Comic Satire and Corrosive Satire Distinguished
Comedy and satire are of ancient origin. The most outstanding writers of comedy and satire in ancient times were the Romans, Horace and Juvenal. These two writers can be distinguished from each other in their handling of satire. In fact, they represent two different modes of satire. Horace wrote genial, laughing, urbane satire, while Juvenal excelled in writing severe, lashing satire.The first kind of satire works chiefly in terms of laughter, and may be called comic satire. The second mode emphasizes a severely satirical attack in which laughter is at a minimum, or perhaps even absent. This may be called caustic or corrosive satire. Swift, like Juvenal, holds a commanding position as a writer of corrosive satire. It may also be noted here that most critics have a preference for comic satire and are repelled by corrosive satire. Comic satire is generally regarded as a richer and more complete treatment of humanity than purely corrosive satire.
Two Passages of Comic Satire in Part I of the Book
Although Swift is generally regarded as a master of corrosive satire, comic satire is not lacking in Gulliver’s Travels. The account of Gulliver’s first voyage, the voyage to Lilliput, offers several examples of comic satire. There is one outstanding passage of comic satire in this account, and it is the passage dealing with the high-heels and low-heels, and the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Chapter 4. Similarly there is a comic passage at the end of Chapter 6 in which Gulliver defends the reputation of the Lilliputian lady whose name had been scandalously linked with his own.
Corrosive Satire in Part I
In Chapter 7 of this account occurs the severest satire of the first voyage. Gulliver, who has deserved the highest gratitude from the Lilliputians, is impeached for certain capital offences––chiefly, for making water within the precincts of the royal palace in order to extinguish a fire, and for traitorously refusing to seize all the ships of Blefuscu and put to death all the Big-Endian exiles. Although this episode is introduced with a touch of comic absurdity in the articles of impeachment and in their pompous phrasing, the court’s debate on how to dispose of Gulliver is savage and ironic, and belongs to the category of corrosive satire. It is suggested that Gulliver be put to a painful and degrading death, his house be set on fire, and thousands of poisoned arrows be shot into his face and hands. His servants are to pour poisonous juices on his shirt, and to make him tear his own flesh so as to die in the “utmost torture”. At this point Reldresal proves himself to be Gulliver’s true friend by suggesting that blindness would be a punishment enough; but Gulliver’s enemies argue against this proposal. The King, gracious and lenient, opposes the death sentence, but hints that punishments in addition to blindness may be inflicted on Gulliver. Finally, again through the goodwill of Reldresal, it is decided to blind Gulliver and to starve him to death.
Part I, on the Whole a Merry and Amusing Satire
In this episode which is the longest satirical passage in Part I of the book and the climax of the first voyage, the satirical attack is very bitter. As Swift exposes the hypocrisy, ingratitude, and cruelty of the Lilliputian court, he is no longer mirthful, and becomes as severe as afterwards in Part IV. Yet, on the whole, Part I is the merriest and most amusing in the whole book. The abovementioned one passage of essentially corrosive satire is largely outweighed by incidental comedy, by the famous passage of comic satire (already referred to), and by the wealth of sheer narrative detail. By the end of Chapter 7 the corrosive attack has ceased: Gulliver is in Blefuscu, lying on the ground to kiss the hands of the Emperor and the Empress. In the final chapter of this part Gulliver returns to
and is re-united with his family. We here find him planning to breed Lilliputian sheep in the absurd hope of improving the English woollen manufacture. England
The Basic Comic Absurdity in Part I
Furthermore, there is in Part I the basic comic absurdity which pervades the entire first voyage, namely Gulliver’s attitude in reporting his experiences. Constantly before our eyes we have the incredible double scale of size-human and Lilliputian-reported without comment by Gulliver who accepts the Lilliputian scale as easily as the human. It is the comic incongruity of inadequate reporting, felt as inadequate when we visualize the scenes and episodes described by Gulliver. The two scales of size are constantly blended and there is such a great use of specific visual detail that no reader has any difficulty in seeing the picture. Thus the scandal about Gulliver and the Lilliputian lady is immediately comic to the reader. But as Gulliver goes through his elaborate defence of her and his own reputation, the comedy is greatly heightened by the reader’s realization of Gulliver’s inadequate sense of the situation. In his long defence Gulliver never mentions the one particular that makes the scandal perfectly absurd, and that is the difference between the size of Gulliver and the size of the Lilliputian lady.
