Jonathan Swift is a controversial writer, at once considered as a monster or a lover of mankind. He was really concerned with politics and society. He wanted people to take a common-sense view of life, encouraged people in the use of reason (but not too much, because not everything could be seen through the eyes of reason) and used satire in his works, to show the problems of society at the time, but also to throw at our faces the contradictions of humanity.
This novel seems to be a book for children, but it's not so. Behind the particular and colored characters there's something more: a political message. The biting satire used in this work shows us that Swift wanted to reform society, because of its striking contradictions. Lemuel Gulliver, the protagonist of the story, is well-educated, sensible and a caring person. He has a family, a job (he is a doctor) and supports the culture which has produced him. One day he decided to make a journey around the world. The voyage will lead him to different places, inhabited by different types of beings, not human, who live in highly organised societies, governed by institutions. These societies don't exist, but are more organized than ours. This shows the author's disdain for the society of the 18 th century. The more Gulliver travels, the more experiences he lives. There is an inner-growing of the character, that will lead him not to stand any longer the "human smell" (synonym of loss of civilisation and corruption) of his family and humanity, once he will go back home.
I read three excerpts taken from Gulliver's Travels: Gulliver and the Lilliputians, The Academy of Lagado and The smell of Yahoos. I did not really like the first one. Gulliver is shipwrecked in a region, called Lilliput. He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he finds he has been tied up by the Lilliputians, the tiny inhabitants of this region. They call him "Great Man-Mountain" (because he is way taller than them) and they inspect his clothes and his items, which they did not know the existence of. I found this excerpt a bit boring, it deals only with descriptions of the object, through the point of view of a tiny man.
The Academy of Lagado is way more interesting than the previous excerpt, because Swift's satire emerges more clearly. Gulliver is on the island of Laputa, and visits this Academy, where meets the Projectors, scientist who do not fit in the stereotype (people with white aprons). They are dressed with filthy clothes that show how much they are involved in what they do. They are not groomed at all, they even forget about eating. These men are carrying out absurd experiments: they try to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers (because they are the result of light), they want to reduce human excrement to its original food (excrements are just the food that has been processed in the stomach). Then, they try to turn ice into gunpowder, inspired by the idea that fire is malliable. Another project was to shorten the discourse by cutting polysillables into one, using the language of children, because it's simpler. Even if these experiments are totally absurd, there is a thinking process behind them, did you notice that?
The most striking experiment is in the linguistic field: the scientists wanted to abolish all words, using objects to speak. They thought that if a word describes a thing, you can use a thing to describe a word. As Shakespeare did, Swift shows us this philosophical view of language. Language is not a matter of fact, but is made of words. He does it by imagining what would be like if we expressed ourselves with objects. There is a downside to this plan: if you are an intellectual and you have to explain a complex theory, you have to carry with you more objects. It is impossible, it would be time consuming.
The smell of Yahoos is another excerpt in which the satire is glaring. Gulliver has been to the region of the Houyhnhnms, super-intelligent horses, with great reason and features, organized in a society with great values. Gulliver learnt the values by them. But the horses (compared to the human beings) are not the only inhabitants of this region. There are the Yahoos, monkeys that live on the trees and throw their excrements at the others. Swift compares them to the Europeans, evoluted animals. Back in England, Gulliver realizes that his wife, his children, the Europeans smell like the Yahoos, they are not civilized. Gulliver tries to stand the stench, but don't manage to, and goes to live with the horses, that are considered more intelligent and organized than humans. Swift wants us to learn something important: in our aspect, we seem to have real values, virtues, but the author throws in our faces our presumptuousness. Human beings don't have the great qualities they think they have. Gulliver does not want his wife close to him, because she's a Yahoo. She and his family are described as animals, with teeth and claws. Gulliver can't stand the fact that he looks like a Yahoo, with its traits, even if psichologically he is a Houyhnhnm.
But, what is the vice of human beings? That is pride. If you are too proud, you do not progress as a person. That is different from self-estimating yourself, because if you do that, you are able to spot your flaws and correct them, too. We are the Yahoos. For Swift, we are a lump of deformity. The Rational Houyhnhnms don't know the existence of the term "pride", because they are dominated by reason. They are totally different from us, the Yahoos, that are filthy and too proud of themselves.
Finally, reading the excerpts of Gulliver Travels I have wondered about something: what if Jonathan Swift lived nowadays? I think he would not appreciate the corruption of nowadays society, much more corrupted than the one of the 18 th century. Then, he would hate all the contradictions of our soul, our incivilisation, the fact that we are no more in tune with nature but we only spoil it.
A modest proposal
Let's deal with a pamphlet written by Swift. It's about the social issue of poverty, that at the time was considered a crime. If you were poor, it was your fault and of your laziness. At the time, England exploited Ireland and its poverty. During the 18 th century there was famine there, because of a parasite which attacked plantations of potatoes, the only food of farmers, who, in a state of poverty and hunger, went to England to work. The full title of the pamphlet is "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". The social problem at the time was the poverty. In Ireland there were lots and lots of poor families, in which parents did not have the possibility to feed or dress their children. There was overpopulation and unemployment. Swift uses satire, and in this pamphlet he talks about a possible solution to this issue. To cope with poverty, famine, unemployment and overpopulation, he proposed to feed the children in order to make them gain weight, and then to sell them to the public, which would then eat them. This delicious food is ment only to rich people who can afford it, and is available at the butcher's.
Obviously, this is only satire. Swift was not a cannibal, but he used this biting satire just to awake us and throw in our faces the contradictions of human soul. We gave value only to who is the most important in our society. We tend to turn a blind eye on the conditions of people who are less important. Think about this example: what if the baby of the English Royal Family died? It would be a scandal, the fact would be written in every newspaper. Everyday in Africa or in poor countries, hundreds and hundreds of babies die out of starvation or poverty. But nobody cares about them. Swift wanted to underline the gap between the rich and the poor, telling us this "modest proposal".