Swift's Moral Satire in Gulliver's Travels
"In its most serious function, satire is a mediator between two perceptions-the unillusioned perception of man as he actually is, and the ideal perception, or vision, of man as he ought ot be," (Bullitt, 3). Likewise, "misanthropy" can be understood as being the product of one of two world views: 1) The Pure Cynic or Misanthropist has no faith in human nature and has given up on any notion of ideals. This type lies and manipulates as a matter of course and these are the types that tend to run the world. 2) The "Burned" or Disillusioned Idealist's misanthropy arises out of disappointment in humankind. In many ways, the second type exhibits more bile as he is constantly frustrated by what men do as opposed to what they ought to do. Jonathon Swift is the second type of misanthropist and Gulliver's Travels is arguably his greatest satiric attempt to "shame men out of their vices" (Ibid., 14) by constantly distinguishing between how man behaves and how he thinks about or justifies his behavior in a variety of situations. Pride, in particular, is what enables man to "deceive himself into the belief that he is rational and virtuous when, in reality, he has not developed his reason, and his virtue is merely appearance," (Ibid., 66). This satire works on so many levels that a paper such as this allows me to deal with only three elements, and in a necessarily superficial way: the ways in which the structure and choice of metaphor serve Swift's purpose, a discussion of some of his most salient attacks on politics, religion, and other elements of society, and his critique on the essence and flaws of human nature. Swift's purpose was to stir his readers to view themselves as he viewed humankind, as creatures who were not fulfilling their potential to be truly great but were simply flaunting the trappings of greatness. Gulliver's Travels succeeds in this goal brilliantly.
The form and structure of the whole work enhanced Swift's purpose, as did the specific metaphors in each of the four voyages. Firstly, Swift went to great pains to present Gulliver's Travels in the genuine, standard form of the popular travelogues of the time. Gulliver, the reader is told, was a seaman, first in the capacity of a ship's surgeon, then as the captain of several ships. Swift creates a realistic framework by incorporating nautical jargon, descriptive detail that is related in a "factual, ship's-log" style, and repeated claims by Gulliver, in his narrative, "to relate plain matter(s) of fact in the simplest manner and style." This framework provides a sense of realism and versimilitude that contrasts sharply with the fantastic nature of the tales, and establishes the first ironic layer of The Travels. As Tuveson points out (58), "In Gulliver's Travels there is a constant shuttling back and forth between real and unreal, normal and absurd...until our standards of credulity are so relaxed that we are ready to buy a pig in a poke." The four books of the Travels are also presented in a parallel way so that voyages 1 and 2 focus on criticism of various aspects of English society at the time, and man within this society, while voyages 3 and 4 are more preoccupied with human nature itself, (Downie, 281). However, all of these elements overlap, and with each voyage, Gulliver, and thus the reader, is treated not only to differing but ever deepening views of human nature that climax in Gulliver's epiphany when he identifies himself with the detestable Yahoos. As such, the overall structure also works like a spiral leading to a center of self-realization. Or, as Tuveson puts it, Swift's satire shifts from "foreign to domestic scenes, from institutions to individuals, from mankind to man, from others to ourselves," (62).
The choice of metaphor in each voyage serves more particularly the various points of Swift's satiric vision. "The effect of reducing the scale of life in Lilliput is to strip human affairs of their self-imposed grandeur. Rank, politics, international war, lose all of their significance. This particicualr idea is continued in the second voyage, not in the picture of the Brobdingnagians, but in Gulliver himself, who is now a Lilliputian," (Eddy, 149). And where the Liiliputians highlight the pettiness of human pride and pretensions, the relative size of the Brobdingnagians, who do exemplify some positive qualities, also highlights the grossness of the human form and habits, thus satirizing pride in the human form and appearance. In the voyage to Laputa, the actual device of a floating island that drifts along above the rest of the world metaphorically represents Swift's point that an excess of speculative reasoning can also be negative by cutting one off from the practical realities of life which, in the end, doesn't serve learning or society (Downie, 282). And in the relation of the activities of the Grand Academy of Lagado, Swift satirizes the dangers and wastefulness of pride in human reason uninformed by common sense. The final choice of the Houyhnhnms as the representatives of perfect reason unimpeded by irrationality or excessive emotion serves a dual role for Swift's satire. The absurdity of a domestic animal exhibiting more "humanity" than humans throws light on the defects of human nature in the form of the Yahoo, who look and act like humans stripped of higher reason. Gulliver and the reader are forced to evaluate such behavior from a vantage point outside of man that makes it both shocking and revelatory, (Tuveson, 62). The pride in human nature as superior when compared to a "bestial" nature is satirized sharply. However, the Houyhnhnms are not an ideal of human nature either. Swift uses them to show how reason uninformed by love, compassion, and empathy is also an inadequate method to deal with the myriad aspects of the human situation.