Increased Proportion of Comic Episodes in Part II
The account of the second voyage, the voyage to Brobdingnag, like the first, has much interesting descriptive and narrative material that is essentially neither comic nor satirical. But there is now an increased proportion of comic episodes, and the corrosive satire carries far more weight than in Part I. The increased comic effect is achieved mainly at the expense of Gulliver, because in the second voyage he is reduced in status and becomes obviously an object of comic satire. He retains a pride and self-esteem which would be perfectly normal for him among his physical equals, but which are ridiculous under the circumstances, and which result in his being made the comic butt in several episodes. The increased corrosive effect is achieved chiefly by the long chapter in which Gulliver and the King discuss mankind.
Corrosive Satire in Part II
In this long chapter (6) Gulliver gives to the King a favourable account of the English system. The King perceives that all is not well with the civilization of Gulliver’s country. Being a reasonable and thoughtful monarch, he asks Gulliver many questions. The answers to these questions reveal the defects in the civilization of Gulliver’s country. In this passage there is hardly any emotional, ironic, or comic effect as the King conducts his grave and judicial enquiry. Finally, when the King has considered all the information supplied by Gulliver, he calmly delivers his well-known criticism of the human race. The King here describes the bulk of mankind as “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”.
The Climax of Corrosive Satire in Part II
The quality of this criticism by the King is corrosive, not comic. Yet it is only a preliminary to the satire that follows in Chapter 7. Gulliver’s hope of impressing the King has produced a reverse effect, and Swift now proceeds to allow Gulliver to reveal himself as a typical member of the human race, and Swift at the same time drives the satirical attack still deeper. Gulliver expresses his great embarrassment at hearing his noble and most beloved country so unjustly described*. At this point, Swift calls into play the double voice of irony. The squirming Gulliver reveals that he has given to every point a more favourable turn by many degrees than the strictness of truth would allow; but nevertheless he suggests, in a superior tone, that “great allowances should be given to a King who lives so wholly secluded from the rest of the world” and hence must be suffering from “a certain narrowness of thinking, from which we and the politer countries of Europe are wholly exempted”. Gulliver’s comments here have further worsened his case for mankind, besides revealing the absurdity of his sense of superiority to the King. But Swift does not stop here because he still has to reach his satirical climax and to reduce Gulliver completely. Accordingly, Gulliver offers to the King the secret of gun-powder, giving the King an idea of its vast destructive power. The King is horrified. Regarding Gulliver as inhuman in advancing such proposals, the King forbids him to mention the matter again. Gulliver again thinks the King’s attitude to be a result of “narrow principles and short views”.
Comic and Ironic Touches Added to Corrosive Satire in Part II
This long, satirical account is a fairly elaborate affair. We have here, first, Gulliver’s theme of the excellence of mankind. Next comes the calm but corrosive satire of the King’s questions and his final dismissal of mankind-a note which sounds through the rest of the account. Swift then employs the weapon of irony. Gulliver’s self-complacent assumption that he is doing a favour to the King co-exists in the reader’s mind with the shocking demonstration of what man’s inhumanity is capable of. Gulliver demolishes himself with the reader as well as the King; and Swift achieves a bitter yet comic irony in Gulliver’s unawareness and continued self-assurance. And underlying the whole satirical structure of this account is the sub-structure of physical absurdity. With all his fine words and feeling of superiority, Gulliver is so small that the King can just lift him with his hand and stroke him as if he were a pet. To corrosive satire Swift has added comic and ironic touches.
