Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels

Swift was a tremendously prolific poet, pamphleteer, and essayist, and many editions of his collected works, as well as letters and other unpublished or uncollected writings, have appeared since his death. He is perhaps the greatest satirist in English literature, and his ruthlessly bleak and misanthropic work stands in stark contrast to the generally milder satire of Dryden, Pope, and Gay. (Rowse 1975 & Steele 1978) Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, seven months after his father’s death.

He was the son of Jonathan Swift and Abigaile Erick (or Herrick); since both parents were from England, Swift, though born and educated In Ireland.

did not think of himself as Irish. He attended Kilkenny Grammar School from around 1673 to 1681, then went to Trinity College, Dublin where because of disciplinary problems he obtained his B. A. degree in 1686 only by special grace” (speciali gratia). In 1689 Swift left for England, becoming secretary to Sir William Temple through whom he apparently hoped to achieve some advancement in political affairs.

Nothing came of this association. However having received his M. A. degree in 1692 from Hart Hall, Oxford, Swift took orders as a priest of the Anglican Church of Ireland early in 1695, more to achieve independence than out of any particular religious fervor. (Victorian Web) After spending an unhappy year as vicar of Kilroot in north¬ern Ireland, Swift returned to England and remained with Temple at Moor Park until 1699. It was during this period that he began his literary career. He had published his first poem, “Ode to the Athenian Society,” in 1691; now, in 1696, he wrote A Tale of a Tub, which was primarily an attack on various religious abuses.

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Shortly thereafter he wrote The Battle of the Books, a satirical treatment of the disputes between the Ancients (those who, like Sir William Temple, favored the ancient Latin and Greek writers) and the Moderns (those who believed that contemporary writers had equaled or exceeded the ancients in literary merit). (Rowse 1975; Steele 1978; Nokes 1985) Temple died in 1699, leaving Swift without a patron. He returned to Ireland settling this time in Dublin as the chaplain to Lord Berkeley, the new Lord Justice of Ireland.

In 1704 Swift published A Tale of the Tub (along with The Battle of the Books). His outspokenness which was manifested also in a number of pamphlets on religious questions such as “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity” (1708), made it harder for Swift to gain the preferment that would have enabled him to leave Ireland. (Rowse 1975 & Steele 1978) Swift was a frequent visitor to England, where he gained a literary reputation, became a member of the Scriblerus Club with Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, and others.

In 1710 he switched his political allegiance to the Tories and was active as a political journalist, writing poems and tracts in support of the Tory ministry and editing The Examiner for four years. During this time his relationship with Esther Johnson (“Stella”) flour¬ished. He had first met her around 1690, when he was her tutor. Around 1700 she settled near Dublin to be near him. Swift’s Journal to Stella was written between 1710 and 1713. Some biographers believe that he married her in 1716. Around 1715 a woman named Esther Vanhomrigh fell in love with Swift and followed him to Ireland, but he rejected her.

His poem Cadenus and Vanessa (1726) deals with this relationship. In 1713 Swift became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the highest position he was ever to achieve. He nevertheless wrote several pam¬phlets in defense of Irish rights, most notably The Drapier’s Letters (1724-25), which frustrated an attempt to circulate debased currency in Ireland and made him a popular hero. Swift may have begun working on Gulliver’s Travels as early as 1720, published in 1726, it satirized contemporary politics and the conventions of both philosophical and “factual” tales of exploration.

In that year Swift visited Alexander Pope at his estate in Twickenham, and it was at that time that they planned the series of volumes published in 1727 as Miscellanies in Prose and Verse; the first volume (a revision of a book of the same title issued in 1711) was entirely by Swift, and the other two volumes contained work by him as well as by Pope, Arbuthnot, and Gay. A Modest Proposal, a famous satire recommending that the children of poor people should be fattened to feed the rich, was published in 1729, and Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, both a self-parody and an attack on women, appeared in 1731. Swift had, since his twenty-third year, suffered from a condi¬tion now called Meniere’s disease, which causes nausea and loss of equilibrium. Late in his life he began to develop a brain tumor; in 1742 he lapsed into dementia, dying on October t 9, 1745. Summary In Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift overlays satire and parody upon a frame of travel writing (Probyn 1985) as he purports to document Captain Lemuel Gulliver’s journeys beyond the known world. A letter from Captain Gulliver to his publisher and cousin, Mr.

