Friday, November 19, 2010

Contemporary Allusions in Gulliver’s Travels

The Desirability of Having a Historical Personality in One’s Mind
Gulliver’s Travels contains a large number of allusions to contemporary political personalities and events. Many figures which seem to be imaginary to us were based on real persons. In one of his earlier writings, Swift said: “In describing the virtues and vices of mankind, it is convenient to have some eminent person in our eye, from whence we copy our description.” In other words, a satirist may look into history for some character bearing a resemblance to the person he wishes to describe and attack in his writing. At the same time Swift admitted that this method of writing had one serious drawback: “Though the present age may understand well enough the little hints we give, the parallels we draw, and the characters we describe, yet this will all be lost to the next.”

Main Events of the Time
Gulliver’s Travels was most probably written during the period 1720­1725. Political allusions in this book are to the events of the end of Queen Anne’s reign, and to events during the reign of George I. Naturally, events which took place during the years in which the book was completed left most traces on it. In England the main events of the time were the South Sea Bubble (1720), the return to office of Walpole (1721), the return from exile of Bolingbroke (1723), the removal of Carteret from the English cabinet (1724), the supremacy of Walpole in it (1725). In Ireland during the same period the struggle over Wood’s patent began and ended (1722 to 25).
England in the Disguise of Lilliput in Part I of the Book
References to public events and public personalities are most frequent in Parts I and III of Gulliver’s Travels. The voyage to Lilliput in Part I of the book contains the story of Gulliver’s shipwreck and his early adventures among the pigmies. In this part, as soon as Swift turns to describe the politics of Lilliput, that country ceases to be a kind of Utopia and becomes the England of Swift’s time. A Lilliputian lord tells Gulliver “We labour under two mighty evils-a violent faction at home and the danger of an invasion by a most potent enemy from abroad.” The Lilliputian lord goes on to refer to the two struggling parties, one party distinguished by its high-heeled shoes and the other by its low-heeled shoes. The reference obviously is to the High Church and Low Church parties, or the Tories and the Whigs. The potent enemy from abroad is the island of Blefuscu which stands for France with whom England had been engaged in an obstinate struggle for a whole generation. Thus, the story of Gulliver’s first voyage becomes a kind of political allegory. The Emperor of Lilliput would in that case be a portrayal of George I who is a supporter of the Whigs by his determination to make use of only low-heels in the administration of the government, and himself wearing heels lower than any member of his court. The parallel is emphasized by making the heir to the throne show an inclination towards high-heels, as the Prince of Wales did to the Tories of the time. Finally, Swift adds an ironical passage on the leniency and mercy of the Emperor intended to remind his readers of the executions which had taken place after the rebellion in 1715, and the praises of King George’s mercy which the government had published.
The Allegorical Meaning of the Empress’s Annoyance with Gulliver
The incident of Gulliver’s extinguishing a fire in the apartment of the Lilliputian Empress relates to the circumstances in Swift’s own life. The Lilliputian Empress was filled with resentment at Gulliver’s action in extinguishing the fire by urinating upon it, and she decided never again to make use of that apartment. This incident is an allegorical representation of the fact that Queen Anne was so disgusted with Swift’s A Tale of a Tub that, in spite of Swift’s political services, she could never be prevailed upon to promote Swift to a higher office in the Church. The result of Queen Anne’s annoyance was that Swift failed to obtain the position of a bishop which he hoped to get in 1708; and it was with great difficulty that he got the office of a dean in 1713. Swift also believed that Queen Anne was “a royal prude”, and that her opposition to his promotion was due to the efforts of his enemies. In one of his poems, Swift names the Duches of Somerset, the Archbishop of York, the Earl of Nottingham, and Robert Walpole as his enemies.
The Earl of Nottingham in the Guise of Bolgolam
