What makes satire an effective form of criticism?

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 20 July 2016

What makes satire an effective form of criticism?

Gulliver’s travels satireFrom the late seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century European thought was dominated by the idea of rationality. No longer did men accept supernatural or religious explanations for the way things were as they had previously. In the Age of Reason everything was to be explained rationally, according to natural causes.

But if reason helped philosophers and scientists to penetrate some of the mysteries of nature, it proved less effective in solving problems within human society. The contradictions between man’s rational, intellectual accomplishments and the irrational way he conducted his life led some writers to question the Age of Reason’s assumption that man is a rational creature. Satire becomes the dominant form in literature, as writers ridiculed a creature who could discover the laws of thermodynamics but could not organize a sane society.

Authors of the Age of Reason could just write books about the problems that the country was encountering in this Age of Reason, but they found in satire the best way to make critics about all of the imperfections that disturbed a great part of the society. One of theses authors that deserves highlight because of his well-qualified works is Jonathan Swift.

When Swift wanted to criticize any institution he used to make some severe attacks using his developed cynicism. But it is important to know that, while he never fails to criticize institutions and mankind at large, he never defames an individual. Instead, he focuses directly on the principal religious, political and social issues of the age. Swift’s work that effectively shows his satirical view and which probably is his best book is Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver’s Travels is an unrealistic novel which was written in the form of an imaginary trip. The protagonist of the book makes four voyages, each one to a different country and on all of them Swift finds a way to criticize something in the reality which he lives.

In two of these voyages we see Gulliver as the curious observer of lesser and ridiculous civilizations. But on the other two voyages, however, Gulliver becomes conscious of his inferiority.

In his first voyage, after being shipwrecked, he finds Lilliput, a kingdom of tiny people whose customs and political order is intended to satirize the court of George I (King of Great Britain when Gulliver’s Travels was written). While telling Gulliver’s first travel, Swift satirizes the political system of England at his time, showing ministers who maintained their positions not by defending principles, not by their competence any neither by their desire to transform England in a better country, but by political acrobatics.

In his second voyage to the land of the giants, instead of feeling superior to the inhabitants of this country like in Lilliput, this time it is Gulliver who is small and insignificant. In an attempt to impress the king, Gulliver describes the political and legal institutions of England and how do they work, as well as some of the personal habits of the ruling class. The supreme moment of ironical criticism of European civilization occurs when, after offering the secret of gunpowder to the King and his horrified refusal, Gulliver declares the King to possess “narrow principles and short views!”

Of course, mankind would never be so thoughtless as to refuse to learn a new method of injuring, torturing, or killing his enemies. In addition to this comment on human nature, Swift is also referring to the excitement that European nations would feel with such an offer. In this passage of the book Swift criticize the war and his political writings indicate that he, like the Brobdingnagians, favored a conception of government and society based on common-sense.

On his third voyage, after being abandoned in the middle of the ocean by pirates, Gulliver is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but unable to use these for practical ends. While walking around the island Gulliver learns about the methods Laputians use to teach math to their students. They believe that if the students write down the resolution of a problem and then eat the sheet of paper without eating anything else for three days they would learn everything quickly. In this passage Swift easily ridicules academic pedantry and poorly planned scientific research, which specially make fun of the Royal Society (Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge). But the main focus of social criticism in the voyage to Laputa is on intellectuals, such as scholars, philosophers, and scientists, who often get lost in theoretical abstractions and conceptions to the exclusion of the more pragmatic aspects of life.

In the forth and final voyage Gulliver visits the land where the rational creatures are horses, called Houyhnhnms (which means “the perfection of nature”) and the creatures who look like men are dirty and irrational, called Yahoos. Yet on the surface, the forth voyage seems to argue that reason is one quality, when properly developed, can elevate man to his ultimate potential. But ironically it is the horse (Houyhnhnms) that possess this perfect development of reason, whereas the Yahoos, whom Gulliver most resembles, are primitive and inhuman. Voyage four contains Swift’s clearest attack on human pride. But the object of the satiric attack in the last voyage is man himself: here Swift is attacking the Yahoo in each of us.

The main object of satire in Gulliver’s Travels is human nature itself, specifically man’s pride. Gulliver’s character, as a satirical device, serves Swift’s ends by being both a representative for some of Swift’s ideals and criticisms and as an illustration of them. Thus, critiques on human nature are made through Gulliver’s observations as well as through Gulliver’s own transformation from an immature individual into an intelligent and cynical misanthrope.

Swift in Gulliver’s Travels raises disturbing questions about the disagreements between the ideals we profess and the way we actually live. Far from being an eminently rational creature, man, says Swift, is a creature who is capable of reasoning but who uses his intelligence for absurd and selfish ends. Jonathan Swift also tries to awake the world to the fact that humankind needs salvation, but it has to save its own self.


a brief view of British Literature, the research and planning department of the CCAA


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 20 July 2016

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