Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Swift was born in Dublin in 1667, the son of Anglo-Irish parents. He moved to England and started a career in the church. He also discovered his remarkable talent as a satirist and began to write on themes that would stay with him throughout his lifetime---corruption, religion, and education. He became active in politics and was a supporter of the Irish resistance to English oppression while still being a devoted member of the Anglican church.
Some thought, due to his eccentric behavior, that he was insane. He most likely suffered from Meniere’s disease---a syndrome that affects the inner ear and causes dizziness, nausea, and deafness. He suffered most of his life from this affliction but still was able to maintain his energy and wit. He wrote his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, in 1726. When he died in 1745 at the age of 78 he composed his own epitaph for his gravestone which reads: “He has gone where savage indignation can lacerate his heart no more.”
Think about that epitaph. What does it say to you about the type of person Swift was? Would you like to be such a person? Are you? Should social workers and others concerned about injustice feel “savage indignation” when they think about the condition of billions of humans who suffer today just as they did in Swift’s age?
As it says in the book’s introduction: “In the final analysis the key to understanding him is his moral intensity; it is also the measure of his greatness” (p. 19). (All quotes are from Bantam Edition, N.Y., 1981.)
Gulliver in the book goes to sea and time and again gets involved in finding himself in strange lands when his ship sinks or some other tragedy befalls him. The first country is that of the Lilliputs who are only about six inches high. The people he encounters are always very different than he is. Swift uses this as a way of exposing to ridicule and satire the stupidities of our society. What is of particular interest is how, almost three centuries later, we are still mired in many of these same stupidities! For example
“All crimes against the state are punished here with the utmost severity; but if the person accused maketh his innocence plainly to appear upon his trial, the accuser is immediately put to an ignominious death; and out of his goods or lands, the innocent person is quadruply recompensed for the loss of his time, for the danger he underwent, for the hardship of his imprisonment, and for all the charges he hath been at in making his defence” (pp. 70-71). Might not our legal system be better off should we follow this code of the Lilliputs? How is our present system of justice flawed in this area?
The Lilliputs also “look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft” (p. 71). How might our system be improved if we did likewise?
The Lilliputs also believed in not just punishments but in rewards. If a person is a good citizen, he is rewarded. Also, “In choosing persons for all employments, they have more regard to good morals than to great abilities…they suppose truth, justice, temperance, and the like, to be in every man’s power; the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for the service of his country, except where a course of study is required” (pp. 71-72). How might your life be altered if modern society finally followed the code of the Lilliputs?
“Ingratitude is among them a capital crime…for they reason thus, that whoever makes ill returns to his benefactor, must needs be a common enemy to the rest of mankind, from whom he hath received no obligation, and therefore such a man is not fit to live” (p. 72). Would you like a similar code to be enacted in America? Would you be executed? In what ways do you show ingratitude towards others?
After living among the Lilliputs and finally getting home again, he stays only a couple of months with his family before he sets sail again and once more is stranded but this time amongst a race of giants in the land of Brobdingnag. When he explains to the king how the English system works, the king responds: “You have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness and vice are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator. That laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them…I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth” (p. 134). Swift is not only poking fun at his own people, he is in the process also helping us to be more charitable toward those who are different than we are---this book can be read as one of the great books dealing with cultural diversity.
Since he is sooooo small in this land he can not think of how he can possibly escape but after two years a huge bird picks him up and drops him at sea where a passing English ship rescues him. When he gets home he has at first a hard time living amongst such tiny people after years amongst the giants of Brobdingnag---Swift is calling our attention to how easily we adjust to our condition. The greatest strength of humans is their ability to adapt and develop habits to carry them along---which are also the exact sources of our greatest weaknesses. In what ways have you adapted? How do your habits and adaptation serve you well and how do they serve you poorly? Swift is a satirist with a point. He wants to change society and he is calling our attention to how we resist change through adaptation and habit.
It isn’t long before Gulliver sets out again on another trip---he can’t help himself. He is obviously an action junky. This time he ends up in Laputa, a nation that has an island which floats in the air above the rest of the country, and other nations, including one called Houyhnhnms where the ruling species is horses and humans are the subspecies called Yahoos.
A Modest Proposal
In another literary endeavor by Swift entitled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to their Parents or Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Public Swift attacks poverty with his wit and satire. He proposes that children be sold at the age of one as food for the rich. “I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribed, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords” (p. 495).
Since we still have the poor in great numbers amongst us, since it has long been established that this is unnecessary as the planet is capable of providing for everyone adequately, since you should be appalled by the notion of feeding children to the rich; then what would you propose we do as an alternative? If you are against this form of barbarity, should you not be equally incensed by the barbarity of how we kill millions of children every year worldwide just so that some can maintain themselves in luxury?
Keep in mind as you think about the above that Christians are supposed to reach out and care for the poor. This is the main reason Swift is bringing all these ideas to your attention. He is calling out to us to live up to our Christian principles.