Within this framework, very little of human social behavior, pretensions, or societal institutions escape the deflating punctures of Swift's arrows. Ewald states that, "As a satire, the main purpose of Gulliver's Travels is to show certain shortcomings in 18th century English society..." (151). Much of the first voyage lampoons court intrigue and the arbitrary fickleness of court favor, (Eddy, 110). The rank and favor of the Lilliputian ministers being dependent on how high they can jump over a rope literally illustrates this figurative point. Gulliver himself falls out of favor because he does not pander to the King's thirst for power. The two political parties being differentiated by the height of their heels points out how little substantive difference there was between Whig and Tory, (or today between Democrat and Republican), and similarly, the religious differences about whether the Host was flesh or symbol is reduced to the petty quarrel between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians. Swift also highlights the pretensions of politics by informing the reader of some of the laudable and novel ideals and practices of Lilliputian society such as rewarding those who obey the law, holding a breach of trust as the highest offense, and punishing false accusors and ingratitude, but shows that, like humans, even the Lilliputians do not live up to their own standards when they exhibit ingratitude for Gulliver's help and accuse him of high treason, (Downie, 278).
Of course, the perspective shifts in the second voyage, where Gulliver finds himself in the same relation to the Brobdingnagians as the Lilliputians were to him, which not only leads to some different kinds of satiric insights, but many which are sightly darker in tone. Most of the social and political criticism occurs in Chapters six and seven. Gulliver describes European civilization to Brobdingnag's King, including England's political and legal institutions and how they work, as well as some of the personal habits of the ruling class. Yet, even though Gulliver subsequently confesses to the reader that he cast this information in the most favorable light, the King still deduces that every strata of society and political power is infested with rampant corruption and dismissively concludes "the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." This echoes a basic message of the first voyage but the attack here is more direct and corrosive. The relative size of the Brobdingnagians adds a physical dimension to the King's judgment and enhances its veracity. Also, "all the transactions of life, all passion, and all social amenities, which involve the body, lose their respectability in Brobdingnag," (Eddy, 150), from Gulliver's description of the odious breast to his viewing of a public execution. In contrast, Brobdingnagian society has many things to recommend it such as excellence "in morality, history, poetry, and mathematics," although Gulliver ironically laments that these are only applied to the practical aspects of life and not used for abstractions. However, much of Swift's political writings indicate that he, like the Brobdingnagians, favored a conception of government and society based on common-sense, (Lock, 132-134). The supreme moment of ironical criticism of European civilization occurs in Chapter seven when, after offering the secret of gun powder to the King and his subsequent horrified refusal, Gulliver declares the King to possess "narrow principles and short views!" Of course, mankind would never be so short-sighted as to turn away from learning a new method of injuring, torturing, or killing one's fellows! Aside from this sharp comment on human nature, Swift is also alluding to the eagerness with which European nations would leap at such an offer as an aid to waging war against their neighbors.
