Gulliver’s Travels Essay
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The saga of Lilliput is more fun and entertaining than that of Brobdingnag. ‘ Discuss. Gulliver’s Travels is a classic example of eighteenth century satire, one of Swift’s greatest works in an outcry against the values and practices of his time. While his words ruthlessly attack numerous aspects of human society and human character, by the nature of satire his weapon is humour. So there is plenty of amusement to be had through the course of the book, most notably in the first two adventures, in Lilliput and Brobdingnag.
On Gulliver’s first adventure to Lilliput, he awakes on the island to find himself bound and tied to the ground by the six-inch tall Lilliputians. After being stung with arrows and stabbed with spears, he decides to obey, and then help the ‘Most Mighty Emperor of Lilliput’ and his country. So we see the foremost target of Swift’s humour and satire, that surrounding Gulliver himself, as Richard Rodino said, ‘Gulliver… is a satirical device enabling Swift to score satirical points.
‘ In Lilliput he subjects to the Emperor’s imprisonment and his wishes, some strange, such as when ‘he desired I would stand like a Colossus’, ‘draw up the troops in close order, and march them under me’. Some others were simply humiliating, however, such as when, upon receiving his decree of liberty, he swears to it ‘with great cheerfulness and content’, despite the fact that he does not agree fully with all of the articles within, and proceeds to be grateful for the ‘honour’ of the Emperor’s presence, to whom he prostrates himself.
This acquiescence on the part of Gulliver to a people who, to him, are little more than dolls that walk and talk, is degrading on Gulliver’s part, yet also funny, since his lack of humour and perspective leaves him open to ridicule. He, who can tow whole fleets and span an entire blustrug with a single step, is reduced to begging a miniature monarch for his freedom. Later on, he receives the ingratitude of the Lilliputians for the desecration of the royal palace, when he put out the fire by urinating on it. The result, due to his enmity with Skyresh Bolgolam, was that he was sentenced to have his eyes cut out.
While most others in such a position would have laughed at being threatened by a people a twelfth their size, he is worried and scared by the decree to have his eyes put out. Despite the fact that the sentence expects him to ‘gratefully and humbly submit’, depending on him not resisting as ‘very sharp-pointed arrows’ are discharged into his eyes, he decides to run anyway, to the court of Blefuscu. This cowardice amplifies the humour in his behaviour, the image of a giant being scared and running away from midgets is one that is contrary to the one we would expect.
Compare this behaviour to the way that Gulliver presents himself in Brobdingnag. At almost every turn his diminutive size is ridiculed, he becomes the plaything of a nine-year old girl, the rival of a thirty-foot dwarf, and is forced to perform a debasing show ’till I was half-dead with weariness and vexation. ‘ While he is as subservient, indeed, perhaps even more than before, he is no longer doing so to a people far smaller than him. This image of Gulliver being overworked by people far bigger, more important than him, is only funny from the big people’s point of view.
As we read it, there are, instead, distinct undertones of slavery and torture. Another example is when the ‘Maids of Honour’ ‘would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples’, as well as various other appalling things, leaving Gulliver ‘far from… giving me any other emotions other than those of horror and disgust. ‘ While one could find comedy in this passage, it is much cruder and less funny than similar passages in Lilliput, a typical example of the type of humour found in this second adventure.
Although Swift is satirising our fascination with beauty and appearances, the power of this extract stems not from underlying implications but from the shock of having the human body so cruelly assaulted. Thus, instead of subtly hinting his satire as he does in Lilliput, Swift takes a far harsher line in Brobdingnag, using Gulliver to demonstrate the shortcomings and failings of the human race, through the medium of his various adventures there. It’s always entertaining when you’re dealing with those smaller and weaker than you are, but a great deal less funny when it’s someone more powerful dealing with you.
The affairs and events which occur in the two adventures also contribute a great deal to the humour. When Gulliver is in Lilliput, one of the first curious things he relates to us is the practice of choosing ministers for governmental and court positions by the nominee’s skill at dancing on a tightrope or leaping under or over the Emperor’s stick. This idea seems ridiculous to us, it probably elicited a few smirks when you first read it, but Swift is alluding to the way that in his day and age, many government officials achieved their positions from skill with words or putting money in the right places.
‘Politics becomes a mad ballet,’ says Philip Pinkus. When we learn that ‘Flimnap would have infallibly broken his neck, if one of the King’s cushions… had not weakened the force of the fall’, Swift is protesting against the way the favour of a powerful minister could easily protect a man from the loss of his position if they ‘strain so far’ as to overreach themselves and make a fatal mistake. In Brobdingnag, much of the humour revolves around the way that Gulliver must make his way in a world where everything is too big, John F.
Ross says that ‘he retains a pride and self-esteem which would be perfectly normal for him among his physical equals, but which is ridiculous under the circumstances. ‘ One time, ‘above twenty wasps, allured by the smell, came flying into the room… These insects were as large as partridges’. The image of Gulliver surrounded by bird-sized wasps is immediately funny, but aside from the comedy value, there is little satirical content in this passage. There are many other comical stories in both adventures, which can entertain, but also have other layers of meaning.
In Lilliput, one of the most amusing anecdotes is that of the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu, largely because of its origins: ‘It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end: but his present Majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, and going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. ‘
The result is that the inhabitants of the two islands go to international war over so minor an event as breaking an egg. We find this hilariously funny, thinking the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians stupid and petty to allow this incident to escalate so to such an extent. However, when the Blefuscudian king listens to Gulliver’s ‘praise of my own dear native country in a style equal to its merits and felicity’, he sees through the pompousness and self-importance of Gulliver’s account of Europe, seeing the corruption in government, the prejudice in law, the inefficiency in politics, the mismanagement of the economy.
Swift is hinting that the two situations are not so different, since little people tend to place great significance upon little things, and when we are the little ones, it is brought home to us that the vast majority of our affairs are of little consequence in the long run. While the story found in Gulliver’s Travels is highly entertaining, it is, primarily, a work of satire, and this adventure is designed as a message to the people and government of Swift’s 18th century Britain, to change, or even just to reflect upon, the way in which they go about their lives.
Upon reading both Lilliput and Brobdingnag, there is an evident trend in how Swift has written his book. In Lilliput, Swift uses engaging, fine humour to disguise his satire, whereas in Brobdingnag he moves onto rougher, coarser humour, with a far more obvious attack on European society, a trend which is continued through to the end of the book, culminating in a scathing assault on our perceptions of human nature itself, in the fourth adventure.
Therefore, due to the ways in which we respond to the portrayal of Gulliver, and the events and humour found in the two passages, I conclude that the saga of Lilliput is funnier and more entertaining than that of Brobdingnag.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1726 Richard Rodino, The Study Of Gulliver’s Travels, Past and Present, 1992 Philip Pinkus, Sin and Satire in Swift (1965)