The Meaning of Irony
Irony is one of the most important weapons of satire. Irony arises from a contrast, a contrast between appearance and reality, between what a character or the author says and what he really means to convey, between what a character thinks himself to be and what he really is, between what a character believes and what the reader knows to be actually the case, between what a character thinks what he will do or achieve and what he really in the long run does or achieves, and so on. It may also be pointed out that, apart from irony in words, irony may exist in a situation.
A situation is ironical when the reader knows all the facts of the case while the characters, either all of them or some of them, are ignorant of some of the facts of the case. Furthermore, irony may produce a comic effect or a tragic effect, depending upon the circumstances of the case. Thus we find abundant examples of irony in both the comic and the tragic plays of Shakespeare. This means that the use of irony by an author may amuse the reader or may sadden him all the more.
A Destructive Irony at Work in “Gulliver’s Travels”
Swift is a comic and satirical writer (despite the tragic effect of some of his passages), and therefore his use of irony in his writings adds to the comic effect at which he aims. In Gulliver’s Travels we find a plentiful use of irony. As Cazamian points out, Gulliver’s Travels throws the light of a superior and destructive irony upon the smallness of the means, the vanity of the motives, the illusions of the catchwords, through which kings retained thrones and magistrates their offices in those days. It is not only the English political life of his time which Swift thus dissects. The monarchy itself, the paraphernalia that surrounded it, the courts and courtiers, the debating assemblies, the conflict of parties, the wiles of the favourites of both sexes––everything upon which, in fact, rested the contemporary administration of
Europe––is fiercely attacked by ironical means. To serve the needs of his allegory, Swift carries us from the country of the dwarfs to that of the giants, and in the end to the country of the Yahoos and the noble horses. Mankind cuts a sorry and ugly figure in all these strange countries. Irony and allegory are, in this book, fused in one. Swift is, indeed, a master of irony. However, it is noteworthy that his mockery does not have that kindly after-taste which is generally regarded as the distinctive mark of the humorist, even though his effects are very often enlivened by humour.
The Irony of Situation in All the Four Parts of “Gulliver’s Travels”
The irony of situation is to be found in all the four divisions of Gulliver’s Travels. In Lilliput, Gulliver finds himself in the midst of people who are no more than six inches in height. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver finds himself in the midst of people of a giant size by comparison with whom he himself is a pigmy. In Laputa and in Balnibarbi he finds himself among people who are queer in one way or another. Finally, he finds himself in the midst of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, the former bearing a close physical resemblance to human beings and the latter being horses in their physical shape and appearance but having an intelligence much superior to that of human beings. In all these cases, Gulliver thinks himself to be literally among pigmies, giants, or horses as the case may be; but we realize that in each case Swift is giving us a portrayal of human beings themselves though the description of the various kinds of inhabitants of the different countries as determined by the requirements of the satirical intentions of the author. In the Lilliputians we recognize ourselves reduced to a small size. In the Brobdingnagians we recognize ourselves as seen through a magnifying glass. In the Yahoos we again recognize ourselves, with the good qualities of human beings completely left out. In the Houyhnhnms we recognize ourselves though here our good qualities are idealized and carried to perfection, while our vicious side is completely omitted.
Verbal Irony in the Portrayal of the Emperor and the Customs of Lilliput
In addition to the irony of situation, we have in this book plenty of verbal irony which arises largely from the contrast between what is said and what is really intended. Early in the book we have an example of this kind of irony when Swift describes the Emperor of Lilliput. As the Emperor is taller by the breadth of Gulliver’s nail than any member of his court, his appearance is enough to strike an awe into the beholders. The Emperor’s features are strong and masculine with an Austrian lip and arched nose, his countenance erect, his body and limbs well proportioned, all his motions graceful, and his deportment majestic. Now this description of the Emperor is clearly ironical because a person, who is just six inches or a little more than that in height, cannot be regarded as awful; and yet, as judged by the Lilliputian standards, the Emperor certainly strikes fear among his people by his greater height. The description is ironical in another sense also. In thus portraying the Emperor, Swift is having a laugh at the actual English monarch of the time, namely George I who could not be described as being graceful and majestic in his appearance. There is irony also in the remark which Gulliver subsequently makes when he describes the Emperor as a “most magnanimous prince”. Gulliver of course, means what he says, but Swift intends this remark as having just the opposite meaning. The diversions of the Emperor are also ironically described. These diversions consist in the candidates for his favour dancing on a rope or creeping under a stick or leaping over it. The rewards for the winners in these contests are silken threads of different colours. This whole account is an ironical reference to the sycophancy of the English courtiers of the time and the manner in which the Emperor rewarded them by an arbitrary conferment of titles and distinctions on them. The customs of the people of Lilliput are also ironically described. Gulliver remarks that the laws and customs in this empire were very peculiar and directly contrary to those of his own dear country,
