Jonathan Swift World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3272

Swift lived through times of great change in politics, religion, and learning. Divine authority, medieval scholasticism, and Renaissance humanism were being supplanted by materialistic, mechanistic, empirical skepticism, thanks largely to the work of philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and the incalculable influence of French mathematician René Descartes. Men such as Temple and Swift preferred the serene assurances of the old order based upon rational Christian humanism. They saw the acids of modernism dissolving spiritual authority and the moral values of the landed aristocracy.

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From the moment of his precarious birth, Swift was in search of a place in life. Without noble ancestry, he used his talents with words to secure a high standing in society, first under Temple and later Harley, men whose snobbish and repressive instincts he affected. He maintained a stalwart faith in the Anglican establishment and despised free-thinking dissent. He scorned the new money-grubbing middle class and the follies of projectors who meant to perfect society. Yet Swift was also possessed of a diabolical imagination, and from it grew the wildly inventive satires against the very reason and order that he so devoutly defended in other writings. His mind embodied the contradictions of his age. Swift was an orthodox cleric who hated bishops, a rationalist with slight faith in reason, a believer afraid to plumb the mysteries of his faith.

Swift often hides behind a narrational mask, a persona who poses as author, be it Isaac Bickerstaff, M. P. Drapier, or Lemuel Gulliver. The diabolical wisdom or folly is theirs, though a reader surely feels that he or she is face to face with Swift. Yet these masks must not be mistaken for Swift. Very often he is holding up a persona to ridicule, such as the dispassionate social scientist whose “Modest Proposal” would cure hunger by killing babies. Swift was emotionally incapable of the comprehensive vision of a William Blake, but Swift, too, had intellectually penetrated the contrary nature of humanity and seen through to the heart of darkness. His unblinking insight into human nature, as sane as it is said to be insane, forms the basis for his incomparable ironic satires.

The enormous body of Swift’s writings displays four distinct yet overlapping personalities. First is the straightforward, plain-talking voice of common sense. Most of the pamphlets take this tack. The ideas are quite orderly, the doctrine utterly orthodox, the prose style plain and simple. He adopts this mood to attack political or religious confusion, as in his The Drapier’s Letters to the People of Ireland, A Project for the Advancement of Religion, and the Reformation of Manners by a Person of Quality (1709), and The Conduct of the Allies and of the Late Ministry, in Beginning and Carrying on the Present War (1711).

Second is the comic wit of roaring laughter to be found in The Battle of the Books and the Bickerstaff materials. Swift’s Predictions for the Year 1708, which he wrote under the Bickerstaff pseudonym, poked fun at a quack astrologer and predicted that he would die on March 29. When he did not die, Swift nevertheless issued the seemingly factual An Elegy on Mr. Patrige (1708). Partridge’s rebuttals were met with A Vindication of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq. (1709). Swift had scored a hit on the pretensions of a “heavenly” pseudoscientist who was attacking the Anglican Church. London laughed long and hard at Bickerstaff’s urbane barbs. Swift’s comedy masks serious intent. The zany goings-on in A Tale of a Tub, for example, ridicule religious enthusiasm.

Third is the diabolical mode of the ironical satirist who pens Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, and A Tale of a Tub. Savage indignation lashes out at every corruption of morals or reasoning that humankind is capable of undertaking. Fancy is cut loose from all moorings to lacerate vanities and illusions. Playfully, even inconsistently, by turns this spirit may be witty and light, or coarse and vulgar, even dismally misanthropic. Swift in this humor is unmatched in English literature.

Fourth is the least familiar of Swift’s personalities, the childlike personal friend. The passionless Swift shows himself in poems such as Cadenus and Vanessa and in his private letters to Stella to be capable of genuine tenderness and warmth. Long passages from his famous Journal to Stella are in baby talk, the most intimate kind of communication by which one friend engages another.

Swift was the first English writer to gauge the full force of the displacement that modernism would work upon traditional values and ways of thinking. His official self longed for institutional order, but his demonic imagination let him know that human nature could not be tamed or improved by so weak a rider as reason. As such, his disgust was enormous, and he dared to show human nature as it is. Little wonder that Swift is understood by children and often misunderstood by scholars and clerics.

