The relationship of satirical perspective
and language in Gulliver’s Travels

In the satire Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift designs a Tory journey of the mind, in which Captain Lemuel Gulliver dismantles the wickedness and follies of the English Whig society at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Swift does so by trapping the knowledgeable reader in verbal humor. This humor is brought about by the supposedly coincidental linkage of perfectly rational and absurd concepts at once. The surprising thread of associations, which is triggered by logic in an alien context lets abstract ideas of any kind, such as politics, human values or science, become unusually tangible and lets the reader of the book simply laugh about the way in which a double inversion of language leads to metaphorical solutions.

The implicit corrective nature of satire is already incorporated in the title. Just considering the original title ‘Travels into various parts of the World’ one tends to expect a pleasant travel book exploring the physical dimensions of the globe. But in fact, the reader is taught a subtle Tory lesson. Captain Lemuel Gulliver who states over and over again that he has to inform and "strictly to adhere to truth" (Swift 256) does not simply make a literal journey. He does not "leave the judicious reader to his own remarks and applications" (Swift 257), but rather constructs an intricate and biased net of allegorical excursions into specific issues involving England’s society at the beginning eighteenth century. Gulliver’s pedantic sea yarn pushes the reader from precisely one point to the next. Even though the readers feel like the adventurer inquiring meaning behind implausibility, they are the fooled one and become the subject of correction.

Those points of correction are indicated by laughter, which occurs due to a verbal clash of the real English perspective with those perspectives of the countries Gulliver travels. Each of the perspectives embraces a different physical dimension and hence has a different set of knowledge at its disposal, which is reflected by its language. The audience is confronted with absurd verbal problems, which would not have happened in their own secluded world but into which Gulliver drags them. To some extent differences in language can be mediated through the English-speaking Gulliver who eagerly learns the foreign languages of countries, each time he enters a new one. But he is a figure confined to literal meaning, namely just to inform. This reduction to literal meaning lies in the very fact that Gulliver has to write in his indifferent and often seemingly inappropriate pedantic language if he aims to describe the countries he visits authentically. He tries to pretend that for him and the inhabitants of Lagado "Words are only names for things" (Swift 158). Gulliver travels in a metaphoric vacuum, in which supposedly meaningless pictorial nature is incredible for the omniscient reader. The reader feels urged to dig out a metaphorical meaning to bridge the verbal gap logically. This process incorporates Swift’s amusingly simple lecture.

The thread of associations triggered by verbal illogic is defined in advance through the alienation of specific pictorial registers, such as dirt and size for issues of politics. This becomes particularly clear in Lilliput, when Gulliver extinguishes the fire in the palace. He applies urine "so well to the proper places that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished." (Swift 37). Gulliver actually does something, which is in the real world firstly a necessary act to get rid of poisoning waste in one own’s body in order not to put oneself in risk. Secondly, one does not urinate in public, but secretly, because it is considered as something humiliating as it touches upon dirt. It is even that shameful that the English Gulliver pees into his own house at another point to hide "the offensive matter" (Swift 12). But an emergency suddenly tears the logic of both worlds apart. When a fire coincidentally breaks out in Lilliput, urinating all of a sudden becomes completely rationalized from a different angle and looses its feature of dirtiness. Gulliver solely makes "water within the precincts of the palace" (Swift 37). The new angle excludes the abstract concept of humiliation. Instead it coincides entirely with the literal meaning, "to urinate" solely means "to wet something involuntarily" (OED 31). Gulliver also pees on the fire, because he has been forced so by the circumstances, namely the heat which accelerated his digestion of wine. He finds the solution for another problem he wanted to solve anyway, which was extinguishing the fire. But the reader cannot think in such a metaphorical vacuum and cannot accept two things. Firstly, that ‘necessity’ turns dirt into something clean and secondly the overstretch of dimensional logical. In reality one could never extinguish fire by peeing on it, simply because the physical amount would not be enough. The audience needs to laugh about such a misuse of language, because it simultaneously asks how a public issue can possibly allow such a twisted reality. The reader moves on to the metaphorical level to find a solution and ends up unwrapping the allegorical meaning, which was alluded at by Swift. The audience finds the double-twist of language. To urinate can be equated with the expression "to piss", which then connects "to piss off" (OED 3a). This brings about the sense of "to annoy" and "to put off". If one considers the political circumstances at that time, fire as something "destructive burning, of an large extent" (OED 5a) can be interpreted as a metaphor for the War of Spanish Succession which was also called Queen Anne’s War. Gun-fire covered a geographically large area and also threatened England’s civil structure in so far as under Queen Anne’s Whig government excessive spending in the military cut off basic economics, such as agriculture. The small Lilliputians as the small-minded Whig government do not end the fire, because they do not have the required capability. They continue fighting against something with inadequate means. Instead Gulliver is urged to intervene. As soon as he pees on the Spanish War of Succession the government is unmasked. The government cannot fulfill its duty, namely preserving "the noble Imperial Majesty’s Apartment" (Swift 37) or metaphorically interests within state boundaries, and therefore cannot be considered as the appropriate sovereign any longer. Sovereignty is not only defined through foreign politics, e.g. imperialism, but in first line through a capable government at home. With size Swift alludes to political capability and with dirt he points out urgent issues, which need to be taken care of.