In Gulliver’s Travels, the principal enemy of Gulliver is a certain lord named Bolgolam. Another enemy is described by Gulliver as “a person well versed in affairs, but of a morose and sour complexion”. This person is clearly intended to represent the Earl of Nottingham. The morose and sour complexion attributed to Bolgolam in the book at once suggests the identification. In 1711, when Nottingham had joined the Whigs in their attack on the foreign policy of the government, Swift had written two poems against him. Nottingham had retaliated by using his influence at the court to stop Swift’s promotion, and then had openly condemned him in parliament.
Bolingbroke in Swift’s Mind
Another statesman who figures in Gulliver’s account of the circumstances and conditions prevailing in Lilliput is Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was very much in Swift’s mind in 1719 and 1720. Bolingbroke was at that time in exile, and Swift was in correspondence with him in 1719 when there was some hope of Bolingbroke’s pardon and his return to England, though the hope was not realized till 1723. During that period several long letters were exchanged between them. It was towards the end of 1721 that Swift mentioned his book to Bolingbroke who replied that he longed to see the book, namely Gulliver’s Travels.
The Close Parallel between Bolingbroke and Gulliver
In the book itself, there is a close parallel between the fate of Bolingbroke and that of Gulliver. Like Gulliver, Bolingbroke had brought a great war to an end and concluded a peace upon conditions very advantageous to his country, but was denounced by his political opponents for not prosecuting the war to bring about the complete surrender of the enemy. Bolingbroke was accused of treasonable intercourse with French ambassadors, just as Gulliver in the book is accused of treasonable intercourse with the ambassadors of Blefuscu. Gulliver flees from Lilliput because he feels that he cannot obtain a fair trial, “having in my life perused many State trials which I ever observed to terminate as the judges thought fit to direct.” Gulliver is aware that powerful enemies in Lilliput seek to have him killed. Now, Bolingbroke had declared that he had fled from England because he had definite information that some powerful political opponents wanted to have him executed. It is obvious, then, that in this part of the book Gulliver is attributing to himself the circumstances of Bolingbroke.
Sir Robert Walpole in the Guise of Flimnap
Closely connected with the portrayal of Boling broke is that of Sir Robert Walpole who is represented in the book under the name of Flimnap. One of the important features of political life in Lilliput is that candidates for high offices have to compete by dancing on a tight rope. Flimnap, the Lord Treasurer of Lilliput, has himself to display his skill in this art (of dancing on a tight rope). Flimnap’s skill symbolizes Walpole’s dexterity in parliamentary tactics and political intrigues. When Flimnap, after an attempted 4igh jump, falls down, he is saved from breaking his neck by the King’s cushion. This cushion is intended to symbolize the Duches of Kendal who was one of King George I’s mistresses and by whose influence Walpole was restored to royal favour after his fall from power in 1717.
The Silken Threads in Lilliput Symbolic of English Distinctions
Then there is the custom in Lilliput of awarding silken threads of green, red, and blue colours to those courtiers who showed the greatest agility in leaping over or creeping under a stick. The green thread represents the Order of the Thistle, which was revived by Queen Anne in 1703. The red thread represents the Order of the Bath, which was revived by George 1 in 1725. Its revival was due to Walpole’s initiative. The blue thread represents the Order of the Garter which was bestowed on Walpole himself in 1726, after which he became known to satirists by the title of Sir Blue-String.
The Alleged Love-affair between Gulliver and Flimnap’s Wife
One passage in Gulliver’s account of his experiences in Lilliput is difficult to explain. This passage describes Flimnap’s jealousy of his wife who is reported to have developed a love-affair with Gulliver. The scandal involving Gulliver and Flimnap’s wife aggravates Flimnap’s hostility to Gulliver. This episode in Part I of the book seems to be an ironical attack by Swift on Walpole whose first wife, Catherine, was not above suspicion, while Walpole’s indifference to her flirtations was notorious. But it is also possible that the episode in question is a veiled reference to Bolingbroke’s attempt to win the favour of the Duchess of Kendal, hitherto Walpole’s firmest ally, in order to utilize her influence with George I to Walpole’s detriment.
Lord Carteret in the Guise of Reldresal