Gulliver’s Travels

First published: 1726

Type of work: Novel

A surgeon sets out on four sea voyages that take him beyond the wildest stretch of his imagination.

Lemuel Gulliver, the title character of Gulliver’s Travels, is a capable, brave, and educated Englishman whose unlucky adventures drive him to sickness and madness. His simple, straightforward way of telling his story suggests that he lacks the imagination to understand what he has experienced.

Gulliver is shipwrecked off the shore of Lilliput and captured by humans only six inches tall. Practical man that he is, he promises to obey their laws controlling him. He finds Lilliput, not unlike Europe, in a state of perpetual and petty disorder. Low-heelers and High-heelers squabble over politics much as do the Whigs and Tories of Swift’s day. Courtiers compete for distinctions by leaping over sticks and other such ridiculous games. Protestants and Catholics are mirrored as Big-enders and Little-enders, who cannot agree on which end of the egg should be cracked first. The war between England and France is parodied in the conflict between Lilliput and its neighbor Blefuscu. Gulliver becomes a hero by wading into the surf and carrying off the tiny Blefuscan navy. When he puts out a fire in the palace by urinating on it, he falls from favor at court and joins the Blefuscans, who help him salvage the wrecked ship in which he makes his escape.

Gulliver’s next voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, the opposite of Lilliput. Proportions are reversed. People stand as tall as steeples. Gulliver is a caged pet exhibited as a freak. The queen buys him and brings him to court, where he is imperiled by the lewd curiosity of the ladies, by a dwarf who nearly drowns him in a bowl of cream, and by a monkey who almost dashes his brains out.

Yet Brobdingnagian society is a utopia, based on useful studies of poetry and history, not on metaphysics, theology, and speculative science, as in Europe. The king rules a prosperous state not torn by strife. In Brobdingnag, a law cannot be written using more than twenty-two words, and to comment on laws is a capital crime. Horrified by Gulliver’s description of England’s government, the king concludes that Englishmen must be “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

His third voyage, to Laputa and other islands, is the most fantastic of them all. Gulliver finds himself on the airborne island of Laputa. Its people are devoid of practicality, so lost in abstraction that servants must flap their mouths and ears with inflated bladders to keep their minds on conversations. Though bent upon music, mathematics, and astronomy, they lack reason and cannot construct walls perpendicular to the floor. The monarch is proud of his dominion over the island of Balnibari below. Any mutiny can be literally crushed by dropping Laputa upon it, smashing whole towns. Yet the monarch is reluctant to use this power for fear of cracking Laputa, and, besides, Laputians own country estates on the nether island. Swift here satirizes England’s dominion over Ireland.

At the Academy of Lagado, Gulliver witnesses the absurdities of misapplied scholarship. There, the projectors experiment with building houses from the top down, making pillows out of marble, extracting sunshine from cucumbers, and the like. He visits nearby Glubbdubdrib, where the governor by sorcery summons dead persons back to life for a day. Gulliver thus meets with Alexander the Great, Homer, Aristotle, and René Descartes, who admits his philosophy is confounded conjecture. In Luggnagg, Gulliver views the ghastly spectacle of human immortality. The wretched Struldbrugs live forever, not in perpetual youth but in unending decay. From there, Gulliver makes a short trip to Japan, and thence back to England.

Gulliver leaves behind a pregnant wife to make his final journey to a land ruled by intelligent horses, called Houyhnhnms. These purely rational creatures know neither pride nor passion. Without love or lust, they procreate merely to meet a social obligation. They live in stoical calm, without government and without crime. They are served by a despised underclass of Yahoos, depraved, libidinous creatures quite unlike themselves but strongly resembling humans. Gulliver shares the Houyhnhnms’ disgust and disdain for them. When a lusty Yahoo woman tries to embrace him, he is repulsed. The Houyhnhnms, however, decide that Gulliver must live as a Yahoo or else leave, so he departs on a Portuguese ship with Captain Pedro de Mendez. Still, Gulliver cannot bear the smell of the captain and crew. He shuns their civilities and tries to jump overboard. He arrives in England only under shackles. Now too proud to associate with humans, whom he sees as Yahoos, Gulliver faints when his wife kisses him, and he abandons his family to consort with horses at pasture.

