Avoiding the "Thing Which is Not"

Jonathan Swift found great folly in the language of his contemporaries of the eighteenth century. He believed that the lack of a standard for the English language lead to colloquial confusion (Kelly 36). Because of the confusion he found in the dialect of the time, Swift, in his satire, Gulliver’s Travels, uses laughter to emphasize his main themes instead of words. He manipulates the use of language through the character of Lemuel Gulliver to show the reader the quandary of the English language then proceeds to use laughter instead of commentary, because it cannot be mistaken or confused.

In each of the four voyages that Gulliver makes, he is introduced into a new culture. Each culture has a new language that differs from his own. In the beginning of each voyage, he cannot communicate with the inhabitants of the area, except through signs and gestures. He is only able to gesture for his few basic needs such as food, shelter, and the common theme of natural relief. He eventually becomes educated to each society’s languages through tutelage and teaching himself. It takes him but a few weeks to master the Lilliputian and Brobdingnag languages, and a few days to learn the Laputan’s, but it takes him quite a while to master the Houyhnhnm dialect. However, it is only after he has mastered the inhabitant’s languages that problems begin to arise. Confusion is brought about through communication. One might argue that when Gulliver is in Lilliput that he is given his freedom only after he learns the language because they are able to unbind him. But, in actuality, he looses his freedom when he is able to understand the Emperor and the requests that are made upon him. As soon as he learns the Lilliputian language he is able to disobey the Emperor by refusing his employment to take the Belfuscans into captivity and is therefor accused of treason. This idea of language as the source of oppression and confusion is carried on throughout the entire book, in all four voyages. It is especially apparent in his last voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms.

Swift believes that the Houyhnhnms have the perfect language. It is simple and straightforward. We learn in book four that the Houyhnhnms have no word to represent falsity or lying. Because they are strictly virtuous creatures, lies are not a part of their society nor are they a part of their vocabulary. They denote lying, after Gulliver explains the term, as "the thing which is not." The Houyhnhnm master, when describing the use of dialect to Gulliver, explains,

"That the use of speech is to make [the Houyhnhnms] understand one another, and to receive information of Facts...if anyone said the thing which is not, these Ends are defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving information that he leaves me worse than in ignorance; for I am led to believe a thing Black when it is White, and Short when it is Long" (Swift 207).

Swift furthers this argument by contrasting the truthful and virtuous nature of the Houyhnhnms to that of England as proud Gulliver details the "wonders" of his own nation, which he comes to realize after speaking of them, are in fact, atrocities. When Gulliver speaks of war on page 214 he says,

"To set forth the Valour of my own dear countrymen, I assured him that I had seen [Englishman] blow up a hundred enemies at once in a siege, and as many ships; and beheld the dead bodies drop down in pieces from the clouds, to the great diversion of all the spectators."

Clearly, valor is a false representation, or a "thing which is not," because, as the Houyhnhnm master points out, what he describes in nothing but malice. Gulliver realizes this concept once it is pointed out to him, but he continues to "defend" his country. Another "wonder" that Gulliver speaks of is that of the law of England. However, he is awakened to the absurdity of the Lawyer as he relays their profession to his Master. Gulliver explains, "there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for purpose, that Black is White, according as they are paid" (Swift 215); implying that their profession is simply to "wholly confound the very essence of truth and falsehood" (Swift 217). This is a direct parallel to the conversation Gulliver previously has with his Master about the act of lying on page 207. Although Gulliver, when he first begins, believes that the aspects of England he is describing to his master are wonderful virtues, he soon comes to realize that the country he is describing is instead, full of vice and therefore, he has said "the thing which is not." This is how Swift shows that the English language is full of falsehood and deceit.

In his letter to Alexander Pope, Swift details his purpose for writing Gulliver’s Travels, saying, "the chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it" (Damrosch et al. 2447). By this, Swift means that he wishes to teach a lesson to the public, not just entertain them with a story. Swift uses Gulliver as a pawn to expose the vulgarity of the Whig parliament as well as human nature in general. Furthermore, he uses a satirical perspective because it allows him to use laughter as his commentary instead of words. Although Swift himself never speaks, he conveys his message through the humor of others. He uses the laughter of Gulliver, other characters, and even that of the reader to draw attention to his main themes and expositions.

