England in the 1720s
While Swift was writing Gulliver's Travels in the 1720s, England was undergoing a lot of political shuffling. George I, a Hanoverian prince of Germany, had ascended the British throne in 1714 after the death of Queen Anne ended the Stuart line. Although he was not a bad or repressive king, he was unpopular. King George had gained his throne with the assistance of the Whig party, and his Whig ministers subsequently used their considerable gains in power to oppress members of the opposition Tory party. Swift had been a Tory since 1710, and bitterly resented the Whig actions against his friends, who often faced exile or worse. Understanding how events in Europe and England led to this political rivalry can help the reader of Swift's novel better understand his satire.
The Restoration era began in 1660, a few years before Swift was born. At this time Charles Stuart (King Charles II) became king of England, restoring the Protestant Stuart family to the throne. Charles II supported a strong Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. He was supported by the Tories, a political party made up mostly of church officials and landowning noblemen. Protestants who did not support the Anglican church teamed with Roman Catholics to form the opposing Whig party. The main source of contention between the parties was the Test Act of 1673, which forced all government employees to receive communion according to the Anglican church's customs. In effect, this prevented non-Anglicans from holding government jobs. Swift himself supported the act, and even switched from Whig to Tory in 1710 because he believed a strong Church of England was necessary to keep the balance of power in the government. Throughout his life, he felt that institutions such as the church and government had to be strong in order to rein in people's tendency toward chaos and sin; he explored this idea in Gulliver's Travels. Over the years, however, Swift came to believe the Tories were as much to blame as the Whigs for engaging in partisan politics, locking horns over minor issues and bringing the government to a stalemate. Whenever one party was in favor with the reigning king and in power in the Parliament, it attacked the other party, exiling and imprisoning the opposition's members. Swift satirized their selfish and petty politics in Part I of Gulliver's Travels, where the Lilliputian heir (who represented George II, the future king of England) has to hobble about with one short heel and one high as a compromise between the two parties that wear different heights of heels.
The Glorious Revolution and War of Spanish Succession
Charles II' s brother King James II, a Catholic, came to the British throne in 1685. He immediately repealed the Test Act and began to hire Whigs for his government. The Anglican-dominated Parliament secretly negotiated with William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch husband of James's Protestant daughter Mary, to take over the throne. In December 1688, William did so, and James II fled to France without a fight. This was called the Glorious Revolution because no one was killed in the coup.
Soon after King William III and Queen Mary II came to power, the Catholic Louis XIV of France declared war on Spain over trade and religious issues. William entered the war on the side of Spain, a war the English called William's War. This conflict was satirized by Swift in the war between the Lilliputians (England) and Blefuscudians (England with the Spanish, Dutch, and Germans as allies) was fighting France, it was...
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also warring with Ireland. Irish Catholics wanted freedom from British rule, and England feared that France could invade their country through a sympathetic Ireland. Peace came about in 1697, but England got almost none of the spoils of war—land in Spain. In order to appear strong, William declared war again, this time on the Spanish and the French. This began the War of Spanish Succession.
In 1702 William died and his daughter Queen Anne ascended the throne. The war waged on while at home the Whigs and Tories fought amongst themselves. Many of the Whigs were merchants who were profiting from the war, and they wanted the fighting to continue. The landowning Tories wanted the war to cease, because it devalued their property. Swift helped the Tories in their efforts to stop the war by becoming editor of their newspaper, the Examiner. His influential writings, along with his friend Bolingbroke's secret negotiations with France, helped end the war in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht. Queen Anne seemed ungrateful for these efforts, as she later exiled Bolingbroke and destroyed Swift's chances of a career in the Church of England. Swift was forced to return to Ireland to find a job as an Anglican priest.
Catholic Ireland had been dominated by the British since the fifteenth century, because England had always been paranoid about a French or Spanish invasion coming through Catholic Ireland. England's restrictive policies had driven Ireland and its people into poverty, which angered Swift. He was incensed when the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, given the task of overseeing the economics of Ireland, supported a currency law that would further destroy the economy of the Irish. His anonymously written The Drapier's Letters, inspired the Irish people to unite against England and force the law to be repealed. The Irish protected Swift's anonymity, and for his role, Swift is a hero in Ireland to this day.
In the midst of all this political back and forth, the optimistic Age of Enlightenment was flourishing. Intellectuals, philosophers, and scientists such as John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton were opening the doors to exploration in many fields, asking new questions, and experimenting. They discarded the old idea that man is by nature sinful because of Adam and Eve's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Man's ability to reason, they claimed, could save him from his tendency to sin. Man could create a utopia, or perfect society, that solved the problems of humankind. Swift vehemently disagreed. He felt that reason could just as easily be misused for foolish or selfish purposes as good ones, and man could never rise above the tendency toward sin to be able to create utopia on earth. His satire of the folly of Enlightenment scientific and theological musings and experiments in Part III of Gulliver's Travels is followed by his portrayal of a utopian society, the Houyhnhnm's, into which man can never fit.
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Since any attack on human nature can be disturbing, some readers may have problems with Swift's pessimistic view of humankind. Only a few admirable examples of humanity are presented in Gulliver's Travels, and these characters do not receive any kind of recognition or praise from Gulliver. The Brobdingnagian king is kind and sensible, but Gulliver scorns his understanding. The people of Laputa and Balnibarbi, and especially Gulliver's host in Lagado, are friendly, kind and generous, but Gulliver seems unaware that they are acting in an admirable manner. Don Pedro de Mendez, the kindest and most generous of all the characters, at best is tolerated by Gulliver. The Houyhnhnms, whom he admires beyond all reason, seem to us lifeless, ruled only by cold reason. Gulliver himself becomes an object of our scorn as he turns away from his fellow man. The reader, then, is left with a most depressing view of humankind.
Swift avoids any overt mention of religion, but he does ridicule religious controversies in a veiled manner. The reader who expects to find Christian virtues promoted as a way of elevating humanity will be disappointed. Also, Swift was fascinated with bodily functions, odors, and anatomical parts. This fascination is not expressed in vulgar terms, but the issue is not avoided, and some may feel that Swift deals with it more than necessary. Gulliver graphically describes his own problems related to answering the call of nature when he becomes the target of another creature's excrement. Swift certainly felt that the functions of the body belong to our lower natures, and for some reason he uses these functions as one means of expressing the disgust he felt toward humanity. While Gulliver's Travels is not an obscene book, it does contain images that some readers may find offensive.
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1720s: Robert Walpole is England's first prime minister, and German-born King George I gives him a great deal of authority to run the country.
Today: Britain's ruler is only a figurehead and the prime minister is the leader who wields real power. The House of Lords and House of Commons still make up the Parliament.
1720s: The Great Awakening begins to sweep the American colonies, as people are converted to Protestantism by charismatic evangelists. In England, John Wesley, an Anglican priest, begins to form the Evangelical Methodist movement in 1729.
Today: Worldwide, of 1.9 billion Christians, almost half (968 million) are Roman Catholic, 70 million are Anglican (Episcopalian), 218 million are Eastern Orthodox, 395 million are Protestant, and 275 million belong to other denominations.
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