First published in 1726, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels swirls around much controversy and debate. Children throughout the generation are invariably pleased by the adventures of Gulliver, the gentle giant in the toy-town of Lilliput or of Gulliver in Brobdingnag, so shrunken that the larks are the size of sheep and a household cat is of dragon proportions. Every child who has read the novel would agree with Dr. Arbuthnot that “Gulliver is a happy man that at his age can write such a merry work.
John Wesley, the great religious reformer saw Book 4 as a passionate denunciation of war: “Man in general cannot be allowed to be reasonable creatures till they not war any more. ” Whereas others have found the novel to be a product of a lonely and bitter man, half crazed with anger at a world which had denied him success.
Aldou Huxley says, “Swift’s greatness lies in the intensity, the almost insane violence of that ‘hatred of the bowels’ which is the essence of his misanthropy, and which underlies the whole of his work.
Echoing this is John Boyle’s view, “In this last part of his imaginary travels… the representation which he has given us of human nature, must terrify, and even debase the mind of the reader who views it… we are disgusted, not entertained; we are shocked, not instructed, by the fable. ” Whatever the reasons may be, Gulliver’s Travels may be regarded to be a representative of eighteenth century Europe in general and its politics in particular.
This essay intends to firstly examine briefly the structure and narrative of the novel.
Secondly, it will analyze Voyage I as topical in nature wherein Swift satirizes the European politics of eighteenth century and conclude by briefly commenting on Swift’s message behind his use of political satire in Gulliver’s Travels. The theme or the structure of a book is what draws readers to it and hence success of the book largely depends on it. Although a lot of controversy is associated with Gulliver’s Travels, the fact cannot be ignored that it has sold millions of copies till now.
The book is cast in the convention of an adventure story which is well reflected from its title, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World or as it is popularly called Gulliver’s Travels. On the periphery the book appears as the tale of a simple Englishman’s journey into the unknown and remote nations- Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, Japan and Houyhnhnms and his experience on these voyages. Swift uses the device of verisimilitude in the novel to project his fantasy world as credible.
In a work of fantasy, a writer creates impossible characters, places and situations and asks the readers to pretend that they are real. To help the reader in this task, the writer tells his tale in such a way that he makes it seem credible- that is, he gives it verisimilitude. Swift’s use of first person narrative, giving his imaginary characters and places some real-world characteristics, addressing his reader directly and following each voyage to an unreal world with a voyage back to the real world can be attributed to the literary device of verisimilitude: But at the same time the reader can hardly conceive my astonishment, to behold an sland in the air, inhabited by men, who were able (as it should seem) to raise or sink, or put it into progressive motion, as they pleased.
However, a lot of issues are hidden beneath the novel. Though he has cast his novel in the genre of an adventure story yet, he criticizes and ridicules other travel writers of his day. Gulliver, in the novel frequently says that he will not “trouble the reader” with detailed descriptions of a particular episode in his travels. Such statements are the author’s jibe at travel writers who tend to inflate their descriptions with a prolixity of insignificant details.
Most of all, the novel is a scathing attack on the eighteenth century European politics which will form the subsequent discussion of the essay. The most obvious joke in the title of Swift’s Travels into several Remote Nations of the World is that what purports to be a chronicle of several excursions to remote nations turns out to be a satiric anatomy of specifically English attitudes and values. To write about public affairs or to criticize public men with any freedom invited censorship for the writer unless he uses literary artifices of various kinds to express his opinions with impunity.
Perhaps this is why, Swift casts his novel in the garb of an adventure story to escape censorship and criticize the eighteenth century English society. “Censure,” according to Swift, “is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent. ” The text is a political satire in the sense that it exposes the mechanisms of court officials, corruption and degrading human values which fostered in the eighteenth century Europe. In his preface to The Battle of the Books, Swift writes, “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. In the book, many figures which seem to be imaginary are meant to depict real personages, or at all events are drawn from them.
Swift in one of his letters to Alexander Pope regarding the book wrote, “I have employed my time in finishing, correcting, amending and transcribing my Travels in four parts complete, newly augmented, and intended for the press when the world shall deserve them, or rather when a printer shall be found brave enough to venture his ears. This reference to the printer’s ears highlights as C. H. Firth says, “the book contained political allusions which might bring the publisher to the pillory, and draw upon him the fate which befell Defoe. ” Ample political allusions abound in Voyage I of the book. Some are to the events of Queen Anne’s reign and others to events in the reign of King George I. The first part of Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput has no political significance.
In fact, the place appears to be an utopian land and its inhabitants as generous and kind: “I now considered myself as bound by the laws of hospitality to a people who had treated me with so much expense and magnificence. ” However, as Gulliver progresses his story, Lilliput ceases to be Utopia and becomes England itself, instead of being an example to England. Sycophancy is practiced by the court officials who will go to any length to win favors from the Queen and lords.
Swift, thus through the episode of rope-dancing performed upon a “slender white thread” criticizes the obnoxious practices of court officials: “This diversion is only practiced by those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favour at court. ” Gulliver further says, “But the danger is much greater when the ministers themselves are commanded to show their dexterity; for by contending to excel themselves and their fellows, they strain so far, that there is hardly one of them who hath not received a fall, and some of them two or three.
The image of Lilliput as England becomes clear when Reldresal says, “We labour under two mighty evils; a violent faction at home, and the danger of an invasion by a most potent enemy from abroad. “In Lilliput there are two struggling parties called “Tramecksan and Slameckson, from the high and low heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves. “These allude the Tories and Whigs, England’s political parties and the potent enemy abroad is the island of Blefuscu which typifies France, England’s arch-rival.
