Swift's main purpose in Gulliver's Travels


In the novel Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift comically describes a world of political and social stupidity in a way that satirizes the English world that Swift himself lived in. According to Arthur E. Case, Jonathan Swift “conceived himself as a positive moral and social reformer. [… ] There is plentiful evidence of his conviction that he knew not only what was wrong with the world, but also the means by which the world could be brought nearer to perfection” (16).

Swift’s intentions are to reform the weakness and inability of the English government and political world through the different places that he has artfully created in this novel.

He also criticizes the inappropriateness of war, the fickleness of the English social atmosphere, and the corruption of the legal universe in Swift’s era. In the novel, Lemuel Gulliver, the main character as well as an English physician and sea captain, is swept away on many distant voyages all over the world.

Several different worlds

Gulliver explores several different worlds that all separately portray the many types of corruption in the English empire that Swift intends to reform. Swift’s main purpose in Gulliver’s Travels was to illustrate how the English government and society needed a reformation. As an Irish patriot and a former admirer of the English government and life, Swift now sees England and all its glory in a very different way. One of the first subjects he satirizes is the social atmosphere and composition of the late 17th and early 18th century England.

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From the social fabric of England, he first criticizes the class structure.

Swift writes, “The rich Man enjoyed the Fruit of the poor Man’s Labour” and “the bulk of our People was enforced to live miserably, by labouring every Day for small wages to make a few live plentifully” (189). Swift implies in this passage that a class structure exists in England that benefits a few, the rich and the nobility, by putting the less wealthy people or the majority of the population to work for them. In an effort to reform the social structure of England, Swift shows the reader the ridiculousness of a few people managing the lives of an entire nation and collecting the profits put forth by the majority’s work.

Without the Consent of this illustrious Body [the Nobility],” Swift declares, “no Law can be enacted repealed, or altered: And these Nobles have likewise the Decision of all our Possessions without Appeal” (193). Thus, Swift opens the door showing the corruption of the class system and the undue power of the Nobility over the lives of the population. The ability of the Nobles to control the laws and actions of the public without their consent gives them complete control over the country and its wealth, which, for Swift, poses a problem that must be reformed.

In addition to the undue power of the Nobility, “a weak diseased Body, a meager countenance, and sallow complexion are the true Marks of noble Blood” and the “Imperfections of his Mind run parallel with those of his Body,” which include “Spleen, Dullness, Ignorance, Caprice, Sensuality, and Pride” (Swift 193). On top of the fact that there is a class structure, wherein a small ruling minority controls the population, the nobility is corrupt and incapable of ruling fair and just. Taking all of these factors into consideration, Swift suggests that the class structure is highly corrupt and in need of vast reform.

The materialism of the English people

Another area that Swift satirizes is the materialism of the English people. The people of England “sent away the greatest part of [their] necessary things to other Countries, from whence in Return [they] brought the materials of Diseases, Folly, and Vice” to use among themselves (189). In this passage, Swift forces the reader to ask themselves: why would anyone want to give away what is useful and beneficial for things that cause disease, anger, crime, sadness, and corruption in an empire?

Furthermore, Swift shows the absurdity of these doctrines in the land of the Houyhnhnms where “there are certain shining Stones of several Colours, whereof the Yahoos are violently fond; and when Part of these Stones are fixed in the Earth, [… ] they will dig with their Claws for whole Days to get them out, and carry them away, and hide them by Heaps in their Kennels; but still looking round with great Caution, for fear their Comrades should find out their Treasure” (196). The Yahoos represent humans while the Stones represent the human’s gold and other precious metals that many are so fond of.

Therefore, Swift shows another ridiculous corruption in human materialism: in addition to the evils caused by the materials that England gains when they trade, the materials they gain offer them no sort of advantage or benefit to society whatsoever. Moreover, social England was corrupted with lies and drinking. Swift satirizes the nonsensical use of lying in communication between people. When Gulliver talks to one of the Houyhnhnms, basically a type of rational horse, about lying and false representation, the horse has trouble understanding the purpose of this evil.

