The Satirical Methods of Parody, Raillery, and Irony
Gulliver’s Travels is a satire with which Swift wanted to vex the world. The book was addressed both to Swift’s contemporaries and to posterity. In writing this book Swift once again employed his favourite device of parody. He wrote a book of travels in imitation of the most popular best-sellers of the day, like Dampier’s Voyages. By employing the form of the travel-book, Swift was able to use the satirical methods which he had perfected in his earliest literary work-parody, raillery, and irony-and also to make use of all his experiences of the world gained during his active political career.
Satirical References to Contemporary Political Events and Scientific Experiments
In the first and the third Parts of this book, Swift manages to include a good deal of satirical reference to the political events in which he had taken part, both in
and in England . Both these Parts are in fact confused and inconsistent, because they are constantly twisted to suit his immediate satirical purpose, whether he is concerned with the political situation or with very specific parody and burlesque of the experiments of contemporary scientists or the schemes of other projectors. Ireland
A Good Deal of Fun in Part I
There is a good deal of fun in Part I, which deals with Lilliput. Here, with Gulliver, we are able to assume a certain superior detachment and amusement at the ways of pigmies. Like him, we are protected from any serious danger at the hands of Lilliputians. We are, as it were, on good terms with them, and could not be unduly disturbed by anything which these little creatures might do. Even the diversions of the court of Lilliput are observed by us with good humour, and we could laugh at the antics of the rope-dancers, and the leaping and creeping of the ministers as the Emperor advances or depresses his stick. It is just a joke to watch them swearing an oath according to the strange method prescribed by their laws: “Hold the right foot in the left hand, place the middle finger of the right hand on the crown of the head, and the thumb on the tip of the right ear.” Even the conflicts between the high heels and the low heels, and between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians seem to be a matter of comedy. The ugly ambition of the Emperor to seize all the remaining ships of the enemy, after their navy has been captured and brought to him by Gulliver, in order to make himself a monarch of the whole world does not frighten us unduly, especially as his ambitiol1 is not approved by the wisest members of his ministry.
No Suspicion of Any Evil
We are indeed made to share Gulliver’s unwillingness to believe any evil of the princes and his unpreparedness for their ingratitude and dishonesty. It is only after he has been wrongly suspected of rebellion that he begins to have doubts and says: “This was the first time I began to conceive some imperfect idea of courts and ministers”. We cannot really believe any danger from them as the royal family come to dine with Gulliver, or as the members of the court visit him. Even when the articles of impeachment are drawn up against him, and the fierce antagonism of his enemies is disclosed, with their demand that he should be horribly murdered, whereas the Emperor in his lenity and tenderness, is willing to condemn him to blindness, he is still able to make use of the most delicate form of irony:
“Yet, as to myself, I must confess, having never been designed for a courtier, either by my birth or education, I was so ill a judge of things that I could not discover the lenity and favour of this sentence; but conceived it (perhaps erroneously) rather to be rigorous than gentle. I sometimes thought of standing my trial; for although I could not deny the facts alleged in the several articles, yet I hoped they would admit of some extenuations. But having in my life perused many state-trials, which I ever observed to terminate as the judges thought fit to direct, I durst not rely on so dangerous a decision, in so critical a juncture, and against such powerful enemies. Once I was strongly bent upon resistance, for while I had liberty, the whole strength of that Empire could hardly subdue me, and I might easily with stones pelt the metropolis to pieces; but I soon rejected that project with horror by remembering the oath I had made to the Emperor, the favours I received from him, and the high title of Nardac he conferred upon me. Neither had I so soon learned the gratitude of courtiers, to persuade myself that his Majesty’s present severities acquitted me of all past obligations.”
(Part I, Chapter 7, Page 109-110)
Lilliput, a Toy-shop Invaded by a Colossus
It is almost as though the diminitive height of the Lilliputians compels Gulliver to handle them and their affairs with a kind of tenderness lest they should break in pieces. The whole country remains inevitably in our imaginations as a kind of toy-shop, invaded by a clumsy colossus who finds it difficult to move about without overturning houses and trampling on the inhabitants. Only occasionally, when Gulliver makes comments on the laws and customs of the land, and on their system of education, we sometimes forget the figure of Gulliver the colossus and the tiny figures he is discussing, and on such occasions we hear rather the familiar comments of Dean Swift on education and life. It is surprising how easily the imagination remains bound if we are constantly given some one concrete detail such as a goose of the size of a sparrow, or a forest tree the top of which Gulliver can touch with his hand. But in the same way a sentence or two can completely dispel the scene and banish us from this tiny commonwealth. “In relating these and the following laws, I would only be understood to mean the original institutions, and not the most scandalous corruptions into which these people are fallen by the degenerate nature of man.” Phrases like “the degenerate nature of man”, “the great laws of nature”, “the miseries of human life” are somewhat too large for that tiny world and break down the willing suspension of our unbelief; and then the author must make a renewed effort to restore it.