Besides Flimnap, another minister of the Lilliputian court is Reldresal, Principal Secretary for Private Affairs. Reldresal is the lord who explains to Gulliver the intricacies of Lilliputian politics and proves himself throughout Gulliver’s true friend. It is clear that Reldresal is meant to represent Lord Carteret who was Secretary of State from 1721 to 1724 and who stood very high in King George I’s favour. It has been suggested that Townshend was the man represented by Reldresal, but as Carteret was Swift’s friend, he must be the person meant. In April, 1724, Walpole got rid of Carteret by making him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In that capacity Carteret was obliged to issue a proclamation offering a reward for the discovery of the author* of the Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland, just as Reldresal was obliged to suggest a method punishing his friend Gulliver.
Contemporary Allusions in the Voyage to Brobdingnag
In the voyage to Brobdingnag, there are no references to actual contemporary persons, while the allusions to contemporary politics are only general. Some of the institutions and customs of Brobdingnag are briefly described and praised; for instance, the brevity of the laws, the cultivation of useful knowledge rather than speculative philosophy or abstract sciences, and the simplicity of the literary style in fashion. The method adopted throughout is not to hold up ideal institutions for invitation as in the case of Lilliput, but to describe existing institutions so as to show their defects. In five interviews Gulliver explains to the King the constitution and government of England, and then the King, by doubts, queries, and objections, forces him to reveal the difference between the practice and the theory of the institutions described. Gulliver has to admit that the working of the parliamentary government is vitiated by the methods of selecting peers, bishops, and members of the House of Commons, so that, as the King points out, the original idea of the institution is “blurred and blotted by corruptions”.
The Political Views of the Tories of the Time
The comments of the King of Brobdingnag express the political views of Swift’s party on many questions. The King is amazed to hear Gulliver talk of a mercenary army in the midst of peace and among a free people. Every year, over the Mutiny Act or the Estimates, the House of Commons resounded with denunciations of standing armies, and Lord Chesterfield recommended the issue to his son as the best subject for a young member’s maiden speech. In the same way the King of Brobdingnag echoes the criticisms of the Tories on the financial system and their alarm at the existence of the national debt.
The King of Brobdingnag as Swift’s Mouthpiece on Contemporary Topics
On most questions the King is not merely the mouthpiece of the Tory party but of Swift; and the opinions the King expresses are those which Swift had already stated in his pamphlets. Swift’s condemnation of gambling, his complaint of the neglected education of the upper classes, his theory of the best way of treating Dissenters and his rooted animosity to lawyers, all find expression through the King. Similarly, a view which Swift had expressed in one of his letters finds an epigrammatic expression by the King in the following words:
“Whoever could make two ears of com or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
At the back of Swift’s mind there is always the thought of Ireland. In a letter written in 1732 he made his meaning still more clear. In that letter he wrote: “There is not an acre of land in Ireland turned to half its advantage, yet it is better improved than the people; and all these evils are effects of English tyranny, so your sons and grand-children will find it to their sorrow.”
The Allusion to Dublin Beggars
There is another passage in Part II suggested by Irish conditions, and that is an incident in Gulliver’s visit to the capital of Brobdingnag. As the carriage, in which he and his nurse are being conveyed, stops at a shop, the beggars who were waiting for an opportunity crowd around the carriage and present “the most horrible spectacle that ever an European eye beheld”. Gulliver then describes with horrid minuteness the sores on their bodies. There can be no doubt that this piece of description was inspired by the beggars of Dublin about whom Swift had much to say in his pamphlets and sermons. Such passages show that, while Swift was entirely wrapped up in English politics when he wrote Part I of the book, Irish social conditions were beginning to occupy his thoughts when Part II was written.
Allusions to Political Personalities and Events