The horse reasons, “The Use of Speech was to receive Information of Fact” (179). According to Swift, lying serves no purpose in society and only corrupts it more by adding distrust and hate throughout all levels of the social and political structure. His idea is that speech is used to communicate information to other people and when lying is incorporated into this, it creates falsehoods and inconsistencies that hamper society and corrupt individuals and governments. Furthermore, drinking also inhibits society and corrupts the individual.

After a night of drinking, according to Swift, one “always awaked sick and dispirited; and that the Use of this Liquor filled us with Diseases, which made our Lives uncomfortable and short” (190). Swift uses an illustration of a sickly and diseased person to show that alcohol consumption is irrational and harmful to the body and society. In Swift’s view, the food and drink that Englishmen consume is for the most part harmful and decreases the society’s standard of living; therefore, it is an unreasonable way to conduct oneself.

Doctors and medical practices

In correlation with the diseases caused by drinking, Swift addresses another problem in society with doctors and medical practices. In Swift’s view, doctors are also bound by society’s evils and corruption. Swift reiterates, “Their predictions in real Diseases, when they rise to any Degree of Malignity, generally portending Death, which is always in their Power, when Recovery is not; And therefore, upon any unexpected Signs of Amendment, [… ] rather than be accused as false Prophets, they know how to approve their Sagacity to the World by a seasonable Dose” (191).

Swift’s opinion is this: corruption has spread to all levels of society including the parts, such as the medical field, that should not for any possible reason be corrupt. The medical practices of these doctors in England are affected by the lies and deceit of society and therefore, must resort to the evils and corruptions that society has to offer in order to survive in the society. On top of this point, doctors are “of special Use to Husbands and Wives, who are grown weary of their Mates; to eldest Sons, to great Ministers of State, and often to Princes” (191).

Swift implies that the English doctors supply people with death-causing concoctions and aid in the practice of murdering people for money. Swift also implies that these corrupt doctors have the ability to control government institutions by aiding people of high positions in ousting others of high positions. Therefore, with the use of the doctor’s killing powers, he can change the structure of the government. Swift has thus shown another corruption in the society of England by satirizing the benign doctor’s failure to be the benign doctor that he was intended to be.

The scientific experimentation in England

In addition to medical practices, the scientific experimentation in England during the late 17th century and early 18th century was corrupt and unreasonable. Swift believes that the experiments and goals of these scientists are absurd and unrealistic. In the grand Academy of Lagado, the fictional center of scientific experimentation and human advancement in the world, one of the scientists is “the most ancient student of the Academy” and since his first days as a scientist, he has been employed in an “Operation to reduce human Excrement to its original Food” (132).

Swift directly matches the practices of these scientists with the Alchemists of 18th century England. In comparing the transformation of normal metals to gold and reducing human excrement to its original food, Swift criticizes the unrealistic attempts of England’s so-called most intelligent scientists. In Balnibarbi near Lagado, these same inhabitants of the scientific Academy view their ruler like a bad example because he cultivates his land with reasonable, proved ways therefore not supporting the new ways of science being researched at the Academy.

However, these new ways of science only produce mud and filth with no crops or productivity at all (129-130). Swift contrasts the abilities of science with the abilities of the sound mind by showing an immense difference between their productivities. In that passage, Swift addresses the frailties of 18th century obsession with human improvement and scientific experimentation by showing a stark contrast between useful information and useless information. Even the main character, Gulliver, adds to Swift’s belief in the stupidity of science and reasoning.

According to Jean G. Marlowe, “Gulliver is a product of his age, and he is intended as a character to demonstrate the weakness underlying the values of the Enlightenment-the failure to recognize the power of the irrational” (Masterplots). Throughout the book, Swift shows his view of the absurdity of the Enlightenment ideals of advancing the human race through knowledge and science; he does this through the use of a reasonable human being, Gulliver. In Swift’s opinion, science is futile.