The emperor of Lilliput wants Gulliver to invade Blefuscu and could think “of nothing less than reducing the whole Empire of Blefuscu into a province, and governing it by Viceroy; of destroying the Big-Endian exiles, and compelling that people to break the smaller end of their eggs, by which he would remain sole monarch of the whole world. ” This symbolizes London’s colonial enterprise who despite being a small nation like Lilliput had a number of nations under its control and the Lilliputian Emperor’s using of Gulliver reflects the British throne’s using of and ally.
The religious war between Lilliput and Blefuscu symbolizes the quarrel between England and France over the nature of sacrament and differences in communion of the catholic and Anglican Churches. Swift’s use of the struggling parties, Tramecksan and Slameckson is his immediate jibe at European politics. Through their quarrel, Swift satirizes the War of the Spanish Succession. The Whigs had conducted a war against the Roman Catholic leaders of France and Spain. Although it had its religious overtones, the war also involved trading rights with the colonies in America.
However, the Tories led by Harley and Bolingbroke after coming to power, began to negotiate with the French thus resulting in the peace treaty of Utrecht, 1713. Their naval policy, they said destroyed the Spanish fleet. However, the Whigs being unsatisfied later accused the Tories of treason because of a failure to get colonies and parts from France and Spain. In light of this Swift’s remark holds very true, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another. ”
The ingratitude of the British throne towards its men of service is highly condemned by Swift and finds expression in the fire episode of Chapter 5. Gulliver is instrumental in saving the rest of the palace but the Queen instead vows revenge against Gulliver for urinating in the “precincts of the palace” which was later included in the articles of impeachment against him. This incident is an allegorical representation of certain incidents in Swift’s life. Mr. Dennis says, “Queen Anne was so much disgusted with the ‘Tale of a Tub’ that in spite of Swift’s political services, she could never be induced to give him preferment in the Church. Swift’s satirical writings largely stood in the way of his promotion. He failed to get the Irish Bishopric in 1708 and it was with great difficulty that he obtained the deanery in 1713. All these can be attributed to the influence of the Duchess of Somerset, Dr. Sharp, the Archbishop of York, the earl of Nottingham and Robert Walpole. In the book, Gulliver refers to Bolgolam, the Admiral of the Realm as his “mortal enemy” and his “malice” is constantly mentioned and insisted upon.
Bolgolam typifies the Earl of Nottingham who used his private influences to stop Swift’s preferment and opposed the Schism Act saying that it was dangerous because it gave too much power to the bishops. The character of Flimnap is a representative of Sir Robert Walpole under whose administration England became a fountainhead of corruption. Swift’s critique of England under Walpole echoes Samuel Johnson’s diatribe of the same in his poem London: … all are Slaves to Gold, Where Looks are Merchandise, and Smiles are sold, Where won by Bribes, by Flatteries implor’d,
The Groom retails the Favours of his Lord. The “King’s cushions” which saves Flimnap from breaking his neck symbolizes the Duchess of Kendal, one of the King’s mistresses, by whose influence Walpole, after his fall from power in 1717, was again restored to favor. Bolgolam, Flimnap and the other court official’s conspiracy against Gulliver is indicative of the malice practiced by the court officials of King George I who instead of looking after the nation and performing their duties were only interested in bickering, gaining favors and opposing to anyone who stood in their way of making profit.
This is perfectly highlighted in Dean Swift’s quote, “When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. ” The account of the silken threads- green, red and blue given to the courtiers showing most agility in leaping over or creeping under a stick signify the various orders of the Thistle, Bath and the Garter. By alluding to this, Swift attacks the policy of George I who used these orders as cheap ways of buying political support from social climbers which increased corruption and sycophancy in the English society all the more.
Gulliver’s escape to Blefuscu to escape trial provides the bitterest satiric attack on hypocrisy, ingratitude and cruelty by the eighteenth century English society. Bolingbroke, Swift’s friend had brought a great war to an end but was denounced by his political opponents and accused of treason which made him flee England. Thus, Swift’s scathing attack and political allusions in Book I of Gulliver’s Travels serve as a powerful critique of European politics.
Swift has been criticized for being a misanthropist. However, his misanthropy arises out of his disappointment in human kind- he is constantly frustrated by what men do as opposed to what they ought to do. Through his satiric attempt at exposing the European politics, Swift intends to give a moral message to the people- to view themselves as he viewed humankind, as creatures that were not fulfilling their potential to be truly great but were simply flaunting the trappings of greatness.
The main object of satire in the book is human nature itself, specifically man’s pride as it manifests in “pettiness, grossness, rational absurdity, and animality” (Tuveson). Gulliver’s character, as a satirical device, serves Swift’s ends by being both a mouthpiece for some of Swift’s ideals and criticisms and as an illustration of them so that people can recognize their follies and correct their vices. For critics such as Dobree, the book “is in a sense, a tragic work… n that it is the picture of man’s collapse before his corrupt nature, and of his defiance in face of the collapse. ” However for Swift, humbling human pride, enabling a more honest self-assessment was absolutely vital to addressing the suffering and injustice so prevalent in human life. Contrary to many who label swift a misanthropist, only a man who cared deeply about humanity could have produced a work like Gulliver’s Travels.
As we travel with Gulliver, through the voyages, Swift brilliantly peels away our pride and pretensions, layer by layer, until he shows us what we are and challenges us, intensely and urgently, to be better. In the words of Louis A. Landa, “Many looked about and saw widely prevailing infection, a culture losing its vigor and its better values, under the impact of bribery, luxury, political faction… But only a person of the rarest gifts, such as Swift, could transmute these into an imperishable imaginative comment on the nature of man and society. “