Shooting Himself in the Foot: How Jonathan Swift’s Satirical Genius Prevents Him from Changing the World

January 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

Shooting Himself in the Foot: How Jonathan Swift’s Satirical Genius Prevents Him from Changing the World”Satyr is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s Face but their Own; which is the chief Reason for the kind of Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it.”-Jonathan SwiftSatire has had a long and illustrious history as the medium for intellectuals who find human society lacking. Vexed by human folly and vice, satirists employ sarcasm, wit, and irony to reveal the faults of the world in the hopes of inducing change. One of the most noted satirists of all time, Jonathan Swift, aimed to do just this with his work, Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout his lifetime, Swift was an active politician and clergyman, devoting much of his energy and writings to social issues. Although he was by no means a revolutionary, he hoped that his novel would “wonderfully mend the World” (Swift 14) and at the very least convince more people to adopt his ideas.History tells us that despite Swift’s intentions, his story did not have as great an effect as he wanted . Certainly it was a controversial book that was simultaneously acclaimed, disparaged, and discussed extensively by both intellectuals and common folk. But it was not a work that inspired any major social or political change, at least not universally. Instead, hundreds of interpretations have accumulated over time about the meaning behind Gulliver’s Travels. Book IV alone has instigated endless scholarly debates and hypotheses. James Clifford recognizes these numerous interpretations and lists some of the many different takes on the Houyhnhnms of Book IV:1) a vision of prelapsarian perfection, unattainable by man…(2) an unattainable ideal which man should nevertheless strive to reach, (3) an ideal limited by Swift’s view of the nature of man…(5) mere absence of vice, (6) one of the two opposing sides of man’s nature, (7) pure reason, but not ideal, (8) cold, inhuman beings, lacking Christian benevolence…(12) Trojan horses designed to betray credulous mankind(90).Why does Gulliver’s Travels generate so many conflicting interpretations? And if Swift’s satire is as keen as it is reputed to be, why didn’t he become the Thomas Paine of his time? The problem lies in Swift’s own style of satire; its convoluted nature, complex narration, and layers of hidden meaning render it ineffectual as a change-effecting document. It provides anything but the clear ideals and tenets needed to attract a following large enough to have any effect on sociopolitical institutions.One of Swift’s most powerful, and therefore most baffling satiric devices is his use of Gulliver as the narrator of Gulliver’s Travels. What is it that makes this first-person narration such an interpretative nightmare? For one thing, it is unclear to what extent Gulliver represents Swift’s opinions and to what extent his character is distinct from Swift’s. Because Gulliver is an opinionated, colorful character with a detailed history different from Swift’s, it is easy to conclude that they are different people with different beliefs. However, there is much evidence to indicate that Gulliver and Swift share some ideas. For example, biographical evidence leads us to the conclusion that Gulliver’s denunciation of certain aspects of English government was a result of bitter feelings on the part of Swift. Swift, in his lifetime, spent much time working for the Tory party and had hoped to be rewarded with a deanery or a bishopric in England (Hunting 25). Instead, he was given a deanery in Dublin, most likely due to the interference of someone who didn’t appreciate Swift’s previous satirical jabs. As a result, Swift felt misused by the British political system, and vents these feelings through Gulliver, who says things like “Ministers of State…learn to excel in the three principal ingredients, of insolence, lying, and bribery” (Gulliver 303).If we could assume that Gulliver’s sentiments equaled Swift’s completely, it would be easier to discern the aim of Swift’s social criticism. However, it soon becomes obvious that Gulliver is not a verbatim spokesman for Swift. Rather, Gulliver’s opinions on English society and institutions are greatly exaggerated. He picks the very worst examples to represent groups as he talks with his master Houyhnhnm about lawyers, first Ministers, physicians, affairs of England, and the causes of war among the Princes of Europe. His tone in describing these features of English society is by no means neutral or indifferent. Consider, for example, his description of judges:[They are] picked out from the most dexterous lawyers who are grown old or lazy, and having been biassed [SIC] all their lives against truth and equity, lie under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known several of them refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the Faculty by doing anything unbecoming their nature or their office(Swift 296).These strong words (“fraud,” “perjury,” “oppression,” “lazy”) and Gulliver’s apparent inclusion of all judges in his attack make it appear that Gulliver sees no redeeming qualities in judges and therefore has no tolerance for them.Did Swift really have such a severe opinion against judges? It is doubtful2E In fact, in a letter to Alexander Pope, Swift states that although he has “ever hated all Nations professions and Communityes…all [his] love is towards