Jonathan Swift is the author of some of the most powerful satires in English literature. His works, Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, satirize vehemently the human nature. The satire is veiled in each of the two texts in specific ways. Thus, Gulliver’s Travels is a work of fiction but its writer claims for it the authenticity of an explorer’s account. A Modest Proposal is written as an essay addressed to the general public which seems to offer an original solution to the problem of poverty in the author’s contemporary society.
Both works observe human nature closely and unmercifully.
Swift analyzes human nature in its various appearances, pointing to the inevitable and innumerable flaws that permeate it. Swift looks at nature of man from all the possible angles, revealing its weaknesses and failures which lie at the foundation of the human being. As it shall be seen, according to Swift, human nature is inherently flawed because, despite being endowed with reason, man does not manage to rise above the animal condition in terms of morality and spirituality.
Gulliver’s Travels is written as the account of the wondrous travel adventures of Lemuel Gulliver.
However, it can be easily perceived that despite the fact that Gulliver seems to travel to many unknown and fantastical lands, it is obvious that he never actually leaves England. The stories all reflect back on the society and the realities that he seems to have deserted. Each of the grotesque, imaginary races of people mirrors a different angle of the human nature. The people of Lilliput seem extremely delicate and fragile in comparison to the traveler’s gigantic stature. Nevertheless, this small-scale representation does not spare the little men of a sharp critique.
Swift points to the ingeniousness proper to the human race that helps these dwarf people devise a series of measures for imprisoning and holding captive a giant. They manage to provide for him by setting taxes on the visits that he receives, they compute with exactitude the quantity of food and the number of beds necessary for the giant and they improvise a set of regulations and laws that he must obey. It is also significant that Gulliver wakes up in the land of the Lilliputans already tied up and bound and that, while with them, he is constantly under their supervision and power.
Gulliver thus points here, as everywhere else in his work, to the duality of the human nature. Man is at once wonderfully skilled and ingenious and morally depraved. This is why, despite his strength, the giant is entrapped in the world of the dwarfs and escapes only with difficulty. The next voyage, to Brobdingnag, reveals yet another angle of human nature. This time all the flaws are deliberately magnified, so that the humans among whom Gulliver resides for a while seem grotesque and extremely ugly.
Gulliver thus reflects that the human being is invariably flawed and even monstrous if regarded from a different scale: “This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen but through a magnifying glass; where we find by experiment that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough, and coarse, and ill-coloured. ”(Swift 98) The journey to Laputa then satirizes the human’s superciliousness as rational beings, which sometimes launches them into highly complicated researches and enterprises, which eventually prove useless.
The most edifying episode of all is however that of the last journey in the land of the wise horses, the Houyhnhnms and of the Yahoos. The Yahoos obviously symbolize the abjectness of human nature, which is surpassed by the wisdom and propriety of the horses. Swift thus represents human nature as base precisely because men still let themselves be driven by instinct. What Swift inveighs is therefore man as a rational being who should be able to better himself and live according to high moral standards, but does not manage to do so.