Jonathan Swift’s most famous work is Gulliver’s Travels, which is a fantastical account of Gulliver's voyages to remote and unknown territories. However, it is more than just a fantastical story, it is a biting satire of what Swift saw as ridiculous and immoral practices in his contemporary 18th century England.
Swift and His Times
Jonathan Swift's works clearly demonstrate the down-to-earth rationalism that characterises the intellectuals of the era. Swift was a keen critic of his time and its political leaders, and was not afraid of challenging what he saw as foolish and ridiculous traditions and practice. Swift was born in Ireland in 1667 and moved to London to study theology; he later returned to Ireland and was ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland.
In his essays and pamphlets he wanted to reveal the vanity and often immoral practice of the rich and powerful, including the church. His writing was sharp and his method was the satire. Satire is a particularly bold way of exposing blameworthy or suspect phenomena in public affairs. His most famous work is Gulliver’s Travels which was published in 1726.
Gulliver’s Travels is the classic Enlightenment story, and it can be read at many levels. Imaginative stories about travels to exotic places inhabited by strange people and creatures were popular entertainment during the Enlightenment. Many children have also over the years been thrilled by the exciting adventures of Gulliver. But it is in fact much more than a children’s tale or a travel narrative. Primarily Gulliver’s Travels is a biting satire on the absurdities of 18th century England. But the story can also be read as a parody of other popular travel accounts, e.g. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe which was published some years before Gulliver. It is interesting that the Danish/Norwegian Ludvig Holberg also picked up this trend in “Niels Klim’s Travels to the Underworld” (1741).
The full title reads: “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.” (They had a way with book titles at the time.) The four parts include: 1) A Voyage to Lilliput, 2) A Voyage to Brobdingnag, 3) A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan, 4) A Voyage to the Land of Houyhnhms. The book also has a section of maps to give evidence that these countries really exist. This is a well-known technique used in tales and legends to make the stories more credible. However, Gulliver’s maps are of course rather inaccurate…
On his voyages to “several remote nations” the narrator encounters different people and experiences a “reality” that at second glance bears a clear resemblance to Swift’s contemporary environment. Like for example when he on his first voyage meets the small “lilliputs” that are at an endless and pointless war with neighbouring Blefescu. Later he escapes from pirates, finds himself on a flying island, becomes the guest of honour in the court of Brobdignag – in short, it is a spectacular tale of imagination that was both cherished and criticised at the time. The book has today a monumental position in world literature and is an object lesson in the art of satire.
The method that Swift uses is to put the narrator in a position where he has the chance to describe his own society, for example, in a conversation with an interested listener.
Our extract is a brilliant example of how this technique works. It is from the fourth journey where Gulliver has arrived in the land of Houyhnhnms – which is inhabited by a civilized and highly intelligent race of horses. (If you pronounce the name it will sound close to the neighing of a horse.) These horses have a race of creatures that they use for slave labour, called the Yahoos. They are primitive, savage, and disgusting, and gradually it becomes clear that they are actually human beings. Due to his resemblance to them Gulliver is suspected of being a Yahoo, but as he learns the language of the Houyhnhnms he can explain that he belongs to a superior race, Man, and is again invited to explain and describe his own world to his “master”. But it appears that some phenomena in Gulliver’s world are hard to understand for his listener.
In the extract you will find several references to incidents and practices in Swift’s own 18th century England. For example, at the time there was an on-going debate about the use of symbols and images in religious worship, and about the symbolic meaning of the Holy Communion. His readers would clearly recognise the references, and some would be offended and accuse him of blasphemy, but many of them would see Swift’s point and agree with him.
The Master is curious and finds Gulliver’s account both interesting and at the same time hard to believe, but gradually he concludes that Gulliver’s race must be closely related to the Yahoos.
(It is an interesting fact that the internet search engine Yahoo is named after the work force in the land of Houyhnhnms.)
Follow the link below and read the two extracts from Gulliver's Travels, then work in groups with the following tasks.
- Make a list of the institutions, phenomena, and professions Swift satirizes in these excerpts.
- Do you, as a modern reader, recognise some of Swift’s descriptions? Give examples of modern events that fit with Swift’s satire.
- Why does “The Master” suspect Gulliver’s race of being closely related to The Yahoos?
- The Hoyhnhnms are intelligent and clever and belong to a race far above the Yahoos, yet we recognise them as horses. What do you think is the point Swift tries to make?
- How does Swift present the legal system and court of law in Gulliver’s account? Do you see any relevance with today’s law practice in his description?
- Swift’s writings were both cherished and criticised by his audience. Who do you think would criticise his work, and what were their arguments?
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