Abundant Comic Satire in Part III
In Part III comic satire preponderates. At least one critic thinks it to be the funniest part in the whole book, although some others regard it as the dullest. Actually, there is considerable laughing-matter in Part III. As early as in Chapter 2 we come across “flappers” or servants who carry in their hands a blown bladder fastened to the end of a short stick. The function of these “flappers” is to draw the attention of their masters to anything that might need their attention, because the minds of their masters are so occupied with intense speculations that they can neither speak nor listen to others without being roused by some external action. This is all very amusing. Then there are the different dishes at the dinner-table where the mutton, the beef, and the pudding have been given geometrical shapes or the shapes of musical instruments. Next, we are told that the people of this flying island are capable of catching the music of the spheres. Not only that. When these people want to praise the beauty of a woman or any other animal, they describe it by geometrical terms such as circles and parallelograms, or by musical terms. We are still more amused to learn that the people here are always in a state of disquietude and can never enjoy a minute’s peace of mind. The women freely make love to strangers in the very presence of their husbands because the husbands, being mentally always occupied, can hardly pay any attention to them. We are given a very funny story at the end of Chapter 2 about the wife of a Prime Minister who having gone down to Lagado, wanted to stay on there with a deformed footman. Chapter 5 of Part III is perhaps even more amusing, with its descriptions of the various projects which occupy the attention of the experimenters at the Academy in Lagado. We are greatly amused by the stupidity and folly of the projectors who are busy finding methods to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers, to convert human excrement into its original food, to build houses from the roof downwards to the foundation, to obtain silk from cobwebs, to produce books by the use of a machine and without having to use one’s brain, and so on. This chapter has been regarded as a satire on tl1e kind of work which the Royal Society in
was engaged upon in those days. Chapter 6 which describes political projects is also very funny. Chapter 7 too contains certain comic elements as, for instance, when Gulliver finds that ghosts and spirits are in attendance at the dinner-table. This chapter has been interpreted as a satire on the pointlessness of historical inquiry. England
The Element of Corrosive Satire in Part III
There is very little “Corrosive satire in this Part. We have some hint of corrosive satire in the chapter (9) in which we are told that a visitor wanting to meet the King had to creep on the floor and lick it when approaching the royal throne. When the King wanted to put any of his courtiers to death, he sprinkled a poisonous powder on the floor so that the courtier, while licking the floor, got poisoned and died soon afterwards. Swift is here attacking the arbitrariness of the monarchs of those days and their whimsical nature. But the satire becomes more scathing and pungent when we are given a description of the Struldbrugs. These persons, being immortal, present a most miserable and wretched sight on account of their old age and the infirmities which come with old age. These people have not only become peevish, morose, and vain, but also incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection. Whenever they see a funeral, they lament and deplore the fact that, while others attain peace of mind by dying, they themselves are condemned to everlasting misery because they cannot die. Gulliver tells us that these immortals presented “the most mortifying sight” he had ever beheld. The women among them looked even more horrible than the men because, besides the usual deformities of extreme old age, they had acquired an additional ghastliness in proportion to their old age. All this is intended to be a satire on the human desire for immortality; and a grim satire it is.
Corrosive Satire on Human Motives in Part IV
The fourth voyage lacks the picturesque and interesting descriptive and narrative detail so abundantly present in the first two voyages. There is, for instance, no double physical scale, and there is little narrative action. Swift does, of course, embody the chief elements of his satirical analysis in the concrete symbols of the horse and the Yahoo, and he describes the Yohoo in full and unpleasant detail. Even so, the spirit and scheme of the fourth voyage possess far less narrative richness than we find in the case of the first two voyages, because Swift now shifts the emphasis of his attack. The satire of the first two voyages is concerned with the flaws and defects of human actions. But the account of the fourth voyage cuts deeper. As actions are an index of human nature, the corrosive satire of the last voyage deals with the motives and causes of action, and with the inner make-up of man.