Similarly, Swift often uses the register of food or harvest to question the benefits of new science. He lets Gulliver describe a new project for plowing at the Academy of Lagado. The "device for plowing the ground with hogs, to save the Charges for Plows… [has] little or no crop" (Swift 154), because the Laputians carry out senseless Sisyphus work. They put crops into the ground in an exact measure, so that the hungry hogs, digging them out, will plough. But what shall grow if there are no more crops to grow? The audience perceives the exposed ridiculousness of the absurd logic at once. Two incompatible work processes are artificially melted together. Again the curious audience tries to tear apart the twist and to go through Swift’s lecturing part in the metaphorical meaning. The word hog does not stand for normal pigs, but for those "reared for slaughter" (OED 1a) and also for "young sheep" (OED 4). The reader needs to slaughter dumbness. Plowing should stay a "preparation for sowing" (OED 1) and not become "a fruitless labor" (OED 10b), like it becomes when one ploughs on false grounds. Science needs to be considered as the "lowest part" (OED 1) in the context of plowing. Science tries to dig deep but in fact moves on the "surface" (OED 1) in the context of "earth". The economic maximum-principle does not carry fruits. It cannot substitute essential and inevitable "laborious process" (OED 6b) of plowing. Economic concepts, such as Whiggish mercantilism are not yet thought through, like the work of the scientist at the academy at Lagado shows. The harvest deriving from science is questionable.

To question are also human issues, such as pride and greed, which Swift addresses in Gulliver’s Voyage to the Houyhnhnms. In order to show the animal-like pack behavior of humans Swift uses a register of animal terms. Fictive creatures called Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have partially human and partially animal-like features. The Houyhnhnms are horses in their physical shape, but posses "formal manner[s]" (Swift 194), are "orderly and rational" (Swift 195) and peaceful. The "ugly monster" Yahoo (Swift 193) on the other hand is physically human despite minor flaws such as overwhelming growth of its hair, but still is considered to be an "animal" in the world of the Houyhnhnms (Swift 203). It is uncivil, unclean and fights "fierc[e] and … frequent battles…[about] shining stones" (Swift 227). A Yahoo is greedy. The Houyhnhnms instead seem to be perfect and to turn our civil society upside down. They even name themselves as the "perfection of nature" (Swift 203). But is that not inappropriate pride, if one considers that they lack considerable parts of our nature, namely letters and consequently partially means of language? Gulliver does not conceive that as important because he makes the flaw to equate Yahoos with humans. Consequently he draws only a direct comparison between the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. He develops the desire to be a Houyhnhnm. But by joining an animal-society he admits his partial animality. The audience sees that illogic and avoids to identify itself with a society. And so does Swift, who writes his friend Alexander Pope in a letter of September 1725, discussing Gulliver’s Travels, that he "hate[s] all nations, profession, and communities…and [instead] love[s] individuals"(Swift 2447). He urges the audience to stick to its own reasoning and maintain an independent status, in order not to become that "deteste[d]…animal called man" (Swift 2447-2448). The Whig society, in which Swift lives, incorporates in his eyes pure greed and inappropriate pride and should be avoided. Only Tories stand outside the society and are therefore supposedly not threatened by animalist vice.

That proves, as a corollary, that Swift’s design with Gulliver was to expose Tory vices in a way that the reader can picture their follies in his mind. Simply through Gulliver’s pictorial registers, the audience is cheated on in an amusing way, which it realizes and needs to laugh about. Not until the viewer has to face a logic overstretch, which occurs due to metaphoric twists, he recognizes how differently objectivity on specific issues like politics, human values or science can be considered. The reader needs to tweak out the implied correct one, which is that of the Tory Swift. But what appears to be a playful matter in course of a picture-book story is in fact furious earnest in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

 

 Works Cited

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 2nd Ed. Ed. Robert A.Greeberg. New York:
Norton, 1961.

Swift, Jonathan. Letters on Gullivers Travels: Jonathan Swift to Alexander Pope. in: The Longman Anthology of British Literature II, Volume 1C: The Restoration and the 18th century. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 1999. 2447-2448.

 Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2000. Oxford University Press. October 5, 2000.
<http://dictionary.oed.com>.