Swift’s Political Satire in Book I and II of Gulliver’s Travels
Gulliver’s Travels has been described to be a great satiric masterpiece. The book was not written to entertain but to indict politicians, scientists, philosophers and Englishmen in general. In Book I and II, Swift’s satire is more toward individual targets rather than firing a broadside at abstract concepts. In Book I, he is primarily concerned with Whig politics and politicians, rather than with abstract politicians. In Book II, he elects the immoral Englishmen, rather than abstract immorality. Swift, by his experience of the social and political conditions of his time, had come to know of the hidden spring of political power in the country. Not only that, he knew the court and its intrigue for power and the religious controversies among the different sections of the communities over minor and trivial questions. During his time, the struggle for power was a constant source of political unrest and consequently, peace was absent in the country. Swift’s dislike of politics and politicians was the reason for his bitter attack.
Received with cordiality and hospitality in Lilliput, Gulliver began to pass his days in peace learning the language of the Lilliputians and their manners and politics. In chapter three of Book I, Swift describes some of the activities of the Imperial Court. The activities including rope-dancing and leaping over or creeping under sticks are obviously a satire on the way in which political offices were distributed among the candidates by the English king. Flimnap, the treasurer of the Gout of Lilliput is Sir Robert Walpole who was the Prime Minister of England from 1715 to 1717 and then again from 1721 to 1742. Dancing on a tightrope symbolizes Walpole’s skill in parliamentary tactics and political intrigue. Similarly, Reldresal represents Lord Carteret who was appointed by Walpole to the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The phrase, “One of the king’s cushions” refers to one of King George’s mistresses who played a vital role in bringing Walpole into the king’s favor after his fall in 1717. The building where Gulliver stayed during his stay in Lilliput is perhaps the Westminster Hall where Charles I was executed.
The search of Gulliver’s body by the Lilliputians may be the satiric representation of the committee set up by the Whigs to investigate the conduct of the previous government and especially of Oxford and Bolingbroke who were suspected of the treasonable relationship with France and the old pretender. On the occasion of George I in 1714, the Whigs come to power and a committee was formed, in 1715. Swift here seems to be satirizing the activities of the Whig Committee. In a similar way, Skyresh Bolgolam has been identified as the Earl of Nottingham. Swift satirizes him because he withdrew his support from the Harley Government.
The award of the titles of the winners of various contests has been attacked. The three fine silk threads order of the thistle respectively.
The satirical view is evident in the account of the conflict between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. This account is actually a commentary on the history of religious controversy in England. It also shows a characteristic example of Swift’s ability to ridicule hair-splitting theological disputes. The high heels and the low hells refer to the political fractions in England at that time.
The war that ensued following the question of breaking eggs refers to the long-standing enmity between England and France. Politically, Lilliput stands for England and Blefuscu for France. England was a country of Protestants and France was a Catholic country. Naturally, the two countries were at daggers drawn and the Lilliputians knew Blefuscu to be the only country in the universe. The reference to the grandfather of the present emperor, who cut his finger breaking an egg, is to Henry VIII. Henry broke with Rome over the question of Papal authority and also over the matter of Anne Boleyn.
In Chapter 3 of Book I, Swift satirizes the war of the Spanish succession. Swift uses Gulliver’s naval victory to represent the Troy claims. In Book II, Swift’s satire was directed not against any particular political persons or parties but against the immoral Englishmen and their political behavior. The king of Brobdingnag became astonished when he heard that the Lilliputians of which Gulliver was one, had the king, queen, ministers, and official. Under the description how members are elected to parliament, Swift presents a satire of his own country’s political institutions. The king rejects the proposal of gunpowder to destroy his enemies; he shudders and condemns his country as inhabited by little Varmus.
Gulliver’s Travels is an allegorical satire. In it, Swift presents the picture of the current political situations in a most satirical way. In the concluding book, he gives us a hopeless picture of mankind but in the first two books, his satire is more genial and comic.