Sympson, and Sympson’s reply. Gulliver claims to publish only at the urging of Sympson and asserts that he no longer has any interest in reforming his countrymen. Yet the narrative itself, in treating scientific, political, and philosophical issues recognizable as contemporary and local, clearly is satire whose very function is reform. A map at the beginning of part one, “A Voyage to Lilliput,” locates the islands of Blefuscu and Lilliput off the coast of Sumatra. The voyage ends in shipwreck, and Gulliver, exhausted after a long swim to shore, falls asleep (chapter one).

When he awakes he notices first that he has somehow been pinned to the ground. He can move his head no more than two inches left or right, and the sun hurts his eyes. He sees a “human crea¬ture” less than six inches high and surmises that as many as forty more are climbing over his body, speaking a language he cannot understand. The Lilliputians shoot him with needlelike arrows as he briefly struggles to free himself. He likens the ferocity of the attack upon him to the effect of “bombs” in European warfare (foreshadowing a different sort of bomb dropped upon him in part four).

Gulliver’s vision, limited by physical restraints and a blinding sun, introduces the concepts of skewed perspective and intellectual blindness that will become central to the work. Gulliver convinces the Lilliputians that he is honorable and docile. They feed him enormous quantities of tiny meats and barrels of wine and are so astonished by his tremendous bulk and appetite that they are afraid to cut his bonds, although they are confident that he will not harm them with the hand freed for eating.

Sensitive to signs of his digestive processes, the Lilliputians loosen the cords enough for Gulliver to lean upon one side and urinate prodigiously, after which he sleeps for eight hours, the effect of a “sleeping potion in the hogsheads of wine. ” (Swift 2005) In chapter two Gulliver describes the gardenlike countryside, the fields that resemble flower beds, and the trees that at their tallest are just seven feet high. The miniature city looks like a theater backdrop.

He perfunctorily records the schedule of his morning bowel movements, completed at the farthest length of his chain and carried off by two servants with wheelbarrows. The emperor and council discuss how they will feed him, and they worry that he will escape his confinement. They consider starving or poisoning him, but the rotting corpse might bring plague. Because Gulliver is merciful to several thugs who attack him, even when given opportunity for revenge, the emperor decides to make the best of it and respond in kind.

He orders more comforts for Gulliver and instruction in the Lilliputians’ language. But first, Gulliver’s pockets are searched and the contents inventoried and described in riddle like fashion. In chapter three Swift parodies the process of entering into “great employments” at the English court with a description of Lilliputian practices. Candidates for office are trained from youth to dance upon a tightrope, and whoever jumps the highest acquires the desired employment. Furthermore, those already in office must prove their continued worth by occasion-ally performing as well.

In another event, candidates most adept at “leaping and creeping” over or under a stick held par¬allel to the ground may win blue, red, or green silk threads to wear around their waists. At last Gulliver gains his freedom. The articles and conditions under which he is released parody formal court language: The emperor is the “delight and terror of the universe. ” (Swift 2005) He shall carry court messengers in his pocket as required, destroy the fleet of enemy Blefuscudians preparing to invade Lilliput, assist the royal workmen, and survey the circumference of Lilliput.

In chapter four, lightly veiled comparisons to English politics satirize the gravity with which political factions pursue their agendas. Lilliput is clearly England, and the political parties, the Tramecksan and Slamecksan, representing Tories and Whigs, are distinguishable only by the high or low heels of their shoes. Lilliputian foreign policy parodies contemporary English policy toward France and has its sources in anecdote: As a boy, the emperor’s grandfather cut his fingers when breaking open a boiled egg at the large end, so an edict was promptly issued requiring that eggs be broken only at the small end.

