Laughter at Poor Gulliver’s Expense

Although Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has been considered a novel and child’s book, the text delves much further than could be allowed in either format. Within this deeply satirical writing is more than a story full of fanciful characters and unlikely situations, it is the vehicle through which Swift expresses his philosophies. Swift manipulates language and comical situations to provide his views on the rapidly metamorphosing eighteenth-century England; the characters and societies presented in Gulliver’s Travels correlate to what Swift saw as the moral degradation and perversion of true human nature occurring around him. Swift accomplishes this controversial task through intelligent writing and complex metaphors.

Throughout the satire, Swift includes comical situations for reasons other than entertainment. These humors are placed quite strategically and are intended to get the audience’s attention. We laugh at Gulliver where Swift requires us to pay close attention. The metaphors and analogies Swift offers are so strong that the audience must consider them from surface humor to their true meaning.

In Book two, Gulliver is constantly parading, dancing, and otherwise entertaining the citizens of Brobdingnag. Picturing Gulliver as a tiny version of himself, dancing on a giant table is certainly humorous. However the idea behind this technique is that Gulliver represents the Whig party, minute in comparison to the imposing people of Brobdingnag, who signify the Tories. In this book, Gulliver is forced to do as the "Tories" wish; he is under their control, just as the Whigs were for a period of time in England. Swift even devotes an entire chapter to such comical, yet expressive, instances. On page 100, Gulliver finds himself physically immersed in cow feces. Here, the representation of Swift’s opinion of the Whig party has sunken so low that Gulliver must wade through the dung of the animal that the "Tories" eat. So far removed from respect are the "Whigs" here that it is almost impossible to ignore. Swift even includes a reaffirming statement in case the audience may have missed the satire: "and the footmen spread it about the court; so that all the Mirth, for some days, was at my Expence" (100). While the characters in the story are laughing at Gulliver’s expense, so the reader is simultaneously laughing at Gulliver as well. Swift is both comic and intentionally didactic in this metaphor.

Earlier in Book one, when Gulliver is representing the Tory party, the representation of the Whig party is satirized in just such a comical yet revealing way. In chapter three of the first book, Swift describes how the Lilliputians come into positions of authority. The candidates jump and dance on a rope to entertain the Emperor, and "whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the Office" (21). In this metaphor, the Emperor represents King George, and as Swift views, the tiny Whigs gain employment by jumping to please the King, without proper education or qualification. This opportunity, funny as it may be, exists for Swift to express his opinion toward the changing eighteenth-century English government. However, this kind of humor is not isolated to the audience alone.

There are also situations where Gulliver himself laughs at the world around him, forcing the reader to consider what he is laughing at, and what that represents to Swift. In the first book when Gulliver so charmingly extinguishes the fire at the palace by urinating on the flame-engulfed sections, he thinks he has done a good deed and is amused by the situation. This is a strong point for Swift to express his wish to do the same to the Whig party, to extinguish the increasingly capitalist and materialistic society the Whigs were creating.

Swift’s opinion of the Whigs is that they are a force of corruption, that their priorities and values are misplaced. Swift establishes these ideas in his description of the Lilliputian laws. The Lilliputian society places its values on things so contrasting to what Swift, and thus the audience, thinks is right and honest that we then view the Lilliputians, and simultaneously the Whigs, as a corrupt association. To the Lilliputian society, like the burgeoning mercantile capitalism of eighteenth-century England, fraud is the most threatening crime: "They look upon Fraud as a greater Crime than Theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it wit Death…it is necessary that there should be a perpetual intercourse of buying and selling" (39). By careful placement of this parallelism, Swift has at least in part accomplished his intention of opening the eyes of his audience to his perspectives, through the ridiculous aspects of both the fictitious and the factual societies.

One seemingly fantastical, but paralleled to the authentic, idea presented in Book three is the flying island and the Laputan society. The image of a flying island is so ridiculous, that Swift employs it to show how England, like the flying island starves the other island of its sunlight, thereby oppressing it, just as Ireland is dominated by the island of England. The reader is so appalled by such a preposterous idea, that we agree with Swift in his conviction against the English domination of Ireland.

