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In an elaborate concoction of political allegory, social anatomy, moral fable, and mock utopia: Gulliver’s Travels is written in the voice of Captain Lemuel Gulliver, an educated, seafaring man voyaging to remote countries for the purpose of contributing to human knowledge. The four books written by Jonathan Swift could well be deemed masterpieces, for he utilizes a skilful parody of pseudo-scientific exploration journals and travel fiction to launch a veritable smorgasbord of satirical social and political attacks.
In Book One, Gulliver is shipwrecked on an unknown island named Lilliput, where he encounters a race of people “not six inches high”. Curiously, the customs and history of these people sound, at times, remarkably similar to the English. Although Gulliver always narrates the tale in his own voice, his experiences with the people of Lilliput bear a notable resemblance to the real events that transpired between the Earl of Oxford and Viscount Bolingbroke. The opening letter from Captain Gulliver to his cousin Sympson is an admirable introduction to Swift’s propensity for irony; even Gulliver’s most innocent disclaimers often prove to be satirical strikes at politics, hypocrisy, and even humanity in general. On the first page, he professes not to know the meaning of the word “innuendo”, directly stating the names of Queen Anne and her ministers, Godolphin and Oxford. This is, in fact, a contradiction in itself – as is much of what Gulliver writes, as we later discover. Innuendo is used countless times throughout the books; it is a valuable tool for the satirist because it allows him to implicate a target through seemingly unrelated attacks. Gulliver links the “people in power” to the “Yahoos”, despicable creatures of human appearance that appear in Book Four. His list of the expected “reformations” which should result after reading his journals are actually a summary of the criticisms he makes towards society throughout his travels.
In Chapter One, “A Voyage to Lilliput”, Swift’s irony is apparent even in the face of eventful narrative; when Gulliver wakes up to find himself pinned down, he readily accepts his powerless position. In the hands of the Lilliputian state, he refers to his captors using the most courteous of titles, the way one would normally address nobility. Gulliver’s delight is apparent in Chapter Two, but already the descriptions contain a distinguishable amount of irony, exemplified when Gulliver refers to the “majestic” deportment of the Emperor. With his “Austrian Lip”, the Emperor is a satirical portrait of the Hanoverian King George I, who can be described as neither “graceful” nor “well-proportioned”. The corruption of secretaries of state as well as the inventory made of Gulliver’s possessions after a security check is suggestive of real events at the time, the latter alluding to the similarly minute investigation that took place in 1715 involving the Whigs and the fallen Tory leaders Oxford and Bolingbroke. Swift viewed Oxford as a giant amongst pygmies.
A court satire characterizes Chapter Three; the activities that transpire are clearly meant to typify the court of George I, or indeed any government institution. The style of speech and the trivial requirements used to select high office candidates is ironic, as is Swift’s reference to the “prudent and exact economy of so great a prince”, especially now that he is at “full liberty”. The next chapter includes an interview with Reldresal, the Principal Secretary of Private Affairs (in itself a satirical title), addressing the the political concerns of the Empire. Two factions exist, the “High-Heels” and the “Low-Heels” – both are in the King’s favour, but the latter is currently in power. This corresponds to the High and Low church parties in Swift’s world: the Whigs, favoured by George I, and the Tories, a group that was powerful because the Prince allied himself with both parties. Swift’s use of “heel” may allude to the real-life situation; the Prince “hobbled” with one heel higher than the other. More detailed historical allusions are typified in this chapter, with the “Bloody War” symbolising the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13), and “His present Majesty’s grandfather” – a loose reference to Henry VIII and the English Reformation. The execution of Charles I and the deposing of James II are shown in the phrase: “One Emperor lost his life, and another his crown.”
Filmnap’s white staff in Chapter Six reflected the white staff, which was the English Lord Treasurer’s symbol of office. Gulliver’s initial shock at the seemingly absurd customs of the Lilliputian people is an aggressive metaphor alluding to Swift’s attitude to the employment of atheists and the education of working-class children. Swift satirises the feeble charges made against his friends in Chapter Seven, when Gulliver is made aware of a plot to impeach him for treason. It is somewhat humorous when Gulliver’s informant tells him how the court plans to take his life: by first blinding and then starving him, assuming he will lie down for the operation. In this classic parody of the arguments of politicians, we can see irony in the fact that the tiny Lilliputians are entirely oblivious to Gulliver’s size, possibly fueled by their illusions of power and bloated sense of self-worth. Their blindness is emphasized by the phrase: “It would be sufficient for you to see by the eyes of the ministers, since the greatest princes do no more.”
