How 'Gulliver's Travels' Comments on Society Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How 'Gulliver's Travels' Comments on Society

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Jonathan Swift published Gulliver's Travels to 'vex the world rather than to divert it'.

Gulliver's Travels presents Swift's views on society by Swift's invention of several new societies, each with similarities and differences. The similarities are often written as though they were differences. This entry will examine these views, and examine the differences between these societies and 18th Century England, and discuss his use of satirical comment in the novel.

Swift's Intent

The book is commonly presented to young children as a kind of 'fairy story', but it is clear that Swift intended many levels of meaning within the novel, and these are not always visible to younger readers. The four sections of Swift's satire each comment on different aspects of society. The first section, detailing a voyage to Lilliput, a land of tiny people, shows how society reacts to larger people; namely with fear. The second part, his voyage to Brobdingnag, a land of giants, shows how society often treats smaller people; as curiosities. The third section, Laputa, shows how society treats people who are different, while the fourth, the land of the Houyhnhnms details slavery and class ideas within Swift's society.

Swift uses many literary techniques in Gulliver's Travels to convey his ideas, including irony, humour, comments on individuals and society in general and long lists followed by sharp statements. The book is easy to read for young children, while still providing a challenge to the thinking adult. Young readers may see only the surface of the story, while adults can penetrate the depths of his writing. Such adults may be confused, even vexed, as to Swift's meaning, primarily because of his humour and comparisons between several different societies.

On Education

In his description of Lilliputian society Swift explains, in detail, their views on education and law, which are extremely like his own society's views. Most 18th Century Englishmen, however, would not recognise this due to their proximity to the situation. For instance, they 'have in every town public nurseries, except... labourers are obliged to send their infants... to be reared and educated when they come to the age of 20 moons'. This works out to be nearly two years old by our calendar. This is when some parents send their children to nursery, although it is usually at three years old. In Lilliput, as in the England of the 18th century, 'They have certain professors well skilled in preparing children for such a condition of life as befits the rank of their parents', thus following a caste system, as with upper, middle and lower class. Swift presents this as a difference; he is in fact using irony to say that the opposite is true.

The Lilliputian society is stricter with their children than is Swift's, as Lilliputian parents may 'see them only twice a year' for not more than an hour. A professor, 'who always standeth by on these occasions, will not suffer them to whisper, or use any fondling expressions, or bring any presents'. This quote suggests that Swift feels that Liliputian society has both advantages and disadvantages. Its main advantage is that the child is brought up in a hardened manner and is less likely to be emotional, and its main disadvantage is that it ignores parental love as Swift's society sees it1.

In contrast, in the second section, Swift devotes only a few paragraphs to the education of the inhabitants of Brobdingnag, calling it 'very defective, consisting only in morality, history, poetry and mathematics... the last of these is wholly applied... to the improvement of agriculture and all mechanical arts'. It is ironic that these subjects encompass a large portion of the education of Swift's society.

Therefore, it would seem that in both societies, Swift is showing his own society's education in an unfavourable light, despite his assertions of 'The author's love of his country' as described at the start of chapter seven in part two. It is ironic that such a man, of such low intellect and education should be speaking up for the standards of his society.

These ideas would not be hidden from all of Swift's society. There would be those who realised, on some level, that Swift was drawing parallels with his own society. They can be subdivided into two groups; those who would be angered, and those who would want change. Those angered would be that class in power, and those in power would want to keep things as they are, thus remaining in power. This condition would be in direct conflict with those who want change, since the powerful people would lose their power if any change occurred.

On Division

This method of pitting class against class is again seen in the land of the Houyhnhnms, where the Yahoos are subjugated as an inferior race. These Yahoos are described as though they were barbaric primitive men, and, again, Swift has Gulliver explain that there is no similarity between this and his society. However, the 18th Century thinking person described in the previous paragraph would realise that, in fact, slavery was commonplace, as it was with the American black slaves. It was also visible in the sexism of Swift's society and in the caste system which was in operation in Britain. This discrimination continues to some extent to the present day, although most British people frown upon it in this century.

In the title of section four, chapter nine, Swift also has Gulliver discuss the Houyhnhnms' language, calling it defective since it lacks several words that Swift's society would use. Gulliver also has trouble pronouncing their language, since it sounds like a horse's whinny. The English people ignore the fact that their language has also been commented upon as notoriously difficult to master, employing such combinations of consonants as 'TCHST' in matchstick, and having several pronunciations for 'OUGH'. This would be seen by most linguists as being common when translating from English to another language. However, only a few English people would put themselves in the position of some other country's people and notice how hard English is to pronounce. It would not be out of place to suggest that people of every country view their own language as being easy to pronounce, and that this is because they have grown up with it.

