The methods and objectives of Jonathan Swift's satire

‘I have finished my travles..they are admirable things and will wonderfully change mend the world.’ (Letter to Charles Ford about Gulliver’s Travels).

‘Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.’ (A Tale of a Tub).

Taking one or both of these statements by Swift as a starting point, write and essay on the methods and objectives of Swift’s satire.

This essay will look at the first quotation of Swift’s and analyse his use of satire in Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal and The Lady’s Dressing Room.

Along with Pope, Gay, and other literary lights, Swift was a member of The Martinus Scriblerus Club. The purpose of this club was to satirise the foolishness of modern man. The influence of the club can be seen in Gulliver’s Travels as well as Pope’s Dunciad.

Swift had been a great traveller and he wanted to set down the most significant of his observations upon human life so that the world might be forced to read them.

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Gulliver’s Travels can be recognised as that complete satire on human life. The novel is a condemnation of certain human traits. Gulliver’s experiences with various flawed societies foreshadow his ultimate rejection of human society in the fourth voyage.

Swift’s style is composed chiefly of satire, allegory, and irony. Satire can be defined as a mocking attack against vices, stupidities, and follies of man with an aim to educate and improve.

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Gulliver’s Travels is the product of a mind deeply concerned with political matters. In the book many figures which seem to be imaginary are meant to depict real personages. There are many political allusions abound in the Travels. Some are to the events of the end of Queen Anne’s reign and others to the reign of George I. London at the time of the novel’s publication buzzed with speculations regarding the identity of some of the characters. In Part One as Swift begins to describe the politics of Lilliput the country slowly becomes England. The Lilliputian Emperor for example represents King George I. Swift had no admiration for the King, and uses the practices of the Emperor to allegorically criticise the English monarch. The Emperor represents tyranny, cruelty and corruption and he can be seen to be a timeless symbol of bad government. The Lilliputian Emperor favoured the Slamecksan party, similarly George I favoured the Whig party ‘His majesty has determined to make use of only low heels in the administration of the Government’ (1.4).

The Lilliputian Empress represents Queen Anne, who blocked Swift’s advancement in the Church of England. This was due to the fact that she took offence at some of Swift’s earlier, signed satires. Swift here is using the allegorical characters of the Lilliputian Monarchy, to criticise England’s own monarchy and the way that the country was being run at the time.

Similarly there are two political parties in Lilliput called the ‘Tramecksan’ and ‘Slamecksan’. These parties correspond to the Tories and the Whigs, the two major British political parties at that time. Lilliput’s potent enemy abroad is the island of ‘Blefuscu’ which represents England’s enemy France. All of Part One of Gulliver’s Travels is an allegorical account of British politics during the turbulent early eighteenth century. The main political parties of the time, the Tories and the Whigs, competed with each other bitterly this is represented in Gulliver’s Travels as Lilliput’s rowing political parties ‘for above seventy moons past there have two struggling parties in this Empire under the names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan’ (1.4).

The satire is straightforward in its mockery as it mocks the petty irrelevancies and ceremonial absurdities, which cloud the real issues and responsibilities of government. This conversion of Lilliput into England shows clearly that Swift intended his story to be a political allegory.

The first three books of Gulliver’s Travels gives the reader the image of a world of unreason ‘the absurd pride and meanness of Man’s spirit-not individual men, but man, in the mass is attacked.’1 The final book, Book Four gives the comment on the world. It is the Fourth book which has shocked Swift’s readers most, with the contrast between the race of Yahoo and the race of Houyhnhnm. For many this representation of race is where his main thesis behind his novel lies. Gulliver occupies a position between the two races; he is part beast, part reason. Here Swift is creating an allegorical picture of the duality of man. The climatic image of Gulliver’s Travels is the Yahoo image of man or that the Yahoo is the irrational element of man. It has been stated that Swift’s Yahoo is ‘a criticism of modern man as a degenerate who has been backsliding for generations from his original nobility and strength.’ 2 The Yahoos are morally foul, intellectually null and totally irrational. In contrast the Houyhnhnms are rational, intelligent and good ‘The wise and virtuous Houyhnhnms..have no name for this vice (pride) in their language’ (4.12). Book four describes the idea of the Utopia, however the cruel joke is that this perfect order is established by horses not men.

In short Swift uses his satire to shock the reader into a new awareness of himself and of the follies and vices which he shares with the rest of mankind. Yet in spite of this satire the over-reaching theme of Gulliver’s travel’s is, what it is to be human. The Lilliputians make a good case for the pettiness of human nature while Pedro de Mendez is a fine example of generosity and fairness. There are two ways of looking at this theme: either man is capable of improving himself, or he is not. Swift writes for any man, and every man. The quote to Charles Ford illustrates clearly that Swift uses the tool of satire to try and reform man. Also Swift could also be defending his wrath by claiming an eagerness to reform.