In Book Two, the situation is reversed, and Gulliver is accidentally abandoned in an unmapped region of North America where the inhabitants are twelve times his size. Unlike Lilliput, Brobdingnag bears little resemblance to England, but the political satire continues when Gulliver is positioned as a 18th-century English delegate appointed to justify the human race. When Gulliver dines with the Queen, he talks to the King about European culture, but writhes in embarrassment when the King refers to his people as “diminutive insects” which can only mimic human grandeur. Here, Swift puts words into the King’s mouth that reflect his own views of human society.
The sharpest satire Swift includes in the second voyage is found in Chapter Six, when Gulliver attempts to impress the King with talk of his “own dear native country”. Although eloquent, Gulliver’s speech is ironic in itself, exposing a number of human follies. A gentle cross-examination takes place when the King, after substantial consideration, offers Gulliver his final, devastating judgement: “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”. This is an example of exaggeration, a common technique in satire; using an extreme case is among the best ways to help the audience recognize the presence of a vice, and like all satire, recognition must precede correction. The ironic, rhetorical arrangement of the entire chapter is a product of Swift’s pure wit – always an essential part of satire.
The satirical lampoon of human folly is sustained in Chapter Seven, through a variety of means, such as the offering of gunpowder to the King, which was met with horror. The King tells Gulliver that he would “rather lose half his kingdom than to be privy to such a secret”, and the Utopian element of Brobdingnag becomes apparent. When asked why the land even has an army at all, the king explains that the cause is historical: wars began when the nobility contended for power, “the people for liberty, and the King for absolute dominion”, but the problem disappeared two reigns ago when the “general composition” was established. This “general composition” clearly represents the Revolution Settlement, the core of Swift’s political opinion; the difference existing in the fact that Brobdingnag has learnt to do without standing armies, while England has not.
Book Three is very broad both geographically and satirically; Gulliver travels from Laputa to Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, and Luggnagg. In Laputa, a floating island, Gulliver encounters residents who are absurdly obsessed with abstract sciences and speculations, and are able to tyrannise the land of Balnibarbi beneath them. Their appearances are described as perpetually drowned in deep speculation, with one eye turned inward, and their heads inclined to the left or right. The satire exists not only in the parody of impossible etymology in Gulliver’s speculation about the origin of the word “Laputa”, but also in the intellectual deformities and the dangers of irresponsible intelligentsia. Swift parodies scientific papers in the next chapter, using Gulliver to give a technical account of the island’s magnetic system of suspension and propulsion. The last five paragraphs, which describe the revolt of Lindalino, allegorise Ireland’s campaign against “Wood’s half-pence”. Swift’s “drapier’s letters” are no doubt the “combustible fuel” that helps to repel Laputa. Chapter Five describe the highly humorous yet equally improbable projects being undertaken by the Academy, such as “extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers”, and “reforming language by abolishing words”. According to some readers, this is proof of Swift’s anti-intellectualism, although it may merely be a satire based on some real-life scientific “projects” taking place at the Royal Society.
The next chapter opens with one of Swift’s best satirical reversals: the professors in the “school of political projectors” appear to be “wholly out of their senses”, indulging in “wild and impossible schemes”. This is a turning point for Gulliver in the minds of the readers, because after hearing about a list of bodily ills, Gulliver’s only action is to offer memorable ways to remind the ministers of their duty. A scheme which suggests brain surgery as a method for curing political divisiveness exemplifies the enormous irony found in Swift’s writing. The episode is absurdly humorous, but the chapter also includes hard political satire: the kingdoms of “Tribnia” and its natives, called the “Langden”, are clearly anagrams for “Britian” and “England”. In this book, unscrupulous ministers debauch the most innocent letters into proofs of treason, but of course Swift is merely taking his revenge on those who used similar forms of evidence to prosecute his friends.
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is a multilayered, clever, and irrefutably witty text which showcases the author’s extraordinary satirical technique, while never failing to claim the audience’s attention and interest. Swift is unquestionably competent in his ability to explore and capture the vices of society to the fullest extent.
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