JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745)
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin of English parents, he did not do well as a student but he was eventually granted his degree by “Special Grace”. In his early twenties he obtained a post as secretary for Sir William Temple, who was a Whig Member of Parliament and patron of letters and for whom he worked for about ten years. In 1694 he was ordained as an Anglican clergyman and when Sir Temple died he was appointed as vicar of Laracon, in1700 he was given a prebend in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Although he lived in Ireland he often visited London where he met Pope, Abuthnot and Gay who invited him to join the Scriblerus Club which they founded to satirise the abuses of learning and science, Swift greatly contributed with his writings.
As many other intellectuals of his time, Swift was entangled in the political controversy of the time between Whigs and Tories. At first he sided with the formers in the hope of obtaining their help in a career advancement, but in 1700, when his professional ambitions were frustrated and because of his disapproval of Whig’s alliance with the Dissenters, he turned his favour to Tories who supported his access in the Irish Anglican Church. That same year he began writing in the The Examiner and attacked Whig ministers’ reputation. In 1714 Queen Anne died and along with her all of Swift’s career ambitions since the Tories were politically set aside and the Whig party obtained greater power. Swift’s later years were characterised by a growing melancholy and a sense of isolation, yet his literary production was vast. Here we will focus mainly on a controversial but very popular pamphlet belonging to his collection of works of political satire and specifically, A Modest Proposal for Preventing Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Public (1729), and what is considered as his masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (in 1726), both published anonymously.
WRITING STYLE AND TECHNIQUES
Through his literary works Swift proves to possess a natural talent to satire, a master at this art that reached its climax through his skilful use of irony. Irony is satire’s best instrument but it requires great skill because it is mainly based on the extreme contrast between what is being said and its true meaning. In other words, what is actually meant is the exact opposite of what the words appear to be saying. And Jonathan Swift is quite capable of saying the most atrocious and shocking things in the most natural possible way,
A Modest Proposal for Preventing Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country and for Making them Beneficial to the Public (1729)
A Modest Proposal exemplifies Swift’s mastery at satirical style. This pamphlet regards Ireland’s dreadful conditions after a series of devastating harvests that caused widespread starvation through the population, yet the causes of the Irish poor conditions were also due, according to Swift, to the Irish short-sighted policies and to English exploitation that was “devouring” the island by applying mercantilism, which he considered inhuman since those laws reduced everything to terms of productions and profits. Furthermore, his tone and style are so passionate in describing the issues as a born political economist, coldly comparing the usefulness of his proposal between statistics and human sufferance that his ghastly idea of encouraging the poor to produce babies for the meat market of the rich was actually taken seriously by some appalled foreign readers.
Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (1726)
As far as his masterpiece is concerned, Gulliver’s Travels, the original idea was to write a satire for The Scriblerus Club against the absurdities and the corruption of the empty society of his time and to do so he had chosen a parody of travel literature, while working on it though he broadened his original idea and divided his work in four books where he denounced institutions and man in general.
LAYOUT AND THEMES
The first book is A Voyage to Lilliput, here Gulliver is portrayed as a big body dominated by psychological needs, whereas the tiny Lilliputians are rational beings with great knowledge of mathematical science yet, they used these qualities cruelly and as an instrument of dominion. Alongside there’s a fierce attack on English political parties and the religious conflicts between Anglicans and Dissenters.
The second book, A Voyage to Brobdingnag, reverses the situation and describes Gulliver as a miniature man who fits comfortably in a box furnished as a room entrapped in a world of disgusting giants whose huge bodies symbolise animality opposed to Gulliver’s reason, ability and skilfulness. Yet, again, Swift’s incomparable ability to use the contrast-within-contrast technique allows him to unveil, in spite of the revolting appearances, the giants’ king generosity and high sense of morality while Gulliver is boasting about his superiority by naively illustrating to the king the social and political organization of England characterised, at the time, by great corruption and immorality. Through these subtle devices Swift satirizes 18th century English political, social and legal institutions.
The third book, A Voyage to Laputa, in which the main themes are science and philosophy used to substantiate man’s rationality. As in the other books Swift here ridicules these efforts because, no matter how much he tries, his deep wish to see man reach a balance between a rational use of scientific knowledge and its animality contained by a broader use of common sense, is frustrated since man’s behaviour shows that those men who are too proud of their rationality end up losing all common sense.
Finally, in the fourth book, A Voyage to the country of the Honyhnms, Swift takes reason’s instances to its extreme form by endowing horses with it which are also champions of honesty and morality , nonetheless these horses completely lack emotions so they cannot be “humans” and are instead in clear contrast with the abominable “bodies” of the Yahoos.
On the whole, it can be said that Gulliver’s Travels, is at one time a fantastic tale of an imaginary journey in a utopian country, a travel book or a parody of Robinson Crusoe, an allegorical story, a satirical essay through which Swift attacks and criticises the political, social and religious conflicts of his time, as well as, the problems caused by scientific and economic progress; finally, as a children’s story. But at the same time, in spite of the fact that the main character undergoes powerful development throughout the entire work and despite a certain overall unity, Gulliver’s Travels, cannot be fully considered a novel even if it has been used as a model for many other fiction works.
PAST AND PRESENT REVIEWS
When Gulliver’s Travels was first published the first reviews were not benevolent in the least mainly because Swift’s contemporary critics identified Swift with Gulliver who personified, in their opinion, its author’s misanthropy, hatred and frustration. Totally different views are expressed, instead, by modern criticism, according to which, Swift and Gulliver have very little in common, and, on the contrary, Gulliver is seen as one of many targets chosen by Swift to ridicule man and the society of his time. Many, in fact, have pointed out that Gulliver is described as a gullible, unimaginative and stolid character, who believes all the possible good about his society which he defends and champions, mentioning Voltaire’s Candide as a comparison. Whereas Swift was an intelligent and very talented man who was capable of going beyond the surface of appearances and spent his life emphasizing and criticising the flaws of his time while writing memorable pages of English literature.
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© L. R. Capuana