The Reader Too a Target of Satirical Attack in Part IV
Another difference in the fourth voyage is also noteworthy. Here the reader himself becomes an object of the satirical attack. In the first two parts the reader may remain calm in the face of the satire, because the satire seems to be directed against monarchs and politicians and against small groups of people. Even Gulliver’s offer of gun-powder to the King of Brobdingnag does not involve the reader much, because the reader too probably disapproves of war as much as Swift does. But in Part IV the reader cannot escape the attack, because Swift is attacking the Yahoo in each one of us.
Corrosive Satire in Part IV Deep and Merciless
Furthermore it has now become Swift’s purpose to drive home the satire insistently and relentlessly. Had he wished to achieve only the amusing and comic satire of the first two parts with occasional touches of the corrosive variety, he need not have written the last part. But Swift went on, and in the fourth voyage corrosive satire becomes deep and merciless. In this part of the book, Swift sharply divides human nature into two parts. He attributes reason and benevolence to the Houyhnhnms, while the Yahoos are depicted as mere brutes with selfish appetites. Furthermore, Swift gives to the good qualities the non-human form of the horse, and to the bad qualities the nearly human form of the Yahoos. The satire would have been much less effective if the Houyhnhnms had been described merely as a superior human race. The reader would in that case have naturally evaded the satirical attack by identifying himself with a Houyhnhnms.
The Repellent Physical Details of the Yahoos
Again, for intensity of attack, Swift dwells with unpleasant particularity on Yahoo form and nature: the emphasis is necessarily on Yahoo form and nature. In this connection, it may be pointed out that the unpleasant physical characteristics of the Yahoos are in themselves hardly as repellent as the disgusting physical details which Gulliver has noted among the Brobdingnagians. The microscopic eye among the giants produces perhaps as repulsive a series of physical images as can be found in literature; but, for all that, we are aware of a fantastic enlargement, and this makes for relative unreality. The Yahoos are not giants; they resemble us all too closely in some ways, and their unpleasant physical traits are displayed to us without the variety of relief existing in Part II.
Little Comedy in Part IV
Swift does not spare us anything in this last voyage. If he had made us chuckle and laugh at the Yahoos, and had amused us by depicting their activities, his corrosive satire would have been proportionately weakened. Similarly, if he had portrayed the Houyhnhnms so as to produce a comic effect, his chief purpose would have been impaired. Another noteworthy point is that in the first nine chapters of Part IV Swift further simplifies and concentrates his attack by making almost no use of irony. The attack on the Yahoos (that is, human beings) is not only severe, but literal and direct.
Occasional Fun at the Expense of the Houyhnhnms
Some have found the misanthropy of this last voyage too excessive to be accepted. They find Swift’s hatred to be all-consuming. According to them, the sanity of his rich and complex genius has been dissipated. But we should remember that Swift not only wrote the first nine chapters of Part IV but also the last three. To neglect these final chapters is like ignoring the final couplet in a sonnet by Shakespeare, or the last part of a tragi-comedy like The Winter’s Tale, or the last three chapters of Moby Dick.* To say that the first nine chapters of the fourth voyage are almost continuous corrosive satire does not mean that narrative and comic touches are absolutely lacking in them. Swift cannot resist an occasional bit of fun at the expense of the Houyhnhnms. Thus Gulliver remembers once seeing some Houyhnhnms employed in domestic business, though he does not specify what business. The intellectual limitations and arrogance of the Houyhnhnms are amusingly illustrated in the passage in which the Houyhnhnm criticizes the human form. In every point wherein man and horse differ, the Houyhnhnms automatically and even absurdly assumes that the advantage lies obviously with the horse; for example, that four legs are better than two or that the human anatomy is defective because Gulliver cannot eat without lifting one of his fore-feet to his mouth. While Swift, in pursuit of his purpose, is careful not to make the Houyhnhnms absurd, there are enough comic touches to show that Swift does not totally accept Gulliver’s worshipful attitude towards them.
