Gulliver’s Travels as a Satire
Table of Contents
Gulliver’s Travels is a masterpiece of pointed satire. Deprived of teeth and claws, it becomes little more than a charming fable for children-a formidable tiger turned into a purring cat. It is important, however, to recognize the double level upon which Swift’s satire functions. “Satire,” Swift wrote, “is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover everybody’s Face but their Own”
Gulliver first sets sail in 1699, the year that Temple’s death left Swift without patron or position; and the last voyage (which includes Gulliver’s misanthropy) is concluded in 1714, the year Queen Anne died, the Tories lost power, and Swift “exiled” himself to Ireland.
Satire in Gulliver’s Travels Book 1
The Emperor of Lilliput-the pygmy island in Part I where the inhabitants are one twelfth Gulliver’s size-has, in fact, like the German George, an “Austrian lip”. Here 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. 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.
Dancing on a tight rope symbolizes Walpole’s skill in parliamentary tactics and political intrigues.
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.
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. the diversionary digression on the blue, red, the green ribbons could relate to Walpole’s flamboyant conferral of the Orders of the Garter, Bath, and Thistle on his supporters and flunkies.
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.
An especially ingenious (and amusing) theory relates the fire in the Emperor’s apartments to the outbreak among Anglicans, Catholics and dissenters, Gulliver’s urinary prowess in quenching the flames to A Tale of Tub, and the Empress’s subsequent indignation and hostility to Anne’s abhorrence of the book.
The articles of impeachment against Gulliver may be a satire on the actual impeachment in 1715 of four Tory ex-ministers.
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 which refers the differentiation between the two struggling parties, Tramecksan and Slamecksan, the Whigs and the Tories.
Satire in Gulliver’s Travels Book 2
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.
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.
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 this part of the book comes when the King comments on Gulliver’s account of the English parliament, the English court 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
Satire in Gulliver’s Travels Book 3
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.
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 1701. The new agricultural methods in vogue in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century are also attacked by Swift.
Swift satirizes historians and literary critics through Gulliver’s interviews with the ghosts of the famous dead. 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.
Unquestionably, the Flying Island suggests England, its political oppression of Ireland, and its potential desire to crush the Irish entirely. The Grand Academy of Lagado in Balnibarbi, which directly satirizes the Royal Society, a scientific organization chartered under Charles II.
The philosophers, critics, and historians of Glubbdubdriba name that in itself says everything are censured for perpetuating lies in the face of truth and the Struldbruges everything of Lustenaga, those creatures apparently blessed with immortality, but cursed also with physical deterioration, are cautions to man’s desires for mere long life without the accompanying ability to live it.
Satire in Gulliver’s Travels Book 4
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 Houyhnlınms, on the contrary, are morally so good that there is no word in their language for lying or falsehood.
In the lands of Houyhnhnms the intelligent horses stand for all rational in contrast to savage Yahoos who are all irrational. Houyhnhnms benevolent, reasonable minds make them superior to mischievous and brutal Yahoos whose innate savageness cannot be improved. Yahoos represent the base form of human being. Such a degraded form of human being instills in Gulliver a strong hatred for mankind that gradually turns him into a misanthrope. In his discourse with Master Houyhnhnm Gulliver expresses his bitter indignation against viciousness of English society. The topics like evil practice of government machineries, corrupt judicial system, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, the aftermath of war and dowry system in matrimonial alliances, depravities of physicians etc. come up in the discourse.
On the one hand Swift’s satire would indicate that human beings- the civilized Yahoos that is- deserve Gulliver’s scorn because his experiences and new found knowledge have opened his eyes to the evils of a world controlled by passion and pride. But there is another plane on which Gulliver himself is scrutinized with as much care and severity as he has used in scrutinizing the follies of the world; and the perspectives here can only be gained through a total understanding of Swift’s most skillful satiric device irony.