The Passages of Unrestrained Invective
The real greatness of Gulliver’s Travels is to be found when we recognize it as the final and the completest satire on human life by a Christian moralist. That is the reason why so many people have been disturbed by this work. It is written by one who did not like the ways of the world and who was willing to set down his testimony against it. There are two passages which appeared to the original publisher such unrestrained invective that he was unwilling to print them in their original form. The first is a comment on English political life:
“the bulk of the people consisted wholly of discoverers, witnesses, informers, accusers, prosecutors, evidences, swearers, together with their several subservient and subaltern instruments, all under the colours, the conduct, and pay of ministers and their deputies.”
(Part III, Chapter 6, Page 236)
The second is a comment on the legal profession with which Swift had some unfortunate personal experiences:
I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black and black is white, according as they are paid …… Now your Honour is to know that these judges are persons appointed to decide all controversies of property, as well as for the trial of criminals, and picked out from the most dexterous lawyers who are grown old or lazy, and having been biased all their lives against truth and equity, lie under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known some of them refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injury to the Faculty* by doing anything unbecoming their nature of their office……In the trial of persons accused for crimes against the state the method is much more short and commendable: the Judge first sends to sound the disposition of those in power, after which he can easily hang or. save the criminal, strictly preserving all the forms of law.
(Part IV, Chapter 5, Page 295-297)
Some Other Comments
But there are other comments which occur in Part II, when Gulliver is trying to explain the glories of western civilization to the simple-hearted king of Brobdingnag, that did not cause any anxiety to the publisher, though the author’s intention could be regarded as dangerous. After Gulliver has boasted to the King of the past history of his own country and some of the more important developments of his society, the King sums up his impressions in the following manner:
“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.”
(Part II, Chapter 6, Page 173)
Gulliver attributes the King’s conclusion to the fact that the King has been living a life wholly secluded from the world, and has been unacquainted with the manners and customs of other nations. Gulliver gives us another example to show the effect of “narrow principles and short views”, resulting from a “confined education”. When Gulliver reveals to the King the secret of the manufacture of gun-powder, the King feels horrified, and says that he would rather lose half his Kingdom than learn such a secret in order to make use of the destructive power of the explosive. Gulliver interprets this reaction of the King also as the result of the King’s “narrow principles”.
A Parody of the Royal Society in Part III
Part of Gulliver’s Travels is somewhat confused and lacking in unity. It seems that Swift had not thoroughly assimilated the material for this portion of the book through his own experience, so that he had sometimes to fall back almost on the methods of A Tale of the Tub in making fun of the extravagances of the strange experiments of the scientists of the Royal Society. Swift was here closely parodying the actual accounts he had read about the kind of research that was being carried on by the Royal Society in those days. In using his favourite method of parody, Swift was appealing more directly to his contemporaries and especially to his London audience, but he doubtless knew that the absurdities he slightly exaggerated would serve as symbols, which everyone could recognize, of the spirit of research he was eager to expose. It is also to be kept in mind that the satire upon the projectors in Part III was not limited to scientists and virtuosos, and that Swift also wanted to warn his readers against the political projectors and speculators who had been responsible for such schemes as the South Sea Bubble and other commercial frauds of this kind.
No Escape for Swift from the Knavery and Stupidity of This World
Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels has shocked readers most of all, although it is a simple and traditional moral tale, vividly dramatized through animal symbolism. This Part is perhaps a little medieval in its extravagant and sometimes unpleasant burlesque of some of the qualities of man’s brute nature, and in the complete separation of his rational qualities as they might possibly exist in some utopian world. But the real cause of our fear of Swift’s satire here is that we are progressively led on with Gulliver nom a comparatively happy condition in which we were in that blessed state of being well deceived until we have made the painful discovery of the knavery of human life and the stupidity and malice of mankind. However, many moralists, prophets, and satirists have made the same discovery and found the world to be a wilderness and life to be meaningless. But these people have turned to the past or future or to another world for consolation, while Swift finds no escape nom that world and can take refuge nowhere. Swift at no point in his travels is able to overcome his dislike of human existence. His protest had already found expression in one of his previous writings in the following words:
“Although reason were intended by
to govern our passions, yet it seems that, in two points of the greatest moment to the being and continuance of the world, God hath intended our passions to prevail over reason. The first is the propagation of our species, since no wise man ever married nom the dictates of reason. The other is the love of life which, nom the dictates of reason, every man would despise.” (Thoughts on Religion) Providence
This view colours that passage in Chapter 6 of Part I, which concerns the relations between parents and children and where Gulliver tells us that in Lilliput children are under no obligation to their fathers for begetting them or to their mothers for giving them birth.