Rebellions, executions, and exiles ensued, with Big-Endians (or Catholics) fleeing to Blefuscu (France), with which the Little-Endian Lilliput went to war. In chapter five, a well-meaning Gulliver walks across the channel, ties the Blefuscudian warships together, and pulls them into the royal port of Lilliput. But peace is not enough. Gulliver notes the “immeasurable ambition of princes” and refuses to fulfill the Lilliputian emperor’s ambition to vanquish and attach Blefuscu, “compelling that people to break the smaller end of their eggs, by which he would remain sole monarch of the whole world. (Swift 2005) The emperor of Lilliput never forgives him, despite his honorable service as the negotiator of a peace between the two nations. In chapter seven Gulliver describes an intrigue that has been formed against him by several members of the emperor’s court for his friendly curiosity about the Blefuscudians, which is regarded as a threat to national security. The conspirators have demanded Gulliver’s death, but the emperor is merciful and instead offers the option of blindness.

Gulliver sensibly packs his clothes and swims to the royal port of Blefuscu, where he offers his services to the Blefuscudian emperor. Later, walking along the coast, Gulliver finds a capsized boat fitted to his own proportions. Because he has proven to be more trouble than he is worth, the Blefuscudian emperor grants Gulliver all he needs to make the boat seaworthy and to sustain him, including a small herd of miniature livestock to breed upon his return to England. Gulliver carefully logs the time and circumstances of his departure.

Eventually, he is picked up by an English ship, returns home, and regains normal perspective. In England Gulliver exhibits his livestock as curiosities and sells them at great profit before-yielding to his “insatiable desire” to see other countries and having carefully provided for his family-he sails again on a merchant ship. Part two, “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” takes Gulliver to a peninsular country north of California. Left behind when the ship stops for fresh water, Gulliver finds himself in a position converse to that in Lilliput, for this place is inhabited by giants.

A field hand puts Gulliver in his pocket and carries him to his employer, a “substantial farmer,” who becomes convinced that Gulliver “must be a rational creature” (Swift 2005) and so takes him home. The farmer’s wife is at first frightened of Gulliver, as if he were “a toad or a spider,” but later grows “extremely tender. ” When she nurses her infant, Gulliver is horrified by the sight of her monstrous, six-foot breast, whose coarse and mottled skin nau¬seates him but causes him to reflect upon how the fair skin of English women would appear under a magnifying glass, sens¬ing correctly that proportion and perspective determine beauty.

He tries to adjust his thinking and makes aesthetic allowances for the sixty-foot farmer, whom he adjudges “very well proportioned. ” He communicates to the woman that he must attend to certain “necessities of nature” and hides in sorrel leaves to do so. In chapter two the farmer’s nine-year-old daughter takes motherly charge of the doll-like Gulliver, who names his new keeper Glumdalclitch (Little Nurse). The farmer exhibits him throughout the country, but when Gulliver’s good health is exhausted the farmer sells him to the queen, and Glumdalclitch stays as his keeper (chapter three).

The king is not at first impressed with this new curiosity, thinking Gulliver may be only a splacknuck (a small animal). But when he dis¬cerns that Gulliver is a rational being, he calls in three scholars to examine him, and they conclude that Gulliver is not equipped to survive in the world. Because his size is “beyond all degrees of comparison,” the scholars decide that he is a lusus naturae (freak of nature). Gulliver compares their method of investigation to that of European scientists and philosophers who ignorantly consign to categories what they do not understand. Swift 2005) Through his own distorted perspective, Gulliver describes dinner with the queen and two princesses, where he is appalled and disgusted by the amount of food these giants consume, by the size of their utensils, and by the sight and sound of their eating, forgetting the similar impression he him¬self had made upon the tiny Lilliputians. By chapter five Glumdalclitch seems to be losing interest in Gulliver’s constant companionship, and he himself wishes for some solitude. Although the child always leaves him in a safe place, he lives dangerously.

He is carried in the mouth of a dog in the garden, he does battle with a linnet (a type of finch), and a servant nearly drowns him. Among the antic incidents, Gulliver juxtaposes an edited account of sexual dalliance with one of a public execution. The maids of honor strip him naked and use him for sexual purposes “in proportion” to his “little¬ness. ” Repelled, he clings to memories of normal perspective and aesthetic ideals of feminine sweetness. After this disturbing episode, Gulliver witnesses and graphically describes the beheading of a murderer.