The laughter of Gulliver and the laughter of other characters at Gulliver often serves the same purpose, which is to draw attention to an absurdity. Gulliver and the other characters, throughout the satire, represent specific people or factions. Therefore, when a character laughs at Gulliver, it is a lampoon towards the faction that Gulliver is symbolizing. The same is true for when Gulliver laughs at another character. In book one Gulliver represents the Tory party and the Lilliputians represent the Whig party. There is no account of the Lilliputians laughing at Gulliver during his sojourn at Lilliput. Because Swift favored the Tory party, he wants the reader to find no inanity in the Tories ideals and beliefs; consequently, he does not draw one’s attention by creating a joke out of Gulliver. However, Swift does draw attention to a ritual of the Lilliputians by Gulliver’s amusement in it. Gulliver has the opportunity to observe a country show, in which Lilliputians who wish to be employed in great offices and receive great favor, compete as rope dancers (Swift 21). In order to achieve high rankings, candidates must jump over or creep under a rope to please the Emperor. This analogy is a lampoon upon the Whiggish court of King George. It implies that his subjects will do anything to impress him including creeping and leaping.

In book two Gulliver is transformed to represent the Whig party in the land of the Brobdingnag’s who symbolize the Tories, therefor the object of chortle switches from other characters being laughed at by Gulliver to Gulliver being laughed at by the Brobdingnags. When inquired by the King of Brobdingnag about the state of Europe, Gulliver begins to account of the workings of the Whig government. He details the English parliament in support of the government being a contract between the ruler and the ruled. The king laughs at his accounts. As Gulliver describes, "he laughed at my odd kind of arithmetick...in reckoning the numbers of our people by a computation drawn from the several sects among us in religion and Politicks" (Swift 107). The laughter of the king serves Swift to expose the folly of the Whigs who were against state intervention in religion because they feared it would infringe personal liberties. But the king argues that the government shows weakness if it does not enforce the religion and suppress those who speak out against it. This is parallel to the Tory belief that the government should promote Anglican power and vanquish unorthodox literature and beliefs. The laughter of the King at Gulliver not only ridicules the beliefs of the Whigs, but also praises the ideas of the Tories.

Perhaps the most prominent use of laughter in Gulliver’s Travels is that of the reader. The reader laughs usually as a result of irony, which Swift plays upon often in order to draw focus to an important subject. Gulliver, when he is in the company of the family of Brobdingnags gives the very unpleasant account of the mother breast-feeding her babe. Gulliver confesses,

"no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast...it stood a prominent six foot...the nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both that and the dug so varified with spots, pimples and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous" (Swift 71).

Generally, a women’s breast is perceived to be beautiful, supple, and without flaw. However, because Gulliver is so small, everything about the Brobdingnags is magnified to the point where even their slightest deformities are offensive to him. This humorous analogy is an allusion of the Whigs, for that is whom Gulliver represents in book two. Swift believes that the Whigs lack the necessary vision to lead a country because they do not see the whole picture, they can only see the minute, non-important details. The reader cannot help but laugh at his grotesque description, and thus it immediately grabs his/her attention. Another ironic point emphasized in the satire is described in book four when Gulliver is exploring the land of the Houyhnhnms. He is bathing in a river when a female Yahoo, "inflamed by desire" (Swift 233), mounted him, trying to have her way with him. This is ironic because in the previous chapters of the fourth book Gulliver was trying to convince his master and the other Houyhnhnms that he was not a Yahoo as they suspected. However, he comes to realize that he really is just like the Yahoo when he is mistaken for one by the species. This is an important part of the Satire because it sets the case against human rationality which is a main theme in Swift’s work. He purposely made it humorously grotesque so the reader would dwell upon it.

Gulliver’s Travels was not just a Tory satire as many claim. Although it does lampoon the Whig government, it also serves a higher purpose to expose the vulgarity of human nature. "The chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it" (Damrosch et al. 2447), wrote Swift. He could not attempt this project to improve the world through lecture or pamphlet because those would simply be words, and words often represent the "things which are not." Swift used satirical perspective in Gulliver’s Travels because laughter is the true language of ridicule; it holds no room for deceit and it cannot be confused.


Works Cited


Damrosch, David, et al. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 1999.

Kelly, Ann Kline. Swift and the English Language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.

Swift, Johnathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1970.