Gulliver’s Travels Through Swift’s Satiric Vision

‘A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.’ - Samuel Johnson on Satire.

Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels is a multifaceted text being a adventure story travelogue allegory etc, however one of it’s most prevalent aspect is that of satire, leaving the reader open to infinite interpretations. Swift uses satire to deconstruct the age of enlightenment and rationalism that was going on at the time he wrote. Very few have attempted satire in a way that Swift has, through Lemuel Gulliver. He tried to see the happenings of the eighteenth century through a very critical lens. The text uses a mode of Juvenalian satire wherein the matter is less focused on humor and more so on abrasive, ironical and exaggerated way of representing the shortcomings of the society.

In the first two parts of the book, Swift through vivid descriptions of comical instances describes England and all the countries that it had colonized and also the relationship between England and France and Whigs and Tories upon the simple fact on which side one breaks a egg from. In book two there are instances where Gulliver tries his hardest to make the king understand the necessity of violence and even offers him gunpowder but the king rejects it not understanding the reason behind propagating violence. The instance is also ironical since Gulliver in the first part himself promoted treaties between lilliputians and the residents of Blefuscu. Here Swift has brought out seeing things from a bigger perspective literally. The bigger in size the characters were the less they promoted aggravating silly reasons of engaging in barbarity.

Even in part three abstract theory dominated all aspects of Laputan life, from language to architecture to geography. We are compelled to wonder whether the Laputan's’ rigid adherence to such principles—their disdain for practical geometry, for example, leads them to renounce right angles—limits their society.

The method of assigning letters to parts of a mechanism and then describing the movement of these parts from one point to another resembles the mechanistic philosophical and scientific descriptions of Swift’s time. In Chapter five of book three Gulliver visits the academia where he visits a man trying to extract sun rays from a cucumber and a doctor trying to revive a dead dog by blowing air into him through a tube. Gulliver commented on the then scientific experiments that were going on by trying to preach an idea that science and the world is beyond reason so one shouldn't venture into it.

In part four A voyage to the County of Houyhnhnms, Swift describes what he considers to be an ideal society showing both what man isn't and what we shouldn't preach to be. The Houyhnhnms were devoid of passion and reason and relied completely on reason which if we put in an emotional context starts defying logic altogether.

Gulliver in chapter five here while in conversation with Houyhnhnhyms defines lawyers as people “bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white”. Through these lines we understand Swift is trying to point out intolerance of the people of his own country. Gulliver’s depiction of lawyers is scathing This is an example of oversimplification, which Swift uses to portray a negative view of Lawyers. The description continues as Gulliver states “To this Society all the rest of the People are Slaves.”

Swift uses the verb ‘slave’ metaphorically, and it is clear to the reader that this is not to be interpreted literally, and is a means of exaggerating a point for satirical purposes, the Master Houyhnhnm, who is isolated from all points of reference, would have taken this statement literally. This negative view of lawyers serves to further intensify Swift’s mistrust and distain for humanity, exemplifying the misanthropic tone of the book.

After seeing the world of Lilliputians, Brobdingnag and Laputa, Gulliver finds perfection in the world of the horses or Houyhnhnhms. He, for the first time is eager to stay rather than being happy to leave. However when he goes back to England he has lost complete sense of himself and humanity. Here Swift tries to justify that going in find of a utopian world or something which is rationally perfect can bring abut irreversible terrible changes to oneself. Swift was a highly moral man and was shocked by his contemporaries easy conversion to reason as the be-all and end-all of philosophy. To be so gullible amounted to non-reason in Swift's thinking. He believed that reason then had become very monolithic.

Through Satire in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift wanted to bring out a sense of absurdity that he felt, reveal the snobbish nature of humans, make fun of travelogue and voyage writers and criticize the growing sense of rationalism.

16 December 2021
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