Reform to the political atmosphere

In the satire, Gulliver’s Travels, Swift also invokes reform to the political atmosphere. He believed that the 18th century English government was corrupt and in need of change. Throughout the novel, he points out many weaknesses and corruptions in the government and its political figures. To begin, Swift believes that the way government officials arise to power is corrupt. In the grand Academy of Lagado once again, Gulliver disappointedly rejects the values that the political scientists believe are necessary for proper governing:

In the School of political Projectors I was but ill entertained; the Professors appearing in my Judgement wholly out of their senses. [… ] These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to chuse [sic] Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the publick Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities, and eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest, by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their people: of chusing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them, [… that never entered before into the Heart of Man to conceive; and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth. (138-139) In this passage, Swift lists all the benign qualities that he believes are necessary for sound government principles and operation. Then, as he lists these qualities, Gulliver ironically believes that they are incapable and unreasonable in operating the government.

The English political figures

Swift criticizes the way humans, in particular the English political figures, run their government on inhumane, unjust principles; he implies that the only people that are able to develop the sort of benign government that Swift describes are the crazy, lunatics known as the scientists. Therefore, according to Swift, the government is corrupted by the innate evils of human beings. On top of the overall corruption of the English monarchy, Swift implies that all political figures must be corrupt based solely on the fact that they are political figures. The Royal Throne could not be supported without Corruption; because, that positive confident, restive Temper, which Virtue infused into Man, was a perpetual clog to publick Business” (148-149). Swift states the English conception that in order to be well governed and a strong leader, one must surely be corrupt and angry. In fact, the concept says that all officials must be corrupt in order to support the government. Therefore, since these officials must be corrupt to be successful political figures, the way they arise to power must also be corrupt.

Continuing, Swift relates the political candidates in Lilliput to those of England when he acknowledges the way these candidates were elected. In the novel, these candidates were elected to power by a contest in Rope-Dancing whereby whoever jumped the highest without falling on the tight rope would succeed the vacant office at court (17). Basically, Swift connotes that all these officials were unqualified for the jobs they were elected to and says the same thing about English officials.

In Swift’s opinion, government elections need to be reformed to eliminate the promotion of unqualified individuals to a position of political power. However, Swift does not stop with political figures of high positions. He criticizes England’s entire governing class as well. “The Pages, Lacquies, and Porter, by imitating their Master, become Ministers of State in their several Districts, and learn to excel in the three principal ingredients, of Insolence, Lying, and Bribery” (192).

According to Swift, everybody ranging down from the top officials practices the same corruptions as the English nobility. Furthermore, these government officials are not only corrupt themselves, but they let themselves be governed by “Vice and corrupt Bawds, Whores, Pimps, Parasites, and Buffoons” (148). Therefore, Swift implies that the lowlife and street scum behind the corrupt officials govern England as well, thus causing extreme corruption in a government already greatly in need of reform.

Reforming the English government

In response, Swift satirically outlines many points that need to be reformed in English government ranging from the highest government officials down to the lowlife on the streets. Not only are the government officials of England corrupt, but also the principles that they practice towards other countries and, most of all, their colonies are corrupt. Swift uses the King of Laputa to similarly show how England harmfully treated its colonies in the 18th century.

In the novel, the King of Laputa settles rebellions in his dominion, which is basically all the cities and towns that he controls, by hovering over the town, thus depriving them of sun and rain and inflicting disease on the inhabitants. The King can also use his “floating island” to crush the city and therefore stop the mutiny (124). Here, Swift is criticizing England’s empirical control over its colonies. He shows that in the same way that the King of Laputa inflicts damage and harm over his dominion, the English choose to destroy and inflict harsh punishments on its colonies.

When colonies of England, say perhaps the Americas, desire more influence over their decisions or a change in the governing practice towards them, the English monarchies have consistently chosen to maintain a strict colonial rule over them, therefore denying any chance of freedom or even a just equality to England that the colonies might have earned. Swift also feels strongly about the issue of war and the reasons for the war and destruction between states and people. In his opinion, the reasons for war are ridiculous and inappropriate.

