Essays and Criticism
The Historical and Cultural Background of Swift's Satire
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726, was an instant hit, one of the top three sellers of the eighteenth century. It was only one of Swift's many significant works, however. Of his prose writings, the most famous include his attack on modern literature, The Battle of the Books; a critique of English oppression of the Irish, A Modest Proposal; and A Tale of a Tub, his defense of Protestantism and the Church of England. He is also well-known as a poet, particularly for his poems criticizing romance, such as Cassinus and Peter and A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Gulliver's Travels addresses almost all of Swift's primary concerns and involves some of the most important questions in literature and the development of the novel.
Gulliver's Travels remains Swift's most famous and popular work. Ricardo Quintana calls it a "satire taking the form of four imaginary voyages," a formulation which explains why the story does not have the traditional plot structure of rising action-climax-denouement. Because Swift depicts the ills and sins of his society, Gulliver's Travels can feel like a string of episodes tied together. The book gets its unity from Gulliver himself, since his perceptions drive the story and the satire. Swift uses Gulliver and his voyages primarily to examine problems with contemporary society, such as the evils of politics, humanity's frequent foolishness,...
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The Hairy Maid at the Harpsichord: Some Speculations on the Meaning of Gulliver's Travels
When Gulliver first appears on the shores of the several remote nations he visits, the inhabitants respond to his monstrosity much as Londoners responded to monsters at Bartholomew Fair. The Lilliputians show "a thousand Marks of Wonder and Astonishment" when they first see him, and when he rises to his feet, "the Noise and Astonishment of the People ... [were] not to be expressed." In Brobdingnag, Gulliver "was shewn ten Times a Day to the Wonder and Satisfaction of all People." The Laputans "beheld [him] with all the Marks and Circumstances of Wonder." Not even the rational Houyhnhnms are immune to astonishment: "The Horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself, looked full in my Face with manifest Tokens of Wonder."
These first reactions give way to another, equally mindless response. Astonishment and wonder are succeeded by a desire to be diverted—most obviously in Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is trundled around the country like dwarfs were in England, but also in Lilliput, where the king uses Gulliver like the kings of Europe used giants, as a way of "diverting himself” and of "entertaining the Court." And the Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver reports "brought me into all Company, and made them treat me with Civility, because, as he told them privately, this would put me in good Humour, and make me more diverting."
Turning Gulliver into a diversion is a way of neutralizing the threat of his monstrous difference, a...
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The Satirist Satirized: Studies of the Great Misanthropes
If we ask who is the satirist of Gulliver's Travels, the answer obviously is Swift—or, if he is not "of” Gulliver's Travels, he is the satirist who creates the satire of Gulliver's Travels. But in the extended sense of the term we are familiar with Gulliver is also a satirist....
This of course is the Gulliver of the Fourth Voyage, worlds removed from the ship's surgeon who was charmed with the Lilliputians and quick with praise of "my own dear native Country." That Gulliver, he of the early voyages, is so far from being a satirist that he is often the butt par excellence of satire: Swift's satire, of course, and, within the work, the King of Brobdingnag's; but also, in a sense, of his own—his, that is, when he is an old man, sitting down to unaccustomed literary labors to compose his memoirs....
The Gulliver who writes, then, is Gulliver the misanthrope who stuffs his nose with tobacco leaves and keeps a long table between himself and his wife. It is he who "creates" the ship's surgeon—a man capable of longing for the tongue of Demosthenes so that he may celebrate his country in a style equal to its unparalleled merits. Given the emotional and intellectual imbalance of the old seaman, he is remarkably successful in producing an objective portrait of himself as he was in time long past.
The actual, as opposed to the fictive, situation, of course, is that Swift has created two dominant points of...
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