Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels"

Jonathan Swift was without a shadow of doubt a great pacifist, satirist, and moralist. Mainly through pamphletism, he criticized imperialism and war with ferocity. “Gulliver’s Travels”, first published in 1726, can be seen as Swift’s ultimate pacifist pamphlet, summing up his views concerning moral and sociopolitical justice. Although “Gulliver’s Travels” is cherished as a children’s book it has triggered an ardent debate among philosophers, political scientists and literary critics. For instance, part four “A voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms” was, for a long time, regarded by literary critics as the writings of an immoral, misanthropic, and obscene monster. According to Clubb, this view derives from a too literal interpretation of the allegory and from the common fallacy that Gulliver’s opinions reflect Swift’s (Clubb, 117).

Indeed, the first key to understanding “Gulliver’s Travels” is to discriminate Swift’s moral and political outlook from Captain Gulliver’s accounts. For instance, the latter sees the Houyhnhnms as ideal beings who are governed by the principles of reason and truth, and are completely ignorant of the evils of controversy, dispute, and falsehood. In contrast, Swift seems to indicate that it should be rather dull and stifling to live in the utopic society of the Houyhnhnms. In this respect, the wise, but still human, Brobdingnagians introduced in part two of “Gulliver’s Travels” are more likely to represent Swift’s ideal beings. However, in terms of connection to the contemporary society, Swift’s illustration of Lilliputs’ community is as much controversial and problematic as our daily world.

This interpretation conforms to the reading provided by misanthropology. Misanthropology is named after the study of the cussedness of human nature and aims to investigate all sorts of human vices. In particular, misanthropy is viewed as the typical position of a disillusioned Utopian, whose former faith takes the form of unremitting contempt. According to Morson, Gulliver is clearly an Utopian who becomes disillusioned and eventually misanthropic. The visit to the land of the Brobdingnags teaches Gulliver to appreciate the physical and moral deformity of human beings. The king exposes the cultural misanthropology to Gulliver, whereas the country’s most beautiful women teach him its physical facet for being filthy and repulsive due to their size. However, Gulliver’s experience in Houyhnhnmland impedes him from drawing the right lesson from cultural and physical misanthropology. The close connection of his Utopianism with his misanthropy is also clear in the letter to the editor. Gulliver complains that neither his accounts nor his social prescriptions produce any improvement in British society. Accordingly, Morson views “Gulliver’s Travels” as both misanthropic and a satire on misanthropy, for Swift demonstrates that he despises humanity for such vices as misanthropy (Morson, 56).

At first sight, part one of “Gulliver’s Travels” seems to be a fairy tale about a giant dwelling with midgets. However, it contains clear innuendoes about the politics of the reign of Queen Anne, such as the feud between England and France. Furthermore, a flavor of Swift’s ideal model of justice is hinted at when Gulliver describes the laws and customs of Lilliput.  Gulliver’s Travels is neither the first nor the last literary work to discuss and stigmatize the legal system. In fact, Posner (1988) examines the legal contents in other classics such as William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”.  Capital punishment is recommended to fraudulent individuals because honest people are defenseless against fraud, whereas prudence and care suffice to mitigate the likelihood of thefts. Contemporary society debates over the pressing public issue of death penalty. From the critical perspective, Swift might have envisioned the controversial character of this ethical dilemma though for the eighteenth century England capital punishment was a regular and daily tradition. Nonetheless, the Lilliputian justice is equally disposed to reward and to punish: a citizen can claim, among other privileges, a financial reward and the status of “Snilpall” if he is able to provide enough evidence that he has been strictly lawful during the last 73 moons.

Note that when an individual is accused of some crime, the conventional notion of fairness in a trial implies that the defendant is considered innocent until proven otherwise. From this perspective, the presumption of innocence is widely used in modern court systems. Nonetheless, in Lilliput society the burden of proof becomes inverted when a citizen claims the title of “Snilpall” for he is assumed guilty until proven otherwise. A shift in the burden of proof from plaintiff (in this case, the state) to defendant (the citizen claiming the status) presumably increases the likelihood of denying the reward to a lawful citizen, but decreases the probability of rewarding unlawful citizens.

It is necessary to emphasize that in eighteenth century England the issue of gender equality has been regarded as theoretical for distinctions in gender were significant. According to Swift, Lilliputs’s society had the female nurseries, where “the young girls of quality are educated much like the males… [and they] are as much ashamed of being cowards and fools as the men” (Swift, 55). Therefore, Captain Gulliver did not notice “difference of sex,” though some daily exercises for women “were not altogether robust.” Indeed, modern societies of America and Europe no longer make difference in gender, however, some reservations are held in the area of “robustness” specifically to males.

Swift illustrates the absurdity of the conflict made on the basis of pride between the Lilliputians and the Blefescuns. Although the conflict around the question of how one should break an egg, “eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end” (Swift, 41). Swift embedded in the following statement: “… all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end” (Swift, 41). According to Swift, the matter of convenience should be left on every man’s conscience, and this idea left some room for speculation. In modern context, the right to break an egg from any side can be compared with one’s right to express opinion within censorship free society. Practically, there still are societies where censorship is considered to be a legitimate way to regulate social relations and relations on the individual-government level.

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