Shortly after, he is suckled and force-fed by a pet monkey. The monkey mimics the human, suggest¬ing to the reader that while to the Brobdingnagians Gulliver is not as human as they, to the monkey he is too human. Gulliver, at least, still seems sure of his own humanity and of the integ¬rity of England, although he remarks upon his isolation among “those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison”(Swift 2005) with himself, echoing the king’s scholars. The chapter con¬cludes with a walk in the country and an unsuccessful leap over cow dung.

In chapters six and seven, Gulliver and the king of Brobdingnag compare their nations’ governments. Gulliver offers a formal and dignified panegyric on the English parlia¬ment, clergy, courts, and military, but the king is scornful. The last century of English history seems to him merely a chaotic and senseless brawl among a “pernicious race of little odious vermin. ” (Swift 2005) Gulliver disdains the king’s judgment as the “preju¬dices” and “narrowness of thinking” to be expected from such an isolated nation and unlikely in the “politer countries of Europe. After a mishap in which, at the shore, Gulliver is snatched by a bird while sleeping in the box where he is kept, he finds him¬self aboard a ship of the usual scale, and with Englishmen (chapter eight). They sail to England, where Gulliver attributes to “the great power of habit and prejudice” the fact that home and family seem to him as if in miniature. All think he has lost his wits. “A Voyage to Laputa. Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib. Luggnagg, and Japan” composes part three, which opens with a map showing a crowded and irregular coastline at the edge of the known world.

Thrown off his ship by pirates, Gulliver reaches an island where the hot sun upon his face evokes the intense sun of Lilliput in the moments before his normal perspective was displaced (chapter one). A “vast opaque body” then eclipses the sun, an “island in the air,” named Laputa. (Swift 2005) Swift jux¬taposes language of scientific detachment with descriptions of Gulliver’s “natural love of life” and “inward motions of joy” to construct one of the novel’s oppositional themes that will be central in this episode. Signaling and shouting, Gulliver is noticed by the Laputans who lower a chain and pull him up.

Gulliver is briefly an object of wonder to the Laputans, who greet him amiably but soon return to their preoccupation with “cogitation” (chapter two). Servants called “flappers” accompany them to urge necessary conversation by means of balloon like bladders filled with pebbles gently struck upon the mouths and ears. For the intellectual and the physical are at odds in Laputa whose men are so absorbed in the abstractions of mathematics and music that Gulliver claims he has never seen “a more clumsy, awk¬ward, and unhandy people. A tailor, for example, uses sophis¬ticated measuring techniques to make clothes for Gulliver but, because of a small but crucial miscalculation, they do not fit. Likewise the Laputan men’s fears are a catalog of futile worries about earth’s vulnerability to remote cosmic events. (Bellamy, 1992) In chapters three and four Gulliver describes in scientific terms the physical properties of Laputa and then of Balnibarbi to which he travels when he decides that the abstracted Laputans have no interest in him.

About Balnibarbi and its capi¬tal, Lagado, however, Gulliver says that he never saw “a soil so unhappily cultivated houses so ill contrived and so ruinous or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want. ” (Swift 2005)All of this has come about, he learns, because the nation’s inhabitants grew obsessed with the ways of their airy neighbors. the Laputans, and so had erected an academy to put all “arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics on a new foot. ” (Swift 2005)

In chapter five Gulliver visits Lagado’s Grand Academy whose function is scientific investigation and experimentation. Their work includes a “proj¬ect for extracting sun-beams out of cucumbers” to be stored for bad weather, an “operation to reduce human excrement to its original food,” a treatise upon the “malleability of fire,” a method for constructing houses from the roof down, a system by which hogs may plow and fertilize fields simultaneously, a proposal for replacing silkworms with spiders and a grue¬somely fatal experiment upon a dog that employs a bellows to cure colic.

An experiment in “speculative learning” posits that “the most” ignorant person at a reasonable charge” may write books on philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics and theology” “without the least assistance from genius or study. ” (Swift 2005) Gulliver is permitted to call up spirits he wishes to see: an:’0ng them Homer, Alexander the Great, and Caesar. But he is disappointed by many of the historical figures he meets, and his cyn¬icism about historians-“prostitute writers”-grows intense.