Swift’s philosophy forms only one part of Gulliver’s Travels. The book is stuffed with personal, literary, and political allusions. On every page there are more or less abstruse references which had a special meaning for the reader of Swift’s own time. For instance, in Part I, Lilliput and its diminutive people represent England; Blefuscu is France; Flimnap, the Treasurer, is Swift’s old enemy, Sir Robert Walpole, whereas Gulliver, for the most part, is Swift’s old friend, Bolingbroke, who made the Peace of Utrecht with the French and then was shamefully exiled by an ungrateful nation. The well-known scene where Gulliver puts out the fire in the imperial palace by urinating on it was once thought to portray Swift’s service to the English Church when he wrote A Tale of a Tub. That book was devoted to the cause of the Church but it was written in such a manner that Queen Anne was shocked and vowed ever after to refuse its author a bishopric*. Now, however, the interpretation has changed. It is now argued that the incident represents the stopping of the terrible war against France by unavoidable methods, however deplorable those methods might have been.
Not Essential to Know Conditions in the 18th Century
It may, however, be pointed out that, for the understanding of Gulliver’s Travels, it is not essential to have a detailed knowledge of the political and social circumstances of the times of Queen Anne, or to know at first hand that distant world of treason and war, of intrigue and apostasy, of power-crazed soldiers and cunning politicians. A knowledge of the political and social conditions in some of the countries in the twentieth century would be enough to understand Swift’s portrayal in Gulliver’s Travels of the various aspects of life in the eighteenth century.
Scientific Allusions in Part III
The scientific projects described in Part III show Swift’s acquaintance with a large variety of current projects and experiments and with the work of the members of the Royal Society, while the flying island owes something both to Gilbert’s theories of magnetism and the contemporary discussion arising in connection with Halley’s comet.
Political Personalities in Part I
There are recognizable elements of political allegory present in both Parts I and III, the allusions being to people and events in the England of Queen Anne and King George I. Some of the references are unmistakable; there are others which are open to different interpretations. There is general agreement that the latter part of Gulliver’s experiences in Lilliput-the ingratitude he meets with after performing the signal feat of capturing the enemy’s entire fleet, the sentence passed on him, and his flight to the neighbouring kingdom of Blefuscu-is a thinly-veiled allegory of Bolingbroke’s fate subsequent to the Queen’s death. It is also clear that Bolgolam points to the Earl of Nottingham, and Flimnap to Walpole, while Reldresal represents Charles, Viscount Townshend, who succeeded Bolingbroke as Secretary of State.
Political Events in Part I
All of Gulliver’s adventures during the first voyage have been regarded by some critics as a hidden history of Oxford-Bolingbroke ministry. The shipwreck in Chapter I takes us back to the reverse suffered by Harley and St. John in 1708, two years before they came to power. Bolgolam’s animosity to Gulliver represents Nottingham’s opposition to the Tory Ministry late in 1711. The fire in the Queen’s palace represents the War of Spanish Succession, and Gulliver’s extinguishing of it is the peace negotiated by Bolingbroke and Oxford. The articles of impeachment drawn up against Gulliver represent the charges made against Oxford and Bolingbroke after the Queen’s death.
The Political Allegory in Part III
The allegory of Part I seems to have been carried forward in Part III into the reign of George I and to shadow forth the lamentable state of affairs brought to pass by the Whigs. The flying island does undoubtedly signify England, or at least the power of the State and the tyrannical exercise of such power. The story of the rebellion in Lindalino*––or Dublin––and the manner in which it defended itself against the King and the island hovering overhead refer no doubt to the Wood affair and Ireland’s successful resistance to the patent. The character of Munodi was probably created with Oxford in mind, and the abandoned mill on his estate is very likely a symbol of the South Sea enterprise, established under Oxford but going down to ruin under the Whigs in 1720.

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Anonymous said...

This actually helped me quite a lot. Thanks. But i wish you wrote more about references in part 4, because i need more help with that.

moment hope said...

thank you for their efforts

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