Satire in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

BOOK INFORMATION

I recently finished studying Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels as part of my “Great Books” high school curriculum.  Jonathan Swift was “born in Ireland of British stock” in 1667 (iii).  Gulliver’s Travels was originally published in 1726 under the title of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts by Lemuel Gulliver; First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.  The copy I read was copyrighted 1996 from Dover Publications.

LITERARY BACKGROUND

The satirical form Swift writes in is typical of many of his other writings, the most famous of which is A Modest Proposal (published in 1729) which suggests that starving Irish farmers should sell their children to the aristocracy for food, thus benefiting both parties.  He was not actually suggesting cannibalism.  A Modest Proposal was meant to be a “wake up call” to those who read it of the conditions Irish farmers were actually facing, the attitude of those in power (by suggesting that they would actually agree to this proposal), and the importance of children in a society.  While I only read the first two sections of Gulliver’s Travels (Voyage to Lilliput and Voyage to Brobdingnag), I could tell that it followed the same trend and poked fun at many things.

STORYLINE

In the first part of Gulliver’s Travels, Voyage to Lilliput, Jonathan Swift’s character, Lemuel Gulliver, takes a voyage as ship surgeon on board the Swallow.  The ship runs aground on some rocks, but Gulliver manages to escape the wreck and believes that he is the only one to do so.  He manages to make it to an island and collapses from exhaustion.  While he is asleep, the inhabitants of the island, the Lilliputians, capture him and tie him up.

Lemuel Gulliver Captured by the Liliputians

Lemuel Gulliver Captured by the Liliputians

This is no small feat considering their height being only about six inches.  They transport him to their village and place him, chained, in an abandoned temple.  After falling in disfavor with the king, he escapes to the neighboring province of Blefuscu, inhabited by people of the same stature.  Off that coast, he finds a human sized boat and with it returns to England.  He then takes another voyage.  While onshore looking for water, he is captured by individuals “as Tall as an ordinary Spire-steeple; and took about ten Yards at every Stride,” placing him in the exact reverse position he had been in Lilliput (55).  He lives in their land for a time and then returns home when his living compartment is carried away and cast out to see by an eagle.

SATIRE

During Jonathan Swift’s lifetime, 1667 to 1745, and the time he was writing this book, there were still many explorers going to distant lands to find new routes, continents, and countries.  Which means, while few people most likely thought he was serious, the idea of finding a new land was not as farfetched as it is to us today.  On these journeys, the explorers would often write “travel logs” or recounts of their adventures and publish them.  It seems that Jonathan Swift was making fun of these accounts, which could not have always been telling the whole truth, by writing one of his own that was so fantastic.

Shortly after his arrival in Lilliput, Gulliver  agrees to let the Lilliputians search his pockets, “for probably [he] might carry about [him] several Weapons, which must needs be dangerous Things, if they answered the Bulk of so Prodigious a Person” (13).  He placed several officers in each of his pockets and they made a report of all he had with him.  While this was a very humorous report, the most satirical part was their description of his pocket watch.  Their report of it read as follows on page 14.

Out of the right [pocket] hung a great Silver Chain, with a wonderful kind of Engine at the Bottom.  We [the searchers] directed him to draw out whatever was at the End of that Chain; which appeared to be a Globe, half Silver, and half of some transparent Metal: For on the transparent Side we saw certain strange Figures circularly drawn, and thought we could touch them, until we found our Fingers stopped with that lucid Substance. He put this Engine to our Ears, which made an incessant Noise like that of a Water-Mill.

Then they gave their opinion on what this “Engine” was.  The two searchers stated that “…we conjecture it is either some unknown Animal, or the God that he worships: But we are more inclined to the latter Opinion, because he assured us… that he seldom did any Thing without consulting it. He called it his Oracle, and said it pointed out the Time for every Action of his Life” (14).  This seems merely comical but when you think about it, we truly do base most, if not all, of our lives on what time it is.  As pointed out by Tom Vaderbilt in Traffic: How we Drive and what it Says About Us, when asked how far away something is, we nearly always give the answer in time, not distance.

Also in the first part, the country that Gulliver flees to after falling out of favor with the king of Lilliput, Blefuscu, has been at war with Lilliput because of a dispute over cracking eggs.  The emperor of Lilliput published an Edict declaring that everyone must crack their eggs on the small end after his son cut his finger while cracking one on the large end.  This is, obviously, a rather trivial topic but

The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us, there have been six Rebellions raised on that Account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown… It is computed, that eleven Thousand Persons have, at several Times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End (26).

Perhaps Jonathan Swift was making fun of all the things we get “hung up on” and worried about that are really not important enough to spend time on and ruining friendships over.

CONCLUSION

I enjoyed reading this book.  While it did not include as much old English as the last book I read for Great Books, John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress which was written several years prior, there were still a few words I did not know and words spelled differently than we spell them today.  I was still able to enjoy the book, however, and I am interested in reading the other parts someday as well.

 

“Undoubtedly Philosophers are in the Right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by Comparison: It might have pleased Fortune to let the Lilliputians find some Nation, where the People were as diminutive with respect to them, as they were to me. And who knows but that even this prodigious Race of Mortals [living on Brobdingnag] might be equally over-matched in some distant Part of the World. Where of we have yet no Discovery?”
-Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (page 56)

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