Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Political Satire in Gulliver's Travels

Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" is a pure piece of satire where he satirizes party politics, religious differences, and western Culture as a whole in ways still relevant to today's world. But what we find mostly after reading "Book-1" is that it is an allegorical representation of English politics. In where Swift depicts the total political corruption beginning from 16th century and ending with 18th century.

One of the forms of political satire is embodied in the first culture that is met by Gulliver. In Gulliver's first adventure, he begins on a ship that runs aground on a submerged rock. He swims to land, and when he awakens, he finds himself tied down to the ground, and surrounded by tiny people, the Lilliputians. "Irony is present from the start in the simultaneous recreation of Gulliver as giant and prisoner" (Reilly 167). Gulliver is surprised "at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals, who dare venture to mount and walk upon my body" (I.i.16). The Lilliputians are the embodiment of England of the time period. The Lilliputians are small people who control Gulliver through means of threats. "...when in an instant I felt above a hundred arrows discharged into my left hand, which pricked my like so many needles; and besides they shot another flight into the air, as we do bombs in Europe" (Swift, 24). England was a small country that had Europe (represented by Gulliver) and many other parts of the world under their control.

Gulliver encounters the ridiculous nature of war. His first encounter of war is in the form of a dispute over the way to eat an egg. A former king took the right of personal preference away from his people by telling them to eat the egg from the small end instead of the large end. Swift relates this trait to the situations where a dominant ruler oppresses nations. It also shows how a simple, ridiculous act can bring forth war. The fight continues through generations, soon the people continued to fight without really understanding why. Some of the people resisted, and they found refuge in Blefuscu, and "for six and thirty moons past" the two sides have been at war (I.iv.48). For Swift, Lilliput is analogous to England, and Blefuscu to France. With this event of the story Swift satirizes the needless bickering and fighting between the two nations.

Also vehicles of Swift's satire were the peculiar customs of the nation of Lilliput. The methods of selecting people for public office in Lilliput are very different from that of any other nation, or rather, would appear to be so at first. In order to be chosen, a man must "rope dance" to the best of his abilities; the best rope dancer receives the higher office. “ this diversion is only practiced by those persons who are candidates for great employments and high favour at court”. While no nation of Europe in Swift's time followed such an absurd practice, they did not choose public officers on skill, but rather on how well the candidate could line the right pockets with money.

Gulliver also tells of their custom of burying "their dead with their heads directly downwards...The learned among them confess the absurdity of this doctrine, but the practice still continues" ( At this point in the story, Gulliver has not yet realized that by seeing the absurdity of the Lilliputians' traditions, that he might see the absurdity in European ones. With this Swift satirizes the conditions of Europe.

Again in the same passage, we get Flimnap. According to Swift: “Flimnap, the treasure is allowed to cut a caper on the strait rope at least an inch higher than any other lord in the whole Empire" Here Swift's model for Flimnap , the most dexterous of the rope dancers, was Robert Walpole, the leader of the Whig and an extremely witty politician. His official position was like that of treasurers.

"The capering on a tight rope symbolizes Walpole's dexterity in parliamentary tactics and political intrigues” (C.H. Firth, book - Political significance of Gulliver's Travels)

Again in the chapter 3 the kings cushions represents the Duchess of Kendal, One of George i’s mistresses, whom Walpole was believed to have bribed in order to return in power in 1721. Thus, Swift was particularly antipathetic towards the Duchess and enjoyed satirizing Walpole because during his time political corruption reached the highest peak-

"Walpole's regime (i.e. systems of Government) was full of more political corruption."
(Professor M. Shamsuddin, Swift,s moral satire)

Again in chapter 4 , book 1, swift also narrates the folly of the religious war between Lilliput and Blefuscu to immediate European politics-“ there ( in Lilliput) have been two struggling parties in this Empire, under the name of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves."

Here two Lilliputians parties stand for English political parties. The high heels represent Tories, the low heels Whigs. These two massacre the English soil both politically and by religion. In Swift's voice- "we computed the Tramecksan , or High heels , to exceed us in number; but the power wholly on our side" refers to the succession of Whigs in 1714 (i.e. the Hanoverian succession) though the Tories were large in number. Here, it should be mentioned that at first Swift was Whig and later joined the Tory. Again the king was sympathetic to the Whigs. He used them to support Hanover against France and appointed them to official positions to strengthen his position against the House of Lords. Thus the Lilliputians empire, who is George i, wears low heels which is censured by Swift.

Therefore, we can say, religion was a political issue during Swift's time. Owing to a minor religious issue there caused a serious conflict and it also results in the division of the nation into two political groups. Many lives were taken and many kings were to lose their power even their life was taken.

In the concluding part, we can say that Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical work. Here he shows the problems , oddities………………………………..


Shweta Rathod said...

It was really helpful.

Anonymous said...

This essay is so well constructed and at the same time factual.
Good job.

readings: Free English Literature Notes said...

Very interesting and scholarly write-up.