Swift’s Suggestions for Certain Ludicrous Illustrations
Further evidence that Swift was well aware that the Houyhnhnms were after all, horses, and that they offered enough material for comedy, may be found in a letter he wrote to his publisher concerning the illustrations for a new edition of Gulliver’s Travels. In this letter, Swift makes suggestions for certain ludicrous illustrations in connection with the first nine chapters of the fourth voyage. In other words, Swift recognized the comic effect of the rather simple horses visualized in their relationship of superiority to Gulliver and the Yahoos. However, the comic touches in the portrayal of the Houyhnhnms do not weaken the main attack which is directed against the Yahoos.
The Most Unrelieved Satirical Attack on the Yahoos
In the first nine chapters of the last voyage, the Yahoos (or the human beings) have been presented in all their horror. Swift has in these chapters achieved the most blasting and unrelieved satirical attack possible. Whatever can be said against the flaws and defects of human nature has been exhaustively said. Gulliver’s revolt against mankind is so complete that Swift is able to give the knife a final twist: mankind is, if anything, worse than the Yahoos, since man is afflicted by pride, and makes use of what mental power he has to achieve perversions and corruptions undreamed of even by the Yahoos.
Gulliver’s Word Not Final
At this point of the satirical attack many readers have concluded that this was Swift’s final word because it is Gulliver’s final word. Swept away by the force of the corrosive attack on the Yahoos, they think that ‘Gulliver is at last Swift. In the last three chapters, however, Swift shows that Gulliver’s word cannot be final.
Gulliver’s Pessimism and Misanthropy Only One Part of Swift
Swift, satirist and realist, is well aware that there is more of the Yahoos in mankind than there is of benevolence and reason. And he develops his attack as forcefully as he can, by means of corrosive satire, in terms of pessimism and misanthropy. But this is only a part of Swift. He is also perfectly aware that the problem is not so simply solved as it is for the Houyhnhnms and for Gulliver. He knows that there is much to be hated in the animal called man, but he knows also that there are many lovable individuals among human beings. The horses have no room for anything between Houyhnhnm and Yahoo, and Gulliver takes over this too simple attitude. Just as Gulliver’s physical sense of proportion was upset by his voyage to the country of the giants, so here his intellectual sense of proportion is overbalanced. The limited, simplified Houyhnhnm point of view is obviously better to him than the Yahoo state; and he clings to it. Swift can keep clear the double physical scale of Gulliver and giant; not so, Gulliver. Similarly, Swift can differentiate between Yahoo and Gulliver, but Gulliver himself is convinced that he is a Yahoo.
Comic Touches in Chapter 10 at Gulliver’s Cost
Swift has fun with Gulliver in Chapter 10. Swift makes the Houyhnhnms, with more ruthlessness than benevolence, order Gulliver to leave their country. Gulliver faints on hearing the decision. He is allowed two months to build a boat, and eventually he has to leave. The scene of his parting is heart-breaking for Gulliver; but for Swift and the reader it has its comic touches.
Swift’s View in These Last Chapters Not the Same as Gulliver’s
In the earlier voyages, Swift had spent only a few pages on Gulliver’s return to the real world; in the fourth and last voyage he gives two chapters to it. These two chapters are the climax of Swift’s whole satire as well as the end of the fourth voyage. Gulliver, hating himself and all men as Yahoos, is reintroduced to the world of actual men and women. If now Swift’s view were the same as Gulliver’s, Swift should have gone on with his severe satire against mankind, and even deepened it with specific examples of Yahoo nature. But Swift does nothing of the kind. Rather, he shows us very carefully and at some length the inadequacy of Gulliver’s new attitude. Gulliver continues to tremble between fear and hatred when confronted by a human being, while at the same time it is made clear that the persons with whom he comes into contact are essentially honest, kind-hearted, and generous. But Gulliver now sees men only as Yahoos, with the result that he cannot accept goodness and generosity even when he actually witnesses these qualities in human beings.
