Corruption of Society and Its Influence on Gulliver

In Swift’s letter to Pope, Swift writes, "I have hated all Nations professions and Communityes and all my love is towards individuals"(264). His hatred for organized people, but his love of the people within the group influences his novel Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout the novel, Swift uses double-meaning language and inversion of language to cement his philosophy. Gulliver, repeatedly, finds himself in quandaries due to societal norms and the role of government in society. Swift brings into discussion the ideas of motives and how this influences people in their treatment of individuals due to their position in society. In the book of Lilliput, Gulliver, acting as an outsider to the society, tries to fit into the world, but fails by the government’s Articles of Treason. Swift uses the story of Liliput to portray the idea that society, especially government, corrupts the individual as shown by the relationships between Gulliver and self-oriented individuals and society-oriented individuals.

One must have a concept of government to work from for a discussion of individuality versus group thinking in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift discusses the placement of humans in the world to show the government’s misplaced motives in the preamble to the Acts of Conduct for Gulliver in which a description of the King is found. The image first introduced is obedience to the king out of terror rather than out of respect. The phrase, "the Princes of the Earth shake their Knees"( 25), shows the fear the King instills in his subject. Swift switches from the Regal Register to a Celestial one wherein the King tries to rule the heavens and the Earth in the line, "whose Feet press down to the Center, and whose Head strikes against the sun"(Swift 25). Even within the image of this rule, the reader finds the King’s methods harsh for he "presses" and "strikes." Swift implies that for man to have control in government, he must have forceful tactics that do not create trust in his rule but fear. Consequently, Swift discredits the role of government and its attempt to rule that which it cannot. The language in this preamble to the articles of Gulliver’s Liberties is weighted and congested with elitist and unnecessary words that are present merely for ceremony, such as, "whose Dominions extend five Thousand Blustrugs, […] to the Extremities of the Globe: Monarch of all Monarchs"(25). The Lilliputians place emphasis on exaggerated description to raise the King’s placement in the world. Therefore, the articles, being a government product, imply that the government itself uses unnecessary methods that distort meanings. Thus, Swift begins Gulliver’s Travels with a picture of a pretentious government that strives to rule by force aspects of life it cannot rule otherwise before he introduces the Articles of Conduct.

The Articles of Conduct illustrate the good and bad qualities of government through comparison and content. The first three articles point out to Gulliver his limitations within the country. Swift places these three articles in contrast to the next six articles. He introduces well-thought ideas as to the role of government in people’s lives to show more definitively the ludicrous nature of articles four through nine. "He shall take the utmost Care not to trample upon the Bodies of any of our loving subjects"(Swift 26), is such an example. The articles written for Gulliver would have a basis in and similarity to the laws of the Lilliputians. These latter articles indicate a need to itemize what correct behavior is to the kingdom and to individuals illustrating that the government’s need to inform Gulliver of proper behavior stems from past experience with its civilians. Gulliver’s response wherein he "swore and subscribed to these Articles with great Cheerfulness and Content"(26), shows his individual ideal that these articles are proper. In his mind, respect for the Lilliputians and their preservation show that he has an innate idea of proper behavior. Swift uses this ideal juxtaposed against the government’s necessity to outline behavior to show that individuals have an understanding of human standards while society must be informed of right and wrong.

Besides an inquiry into the definition of government and how it relates to the individual, Swift uses double meaning language to create an idea of self-oriented individuals as Gulliver’s saviors. "Several officers of the Army went to the Door of the great Council Chamber; and two of them being admitted, gave an Account of my Behavior to the six Criminals above-mentioned"(15) has two interpretations. Both have the same outcome: individuals who are self-oriented help Gulliver. On a literal level, the criminals would be, from the passage before, those whom Gulliver did not maliciously kill. Criminal means, "a person guilty or convicted of a crime"(OED). Crime referring to an act that is "injurious to the public welfare"(OED). Being a deviant of society, the criminal would be considered self-motivated and outside the realm of society; in fact, criminals are often condemned from the presence of society. Gulliver treats the criminals with kindness, though, and they return the favor; and it is the account of Gulliver’s kindness that stops the court from punishing Gulliver. Criminals strike against society and its laws, which are enforced by government. These criminals rebel against corrupted government and become the moral characters in the tale. Swift inverts the meaning of criminal that results in the origination of the individual as ideal. In another interpretation, one can look at Swift’s placement of words to see a slight against the government. The "six criminals" could refer to the council because the account was given "to" them. The passage would be read "gave an Account […] to the six Criminals"(15). In this way, Swift uses a subtle technique cunningly to relate government to Criminals that in the reader’s mind makes them bad. Thus, Swift uses a simple word, "Criminal", to support the idea of the individual over government in terms of righteousness.

