Medicinal Laughter:

The Use of Laughter as a Reforming Process in Gulliver’s Travels

According to Jonathan Swift, laughter is the best medicine. The curative guffaw is his standby prescription for curing ailments social and political, and he prescribes this medication with gusto in his satire Gulliver’s Travels. Reformation through laughter is his aim in this telling tale of irony and sarcasm as told by the splendide mendax, Lemuel Gulliver. But how is this reformation possible? The answer is simple: Swift sees language as the thread by which all people are connected, and, by strategically tying knots in this common thread, he maintains that humanity can be awakened to its own absurd social constructs attached to language and its meaning. That is, through turning language around on itself and using words in ways unnatural and unfamiliar to the people that exercise them, Swift is making clear that the original associations tethered to words can be illogical and even corrupt. He maintains that laughter is the key to uncovering these hidden illogicalities; for, as we chuckle contentedly at a clever pun, we simultaneously see two meanings of a particular word or phrase, and are alerted to the fact that one of these meanings is an absurd interpretation of our original understanding of the word. This realization, then, is what leads us to question whether the "original meaning" is necessarily correct. Swift presents his argument against the pitfalls of his socio-political sphere through this satirical lens; he perverts language so as to arouse suspicion regarding whether the perversion is really, in fact, a perversion. For, as we ponder the constructs we tie to our words, we find that perhaps standard definitions are the true distortions. By assigning new and unexpected meanings to words, Swift stabs at the absurdity of our strictly close-minded language. By examining the scenes of Gulliver’s Travels in which we laugh and in which Gulliver is either the "laugher", or observant critic, or the "laugh-ee", the person being critiqued, we suddenly see Swift’s satirical genius. He pokes at the perverse, giving us, the advocates of these social constructs, first a good, medicinal laugh at a separate culture, and then a chance to reform our own ridiculousness by scrutinizing our own cultural idiosyncrasies.

When Swift presents Gulliver as the observant critic, his satirical perspective takes the stance of a higher moral purpose, as elucidated by his practices of sarcastic hyperbole and placing words in context opposite their original meaning. Swift’s first assumption of importance is presented upon Gulliver’s arrival on the island of the Lilliputians, when he finds himself stranded among a race of "human creature[s] not six Inches high" (5). Swift exaggerates the extreme size difference in order to immediately lead his audience to believe Gulliver is the man made of a more expansive, important moral and mental mettle than his hosts. Here, Swift appeals to the natural human assumption that "bigger is better", showing Gulliver as the gigantic observer over a race of tiny men whose lives are as comparably insignificant as, for example, the lives of modern ants. This particular insignificance is exposed from the very beginning of Gulliver’s time on the island when a volley "above an Hundred" (6) of their miniscule arrows are "discharged on [his] left Hand,…prick[ing]…like so many Needles" (6). In this particular scene, Swift first alarms us by telling of the exaggerated number of arrows sent flying at Gulliver, but then compensates for that alarm by adding that these infinitesimal arrows do nothing more than a series of needle pricks would. It is here that Swift is taking the our conventional view of an arrow and reforming it to represent the triviality of the race which uses it. We laugh knowingly at this scene due to Swift’s presentation of the delicate "menace" of arrows. Because we are taken by surprise at their small size, we cannot see the arrows as a threat; rather, we relegate them to the status of annoyance, and therefore laugh at the incredible insignificance of the arrows themselves and the archers as well.

Swift goes on to poke fun at the Lilliputians and their sense of morality by referring to them as "a People who had treated [Gulliver] with…Expence and Magnificence" (8), even after the repeated arrow attacks and Gulliver’s imprisonment underneath a series of microscopic cables (5). Both "expence" and "magnificence" are ironic, of course; Swift challenges the true meanings of these words by placing them in a context in which, by our definition, Gulliver is treated neither with magnificence nor great expense. In fact, he is treated in the exact opposite manner in which we would have expected. Again, Swift is bending language around on itself in order to criticize the people whose definitions are separate from our own; for, just as we realize that the magnificent way in which Gulliver is "welcomed" to the island is anything but a welcome, we, too, must realize that the new race he has contacted is one whose moral standards are so completely skewed as to become opposite of our own. Again, we laugh at the Lilliputians’ vain attempts to exercise power over one so much larger than they, and, moreover, at their inability to truly welcome their large visitor. We expect a warm handshake rather than a volley of arrows, and a comfortable chair instead of a thread-like cable-cage. These expectations are obviously disregarded, and the Lilliputian definition of a welcome is so completely inhospitable that we are given no other choice but to laugh at their fantastically futile attempts.

Furthermore, even in the Courts of Lilliput irrationalities occur, and Gulliver bears witness to the completely absurd practices of a race whose "people of Quality" (an oft-used epithet) are appointed to positions of "great Employment and high Favour" (21). Gulliver relates that these positions are got by "entertain[ing] his Majesty and the Court with a Dance on the Rope" (21), not by election or royal appointment, as we would assume. Nevertheless, this "dance" is the deciding factor. Clearly, Swift is jibing the Lilliputians and their government by redefining our concept of the ways by which one can attain a "great" or "high" position; he presents the ludicrousness of gaining high favor through jumping and dancing, criticizing the labels of both "great" and "high" by explaining that they are attained by acting the fool. This, of course, is completely out of the question from our standpoint. We laugh wholeheartedly at the blatant disregard for quality in selection of those who will be awarded office. We laugh because we are amused by this irrational selection process; we laugh because we see that this race of tiny men is not just tiny in stature, but in mind and morale as well. Their practices are ridiculous, and therefore laughable, for as morality and mental capacity take a seat when the Dance for County Deputy begins, we see that this race of people is ultimately absurd.