Continuing in the Laputan society, Swift satirizes their insatiable and thereby nonsensical quest for logical thinking and the perfect society. With this, Swift is able to parallel this absurd society which goes so far as to destroy its language to achieve better efficiency, to the over-rationalist society of eighteenth-century England. For Swift, rational thought, as satirized in the Laputan society, causes an undesirable unbalance because people become too involved in such practice. Swift agrees with applied science that can produce necessity, whereas the theoretical science sought in this example cannot produce anything other than luxury. The Laputans appear, both physically and mentally, so warped and ludicrous in their worthless quest for logic, that neither Swift nor the reader is able to perceive them seriously. This successful manipulation of ideas helps to increase Swift’s sense of ethos with the audience as well.

Swift also manipulates language very creatively throughout his satire. Swift’s choice of words and tone compels the reader to understand his point of view. Such as the following in Book two, Swift uses an amusing, yet earnest metaphor to state his strong dislike of the Whig party. Swift writes, "I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that nature has ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth" (108). This strong statement of opinion works well here because it is so cleverly camouflaged by the satirical language. More specifically in this sentence, words like "crawl", "odious vermin", and "suffered", evoke feelings of disgust and even pity in the reader. By invoking such emotions in the audience, Swift is able to mold their opinions to his own, thereby doing exactly as he intended in writing and publishing this work.

Many of Swift’s personal philosophies are offered in the text through different rhetorical techniques. In Book four, the grander of these ideals are considered and clearly resemble Swift’s society. In Book four, Gulliver portrays Swift, and the Yahoos represent humankind. While the Yahoos are similar to humans in physical appearance, violent urges, passions although extreme, and social interactions, they differ strongly in that they have no coherent language through which to express themselves. This distinction is monumental in this context, with language being the most important method of communication for Swift. Through this metaphor, Swift is offering his thinking that language is key to understanding humanity’s place in the world, and that the Yahoos, like the humans, are without it lost.

Contrasting the Yahoos’ imperfections is the nearly perfect society of the Houyhnhnms, who have indeed evolved to a state of impeccable language and stage of life. The Houyhnhnms are peaceful, exceedingly honest, stoic, and utilitarian; they posses all the virtues Swift, and now the audience, desires. Most importantly, the Houyhnhnms’ knowledge is purely traditional and productive. Nevertheless it is this very perfection that makes the Houyhnhnms imperfect. This society cannot represent Swift’s ideal because it could never be within Human nature to attain such perfection. Swift shows this by instilling inhuman qualities such as detachment in the Houyhnhnms. Their language is insufficient for human requirements, due to the fact that the Houyhnhnms are incapable of satire, which is unacceptable to Swift. The Houyhnhnms do not possess neither the passion nor the desire to question or doubt the order of things, which is an essential element of true human nature. Again, Swift has illustrated how this society, along with the other societies presented in this satire, has distorted true human nature on the social level.

Swift does offer hope regardless of his many condemnations of society, humorous as they may appear on the surface. In a letter from Swift to friend Alexander Pope, Swift provides his intentions and rationale behind Gulliver’s Travels: "I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities and all my love is towards individuals" (2447). Although Swift seems to distrust all humanity from all his satirical writing, he does believe that society can be righted on an individual level. Possibly Gulliver, through his virtuous travels is intended to begin such a transformation.

Gulliver is constantly placed in compromising and embarrassing positions because Gulliver is not a hero in this satire; Gulliver is the satirical lens through which to view Swift's surrounding society. The roots of Jonathan Swift’s satire lay in the social and individual dehumanization and perversion of true human nature, humorous as they may appear.


Work Cited 

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. New York: Norton, 1970.

 Swift, Jonathan. "Jonathan Swift to Alexander Pope" The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 1999