Gulliver then travels to the island kingdom of Luggnagg (chapter nine), where “court style” is both ritualistic and per¬verse. To approach the king, Gulliver must crawl upon his belly and lick the dust off the floor. The immortal Struldbruggs are Luggndgg’s most remarkable citizens (chapter ten). Gulliver eagerly anticipates meeting these “living examples of ancient virtue … ready to instruct [him] in the wisdom of all former ages,” living versions of the specters of Glubbdubdrib.

But eternal life does not include eter¬nal youth, and living forever in old age makes the Struldbruggs covet both “diverting vices” and death. After a brief visit to Japan (chapter eleven), Gulliver returns to England before setting out on his final adventure, “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” (part four). Cast onto an unknown island west of Madagascar, Gulliver hides behind a thicket to observe several hideous and deformed animals with buff-colored and patchily haired bodies, later identified as Yahoos (chapter one).

He cannot yet acknowledge their recog¬nizably human attributes, saying that he has never seen “so disagreeable an animal, or one against which [he] naturally conceived so strong an antipathy. ” In one of the novel’s most disturbing episodes, Gulliver is approached by one of the crea¬tures and strikes it, inciting the “brood” to climb into a tree and “discharge their excrements” upon his head: a brilliantly reduc¬tive image of European warfare. But suddenly the creatures run away, and Gulliver discovers that the approach of horses has caused their flight.

They are the Houyhnhnms (pronounced whinums, in imitation of the neighing of horses) and are the dominant species in this realm. Gulliver accordingly walks to their city. In chapter two Gulliver idiotically persists in offering toys to the Houyhnhnms-“two knives, three bracelets of false pearl, a small looking glass and a bead necklace”-taking the horses to be the intelligent servants of human masters. But having been led to a building in which he is shown to a “very comely mare” who appears disgusted by him, he is mortified to find himself then physically compared by the Houyhnhnm to one of the “animals” he had earlier met.

To his further horror, Gulliver now observes “in this abominable animal” a perfect human figure. The Yahoos are natural men enslaved by their unmediated pas¬sions, from which civilization-any civilization-protects us. In Houyhnhnmland Gulliver must therefore struggle to differenti¬ate himself from these creatures, taking pains to learn the lan¬guage and to conceal his Yahoo-like body with clothing, and naming the Houyhnhnm his master (chapter three).

Having been often asked by his master to tell his story, Gulliver begins, but with the fear that the Houyhnhnm will not believe his account. This trepidation leads to a discussion of the concept of speech-and, on another level, novelistic or fictive speech (chapter four). “[T]he use of speech [is] to make us understand one another” through “facts,” says the Houyhnhnm. But by saying “the thing which [is] not” (the Houyhnhnms’ only term for falsehood), we may believe “a thing black when it is white, and short when it is long. The Houyhnhnms have no conception of fiction or irony, nor even any words for “[p]ower, govern¬ment, war, law, punishment”-none of which is necessary in their contemplative, rational land. In chapters four through seven Gulliver describes the politi-cal, religious, and social complexities of English and European life, wryly remarking that England is “governed by a female man … called queen. ” (Lock 1980) In chapter eight Gulliver mingles with the dreadful Yahoos, intent on learning more about them.

After three contented years among the Houyhnhnms-dur¬ing which Gulliver goes so far in his admiration of his masters that he imitates their gait and speech-he eventually, because his Yahoo-ness is undeniable, is asked to leave. Reluctantly he constructs a canoe (made largely of the skins of Yahoos) and departs (chapter ten). Arriving at another island, he is chased back into the sea by unfriendly natives (chapter eleven). Although he notices the sail of a ship in the distance, he hides, for the prospect of resuming life among European Yahoos is more distasteful than taking his chances among savages.

Eventually he boards a Portuguese ship whose captain, Don Pedro, at last believes Gulliver’s strange story and helps reaccli¬mate him to life among humans. But when Gulliver returns to England, where he is warmly received by his family, he is dis¬gusted. When he considers that he has produced offspring by “one of the Yahoo-species,” his shame is unbearable, and when the “odious” creature kisses him, . he faints. Only by spending four hours each day with two stallions he has purchased does Gulliver endure his return to life among Yahoos.

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