From 1710 to 1714 Swift, who was now a Tory member, was one of the most influential members of the English government. While in London Swift worked passionately for his political ideals. He expected that in return for his efforts he’d be rewarded with a bishopric in England. That way he would remain close to London, the centre of activity. He was slighted, however, and given the Deanship of St. Patrick’s in Dublin. This was a blow from which many say Swift never really recovered.

Despite his disappointment Swift worked hard for his church in Ireland and for the cause of Irish freedom against the Whigs, many of whom considered Ireland more of a colony than a country. He wrote A Modest Proposal in answer to the Irish problem and the pamphlet was considered by many to be the best satire ever written in English.

In A Modest Proposal Swift made his readers take notice of the dire situation in Ireland, and he pointed a finger at the English who he considered responsible for it. He presents the idea that a man’s value can be determined in pounds and shillings and the conclusion is that children might profitably be send to the butcher shop!

The note of compassion is inescapable in A Modest Proposal, but pity is also connected with anger. Swift was angry and irritated with the whole of Irish society for its apathy, and he can be clearly seen to be frustrated with the social order. Throughout A Modest Proposal the reader can see that Swift is closely involved with the problems at hand. It is because of this that the reader can feel Swift’s conviction that something should be done about the problems.

Swift chooses therefore, a persona in the pamphlet who is almost, Everyman, a person who is intelligent and rational. This persona is certain that something can be done about the Irish situation. However the persona is not entirely human, the pity seen is very practical and unemotional. The description of the babies later on the passage can be seen as very inhumane. However in spite of this, this was not the case at the beginning of A Modest Proposal. This is because the start seems nothing more than an account of the distress of Ireland ‘It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town..and see the streets, roads crowded with beggars.’

Yet as the passage continues the reader witnesses the start of Swifts satiric inhumane attitude ‘A Child just dropt from its Dam.’ This is shocking on two accounts firstly because it is written in very simple and ordinary language and secondly because of the use of the word ‘child’ which subverts our expectations. The language used is detached, practical and precise and has been described as ‘mimicking the language of the economist or political scientist of Swift’s day’3 Even the most insensitive reader would be shocked with the line ‘a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food.’ It is this calm, uninvolved language that affects the reader so deeply.

Swift’s aims in the pamphlet were humanitarian, yet his satire cut like a knife. A Modest Proposal is an illustration of the fact that sometimes satire is not easy to confront, and there can be difficulties in interpretation. He is discussing a taboo subject and through this pamphlet raises a lot of issues. He is trying to put across the point that the English are already devouring the Irish country, so why not the children? ‘ I grant this food will be somewhat dear and therefore very proper for landlords, who as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.’

Once again A Modest Proposal links with Swift’s quote to Charles Ford as Swift is using the tool of satire to try and reform people’s attitudes. The passage makes the reader examine their own attitudes, morals and thoughts on what the writer is satirically suggesting-to turn children into meat for rich men’s tables. A Modest Proposal is effective in its satire as it forces the reader to look at the world from a different perspective, one that becomes intolerably uncomfortable ‘a child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends.’ From this it forces the reader to readjust their values and Swift is trying to mend the world by vexing the people in power into realisation. His chief purpose in writing A Modest Proposal is to reveal the full horror of the Irish situation in a way that will imprint on people’s minds and make them question their own morals.

In the poem The Lady’s Dressing Room Swift spills over from his disgust at man’s declining spirituality seen in Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal to the horror at the body. Swift criticises an amorous obsession by setting the amorous sentiment against the animal facts. The poem seems to display an aspect of his personality which seems obsessed with natural physical processes ‘Send up an excremental smell’ (111).

The poem is concerned with the foolishness of trusting in superficial appearances. The lover Strephon is shocked at what he discovers in his mistresses dressing room ‘But oh! It turned poor Strephon’s bowels’ (43). Swift ridicules the conventional love poem and it is certainly shocking ‘Beneath the arm-pits well besmeared’ (12).

The poem can be read as a plea that love should be built on firmer ground than just superficial romantic images. It is an anti-romantic poem that satires the conventional love poem.

Swift places an emphasis on sights, sounds and sexual appetites, which represent the hard core realities of life. The poem is horrifying in its emphasis on dirt and bodily functions ‘Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair’ (24). He is some argue ‘forcing the reader to look at their Yahoo nature.’4 There is consequently a link between the poem and Gulliver’s Travels as in both he is presenting pictures about debase human activities.

In conclusion Swift is using the object of satire to try and reform people’s attitudes. He is satirising human follies and asking his reader to look at their own activities and morals. The quote to Charles Ford explains Swift’s objectives of satire well as he hopes his writing will produce a reforming zeal in his readers.

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The methods and objectives of Jonathan Swift's satire. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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