Friday, November 19, 2010

What are the objects of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s Travels?

Political Satire in Part I of the Book
In Part I we find Swift satirizing the manner in which political offices were distributed among the candidates by the English King in Swift’s time. Flimnap, the Treasurer, represents Sir Robert Walpole who was the prime minister of England from 1715 to 1716 and then again from 1721 to 1742. Dancing on a tight rope symbolizes Walpole’s skill in parliamentary tactics and political intrigues. Similarly, Reldresal represents Lord Carteret who was appointed by Walpole to the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Again, the phrase, “one of the king’s cushions”, refers to one of King George’s mistresses who helped to restore Walpole to favour after his fall in 1717.

More Political Satire
The ancient temple in which Gulliver is housed in Lilliput probably refers to Westminster Hall in which Charles I had been condemned to death. The search of Gulliver by the Lilliputians may have some reference to a committee which had been formed by the Whigs to investigate the conduct of the previous government and especially of Oxford and Bolingbroke who were suspected of treasonable relationships with France and the Old Pretender. Swift here seems to be satirizing the activities of that Whig committee.
Satire on the Conferment of Titles on Favourites
The three fine silk threads which were awarded as prizes to the winners of various contests refer to the various distinctions which were conferred by the English King on his favourites. In other words, Swift is here mocking at the English King’s conferment of distinctions on political favourites and supporters.
Satirical References to Queen Anne and to the Impeachment of Some Tory Ex-ministers
Gulliver’s account of the annoyance of the Empress of Lilliput at his having extinguished a fire in her apartment is Swift’s satirical way of describing Queen Anne’s annoyance with him for having written A Tale of a Tub in which Swift had attacked religious abuses but which had been misinterpreted by the Queen as an attack on religion itself. Gulliver’s account of the conspiracy against him and his impending impeachment is Swift’s satirical description of court-intrigues which were a feature of political life in England at that time. Swift here gives us amusing glimpses of what went on at the court of George I when Sir Robert Walpole was the most influential of the politicians. The articles of impeachment against Gulliver may be a satire on the actual impeachment in 1715 of four Tory ex-ministers.
Satire on Religious Strife and on Political Factions
‘Swift’s satire becomes more amusing when Gulliver speaks of the conflict between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Lilliput. It is funny that, while one party believes that boiled eggs should be broken at the big end, the other party insists on breaking the eggs at the smaller end. In this account Swift is ridiculing the conflicts between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. He is making fun of hair-splitting theological disputes. Swift also pokes fun at the political parties in England when he speaks of the two factions in Lilliput––the two factions being distinguished by their high heels and low heels respectively.
Satire on the Coarseness of the Human Body in Part II
It is thus clear that Part I, in which all the above episodes occur, is largely a satirical representation of the English political and religious life of the time. In Part II, the satire becomes general. Here, Gulliver first gives us his reaction to the coarseness and ugliness of the human body. In Part II we meet the people of Brobdingnag who are giants in stature and who thus present a glaring contrast to the pigmies of Lilliput. If, in the description of the Lilliputians, Swift was looking at mankind through the wrong end of a telescope, in his account of the Brobdingnagians he is looking at mankind through a magnifying glass. Not only are the men and women here huge in size, but the animals like cats, rats, and monkeys, and insects like bees and wasps are also of enormous sizes. We are particularly repelled by the description of the huge, monstrous breasts of a woman which are revealed when she begins to suckle her child. We also get a brief satire on the great scholars of this new country when they offer their different explanations to their King about Gulliver’s diminutive height as compared with the people of this country. The philosophers, however, agree about one point: that Gulliver could not have been produced according to the regular laws of nature, and that he is a freak product.