Cause of War

Swift bluntly illustrates almost all of the possible reasons why man would want to go to war. In the novel, when the master Houyhnhnm asks why people go to war, Gulliver responds, “Sometimes the Ambition of Princes, who never think they have Land or People enough to govern; Sometimes the Corruption of Ministers, who engage their Master in a war in order to stifle or divert the Clamour of the Subjects against their evil Administration. Difference in Opinions hath cost many Millions of Lives” (184). In this passage, Swift lists many reasons why people would war with each other.

However, when the costs are weighed, according to Swift, none of these reasons seem reasonable to waste so many lives upon. Due to the excessive corruption of the government, many lives are spent warring with other countries and often within the same country for petty reasons. Moreover, Swift later makes a similar connection with the corruption of monarchies and the ruling class in going to war. Again, he lists unreasonable reasons for war: Sometimes one Prince quarrelleth with another, for fear the other should quarrel with him. Sometimes a War is entered upon, because the Enemy is too strong [… [or] too weak. Sometimes our Neighbours want the Things which we have. [… ]

It is a very justifiable Cause of War to invade a Country after the People have been wasted by Famine, destroyed by Pestilence, or embroiled by Factions amongst themselves. It is justifiable to enter into a War against our nearest Ally, when one of his Towns lies convenient for us, or a Territory of Land, that would render our Dominions round and compact. If a Prince send Forces into a Nation, where the People are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to Death, and make slaves of the rest. 184-185) Swift gives the reader these reasons because England is guilty of almost every one of them. According to Swift, England’s many reasons to go to war are unjustifiable and during Swift’s lifetime, England participated in many wars for many fruitless reasons. The practice of many nations during Swift’s time period was either to go to war and thus prosper or be overcome by another more forceful nation. Swift addresses this problem by satirically criticizing it in order to bring about the reform that he believes must occur in 18th century England and the world.

On top of Swift’s belief that war is ridiculous, he questions the need for the massive destruction caused by war. The master Houyhnhnm refers to human capabilities of war and destruction, “When a Creature pretending to Reason, could be capable of such Enormities, he dreaded lest the Corruption of that Faculty might be worse than Brutality itself” (186). According to Swift, war is idiotic but yet, the “reasonable” creature that humans are causes them to destroy everything in sight. The master Houyhnhnm fears the human capability to destroy everything in sight because he has become aware of the corrupt human mind.

Swift ultimately compares the sense of giving mankind the power to destroy at will to playing with fire that will ultimately destroy everything it touches. In relation to his points on the stupidity of going to war, Swift further shows the corrupt mindset of his fellow Englishmen through Gulliver. Gulliver, in order to “set forth the valour of my own dear countrymen,” tells the Houyhnhnms that his country has conquored, destroyed, and brutally killed more countries, cities, and people than any other country in the world (186).

The corrupt English mindset

Not only does Swift identify England as the greatest warring country in the world, he establishes the corrupt English mindset of competitively desiring to kill and capture all. Furthermore, in Swift’s effort to debase the corrupt English mindset, he alludes to the same point again. Swift writes, “The Trade of a Soldier is held the most honourable of all others: Because a soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill in cold Blood as many of his own Species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can” (185).

When taken at its most literal point, as Swift intends, this passage portrays the soldier as not the most honorable position, but the most corrupt. Swift believes that to elevate those that murder and participate in the corrupt concept of war is absurd. According to Swift, the soldier is ironically the most corrupt of all individuals because he exercises the ability to murder numerous amounts of people whom he does not even partially know.

Possibly the most outstanding criticisms of the English governmental structure, Swift portrays the legal system of England to be the complete opposite of its original intention. He describes the system as completely corrupt in every way possible when Swift says that the judges “having been byassed all their Lives against Truth and Equity, lie under such a fatal Necessity of favouring Fraud, Perjury, and Oppression; that I have known some of them to have refused a large Bribe from the Side where Justice lay, rather than injure the Faculty, by doing anything unbecoming their Nature or their office” (187).

