In order to fully understand Jonathan Swift’s central message in Gulliver’s Travels, one must examine in detail the book’s introduction, and its conclusion. While the second and third books of the adventure are not unimportant, it is the first and final volumes which, when compared with one another, offer the clearest representation of Swift’s thinking. The first book subtly reveals some the ideas which fuel the novel’s satirical aspect while the same concepts are lucidly communicated to the reader with great poignancy in the fourth book.
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One of the novel’s central themes is the methods man uses to resolve his disputes. The first component of this issue is an examination of how trivial some of man’s quarrels are. During his voyage to Lilliput, Gulliver discovers that the Empires of Lilliputia and Blefuscu are embroiled in a major war simply because their ancestors could not agree on which end an egg should be broken: “It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end.” (36)
Swift wants the reader to be shocked not only by the absurdity of the conflict, but by its scale as well. The idea that many wars are started for foolish reasons is humorously conveyed to the reader in book one. In book four, Swift takes another look at the same issue with much more serious intentions in mind. While describing the Yahoos (who represent humanity’s basic instincts), the author points out that humans have a natural inclination toward violence.
Though humans have the gift of reason just like the morally judicious Houyhnhnms, they always seem to be fighting each other as a method of resolving disputes. For example, when there is a more than sufficient amount of meat for a group of Yahoos, they will fight each other in hopes of acquiring the excess meat.
The image of long haired barbarians, rolling around in the mud, wildly struggling for every last morsel of flesh is an evocative one. It stands in sharp contrast to the toy soldier-like humanoids of book one, who, clad in replete military uniform, are fighting each other like the pieces of a chess game. Swift now has us observing a much more visceral scene in which man’s primal instincts are on display. Swift’s aim of lightly satirizing humanity’s tendency towards conflict in book one becomes a much more powerful and memorable message when it is taken to the extreme in book four.
Another issue which Swift explores in Gulliver’s Travels is the nature of woman. Although the author viciously attacks women in the second book, the first and fourth books also include criticism of what was thought to be the weaker gender during the seventeenth century. The writer’s critical analysis of women begins in book one when the palace in Lilliput is on fire.
Gulliver, seeing that the humongous palace is in danger of burning to the ground with members of the royal family still stuck inside, begins to urinate on the flaming structure. He successfully puts out the fire, rescuing all those inside. Though Gulliver saved the Empresses’ life, she has held a grudge against the giant since he came to Lilliput and thus remains ungrateful. Even though her dignity was dealt a minor blow, it is short sighted of the Empress to be unable to look beyond that and show Gulliver the gratitude he deserves. This is the first example of a woman using Gulliver for her own purposes and not giving him anything in return.
Once again, the same idea is carried into the fourth book, and taken to a greater extreme. In the eighth chapter, Gulliver is bathing. A female Yahoo is stricken with desire and leaps at him:
“The nag was grazing at some distance, not suspecting any harm. She embraced me after a most fulsome manner. I roared as loud as I could, and the nag came galloping towards me, whereupon she quitted her grasp, with the utmost reluctancy, and leaped upon the opposite bank, where she stood gazing and howling all the time I was putting on my clothes.” (259)
In the above event, a female acts on instinct and desire and does not think of the consequences of her actions. She does what she does solely for selfish reasons. Both the Empress and the Yahoo got something from Gulliver but give nothing back in return. Swift once again introduces the reader to an idea in the first book, and increases his argument’s potency in the fourth book.
In all four books of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift makes a mockery of the politics of his day.
The author satirizes not only the politicians who lived during his time, but their methods of achieving political power, and the governmental structure of the British monarchy. The first book is the most political in nature.
At a memorable point during the first book, the Emperor of Lilliput is trying to find new officials to occupy government positions. Rather than placing the men whose political aptitude is high in government, the Emperor of Lilliput stages an elaborate festival in which games of dexterity and agility are played. Any sane monarch who has the best interests of his nation in mind would never choose his ministers in such a foolish manner. Here, Swift humorously depicts how administrative decisions are made at the highest level.
In book four, the staid tone of Swift’s message is far more poignant. In Yahoo society, each herd has a ruler. Every herd’s ruler has his own henchman or favourite. He typically gives this position to a good friend of his, or someone who is very similar to himself. The emotional Yahoos become very jealous of the leader’s second in command, and thus they take a great deal of pleasure in undermining him at every opportunity. Eventually, the favourite is discarded and replaced with someone else like him. This description of Yahoo politics serves to make a number of important points.
Firstly, administrative political decisions are not typically based on candidates’ merit; often irrelevant criteria are considered. Secondly, any political system which fails to take into account even the basic needs of its people and angers them to the point of continuous violence is a great failure in Swift’s eyes. The fact that the Yahoos are constantly trying to undermine those who are in positions of power and who are supposed to represent them means that their political system is valueless. The author’s description of what is done to those who have been removed from political office only serves to shock and disgust the reader to a greater extent:
“He usually continues in office till a worse can be found; but the very moment he is discarded, his successor, at the head of all the YAHOOS in that district, young and old, male and female, come in a body, and discharge their excrements upon him from head to foot.”
Not only does this quotation indicate the disgust Swift, and the Yahoos have with their respective political systems, but it once again makes the point that in many cases, humans hate each other and are thus prone to conflict or other methods of expressing that hatred.
As a neo-classicist, one the most vital piece of information Swift hoped to convey to the readers of Gulliver’s Travels is that human beings have a tendency to rely on their emotions rather than their reason when attempting to solve problems. Similarly, when humans do have the presence of mind to use their reason, they employ logic in order to accomplish immoral objectives. Illogical or immoral actions by human characters suggest this point in book one, and reinforce it in book four.
After Gulliver captures the entire Blefuscian navy for Lilliput, he is met by an adoring populace in the Lilliputian capital. Even so, the Lilliputian high council decides that Gulliver should have massacred the entire helpless Blefuscian population and his failure to do so will result in his eyes being gouged out. The fact that he is their greatest weapon and has saved them from a likely defeat against their sworn enemies would suggest that torturing him is both illogical and immoral. This is yet another example of Swift using book one to insert humour into his novel while still conveying a serious message.
In book four, the comedic element of tiny men believing they control a giant who could destroy them in one fell swoop is removed. All that remains is the harsh reality of Yahoo life. Instead of working together to improve their quality of life, the Yahoos use their ingenuity against each other, destroying each other’s quality of life. The logical course of action, in order to solve a complex problem, is to use all your resources. In book one and book four, humanity narrow-mindedly chooses to ignore chances to solve their many difficulties.
At first glance, books one and four of Gulliver’s Travels exist simply to begin and conclude the book respectively. Following closer examination of both books, a parallel between them can be discovered: Swift subtly brings forth an idea or thought in the first book and disguises it with a layer of comedy. In the fourth and final book, Swift peels off the mask and the reader has the opportunity to view the idea in its entirety and is thus exposed to what is in Swift’s view, the harsh reality of what the human race really is, or is capable of being.