The main focus of social criticism in the voyage to Laputa is on intellectuals, such as scholars, philosophers, and scientists, who often get lost in theoretical abstractions and conceptions to the exclusion of the more pragmatic aspects of life, in direct contrast to the practical Brobdingnagians. Many critics feel Swift was satirizing "the strange experiments of the scientists of the Royal Society," but may also have been warning his readers against "the political projectors and speculators of the time," (Davis 149-150). The Laputians excel at theoretical mathematics, but they can't build houses where the walls are straight and the corners are square. Instead, they constantly worry about when the sun will burn out and whether a comet will collide with the earth. This misuse of reason is hilariously elaborated on in Chapters five and six, where the various experiments occuring at the Grand Academy of Lagado are described. Of course, the point is highlighted as Gulliver professes his sincere admiration for such projects as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers and building houses from the roof down. The satire in Voyage three attacks both the deficiency of common sense and the consequences of corrupt judgment (Quintana, 317).
Most of the criticism in the Voyage to the Houyhnhnms is directed at human nature itself, although the trend to more particular targets begun in the third voyage is continued with glancing, but increasingly direct blows to the subjects of war, (destruction clothed in the pretext of valour and patriotism), lawyers, (social parasites who measure their worth by their excellence at deception and therefore, actually inhibit justice), and money, (the greed of a few is fed by the labor and poverty of the many, as well as the relative uselessness and corruption of these priveleged few). In addition, Swift makes some very cogent observations on imperialism in the concluding chapter which point out the arrogance and self deception of European nations when they claim to civilize, through brutality and oppression, groups of indigenous people who were often mild and harmless. Of course, as Swift implies, the real goal of imperialism is greed. The most ironic point occurs when the author disclaims that this attack on imperialist countries does not include Britain, which history shows was equally as brutal as its European rivals and, in many cases, even more so, considering its Empire became at one time the largest of any European country. What I found most interesting was how many critics took this disclaimer seriously as an expression of the author's patriotism, (Ewald, 143-144, Bullitt, 64). It seems obvious that Swift is making the point that Gulliver's naive patriotism, the last remnant of identification he has with his own kind, is misplaced and it is Swift's final, palpable hit.
The main object of the satire in Gulliver's Travels is human nature itself, specifically Man's pride as it manifests in "pettiness, grossness, rational absurdity, and animality," (Tuveson, 57). Gulliver's character, as a satirical device, serves Swift's ends by being both a mouthpiece for some of Swift's ideals and criticisms and as an illustration of them (Ewald, 138-9); Thus, critiques on human nature are made through Gulliver's observations as well as through Gulliver's own transformation from a "naive individual...into a wise and skeptical misanthrope," (Ibid.,142).
Chapter seven of the first Voyage, where Gulliver is informed that he is about to be indicted for high treason by the Lilliputian Court, provides the most bitter satiric attack on hypocrisy, ingratitude, and cruelty (Tuveson, 75), yet Gulliver, and the reader, are able to distance themselves from these qualities by concluding that though these tiny creatures are aping human behavior, they are still not human. In the second voyage, both the human pride in physical appearance is attacked through Gulliver's perspective of the Brobdingnagians, and Gulliver's own pride in himself and his country is reduced to ridiculousness as Gulliver becomes the object of comic satire (Ibid., 76). Gulliver's offer of the secret of gunpowder only underscores that he is a typical member of his race. From Gulliver's theme of the excellence of mankind, begun in Chapter six, the episode concludes "with the shocking demonstration of what man's inhumanity is capable of" (Ibid., 78).
One of the most interesting comments on the human condition is the description of the immortal Struldbrugs in Voyage Three. Swift's treatment of the subject of immortality is characteristically practical and down to earth. What would it really be like to live in perpetuity? His answer: A living death. The main problem is that the human body ages and is not a fit vessel to house a perpetual consciousness. In relating this episode, Swift affirms with cutting precision that we have much in common with the rest of earth's creatures; any superior reason we may possess, and the pride we take in it, does not exempt us from the natural laws of physical death and regeneration. In Book Three, Swift not only shows the possible perversions of reason in the doings at the Academy of Lagado, but also shows its limitations in shielding us from the natural consequences of physical life. Here, he implies the importance of a moral structure to human life; reason is not enough and immortality would only make things worse.
