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, and the importance of a thoughtful, self-aware, balanced perspective. In this sense, Gulliver's Travels addresses issues that still worry people today. A recent television version also testifies to the book's continued appeal. Although this version is generally faithful in many places, however, it is no substitute for the book.
Swift's story takes place simultaneously at two points in time and at two levels of meaning. First, it is a recollection: Lemuel Gulliver tells the story of his adventures after they are finished. The story of Gulliver sitting at home writing about his voyages is the "frame narrative," the story of the telling of the story. Like a frame around a painting, it gives shape to Gulliver's character and to the events that he recounts. As Richard Rodino writes, "Swift the author writes the story of Gulliver the author writing the story of Gulliver the character." Second, all the events except the frame narrative take place in the past. These two levels of time enable Swift to create a work that also has two levels of meaning: the straightforward story of Gulliver's adventures, and the satire of Swift's world. By making Gulliver look back on his life and explain it, Swift allows readers to see Gulliver as unreliable, a man whose opinions must be questioned.
The two levels of meaning, the adventure and the satire, come from Swift's use of a popular kind of literature, the travel narrative. It is important to remember while reading Gulliver's Travels that Swift's world was very different from ours. Captain Cook had not yet sailed around the world; he would not be born until 1728. Lewis and Clark would not head west across North America for another seventy years, and much of the continent was still inhabited only by Native American tribes. It was not unusual to be the first westerners to discover new islands (the Dutch found Easter Island in 1722), to make the first maps of a coast, or to find strange and exotic people, plants, and animals. The eighteenth-century public was as excited to read about travels to strange lands such as Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as North and South America, as the twentieth-century public is to hear about celebrities. They were also used to a wider diversity of reading material, and, because it was so hard to prove things were true, were more comfortable with not knowing whether a story was fiction or not.
The travel narrative did more than allow Swift to create an exciting "true" story, however. It also gave him a way to criticize the familiar world of eighteenth-century England. Swift "defamiliarized" aspects of English life such as political or social practices by having Gulliver describe them to people who had never encountered them before, or as if they were things he had never seen before. In some cases, this defamiliarization is amusing. When the Lilliputians search Gulliver's pockets, for example, they find a "Globe, half Silver, and half some...
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