Although Irish writers are recognized for their contributions to poetry and drama, Irish writers beginning in the eighteenth century contributed also to the rise of the English novel. Irish writers also played a large role in the evolution of the English novel throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Very little eighteenth century Irish fiction deals with Irish subject matter. On the contrary, Irish fiction deals with humor, the sense of the grotesque and fantasy, the significance of anecdote, and the importance of the storyteller, all of which categorize the constructs of the Irish novel.
Irish long fiction took root in the eighteenth century with the writings of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). His exuberant use of humor and fantasy, as well as his expansive imagination, demonstrates the deep influence of Ireland on his psyche and firmly distinguishes him as an Irish writer. Recognized as the foremost prose satirist in the English language, Swift spent much of his life trying to escape Ireland, which was considered then as a place of exile from England. However, politics dictated that he spend the bulk of his life as dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican cathedral in Dublin.
Although Swift penned verse early in his life, his true genius did not surface until he turned to prose satire. His A Tale of a Tub, published anonymously in 1704, is a satire against religion and education. The book isolated Swift as a genius of satiric wit. His greatest novel, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), assured his permanent place in literary history. The ironic tension Swift creates prompts questions about the author’s views on humankind. In each of the novel’s four books, Lemuel Gulliver sets sail on a voyage and ends up in a strange land. In book 1, Gulliver finds himself a giant prisoner of the six-inch-high Lilliputians, whom he saves from invasion from the neighboring Blefuscu. He escapes when he is charged with treason.
In book 2, the hero travels to Brobdingnag, where he finds himself as tiny as a toy in a world of giants. Although loved and pampered as a pet, in fear for his life he manages to escape in the talons of a large bird. In book 3, Gulliver visits the floating island of Laputa, where the islanders are so obsessed with scientific activity, particularly those in the Academy of Lagado (a parody of England’s Royal Society), that they are blind to commonplace hazards. Book 4 finds Gulliver in the utopian land of the admirable, enlightened, rational horses, the Houyhnhnms, and the degraded, filthy humans, the Yahoos. Although first accepted as a curiosity by the gentle creatures, Gulliver is soon ousted as despicable because of his human physical characteristics. Although, at the end of his fourth voyage, he returns to England, he finds himself no longer able to tolerate human company and lives out his days in the company of horses.
Swift’s ironic novel has no clear-cut explanation. Swift utilizes the various places his hero visits to satirize the folly of humankind. Of the human beings he encounters, the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians are impractical and mean-spirited, and the intellectuals in book 3 lack any wisdom, if they are not outright mad. The humanlike Yahoos are contemptible and powerless...
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