The Yahoos are also viewed by the Houyhnhnms as the canaille of society - the lowest class of people. These Yahoos could also be paralleled with the canaille of 18th Century British society, who were often given menial tasks of the same sort as the Yahoos. Swift, ironically speaking through Gulliver, says that the Yahoos are unfairly treated because they are not like society. He feels that they have not been given the chance to show what they are capable of. This is true, but the reader should also note that the same was true of the British lower classes, by way of their lack of education or money. Swift is again encouraging change, so that everyone, no matter what his or her status, was given an equal chance to succeed.

On Difference

Brobdingnag is seen as isolated because of the rocks in the sea and the mountains, which cannot be passed easily. It is possible to draw parallels with Amazon Indian tribes who isolate themselves from society - just as they do not contact the outside world, neither do those from Brobdingnag. It is plausible that Swift considered this when writing his book, and intended an ironic comparison. Both are too engrossed in their own society and what they believe is right, although for different reasons. The Amazonians simply do not contact the external world, whereas the Brobdingnag people cannot contact others. Because of this lack of contact, there has been no war in Brobdingnag, and hence no weapons. When Gulliver suggests gunpowder, the King of Brobdingnag is extremely unhappy, with every right to be so, since it is impossible for him to know the state of the outside world.

While in Brobdingnag, Gulliver is treated as a curiosity. This is symbolic of how we treat unusual people and animals. Swift uses this device to place Gulliver in an unfair situation, using the idea of being put on show for people to look at, and performing for these people. This can be paralleled with Swift's society in that Gulliver is essentially a performing circus animal to the inhabitants of Brobdingnag. Swift uses this image to symbolise his own society's use of circuses and performing animals, including zoos, which cage their animals for everyone to see for a price. Again, Swift is ironically drawing a comparison with the lower classes of Britain's 18th Century caste system.

On Politics

Swift uses the idea of an unfair advantage in the first part of the novel, when Gulliver destroys the fleet of ships in the bay of the inhabitants of Blefuscu. Gulliver later reflects that this was wrong, and unbecoming of an Englishman. However, warring nations often search for an advantage to use against their opponents. Swift is probably attacking the war with France, which would have lasted longer had the English government not changed and peace been sought.

In fact, Swift uses every opportunity to attack the British monarchy and government. He uses real people to create the personalities of his characters, and real events to parallel the events in the novel. This is first seen when Gulliver is searched, just as when a Tory government's actions were scrutinised by a Whig government that came to power in 1714. It is clear that Swift sympathises with the Tories, since it is Gulliver who is searched. However, Swift also wants to create an idea that the searching is correct, since Gulliver is happy to be searched; again, Swift is using Gulliver to ironically portray his own society.

On Monarchy

The King of Lilliput is seen as single-minded and unwilling to accept the views of others. Swift is drawing a comparison between this king and his society's system of monarchy, in that neither is willing to accept the views of others easily, although there are advisors to both royal families. The religious debate between Protestant and Catholic Christians is mirrored by the argument between the Little Endians and the Big Endians. People who realised this may either have been angered by Swift's parody on society, or may have supported his desire for change. Swift is again trying to cause conflict between two parts of society.

The third part also resembles Swift's society in several ways. Firstly, the King of Laputa was not allowed to leave the island, just as England's monarch was unable to do so without Parliament's consent. This again suggests that Swift is paralleling the British society with those of his novel. Any British monarch or important person who realised this might have been angry at Swift's insinuations. It is unlikely that the British monarchs would work for reform because of their belief and trust in the Magna Carta. However, less noble people may, on realising this, try to change their monarchy, again creating conflict, maybe even a revolution.

On the Learned

Swift also uses long lists throughout the book, as well as long, complex descriptions. While the information given is extensive, the reader finds it hard to concentrate on the lists, since they sometimes have very little significance to the plot. This thoroughness would be useful on a real voyage, but in fiction, these are overly informative. After such lists, there is almost always a comment that brings the reader's attention back to the book, a further indication of Swift's craftmanship. Swift switches between long lists and the plot because he wants the reader to be confused as to the type of book Gulliver's Travels is supposed to be, and to attack ironically the tedious details some other authors may provide. Swift is also using this acid wit to attack the authors of the detailed travel diaries.

In Conclusion

While some enjoy Gulliver's Travels as a diversionary story, it is clear that it was not written primarily for this purpose. There are many concepts and ideas within the novel that were clearly written to challenge and trouble. Swift accomplishes his aim very well through his use of humour and comments on society.

Swift vexed people with Gulliver's Travels by designing his faux societies to parallel his own. He thus created conflict between those with more power and those with less, the latter wanting change and the former wanting to prevent change. This may have troubled those who did not question the status quo, who may agree with the powerful people because they are happy with their life. However, Gulliver's Travels is a sincere comment on Swift's society that would garner both respect and ridicule.

1 However, it is important to note that there could be societies that are so tightly knit that every child could call every adult his or her parent and vice versa. A example would be some modern day communes, where the division of parental responsibility is significantly blurred.

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