In Swift’s effort to reform the English legal system, he describes the entire basis of the system to be that of corruption and immoral action. As the lawful body of the land that serves to protect the people, the judges are naturally, in Swift’s opinion, prone to house what is false and illegal and shun benign and truthful verdicts. He concludes that the system operates corruptively and accepts bribes, but only from the fraudulent side, in order to issue a decision that only benefits the criminal and immoral factions of society.

The corrupt judges and lawyers

In addition to the corrupt judges of the legal system, the lawyers participate in the same vice. Swift writes of the lawyers, “In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the Merits of the Cause; but are loud, violent and tedious in dwelling upon all Circumstances which are not to the purpose” (187). Basically, Swift implies that lawyers fail to prove what is right but strive to win the case for the wrong side. In their efforts to argue the case, they do not even speak about the necessaries that would render the case a success for the justifiable party.

Swift says more on this later in the novel when Gulliver explains, “my Lawyer being practiced almost from his cradle in defending Falsehood; is quite out of his Element when he would be an Advocate for Justice, which as an Office unnatural, he always attempts with great Awkwardness, if not ill-will” (187). According to Swift, lawyers in England are ironically and disappointingly advocates of falsehood. In all their knowledge and merit, they are unaccustomed to supporting the side of justice.

Truthful or not, Swift says that in almost every case, the verdict is decided in favor of the false party basically ruling out any chance of the truthful party to win. He implies that the legal system of England is useless and must be avoided at all costs until it is reformed to the principles that Swift alludes to in this satire. However, the corruption does not only resonate from the participants themselves, Swift believes that the problems originate from the system altogether.

Swift provides the reader with a sample case involving a cow that Gulliver owns: The second Disadvantage is, that my Lawyer must proceed with great Caution: Or else he will be reprimanded by the Judges, and abhorred by his Brethren, as one who would lessen the Practice of the Law. And therefore I have but two Methods to preserve my Cow. The first is, to gain over my Adversary’s Lawyer with a double Fee; who will then betray his Client, by insinuating that he hath Justice on his Side.

The second Way is for my Lawyer to make my Cause appear as unjust as he can; by allowing the Cow to belong to my Adversary; and this if it be skilfully [sic] done, will certainly bespeak the Favour of the Bench. (187) In this sample case, Swift provides examples of the bribery and absurdity that proceeds behind the case itself. Moreover, he shows the flaws behind the system and the factions that dominate it. Swift goes on to write, “He was at a Loss how it should come to pass, that the Law which was intended for every Man’s Preservation, should be any Man’s Ruin” (186).


After reading this passage, one might conclude that the law is corrupt in that it promotes punishment and cruelty, which is somewhat true, but Swift refers to his own views on unreasonable reasoning. The master Houyhnhnm said the preceding passage rationally without an understanding of punishment and its connection to changing a person’s criminal will to that of good will. Therefore, Swift supports a small part of the legal system in the form of punishment but believes that the system fails to deliver the punishment that is rightfully due to the cruel criminal majority.

Therefore, the basis of society, which is the legal system, is in fact, one of the most corrupt institutions of all England according to Swift, the cynical satirist. In a modern view of Swift’s attempts at reforming the state of England, he has been somewhat successful based on the fact that many of the changes he implied in Gulliver’s Travels have been enacted today. However, a few of the corruptions Swift identifies are still prevalent in present day England.

Nevertheless, Swift remains one of the prominent satirists of Europe in the early 18th century due to, for the most part, his satirical efforts at reform in Gulliver’s Travels. It is true that societies are still unethical and unreasonable in their traditions and pastimes, that governments and its political figures are still corrupt, that war still exists everyday throughout the world, and that legal systems still offer unfair and unjust rulings, but for these reasons, that is why Swift’s novel is still very much alive today as a prime example of human cruelty, corruption, and rational idiocy.

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Swift's main purpose in Gulliver's Travels. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/swifts-main-purpose-gullivers-travels-new-essay

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