Gulliver himself has become the object of the satire, for he has lost all reason and proportion. The very Houyhnhnms he so admires do him the greatest wrong, but he scorns humanity with irrational pride. Having seen him from so many different perspectives, a reader recognizes that Gulliver’s weaknesses are those of humankind.

The Battle of the Books

First published: 1704

Type of work: Essay

In the library of Saint James, the modern books battle for supremacy over the ancient books.

Swift wrote The Battle of the Books in 1697 to buttress his beleaguered patron Sir William Temple in a controversy over the relative merits of ancient learning and modern learning. Gentlemen with old Tory money or new Whig pretensions affected a haughty disdain for the new philosophy of Descartes and the new social science of Hobbes, and their disdain affected Swift. They saw in modernism a childish self-absorption, disregard for the classics, disrespect for traditional authorities, and bad manners. Swift ridiculed the new trends by contrasting them with the sound wisdom and graceful art of the old masters.

In the library of Saint James, the modern books square off against the ancients in a mock-epic battle. Before they clash, a bee breaks through a spider’s web, to the discomfiture of both. The spider chides the bee for destroying its intricate trap. Wiping off the obnoxious threads of the web, the bee spurns the spider for erecting such a petty and disgusting contrivance. Their witty sparring goes to the heart of their differing natures. The spider represents modernism; the bee, classicism. They hurl vituperative charges at each other. The bee accuses the spider of spinning everything out of his own guts, such as the regurgitated threads of its web and the venom that it injects into entangled flies. The spider accuses the bee of being no better than a thief, visiting one beautiful flower after another only to steal nectar and flee. The bee replies that the flowers are multiplied, not destroyed, by his beneficial rapine; he returns to the hive with honey and wax, thus furnishing sweetness and light.

Armed with their ink made of bitter venom, the moderns issue an ultimatum to the ancients: either abandon their glory-smitten summits of prestige or let the moderns come with their spades to level the peaks that overshadow the lower tops of modern mountains. When the ancients refuse, the moderns close ranks. The bumblings of a modern librarian have caused confusion on the shelves. René Descartes has been set beside Aristotle, Plato shoulder-to-shoulder with Thomas Hobbes, and Vergil hemmed in between the modern poets John Dryden and George Wither. The ancients are captained by Temple and Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom. The moderns are led by Momus, god of faultfinding, who calls on the malignant deity Criticism in her cave, where she dwells with Ignorance, her father and husband; Pride, her mother; and her children, Noise, Impudence, Dullness, Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-Manners. Criticism comes to the library to rally her troops, but the moderns fall into disarray. Descartes is felled by Aristotle’s arrow. The poet Abraham Cowley hurls his spear at the poet Pindar, but misses. Pindar disables a dozen or so of the Cavalier poets. The modern poet Dryden swaps armor with Vergil (Dryden had translated his epic poem Aeneid into English), but he finds Vergil’s helmet nine times too big for him. Homer slays the modern poet John Denham. Another modern poet, John Oldham, falls to Pindar. Clearly, the ancients have carried the day, but peace talks are convened, and the matter ends inconclusively.

Swift’s mockery is devastatingly effective, witty, and fun. His sarcastic jest is proven true: Some of these modern authors would have been all but forgotten were it not for Swift’s record of their clash with the ancients.

A Tale of a Tub

First published: 1704

Type of work: Novel

A diabolical wit ridicules the attempts of Christian sects to divert the attacks of materialistic science on religious faith.

A Tale of a Tub is Swift’s wildest adventure in satirical humor. Speaking through a diabolical persona of his own making, he pillories the corruptions of churches and schools. The title refers to the large tub that sailors would throw overboard to divert a whale from ramming their boat. In Swift’s satire, the whale is Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), a political monster born of Descartes’s mathematical philosophy. Institutional Christianity is the ship that might be sunk in such an onslaught, and its timbers have already been loosened by schismatic factions.