Yet on the surface, Book four seems to argue that reason is the one quality, when properly developed, that can elevate man to his ultimate potential. But ironically it is the horse-like Houyhnhnms that possess this perfect development of reason, whereas the Yahoos, whom Gulliver most resembles, are primitive and bestial. I agree with Ewald that Voyage four contains Swift's clearest attack on human pride (154). Indeed, the quality of reason only enables humans "to aggravate their natural corruptions and to acquire new ones which Nature had not intended." Even a dispassionate view of human history would find it difficult to dispute this conclusion. Whereas the attacks on human nature in the first three Voyages deal with actions that are symptomatic of man's nature-"the corrosive satire of the last voyage is concerned with the springs and causes of action" (Tuveson, 80), in other words, the essence of man. As such, the satire directed against the pretensions of court, political corruption, and the excesses of speculative reasoning may divert and disturb Gulliver, and the reader, but it is possible to distance oneself from the attacks. But the object of the satiric attack in the last voyage is man himself: it is Gulliver and the reader. Here, "Swift is attacking the Yahoo in each of us" (Ibid., 81).
Human nature is cut into two parts: The Houyhnhnms possess reason and benevolence, and selfish appetites and brutish awareness are left for the Yahoos. The microscopic analysis of the human form that took place in the second voyage is now used to analyze the defects of man's moral nature, and it is pride that prevents man from recognizing his flaws and dealing with them. When Gulliver experiences the shock of recognition that he, too, is a Yahoo, Gulliver passes from being a "perfect example a character acting in ignorance of his condition" to experiencing "a terrifying insight into evil (which) is accompanied by all the bitterness of a profound disillusionment" (Bullitt, 61, 65). Yet, I agree with many of the critics who say that though Gulliver makes the mistake of identifying himself completely with the Yahoos, Swift and the reader do not (Ibid., 65). "For the truth, as we are meant to realize, is that man is neither irrational physicality like the Yahoos nor passionless rationality like the Houyhnhnms" (Ibid.) but are something in between. We are meant to be repulsed by the chilling calmness with which the Houyhnhnms accept death as described in Chapter nine as much as we are by the selfishness of the Yahoos, and it is clear Swift does not present Gulliver's comic and absurd withdrawal from people as a viable solution. Instead, Swift wants us to be shocked out of the pride that allows us to deceive ourselves into thinking man is completely virtuous when he is not by experiencing, with Gulliver, our own limitations without making Gulliver's final mistake. The solution to the human dilemma is not so simple as Gulliver's rejection of humanity, and Swift's final success, in terms of stimulating response, is that, after masterfully dissecting and presenting the problem, he leaves the application of his lessons to "the judicious reader."
For many critics, Gulliver's Travels "is in a sense, a tragic work...in that it is the picture of man's collapse before his corrupt nature, and of his defiance in face of the collapse" (Dobree, 447). Yet, obviously Swift felt that humbling human pride, enabling a more honest self-assessment, was absolutely vital to addressing the suffering and injustice so prevalent in human life. Contrary to many who label Swift a misanthropist, only a man who cared deeply about humanity could have produced a work like Gulliver's Travels. Weilding the scalpel of satire, Swift cuts through our self-deception to our pride, the source of our moral denial and inertia. As we travel with Gulliver through the voyages, Swift brilliantly peels away our pretensions, layer by layer, until he shows us what we are and challenges us, intensely and urgently, to be better. In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift continues to vex the world so that it might awaken to the fact that humankind needs saving, but it has to save itself.
Bullitt, John M. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Davis, Herbert. Jonathan Swift: Essays on His Satires and Other Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.
Dobree, Bonamy. English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Downie, J. A. Jonathan Swift: Political Writer. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Eddy, William A. Gulliver's Travels: A Critical Study. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1963.
Ewald, William Bragg. The Masks of Jonathan Swift. Oxford, Great Britain: Basil Blackwell, 1954.
Lock, F. P. The Politics of Gulliver's Travels. Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Quintana, Ricardo. The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1965.
Tuveson, Ernest. (Ed.) Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964.
© 1994 Shirley Galloway
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