A fascinating idea of Gulliver as a criminal stems from this discussion of criminal behavior. At one point, the King orders Gulliver to suppress the Big-Endians and destroy them and their supporters, but Gulliver refuses for moral reasons. Thus, Gulliver strikes against society and finds personal motivation. If Gulliver worked from societal motivation, he would have destroyed the Big-Endians because the greater welfare of the Lilliputian country would be to destroy the enemy. Gulliver, instead, sees the big picture and views the rights of the Big-Endians as the same as the rights of the Lilliputians. He never thinks about serving the government if the government holds misinformation. So, Gulliver deviates from Lilliputian society and by definition commits a crime because he does not support the king, who represents society, in all his actions.

Swift shows through motives of characters that the self-oriented characters help Gulliver stay peacefully in Lilliput and help him escape while Gulliver’s foes are driven by society to expel or kill Gulliver. Some will argue that many individuals fight and injure Gulliver in Lilliput with a specific reference to his enemy Skyris Bolgolam but one must look at his motives to find his role in the novel. When the Articles of Treason are drawn up Bolgolam’s leadership role in Gulliver’s punishment is discussed. An explanation of Bolgolam’s reasons for wanting Gulliver to be punished can be read in the following quote: "his Hatred is much increased since your great Success against Blefuscu, by which his glory, as Admiral, is obscured"(48). Glory, which means "something that brings honors and renown; a subject for boasting,"(OED) leads Bolgolam on his crusade to crush Gulliver because this would mean society’s attention would focus on him, Bolgolam. To be able to boast, one needs a group to boast to or a group to glorify them, in this case, society and government. People who enjoy boasting can quickly become irate when no one pays attention to them and will do many things against human nature to obtain attention from society. Bolgolam shows this in his constant appeal to kill Gulliver. With Gulliver, not merely punished, but completely erased from the sight of the people, Bolgolam would have no foe to his rise to glory and honor within the kingdom. Pride and the seeking of glory stems from society, and society becomes the culprit behind Bolgolam and the destruction of Gulliver. Bolgolam, though an individual, finds motivation from society and its misplacement of value in appearances; thus, he represents society and not an individual. The motives of the Emperor of Blefuscu, in contrast, show that Gulliver finds salvation and aid in self-oriented individuals. The Emperor informs Gulliver of the meeting and his imminent punishment when he, the Emperor, could face punishment for treason. Since the greater good of the community was taken into account when the punishment was drawn up, the Emperor acts against society when he helps Gulliver. In fact, the Emperor acts because of the personal relationship he formed with Gulliver when Gulliver helped him earlier in the Lilliputian story. Not only does Gulliver find help from a self-oriented individual, but the individual is an outsider to Lilliputian society, himself. Individual characters help and injure Gulliver but the motivations behind the characters illustrate how individuals can be representative of society or of self-interest. Thus, Gulliver’s falls in Lilliputian society because of society while the outsider of society saves Gulliver.

Swift’s hatred of community influences his work Gulliver’s Travels by his treatment of Gulliver by people, representative of society and individuality. Society corrupts the individual to a point where a moral autonomy disintegrates to form a human who lives for their nation and government. Swift illustrates this point through inversion of language and analysis of character motive. At the close of book one, Swift’s hatred for society taints the simplest form of society, the family, shown through Gulliver’s treatment of his family. Gulliver leaves his family to fend for them self while he explores the world. Gulliver can be seen as the definitive self-oriented individual through his blatant disregard for his family’s welfare, and his decision on government after his contact with the Lilliputians. "Yet, I resolved never more to put any Confidence in Princes or Ministers"(56) shows that Gulliver has lost his ability to function in society with a government because if he cannot trust his leader, he cannot participate in the government.