The book is an allegory of church history. A father wills suits of clothes to his three sons, with directions that the suits never be altered. Brothers Peter, Martin, and Jack represent Catholic, Anglican, and Puritan sects, respectively. Peter upgrades his garments with gold lace, shoulder knots, and such trappings. Martin removes the false ornamentation from his without tearing the cloth. Jack zealously rips his garment to shreds to get rid of all ornament.

This basic allegory is richly embellished with outlandish digressions, parodies, puns, quibbles, unstructured foolery, and displays of odd erudition. The diabolical narrative takes every opportunity to prick the pretensions of pedants, religious dissenters, and perfectionists whose projects try to remake human society along rational lines. Swift thought that human reason is rather weak, blown flat in fact by the merest gust of desire, and so people should behave themselves and be governed by institutions such as the Church of England. Yet his diabolical narrator weakens this myth of order and reason by showing how vulnerable the mysteries of religion are to skeptical scrutiny.

Dressed in his sanctimonious vestments, Peter looks ridiculous issuing papal bulls on the superstitious doctrine that bread can be turned into mutton. The excesses of religious enthusiasts are reduced to absurdity in Jack’s rantings and in a scatological satire on a sect of Æolists, who believe that wind is the essence of all things, the original cause and first principle of the universe. In their most ridiculous rite, Æolists seat themselves atop barrels that catch the wind and blow inspiration into their posteriors by means of a secret funnel. Sacred sermons are delivered by their priests in oracular belches, or bursts of internal wind.

This maniacal conception reemerges in the famous Digression on Madness. There, the modern upsurges in religion, politics, and science are diagnosed as a form of madness, caused when the brain is intoxicated by vapors arising from the lower faculties. This vapor is to the brain what tickling is to the touch. Real perceptions are disordered in a happy confusion. Thus, happiness for moderns amounts to “a perpetual Possession of being well Deceived.” In the madhouse world of A Tale of a Tub, the modern man cut off from classical culture is lucky to be a fool among knaves, like the book’s demoniac narrator.

A Modest Proposal

First published: 1729

Type of work: Essay

A social scientist proposes that poor people sell their babies as food to be eaten by the rich.

Swift’s A Modest Proposal has been called the greatest work of irony ever written. A dispassionate social scientist surveys the poverty in Ireland and structures his proposal in five parts after the classical rhetorical pattern: exordium (introduction), narratio (narrative), confirmatio (confirmation), confutatio (refutation), and peroratio (peroration).

The exordium evokes the familiar sight of female beggars followed by many children dressed in rags. The image suggests the problem of poverty, overpopulation, and hunger that the narrator proposes to solve with his “fair, cheap, and easy method” of fattening the poor babies for a year and then selling them as delicious delicacies for the tables of the rich.

In the narratio, the narrator coldly calculates the number of babies needed. Out of one and a half million people in Ireland, he reckons only two hundred thousand couples are breeders. Subtracting thirty thousand whose parents can afford them, and fifty thousand who die in the first year of life, and sparing twenty thousand for breeding purposes, he figures only one hundred thousand babies will be sold for slaughter each year. Instead of being a burden on families or welfare agencies, these children will contribute to the feeding and clothing of thousands of others, since their skins can also be tanned for leather.

The confirmatio explains the public benefits of the scheme. This meat is not seasonal and thus supplies the cyclical scarcity of fresh meat. A poor mother can clear a profit of eight shillings per child. In a land torn by religious strife, the number of Catholics would be greatly lessened. The new industry would push the gross national product higher. Parents would save not merely eight shillings but the far greater cost of rearing the child for years. If poor people saw a profit from pregnancy, they would be more inclined to marry and then to be more tender and caring with the family.

The narrator admits that the population would be lowered, but he thinks it should be. He scorns politicians for overlooking other solutions, such as taxing émigrés and banning imports from England. By including these proposals in the confutatio, Swift ironically endorses them. The narrator reminds readers that these are unwanted children who would likely rather be dead. He closes his peroratio by professing that he lacks self-interest: “I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing.”

Of course, Swift was saying one thing and meaning another. He means to condemn the wickedness of equating human life with monetary value. References to slavery and abortion widen the scope of this satire on the many ways in which people put a price on life. This outrageous proposal is called “modest” because it rejects the extremes of voluntary abortion before birth and euthanasia for the aged and diseased.

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