Gulliver’s Dislike of the Ship’s Captain Despite the Latter’s Kindheartedness
The Portuguese crew speak to Gulliver with great humanity when they find him, but he feels horrified. When he is taken to the Captain of the ship, Pedro de Mendez, he remains silent and sullen, and is ready to faint at the very smell of him and his men. He tells the Captain that he would suffer the greatest hardships rather than return to live among the Yahoos. The Captain offers Gulliver the best clothes he has. In
, the Captain still further helps Gulliver, taking him to his house and persuading him to accept a newly made suit of clothes. The Captain’s whole deportment is so obliging that, added to a very good human understanding, it makes the Captain’s company tolerable to Gulliver. However, Gulliver’s hatred and contempt do not diminish. Lisbon
Gulliver’s Misanthropy Not Justified
Swift introduces Pedro de Mendez as a kind and generous individual precisely as a foil to Gulliver’s misanthropy. Swift wants to show that Gulliver has totally lost his judgment and mental balance, thereby becoming incapable of recognizing the excellent qualities of human beings wherever they exist. Chapter II is almost wholly a demonstration that Gulliver behaves in a most absurd manner by blindly refusing to give up his misanthropic beliefs. His conduct of his returning home is the ultimate result of this absurdity. His family receive him with joy, but the sight of them fills him with hatred, contempt, and disgust. When his wife kisses him, he falls into a swoon for almost an hour. In other words, his adopted attitude of mind now permits him to see only the Yahoo in man or woman. Even after five years he does not permit any member of his family to touch him. With his first saving, he buys two young horses with whom he converses for at least four hours every day.
Comic Satire of the Concluding Chapters with Gulliver as Swift’s Target
Gulliver’s attitude is not the solution. This is exactly what Swift wants us to understand. It is too unbalanced and unrealistic an attitude, and Swift presents its absurdity to us. Gulliver’s attitude is in effect a complete quarrel with man and a final refusal to accept the nature of a man. To accuse Swift of having the same attitude is to ignore the evidence. Much in the nature of man was certainly hateful and detestable to Swift, and he often attacked it in unambiguous terms. But, though Gulliver’s soul is completely discontented at the end, Swift rises to a higher level. Swift shows himself to be much more than a corrosive satirist only. Swift shows his high sense of the comic. In the final satirical vision of the concluding chapters of the book, Gulliver’s discontentment is enclosed in comic satire, with Gulliver himself as the target.
The Inadequacy of the Corrosive Attitude Emphasized by Swift
In Part IV, then, Swift gives a complete expression to his satirical vision, lashing his victims mercilessly. But he also realizes that the conclusions which have been drawn by Gulliver from this frightful vision are inadequate and invalid. The negative, corrosive attack by Swift on mankind is present up to the last page of the book. But what more Swift does in the last three chapters is unique in the history of satirical literature. Severe satire remains the main theme even in these chapters, but the new theme of Gulliver’s absurdity now complicates the issue. Swift rises to a larger and more comprehensive view than Gulliver, and in this way he satirically comments on the inadequacy of the corrosive attitude. The evils in the world and in man are such that a simple and ethical temperament may be driven to despair and misanthropy. Yet such an attitude is shown by Swift to be inadequate and absurd.
Swift’s Transcending the Misanthropic Solution
Gulliver’s attitude at the end is a kind of misanthropic solution of the problem of evil. Such an attitude is a tempting solution for a severe satirist; but Swift found it too limited and too unrealistic. It is true that Swift offers no answer of his own, and no solution. But he does transcend the misanthropic solution. He could see that his own severest satire was the result of a partial and one-sided view, which was therefore properly a subject for mirth. This is the final comedy of Lemuel Gulliver, that Swift is able to make a subtle joke at the expense of Gulliver, or at the expense of a very important part of himself. We may leave Gulliver in the company of his two young horses, but Swift is not with him. Swift is above Gulliver, in the realm of comic satire; he is still indignant at the Yahoo in man, but at the same time he is smiling at Gulliver’s absurdity in being able to see only the Yahoo in man and no more than the Yahoo.