Gulliver’s Dislike of His Own Children
More dramatically he plays with the same theme at the end of Part IV when, returning nom his experience of a rational utopia under the influence of beings who represent the perfection of nature, Gulliver freely confesses that the sight of his wife and family filled him “only with hatred, disgust, and contempt; and the more, by reflecting on the near alliance he had to them”.
Violent Satire on the Human Desire for Immortality
But even this is not such a violent satire upon “love of life” as Swift reserved for the last episode of the third voyage, which may well have been in point of composition the last chapter he wrote. Swift wrote Part IV mainly in 1723, and did not complete Part III until 1725. It is a chapter entirely complete in itself-a perfect little irony. Swift draws particular attention to it, and evidently considered it to be quite original. He says: “I thought this account of the Struldbrugs might be some entertainment to the reader, because it seems to be a little out of the common way; at least I do not remember to have met the like in any book of travels that hath come to my hands.” Gulliver is asked one day whether he had seen any of their immortals, and after hearing an account of them, he indulges in extravagant expressions of rapture at the thought of people so blessed. He is then asked by his hosts what he would do if he were an immortal. He becomes eloquent in describing the fruitful purposes to which he would put his immortality. He is then told what the Struldbrugs are really like; and finally he has an opportunity to see a group of them, the youngest not above two hundred years old. “They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld and my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated.” He would have been glad to send a couple of them home to his country to arm people against the fear of death, but that was forbidden by the laws of the kingdom. Nevertheless, he tells us that he was led to believe that if he were to write down a simple and wholly truthful account of his travels, it might possibly do his countrymen some good. He can claim to be above any possible censure, having avoided every fault, commonly found in books of travel:
“I write for the noblest end, to inform and instruct mankind, over whom I may, without breach of modesty, pretend to some superiority from the advantages I received by conversing so long among the most accomplished Houyhnhnms. I write without any view towards profit or praise.”
(Part IV, Chapter 12, Page 342)
The Utopian Illusion
Is Gulliver’s Travels then, after all, only another moral tale, another rationalist’s utopian dream to turn men from the folly of their ways and bring about some improvement in human society? Swift indeed allows his traveller, Gulliver, to enter the company of the eighteenth-century philosophers and to believe, for a while, that humanity could enter into a heavenly city of its own if only it could be released from the bonds of superstition and ignorance. But Swift allowed Gulliver to go thus far only to undeceive him entirely soon afterwards and to take from him his last illusion.
Swift, Unreconciled to the Sickness of Mankind
The book has been provided with an epilogue, in the form of a letter from Captain Gulliver to his cousin, Richard Sympson, who had been responsible for getting the book printed. In this final statement, Swift is careful to separate himself from the other historians and philosophers, and even from the rest of the satirists by turning his satire fall upon them and their vain hopes to do something to improve the human species. In this letter, Gulliver declares that, although seven months have passed since his book of travels was published, it has brought about absolutely no improvement in the behaviour of his countrymen whom he regards as Yahoos. This letter seems to show that Swift, while he could not retrain from probing and analysing the sickness of humanity, was convinced that the further he went the more he would find in human life to arouse his anger and his pity. It was his peculiar satisfaction as a moralist and a satirist to make us see the kind of world in which we live to make us feel its brutality and its degradation, to disturb all our complacencies and to leave us unreconciled to the incalculable sum of human pain.
[It is necessary to add here that the conclusion which has been reached above is different from that of the critic who believes that Gulliver’s final cynicism and misanthropy (which are incurable and permanent) should not be attributed to Swift himself. According to that critic, Swift does not identify himself with Gulliver in the closing chapters of the book. In the closing chapters, that critic tells us, Swift is satirizing Gulliver’s incurable misanthropy. In other words, Gulliver himself becomes the target of Swift’s satire in the closing chapters. In short, according to that critic’s point of view, Swift is not such a complete cynic as Gulliver ultimately becomes. Even though Swift does not suggest any remedy for the evils of human nature, yet he cannot be regarded as a thorough-going cynic and misanthrope.