In Gullivers Travels, Swift satirizes British government, as well as human nature, in ways that make the reader laugh. What exactly are we laughing at? Why do we laugh at the faults of our society as well as our own individual flaws? In Gullivers Travels, language is used to convey irony in a humorous manner, and the misuse of words in satirical form enables us to laugh at the imperfections that we sometimes are too blind to see on our own.
What does it mean when we laugh? The dictionary definition of laughter is: "the act of laughing." To laugh means "to express especially mirth or derision usually by a series of inarticulate sounds, with the mouth open in a wide smile"(Websters, 679). We laugh at the unexpected, the ordinary, and especially at the expense of each other. Laughter has the ability to mock a person when they fall down, or ridicule someones beliefs when they do not coincide with our own. What is funny to one person may not be funny to another person. We each find humor in different aspects of life, when we are presented with an action, concept, or even an object that strikes a chord of amusement or irony in us. Laughter is a complicated act. People dont always laugh when they are happy, just as we dont necessarily cry when we are sad. Laughter is usually the result of surprise, of an occurrence that causes us to look closely at a situation and realize that it has been presented in a new light. For example, as we sit in class taking notes, we may observe an individual walking across the lawn. Perhaps that individual walks across that very patch of grass every single day. But one day, that person stumbles on a rock, loses his footing, and ends up falling face down onto the lush grass, as his backpack goes flying into the air. What would the most common reaction be to such a sight? Laughter. The mere suddenness of the mans fall is enough to incite the average person to laugh.
In Gullivers Travels, those who laugh at Gulliver do so for reasons involving power and disbelief. When Gulliver is in Brobdingnag, he is nearly killed when a monkey stuffs victuals down his throat, and squeezes him violently. Gulliver manages to escape the attack, and gradually recovers from his injuries. Later, the King of Brobdingnag asks Gulliver what thoughts raced through his mind as he was in the clutches of the monkey. Gulliver defensively states that "in Europe, we had no Monkies, except such as were brought for Curiosities from other places, and so small, that I could deal with a Dozen of them together if they presumed to attack me" (99). In reference to the large monkey that nearly killed him, Gulliver says that he could have stabbed the creature in the paw if he hadnt been so surprised by it. He says all this "in a firm Tone, like a Person who was jealous less his Courage should be called in Question" (99). At this response the king can only laugh at Gulliver. The King had been equally amused with Gullivers portrayal of Englands great "problems." The King could not understand how a country of such small people could have problems anywhere near as important as those of Brobdingnag. "This made me reflect, thinks Gulliver, how vain an Attempt it is for a Man to endeavor doing himself Honour among those who are out of all Degree of Equality or Comparison with him" (100). Gulliver realizes that many men dare to "presume to look with Importance, and put himself upon a Foot with the greatest Persons of the Kingdom" even though they lack the titles or intelligence to make any sort of claim of being worthy of the highest levels. This is an example of the characters laughing at Gulliver to ridicule him. In the country of Brobdingnag, Gulliver is an insignificant little creature whose tales of bravado are amusing at best. The King does not take Gulliver seriously, because Gulliver is a small person who could not, quite literally, harm a fly. The King holds a role of power, while Gulliver is subservient. The King is able to assert his power by laughing at the insignificance of Gulliver, and of Gullivers problems. The King then feels like he is in his rightful position of authority as he lowers the value of Gulliver as a person. Gulliver is unable to fight back against the monkey, he is unable to convey the importance of his problems to the king, and he is ultimately the subject of ridicule and scorn because his problems are not even worth recognizing. In essence, one reason why the King of Brobdingnag, and other characters, laughs at Gulliver is because Gulliver is below them.
At the same time, Gulliver laughs at the Liliputians as they try to control him. Gulliver is hundreds of times larger than these tiny people, yet they tie him up and attempt to get him to abide by their rules. It is amusing to note the ways in which the Liliputians are awed by Gulliver (as he towers over them with torn britches), and yet firm in their belief that Gulliver can be used to control and conquer their enemies. Gulliver is obviously gigantic in comparison to the people of Liliput, yet they believe that Gulliver will be on their side, because they will punish him if he does not follow their laws. This amuses Gulliver because he knows he could crush them all in a second. Indeed, as an exercise of his power, Gulliver urinates on a palace fire. While Gulliver ultimately saves the building, and the lives of many, he essentially defiled the place as well. Only someone with immense power or size could laugh above a population as he sprayed urine to stop a fire. Once again, the group or individual with power holds laughter. Gulliver is literally able to "look down" on the Liliputians.
Gullivers Travels is a satire of the British Government during Swifts lifetime. Satires poke fun at society, different aspects of human life, and especially politics. Although Swifts novel is still amusing today, most people do not understand the many analogies to British society that were once extremely obvious at the time Gullivers Travels first was published. Another aspect of humor involves relevance. If a topic is relevant, and we can relate to what is being described, there is a greater chance that we will laugh because it affects our lives. At the time of its printing, Gullivers Travels was surrounded by a fervor of political controversy involving the two parties of England, the Whigs and the Tories. In a broad sense, the countries of Liliput and Brobdingnag represent the Tory and Whig governments. Citizens living during this political turmoil were able to draw parallels between the conflict and with Gullivers Travels. As a result, people were able to laugh not only at Swifts "story" but because they knew what was behind the story itself. A real life example of relevance would be like watching a funny home video of your friends, as opposed to watching a movie on television. While the movie may be amusing, it probably will not have the same impact as the home video would. This is because you know your friends personally. You understand their quirks, and their problems, and so you feel more connected and informed with the subjects being presented on film. Thus, when you laugh at your friends, it means so much more because their actions make much more sense.
The close relationship between language and laughter is also illustrated in Gullivers Travels. When Gulliver is visiting Laputa, he is able to see the many experiments being carried out at the Academy. One of the experiments involved the abolition of language. (158). Instead of speaking, people would carry around objects to express their ideas and wants. But how would one be able to convey emotions? How would a person tell another person that they felt love towards them? It would be impossible to reach the same level of emotional intensity by merely holding up an object. Laughter would be more than just a smiley face object. In this sense, Swift was able to illustrate the importance of language in our society. Satire is just one way in which language is used to express ideas, emotions, and the general workings of human beings. A person must be skilled in the use of language to write a satirical work which people find amusing, entertaining, or even worth reading. More often than not, we laugh at things people say, not what they do. To abolish language would be eliminating the main way of expression of a species.