Satire on Human Pride and Pretension
When Gulliver has given to the King an account of the life in his own country, of the trade, the wars, the conflicts in religion, the political parties, the King has a hearty laugh and asks Gulliver whether the latter is a Whig or a Tory. Then, turning to one of his ministers, the King observes how contemptible a thing is human grandeur which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as Gulliver. In other words, the King mocks at the human race of which Gulliver is a representative, a race which, as compared to the people of Brobdingnag, consists of insects. Swift is here ridiculing human pride and pretension. Human beings who have such lofty ideas about themselves are no better than insects in the eyes of the King of Brobdingnag.
A Satirical Description of Beggars
The description of the crowd of beggars whom Gulliver happens to see in the metropolis of this country is intended as a satire on the beggars who actually existed in the city of Dublin. The sight is, indeed, horrible and disgusting. Among the beggars is a woman with a cancer in her breast; there is a man with a huge tumour in his neck; another beggar has wooden legs, each about twenty feet high. But the most hateful sight is that of the lice crawling on their clothes. This description reinforces Swift’s view of the ugliness and foulness of the human body.
The Bitterest Satire in Part II
The bitterest satire in this part of the book comes when the King comments on Gulliver’s account of the English parliament, the English courts of justice, and other institutions in England. The King’s view is that the history of Gulliver’s country seems to him to be only a series of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, etc. According to the King, all these are a result of hypocrisy, perfidy, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition. The King concludes his comment by expressing the view that the bulk of the people of Gulliver’s country are the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. These comments of the King almost sum up Swift’s own cynical views about mankind in general.
Satire on Destructive Weapons and on Political Ideologies
But the satire in Part II does not end here. We have some more of it when the King reacts with scorn and disgust to Gulliver’s account of the destruction which can be caused by means of gunpowder. The King’s reaction is also significant when Gulliver informs him that in his country hundreds of books are written on the art of government. According to the King, only common sense, reason, and justice, and not books, are needed to run a government.
Satire on Theoreticians and Academics in Part III
The satire in Part III is not so bitter as in the closing chapters of Part II. The satire in Part III is, indeed, light-hearted. Here Swift amuses us by making fun of the people whose sole interests are music and geometry and who do not even have the time to make love to their wives. We are also greatly amused by the useless experiments and researches which are going on at the Academy of Projectors in Lagado. The Projectors here 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, and to produce books on various subjects by the use of a machine without having to exert one’s brain. All this was intended as a satire on the kind of work the Royal Society in England was doing in those days. Swift here ridicules scientists, academics, planners, intellectuals, in fact all people who proceed according to theory and are useless when it comes to actual practice.
Satire on Some Contemporary Events
In the account of the life in Laputa, Swift also satirizes the English system of administration, especially with regard to the Ireland of the time. The English government ruled Ireland from a long distance, and was thus not in direct touch with its Irish subjects even though some of the English politicians held property in Ireland. Swift also here gives us an allegorical account of the successful resistance of Ireland to William Wood’s half-pence. There is, furthermore, an oblique reference to the Act of Settlement which had been passed in 170 I. The new agricultural methods in vogue in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century are also attacked by Swift.