. Gulliver then proceeds to describe those laws and customs as if they were indeed “peculiar” or even crazy; but actually many of these laws and customs are wholesome. All crimes against the State are severely punished in this country; but if a person, who has been accused can prove his innocence, the accuser is immediately put to death. These people look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death. In short, many of the laws and customs do credit to the Lilliputians, but they are described by Gulliver as if there were something wrong with them. We have another example of irony when we are told that the Emperor, wanting to give a lenient punishment to Gulliver, decided to have him blinded instead of ordering his death. Blinding the culprit is regarded by the Emperor as a lenient punishment though actually it is even more cruel than the penalty of death. England
Verbal Irony in the Voyage to Brobdingnag
In the account of the voyage to Brobdingnag we have still more striking examples of the use of verbal irony. When Gulliver describes the features of the national life of his own country, namely
, to the King of Brobdingnag, the King makes certain adverse comments upon Gulliver’s country. But Gulliver feels offended with the King because Gulliver thinks his country to be “the mistress of arts and arms, the scourge of France, the arbitress of England Europe, the seat of virtue, piety, honour, and truth, the pride and envy of the world”. Now Gulliver genuinely believes his country as possessing these qualities, but Swift means this description to be ironical, because Swift had just the opposite view of England. Subsequently Gulliver gives to the King of Brobdingnag a detailed description of the English parliament (including the House of Commons, and the House of Lords), the Courts of Justice, etc. The King finds fault with all these English institutions. Gulliver thereupon attributes the King’s condemnation to the King’s narrowmindedness. Gulliver describes the members of the House of Lords to be champions always ready for the defence of their prince and their country by their valour, conduct, and fidelity. Gulliver describes them as the ornament and bulwark of the kingdom. Gulliver also gives high praise to the Lords spiritual. As for the members of the House of Commons, Gulliver says that they are selected by the people for their great abilities and love of their country to represent the wisdom of the whole nation. Now Gulliver may mean all that he says here. But we can clearly see that Swift intends this praise to be ironical, and Swift uses the King of Brobdingnag to deflate Gulliver’s pride in this context.
Irony in Gulliver’s View of the Narrow-mindedness of the Brobdingnagian King
On hearing the criticism and the condemnation of England and English people by the King of Brobdingnag, Gulliver says to himself (and to us) that great allowances should be made in the case of the King who lived a wholly secluded life from the rest of Ute world and was therefore completely unacquainted with the manners and customs prevailing in other nations. The lack of knowledge, says Gulliver, had produced many prejudices in the King, and a certain narrowness of thinking in him. Now all this is ironically intended by Swift because we know that the King’s criticism was perfectly sound and justified. Swift continues this irony when Gulliver attributes the King’s adverse reaction to his description of the destructive power of gunpowder to the miserable effects of the King’s confined or limited education. Gulliver’s comment on the King’s horror on hearing about the gunpowder is: “a strange effect of narrow principles and short views !” According to Gulliver, the King suffers from “a nice unnecessary scruple”. All this shows the irony of Swift because the King of Brobdingnag expresses a perfectly sound view which Gulliver attributes to narrowness and lack of adequate knowledge. The same kind of irony continues when Gulliver cannot understand the King’s view that there is no need for books on the art of government and that a government should be run in accordance with the principles of common sense, reason, justice, and lenity.
Irony in the Account of the Third Voyage
The use of irony by Swift may also be illustrated from the third voyage of Gulliver. In the school of political projectors in Lagado, professors are working upon schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the basis of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue; for teaching ministers to consult the public good; for rewarding merit, great abilities, and eminent services; for choosing for employments persons qualified to work efficiently; and so on. The irony here lies in the fact that, while all these schemes are perfectly sound and wholesome, Gulliver describes them as wild, impossible chimeras* or impractical and fanciful notions. These schemes are being equated with the really absurd projects such as the one for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers. The irony here arises from the contrast between the apparent meaning and the underlying intention of the author. There is irony also in the description of the method used by the King of Luggnagg to put to death those courtiers with whom he. was offended. Gulliver here tells us that this King was really kind-hearted in so far as he got the floor of his apartment properly wiped and cleaned after a particular courtier had been killed by means of the poisonous powder which had been scattered on the floor. On one occasion the floor was not properly cleaned and an innocent courtier died of the poison that had unintentionally been allowed to remain on the floor. But the King did not take any action against the servant who had failed to clean the floor. The whole passage in this context is ironical and brings out, by the use of irony, the fact that to a King the life of a courtier had little meaning. Then there is irony in Gulliver’s dream of immortality and the advantages which he thinks can result to a man if he is made immortal. This passage becomes ironical in the light of the subsequent description of the wretchedness and misery of the Struldbrugs who are a group of immortal persons.
Gulliver, a Victim of Irony in Part IV of the Book
It is believed by some that in Part IV of the book Swift’s portrayal of the Houyhnhnms is also ironical and that Swift did not really mean to hold up the Houyhnhnms as representing a utopian ideal. This, however, is a moot point. But about Swift’s use of irony in describing Gulliver’s mentality and outlook in the two or three closing chapters, we can have no doubt. Swift certainly does not approve of the complete and absolute misanthropy which Gulliver has developed by the end of his final voyage. Swift therefore gives us an ironic description of Gulliver’s whole behaviour at this stage. In other words, Gulliver himself now becomes a target of Swift’s irony and satire.