Consider Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a Satire

Swift’s satirical masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels is a celebrated prose work in the form of a travel book. Swift’s real purpose in writing this book was to lash mankind for its follies, absurdities and evil deeds. The writer employs irony, mockery, ridicule, sarcasm and even invective as the weapons of attack, which is illustrated through different stages. He is a master of both corrosive and comic satire. While comic satire is amusing and makes us laugh, corrosive satire is serious and scornful. The account of Gulliver’s first voyage offers several examples of a comic satire. The passage dealing with the high heels and low hells, the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians is a perfect example of this. The corrosive satire in the same voyage is found in the treatment of Gulliver, who instead of being treated with gratitude, is impeached. Gulliver’s Travels contains both these kinds of satire throughout. However, it is acclaimed as an allegorical satire in which personalities and institutions are attacked not directly, but in a veiled manner.

A careful analysis of Gulliver’s Travels reveals that the use of satire in different parts differs greatly. The book I of Gulliver’s Travels is mainly a satire on English politics and politicians, English monarchs and the theological disputes. In the second and third book, the satire becomes moral and intellectual while in the fourth book the whole of mankind becomes the target of attack. Swift proves through his satire that man is physically deformed, intellectually insane and politically most despicable. Through Gulliver’s admittance into the court of Lilliput, Swift gets an opportunity to unmask the corrupt political system prevailing in England. The ironical parallels drawn between the practice of the court of Lilliput and that of England very mercilessly and effectively lashes out the viciousness of the dominant authority. Swift points out that the cause of their weaknesses lies in their moral laxity, and a man without morality is nothing but a Yahoo. The Lilliputians are so polluted that they do not even hesitate to suspect Gulliver of adultery with one of the noble ladies or request him to destroy the state of Blefescu. Gulliver’s refusal to enslave the Blefescudians, echoes Swift’s own hatred for tyranny. In Book II, we meet the people of Brobdingnag who are giant in structure, presenting a glaring contrast to the pygmies of Lilliput. The Brobdingnagians stand for Swift’s moral ideal. They are a positive race with superior morality. They possess good sense, gratitude, and kindness. But we are repelled by the coarseness and ugliness of the human body. The description of the huge monstrous breasts of a woman sucking her child is indeed, repulsive. The different interpretation and explanations of great scholars to their king about Gulliver’s derivative height is highly satirical. When Gulliver gives an account of the life, trades, religion, and politics of his own country, the king laughs out and ask Gulliver whether he is a whig or tory. Then turning to one of his ministers, the king observes how contemptible a thing a human race is which could be represented by such diminutive insects as Gulliver. The king, in fact, mocks at the human race of which Gulliver is a representative- a race which consists of insects as compared to the people of Brobdingnag. The bitterest satire comes when the king comments on Gulliver’s account of the English parliament, the English courts of justice and other institutions in England. He considers the history of Gulliver’s country to be of a series of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, revolutions, and massacres. He believes that all these are a result of hypocrisy, cruelty, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice and ambition. The king finally comments, that the bulk of the people of Gulliver’s country are the most pernicious race of little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. These comments have been viewed as Swift own cynical utterances about mankind in general.

The satire in Book III is rather light-hearted and amusing. Here Swift makes fun of the inhabitants whose sole interests are music and geometry and who cannot afford to have time to make love to their wives. We are greatly amused by the useless experiments and researchers. The Book III presents a fantasy of politics and the abuse of reason. In this flying island, the people are governed scientifically and not morally. Swifts satirizes the apprehension of the same English astronomers and the experiments of the Royal Society of England. Meaningless historical research, the desire for immortality, the arbitrariness, whim and caprices of monarchs through the custom of licking the floor and crawling on the belly are bitterly satirized. The Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels is the intellectual and emotional climax of the whole satire, containing one of the most corrosive and offensive satires on mankind. In fact, it is an angry denunciation of mankind. Gulliver feels so furious with the follies and crimes of human beings that he condemns them all together, and portrays the horror of Houyhnhnms’ land as far superior to human beings both mentally and morally. In this part, the Yahoos are intended to represent human beings. Gulliver describes them as abominable and feels astonished and horrified to discover the physical resemblance between them and the human beings. The Yahoos are brutal, untouchable and mischievous while the Houyhnhnms exalt them morally since there is no word in their language for lying or falsehood. The satire deepens when Gulliver narrates to the master Houyhnhnm, the events and happenings in his own country and in other European countries. He explains that wars in European countries were often caused by the ambition of kings and sometimes by the corruption of ministers. His description exposes the evils of war and the wickedness of lawyers and judges. The human race is degraded in our estimation by the manner in which Gulliver describes his countrymen. It is further degraded by contrast with the noble Houyhnhnms and resemblance to the beastly Yahoos.

The master Houyhnhnm explains the behavior and attitude of Yahoos and Houyhnhnms, intending as a severe criticism of the human race. He speaks of the Yahoo’s love shining stones, their gluttony and the lascivious behavior of the female Yahoos. By contrast, the Houyhnhnms are rational beings, following principles in life and solving their problems through discussion and meetings. Gulliver’s heart is filled with great admiration for the Houyhnhnms and great hatred and disgust for the human race. He even desires never to return to his family. Though much of Gulliver’s condemnation of the human race may be attributed to Swift himself, we should not identify Swift completely with Gulliver. On the basis of Book IV, Swift may certainly be regarded as a misanthrope, but he is not a misanthrope of the extremist kind which is represented by Gulliver at the close of the book.

Thus, Swift’s satire becomes the most poignant in Book IV expressing his misanthropy in clear terms. In the first two books, the nature of satire was milder in tone and treatment, while Book III was essentially a fantasy.

Coleridge's Use of Symbolism in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Character Analysis of Belinda in The Rape of the Lock


%d bloggers like this: