Gulliver’s Travels As A Critique Of The Enlightenment

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

‘Satyr which is most useful, and gives the least offence: which instead of lashing, laughs Men out of their Follies, and Vices” (Swift, 1738). These are accurate words written by the author of Gulliver’s Travels Johnathan Swift. In his novel, Swift attempts to use satire to contradict the Enlightenment Era’s ideologies. By focusing on examples of comparison between the relationships in the novel and the views of England in the early 1700s, I will show that both books clearly display the Enlightenment Era’s foibles, failings, and beliefs of superiority. I will argue this book uses the other, a person or group perceived as fundamentally different, as a way to allow the readers to question the superiority of the age of reason. This will be through looking at scatological humour, the relationship of the main characters with a person of power, and to what extent humans are similar to the savage Yahoos.

The Enlightenment, or otherwise known as the age of reason, had a colossal impact on Europe in the 17th and 18th century. Ideas such as weaning away from nature and theistic views had an impression on how people viewed themselves. They were too proud of the fast scientific progress and people had newfound skepticism for God. Humans were placed as the superior being due to our powerful capacity to reason. Swift countered these ideas by exposing the failings in the illustrious concepts that the Enlightenment period presented in that time through traveller Gulliver. In Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver is not only portrayed as the other but also encounters multiple forms of otherness. He visits many lands and no matter where he goes he never quite fits. When he travels to Lilliput, Gulliver is the only giant, and fundamentally different from all the natives from the island. This inflates Gulliver’s pride as he sees himself as more capable and excellent because of his size difference. Gulliver attempts to use his body in a way which degrades the Lilliputians and crumbles their pride, a representation of human pride. This is because the excremental, used satirically, deflates our pride by showing our pretensions and repressions to our natural bodily functions. Excreting is usually linked to shame, as it is done in isolation and rarely spoken about. The values seen in the Enlightenment period are completely opposite to the natural body as the human mind was presented as superior to the body. Swift uses this scatological humour to break down this standard and oppose the dismissal of the body. “…made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished” (Swift, 50). This not only put the Lilliputians in a place of inferiority and lowers their pride, as he puts out the fire with his urine, but also emphasizes the concern and importance of the human body and how it functions naturally. It demeans the Enlightenment era’s views of superiority by displaying human’s as they naturally are in connection to nature, and reminds the readers that we are all animals with basic needs. This is in contrast to the belief that humans are the superior being, including being superior to nature due to reason. The otherness of size allows Swift to employ this scatological humour and belittle what was seen as valuable in Victorian times.

A view of the Enlightenment Era in allowing the superior being to rule is displayed through Book II of Gulliver’s Travels. In this book, Gulliver encounters a race of giants called The Brobdingnagians. In this book, the roles are reversed and he is small in size which allows him to be portrayed as characteristically and fundamentally different from the rest of the habitats on the island. The Brobdingnagian king is seen as a morally upstanding and good-hearted leader, which can be a contrast to rulers of the time, King George the 1st and Queen Anne, who both had greed and were eager for war. Swift points out flaws in his leaders by showing the readers a leader who is morally different from those seen in Victorian society. Gulliver talks to the King and tells him of the invention gunpowder and how it could be deployed with guns. “Gunpowder would not only destroy whole ranks of an army at once; but batter the strongest walls to the ground; sink down ships, with a thousand men in each, to the bottom of the sea” (Swift, 123). The king is disgusted that the Europeans would harbour such weapons capable of such destruction and cause so much death. He cannot believe the complete moral disregard and says he would rather lose half his kingdom than use gunpowder. This is completely different than the beliefs of the rulers of 17th century Europe who embraced using weapons and believed they could cause bloodshed due to human’s capacity to reason and their greed for power. The king calls the Europeans “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. Using the king as an exemplary Swift denounces the European savagery through othering it and allowing it to be condemned. The reader can experience their leaders being marginalized as the other and recognized for their flaws.

In Chapter IV Gulliver encounters a species called Yahoos, which Gullivers describes as “so disagreeable an Animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong of Antipathy” (Swift, 209). Immediately the Yahoo’s are set up as a separate identity to Gulliver, and he is in extreme disgust of them. To the reader’s surprise, we are shown later that this species is fully human, just lacking rational thought. The Yahoos, who are described as “the most filthy, noisome, and deformed animals mischievous and malicious” even though they are physically the same as humans. Through these characters, Swift opposes the ideology of the Englightemt era that humans are superior due to reason. These animals who the reader would deem as so different from our rational minds are actually extremely similar to us. The Yahoos has the same tendencies as us towards war, avarice, and selfishness. Gulliver says if they had the technology to own advanced warfare, they would have used it to kill one another. To be said, even with the brilliance of advanced humans we still have the same inclinations as filthy, noisome, and grunting Yahoos. Swift attempts to show the European readers that their view of superiority is flawed and that even though we are intelligent and rational beings we are no better than the non-rational Yahoos. He wanted to firmly establish that our ability to reason does not make us the superior being, and we are not unlike non- rational beings.

The age of reason posed many new ideologies for the Europeans of the 17th and 18th century. The thoughts that humans are the superior being and the importance of our capability to reason were the main focuses of the Enlightenment era. In looking at the scatological humour in Lilliput, the relationship between Gulliver and The Brobdingnagian king, and the connections between Yahoos and humans, we can see how Swift degrades the European’s views of superiority.


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