However, despite the high moral stance Gulliver takes on the island of Lilliput, he is the butt of the proverbial joke on the island of the Houyhnhmns, where Swift uses both dramatic irony and the placement of words in opposition to their original meaning again to satirize and, through laughter, help reform our own culture of human beings. Swift’s dramatic irony plays itself out immediately upon Gulliver’s arrival to the island when he sees "so disagreeable an Animal…[toward] which [he] naturally conceive[s]…strong Antipathy" (193). The "disagreeable Animal", of course, is another human being, or "yahoo", as the Houyhnhmns call them, but Gulliver is not able to recognize his innate connection to these people directly. Here, the audience knows by his description that Gulliver is watching a group of other human beings, but Gulliver remains in the dark regarding his relationship to them for quite some time, simply because they are foul, abhorrent animals in the scope of our understanding. Unfortunately, because we agree with Gulliver’s staunch resistance of the disgusting "yahoo" population, we are thereby subject to the criticisms given by the Houyhnhmns further along in the tale. This connection that we inherently make with Gulliver is exactly what Swift orders; it is through this particular identification with our dear protagonist that our laughter is the laughter of reformation. At first, we chuckle at Gulliver’s curious inability to recognize these dirt-ridden monstrosities as other people. However, we are presented with the question of which culture is correct in their humanness. Are these repellent creatures the swine that they appear to be, or are we simply assuming some kind of higher moral standard than we actually have? This quandary is the direction in which Swift is pointing us; he makes us question our tendencies toward automatically assuming the position of the most intelligent species. Swift’s terrifyingly accurate portrayal of our jingoistic nationalism is a particular section in which we can question our true nature. Upon explaining the culture of people in his native England, Gulliver relates to his Master Houyhnhmn the concept of the "Art of War" (214), in which "the Valour of [his] Countrymen" (214) can be expressly seen by their ability to "blow up a Hundred Enemies at once in a Seige…and be[hold] the dead Bodies drip down in Piece from the Clouds" (214). Swift’s first jab at our culture comes with his ironic use of the word "art" as a means by which to explain the processes of war. On the most basic level, art and war are opposites, for art is based on creation, while war is based on destruction. Therefore, the phrase "Art of War" is decidedly paradoxical: how can there possibly be creation in destruction? Simply stated, it is impossible, and therefore laughably ridiculous. Swift goes on to twist the meaning of the word "valour" by presenting it as the ability to commit mass murder with a single cannonball. Traditionally, valor is seen as courage and gallantry; the disgusting delight in a snowfall of body parts was never part of the original definition. It is at this point we laugh at Swift’s clever redefinition of a classically heroic word. However, as we laugh, we suddenly see that this is the way in which we view war: the winner, we know, is the army that comes out victorious over the opposing army. How does one army overcome another? Murder, of course. The army that sustains the least amount of deaths wins. Now we must return to why we were laughing in the first place: the joke at which we were laughing was the gross use of valor as attained by mass murder. Now, however, we see that Swift’s joke is, in fact, on us instead, for we are the creators of his new definition of valor.

Additionally, Swift criticizes our language directly in order that we may reform our vices sustained by the crime of being human. As Gulliver expounds his life as a man in England, he continues to confuse his Master, because his concepts of "Power, Government,…Law, Punishment and a Thousand other Things had no Terms" (211) in the Houyhnhmn language. Swift uses this as a springboard from which he criticizes the way in which language influences the nature of the beast, making it painfully clear that humans, because they choose name their vices are therefore subject to them. His biting criticism of the practice by which we label our flaws and follies is, in his mind, the "Quality fitted to increase our natural vices" (215). For example, Gulliver refers to the awful concept of lying, which the Houyhnhmn population has no word or idea of, as a faculty "universally practiced among human Creatures" (207), thereby giving Swift the chance to satirize the unanimously devious nature of mankind. He sees the equivalents of our vices in our language as the way by which we "aggravate our natural Corruptions" (225). It is through our bit of reason that we are damned; for if we were to identify with the yahoos rather than Mr. Gulliver, we would not be exempt from corruptions such as greed, gluttony, and lust, which all yahoos inherently possess (227-230). However, we could, perhaps, be exempt from offense of assuming we possess a higher morality than the yahoo-humans we view as vile, contemptible creatures.

Moreover, we find that we identify with Gulliver from the start, and therefore create various rationalizations intended to vindicate his vices, that we may also be exonerated for our own downfalls. We identify with him because we see him as the crusader for a more moral world, resplendent with virtue. Our identification with Gulliver satisfies us when he is on the moral high ground, and even when we come to a crossroads and find that he is the specimen under examination and are therefore forced to choose whether we want to be inspected as well. But how is it possible that we identify so well with Captain Lemuel Gulliver, the Splendid Liar? Swift has the answer ready and waiting: it’s all in our nature. It is logical that we would naturally assimilate ourselves to a liar, because are also liars of the worst degree. He knows us better than we do ourselves, and therefore presents Gulliver as a veritable fountain of truth, knowing full well that we will identify ourselves as the propagators of that truth as well, even though we are actually the fools.