Satire in Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels is an elaborate concoction of political allegory, moral fable, social anatomy, and mock Utopias set within a parody of both travel fiction and journals of scientific exploration.When it was finally taken as satire, critics began insisting that Swift was mad; they did not like what they saw in the satirical mirror.Swift knew that people would see everyone’s likeness but their own in this glass, so he wrote the character of Gulliver in a certain way in order to prevent the writing off of his actions as quirks.
Gulliver visits four different societies in his travel, and upon his return home at the end, he cannot bring himself to rejoin society.
The character of Gulliver will be examined in this section. Swift created him in such a way that the people of England could identify with him easily. He is a typical European: middle aged, well educated, has no overly romantic notions, is sensible, and conducts his affairs prudently.
This section will look at the satirical aspects of the first book, where in Gulliver visits the land of Lilliput. Gulliver is a normal human being visiting a recognizably European society, but he is twelve times bigger than the lands inhabitants. The Lilliputians are as small morally as they are physically. They are petty and have arguments over aspects of life such as upon which end to break an egg: ?the king seemed to think nothing … of destroying the Big-Endian exiles, and compelling that people to break the smaller end of their eggs; by which he would remain sole monarch of the world. ?.The Lilliputians are ordered to stand fifty feet away from Gulliver s house, unless they have a license whereby the secretaries of state got considerable fees. It is clear that the main satiric target in the first book is the pride Europeans take in public ceremonies and celebrations of power and magnificence: There’s an obvious silliness to the obsessions with these matters when the figures are only six inches high.
Gulliver returns home and promptly sets out to sea once more. He comes across the island of Brobdingnag, and this section will deal with the various satirical aspects of that society. He has left a land of small people and has now found himself in the role of a Lilliputian: he is now twelve times smaller than those around him. This entire book serves to reflect on the obsession with physical beauty which has grabbed Europeans of Swift’s time. He is nauseated when he sees a woman with a cancerous breast; he notes that the flesh is full of holes into which he could have easily crept. When he is in a bedroom with a few maids of honor, he is disgusted when they begin to undress in front of him because of their size and physical grossness.
The voice of Swift, behind Gulliver, is saying ?look at yourself, especially if you are a girl, and most especially if you think yourself lovely; excepting your size, in what way are you less vulgar than these Brobdingnagians?? The king of the Brobdingnagians also provides straightforward commentary on the Europeans Gulliver describes to him. Gulliver is the first to explain away the king’s criticisms. He says that the king cannot help thinking in such ways because he has been isolated his entire life and has certain prejudices and a narrowness of thinking. Because of this, Swift allows he to write the king openly criticizing the European way of life; to the untrained reader, the passage is taken as Gulliver takes it, which is as the product of a closed mind.
The fourth book is perhaps the most important. This section will deal with the views expressed in Gulliver s journey to Houyhnhnmland. The Houyhnhnms are extremely rational horses who co-exist with entirely irrational human-monkey hybrids known as Yahoos. Swift uses the conflict between the actions of these two species to set forth the fact that humans tend to describe themselves in terms of Houyhnhnms but act more like Yahoos. This book deals with more philosophical issues such as the nature of man’s thought and the purpose of living. Again, Swift allows Gulliver to reveal the characteristics of Europeans. The reply he receives from the king of the Houyhnhnms is crushingly unflattering:?he looked upon us as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which nature had not given us.?Through his interactions with the people of Houyhnhnmland, his objective perspective on society from the previous books is shattered; he begins to realize facts about human nature. This time, he agrees with the king of the Houyhnhnms about his countrymen:
?When I thought of my family, my friends,
my countrymen, or human race in general,
I considered them as they really were,
Yahoos in shape and disposition, perhaps
a little more civilized, and qualified
with the gift of speech, but making no
other use of reason than to improve and
multiply those vices whereof their
brethren in this country had only the
share that nature allotted them.?
Gulliver’s perspective and entire life are changed because of his episode with the Houyhnhnms
and the Yahoos. The fate of Gulliver is just as important as his journey in supporting Swift’s critical view of European life. This section will deal with what happens to him and why it occurs the way it does. When he returns home, he faints for over an hour after being embraced by his wife. He describes her as an ‘odious animal,’ decides that her presence is morally unbearable, and describes her as a Yahoo. He cannot bear the company of Europeans anymore. Gulliver shuns the culture which bred him: ?the many virtues of the Houyhnhnms placed in opposite view to human corruptions, had so far opened my eyes and enlarged my understanding, that I began to view the actions and passions of man in a very different light, and think the honor of my own kind not worthy managing.?From this realization on, he walks around trotting like a horse and spends four hours daily speaking to horses, trying to force himself to be thought of as a horse. So although he comes to understand humanity better than any of his peers, he actually loses his grip on reality.
In other words, the Houyhnhnms’ society is perfect for Houyhnhnms, but it is hopeless for humans. Houyhnhnm society is, in stark contrast to the societies of the first three voyages, devoid of all that is human.