can be observed through his use of the satirical element of wit.

Therefore, after assessing the four Parts of Jonanthan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the reader can readily see the large extent to which the author uses satire in its eight forms in order to add a new level of meaning to his classic novel.

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