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Satire in Gulliver's Travels

By budgies16 Oct 08, 2012 963 Words
Satire in Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift’s renowned novel Gulliver’s Travels is possibly the greatest work of literary satire ever written. Ever since its publication, it has been an important and thought-provoking piece in English literature. As defined by a dictionary, satire is “The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues”. Originally, when it was first published, Swift refused to sign the book, fearing prosecution from the government. Swift himself admits that he penned ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ in order "to vex the world rather than divert it." In this novel, the main character, Gulliver, travels to four very different lands. He is exposed to a vast array of political and social settings, and his view on politics and the human race as a whole deteriorates as the journey progresses. Often thought to be misanthropic, Swift uses satire to express his own unfavorable opinion on humanity, knowledge, and government.

During the first journey Gulliver finds himself on an island ruled by people who are only 6 inches tall. He is a giant in this foreign land, but he respects the tiny natives. The main thing Swift satirizes in this journey is the trivial politics of his native England. On the island, which is called Lilliput, there are two rival forces - the high heels and the low heels. About these parties, it is said "that for above seventy Moons past there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves." During the life of Jonathan Swift, politics in England were greatly controlled by two parties called the Whigs and Tories, just as Lilliput is manned by the high and low heels. Using these two parties, Swift paints a picture of trivial differences between them. This is satirizing what Swift really thinks about the minor differences between the two controlling powers of England.

In the next journey, Swift begins to satirize western culture as a whole. After leaving the island of Lilliput, Gulliver finds himself in a new country called Brobdingnag. Here, the roles are reversed, with the natives being over 60 feet tall, and Gulliver only a few inches tall. The giants are grotesque, but their politics and culture far surpasses that of England. They are peaceful and do not desire violence, unlike the people of Europe who are cruel and ambitious for war. The main use of satire in the second voyage comes when Gulliver tries to explain to the king of this island the culture, history and government of Europe. He attempts to make it sound as impressive as possible, but the king only sees the corruption in European society, proclaiming, "I cannot but conclude 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 statement is one of the most well-known in the art of satire. Through the tongue of the king, Swift expresses his feelings towards humanity.

Throughout the course of the third journey, Gulliver finds himself in four different locations. Swift is satirizing the knowledge of humanity through these travels. The first place Gulliver visited was a floating island. On this island, the people were visionaries, but they were absentminded and had no concept of reality. At his next stop, Gulliver meets a group of people who have their own ideas to improve their country, but they are also without a real basis. Yet, the people of this land follow these ideas, even though they are clearly ludicrous. The next land he visits is home to magicians who can temporarily bring the dead to life. Here, Gulliver speaks with famous figures in history and uncovers that a lot of the history he has read is not accurate because of the bias of historians. The final country he visits is home to immortal men. Gulliver begins to imagine how amazing it would be to live for eternity, but he is informed that while the people are immortal, they do not have everlasting youth and they are miserable. Throughout this venture, Swift uses satire to mock the knowledge of man.

Swift’s disgust of humanity is shown clearly through the satire used in the final journey. This time, Gulliver ends up in a land inhabited by talking horses called Houyhnhnms. These horses are seemingly perfect and rational. Also on the island are savage humanoid beasts called Yahoos. The yahoos are disgusting and unintelligible. Gulliver much prefers the company of the horses over the yahoos, even though he is obviously biologically related to the latter. The horses are so idealistic that Gulliver becomes ashamed of humanity, and wishes to stay with the houyhnhnms for the remainder of his life. They eventually force him off the island and Gulliver returns to his native land. He is now terrified of other humans, including his own family, and spends many days talking to regular horses. Swift’s repulsion of humanity reaches its breaking point here, revealed through the satire demonstrated during this final journey.

Jonathan Swift is widely thought to be misanthropic, or, to be a hater of humanity. To this day it is unknown if he truly felt animosity towards humanity as a whole, but it definitely seemed like it through his use of satire in many of his stories. In his novel ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, Swift painted man as a disgusting creature with corrupt ideas in politics and an irrational thought process. Although it has been met with much disdain and criticism, Swift’s book will forever remain one of the most excellent examples of satire in all of literature.

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