Satire on Historians and Critics; Satire on the Longing for Immortality
There are two other noteworthy targets of satire in Part III. Swift satirizes historians and literary critics through Gulliver’s interviews with the ghosts of the famous dead. The point of the satire here is that historians often distort facts and even manufacture facts, and that literary critics often misinterpret great authors like Homer and Aristotle. In the portrayal of the Struldbrugs, Swift satirizes the human longing for immortality. The immortal persons have grown so old, feeble, and infirm that they want to die but death does not come to them.
The Satirical Portrayal of the Yahoos in Part IV
Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels contains some of the most corrosive and offensive satire on mankind. In this part the Yahoos are intended to represent human beings. The very initial description of the Yahoos given to us by Gulliver is repellent. Gulliver describes them as abominable, and he is both astonished and horrified on seeing the physical resemblance between them and persons of his own race. By contrast with the Yahoos, the Houyhnhnms are noble and benevolent animals who are governed by reason and who lead an orderly life. It is, indeed, a bitter criticism of the human race to represent the Houyhnhnms (who are horses) as being superior mentally. and morally to the Yahoos (who represent human beings). The Yahoos are brutal, unteachable, and mischievous. The Houyhnhnms, on the contrary, are morally so good that there is no word in their language for lying or falsehood.
Gulliver’s Denunciation of the Human Race as Represented by His Own Countrymen
The satire deepens when Gulliver gives to the master Houyhnhnm an account of the events and happenings in his own country and in other European countries. Gulliver tells his host that war in European countries was due sometimes to the ambition of kings and sometimes to the corruption of ministers. Gulliver speaks of the numerous deadly weapons which the European nations employ for destruction purposes. Gulliver then tells his host about the law-suits that are fought in English courts, and he speaks disparagingly about lawyers and judges. The whole of this account by Gulliver is an exposure of the evils of war and the wickedness of lawyers and judges. Gulliver also says that many people in his country ruin themselves by drinking, gambling, and debauchery; and that many are guilty of such crimes as murder, theft, robbery, forgery, rape, and sodomy.
Satire on Prime Ministers
The account which Gulliver gives of the political life in his country is really a bitter criticism of the evils that prevail not only in England but in all countries of the world. The prime minister, according to Gulliver, is a person wholly free from joy and grief, love and hatred, pity and anger; and he is a person with a violent desire for wealth, power, and titles, and with no inclination ever to tell the truth about any matter. The vast numbers of the people of his country, Gulliver says, live by begging, robbing, stealing, cheating, pimping, forging, whoring, and so on. Indeed, this is not just satire but denunciation and invective.
More Criticism of the Yahoos (Symbolizing the Human Race)
The master Houyhnhnm tells Gulliver of the habits and the way of life of the Yahoos. He speaks of the Yahoos’ love of shining stones, their gluttony, and their weakness for liquor. The master also speaks of the lascivious behaviour of the female Yahoos. This criticism of the Yahoos is also intended as a criticism of the human race.
The Want of Reason in Human Beings
By contrast, the Houyhnhnms are excellent beings whose grand principle is to cultivate reason and be wholly governed by it. The Houyhnhnms hold periodical meetings at which the difficulties of various sections of the population are discussed and solved. The Houyhnhnms regulate their population and do not indulge in sexual intercourse merely for pleasure. Swift’s purpose here is to attribute to horses certain qualities which would normally be expected in human beings but which are actually lacking in human beings. The main quality is reason or the rational quality which human beings, according to Swift, do not value enough.
Gulliver’s Reaction to His Experience of the Houyhnhnms
Gulliver’s reaction to what he has seen in the land of the Houyhnhnms fills him with so much admiration for them and with so much hatred and disgust for the human race that he has no desire even to return to his family. This reaction shows that Gulliver has become a complete cynic and misanthrope, thereby further emphasizing the follies and faults from which the human race suffers and on which Swift wanted to focus our attention. Gulliver concludes his account with a severe condemnation of human pride, so that pride may be regarded as yet another target of Swift’s satire in this book.
The Nature of Swift’s Satire
Swift shows himself as a great satirist in this book by giving us comic satire and corrosive satire, by his successful exposure, sometimes witty and sometimes indignant, of human irrationality, by his clever use of irony, and by other devices to make us acutely conscious of the defects of mankind. If he omits the good side of mankind, it is because a satirist cannot afford to weaken the effect of his attacks by admitting the attractive features of his target or his victims. Still, it is possible to allege that Swift’s vision of mankind is too dark and pessimistic and that his counsel is the counsel of despair. Swift’s scornful and incisive satire on humanity is, indeed, a masterpiece even though it has a depressing and disheartening effect on us.

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Anonymous said...

this is really helping a lot !

Anonymous said...

notes on swift's satire are strong and to the point...

Anonymous said...

Very helpful!

Anonymous said...

Too good!

Shaista Ali said...

really helpful

Anonymous said...


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