individualls for instance [he] hate[s] the tribe of Lawyers, but [he] love[s] Councellor such a one, Judge such a one for so with physicians” (Gulliver 14). Here, Swift indicates that he can maintain respect for an individual judge while disapproving of the profession in general. Gulliver, on the other hand, never makes a distinction between individuals and groups, and never professes a love of individuals. Further evidence that Swift did not have as hopeless or hateful a view of humans as Gulliver does is another letter to Alexander Pope, in which Swift states that he does “not hate Mankind, it is vous autres who hate them because you would have them reasonable Animals” (Swift 14). This is certainly in opposition to Gulliver’s sentiments regarding mankind at the end of the novel, as the sight of his family fills him “only with hatred, disgust, and contempt” (Gulliver 338) and the mere smell of human beings causes him to keep his “nose well-stopped with rue” (Gulliver 338). As C.J. Rawson states, “even if Swift is making a more moderate attack on mankind than Gulliver, Gulliver’s view hovers damagingly over it all…this indirection unsettles the reader, by denying him the solace of definite categories. It forbids the luxury of a well-defined stand, whether of resistance or of assent” (84). Swift evidently does not share all the same views as Gulliver, but because of Swift’s extensive use of exaggeration and our own lack of knowledge about many of Swift’s motivations, it becomes extremely difficult to determine what comes from Swift, what comes from Gulliver, and what is a mixture of both.Beyond being a distorted mouthpiece for Swift, Gulliver serves yet another purpose which complicates our analysis even further. He is a character of the story himself, and thus is just as much at risk of being satirized to represent human folly. We would like to feel a sense of trust in Gulliver as our narrator; unfortunately, his actions, especially towards the end of Book IV, become ridiculous and extreme, and because of this, we begin to suspect his opinions and perceptions. Gulliver is an absurd character throughout most of Book IV, as he tries to emulate the Houyhnhnms by adopting their neighing form of speech and endures second-class citizenship merely to remain in their society. It is mostly at the end of the story though, when Gulliver rejects his family’s love in disgust and spends all his time in the barn talking to his horses, that we begin doubt the wisdom, maturity, and reliability behind Gulliver’s character. Do we implicitly believe the views of someone who would willingly give up all remnants of his human past including a loving family to live among overly-rational, compassionless horses? Or does Swift intend us to see Gulliver as a ridiculous, contrary character and therefore to assume the opposite of everything he says? Our previous analysis of Gulliver’s and Swift’s relationship indicates that we can neither dismiss nor accept either of these ideas completely. Swift wants us to take some of what Gulliver says with a grain of salt but also to recognize some degree of truth in his other sentiments. However, we are not equipped with enough knowledge about Swift’s opinions to know when Swift is making fun of Gulliver and when Gulliver is speaking for Swift. Once again, Swift leaves us in a hazy, gray area through his extensive use of the narrator as a satiric tool.With this ambiguous oddball for our only source, we are then exposed to two strange, fantastic societies, both riddled with contradictions. How does Swift’s use of fantasy further complicate and conceal his message? Fantasy is an interesting genre in that on the surface it appears to be unrealistic or non-human, but in reality rarely avoids human conventions. Satirists can use the cover of fantasy to their advantage, by giving every unreal character a symbolic meaning intended to represent something of human society. In some ways, fantasy is the ideal forum for satirists, as they can freely criticize and make fun of the world without being accused of attacking human society. However, in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, these additional layers of symbolism make it even harder to determine meaning and cloud an already confusing narration.Gulliver’s voyage to Houyhnhnmland results in his encounter with two very different species: the intelligent, rational Houyhnhnms, and the dirty, uncivilized Yahoos. Already there are elements of juxtaposition at play, as Swift gives the Yahoos human form, while the rational creatures of the island resemble horses. What is the purpose of this juxtaposition? Do the Yahoos symbolize all that is immoral in humans, and the Houyhnhnms the opposite ideal? Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the species that resembles humans? Keeping in mind that Gulliver, our constant source for impressions and information about both groups, is biased, a look at both societies reveals that neither the Houyhnhnms nor the Yahoos are clear-cut symbols for one idea, but rather represent an amalgam of various different, and often contradictory, Swift sentiments.There are two conclusions that can be drawn about the Houyhnhnms and their significance: 1) they represent rationality and 2) Swift does not mean their society to be ideal. How do we know they represent rationality? Swift makes this explicit throughout all of Book IV, by statements such as “[The Houyhnhnms’] grand maxim is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it” (Gulliver 351). If there is one conclusion that can be drawn about Book IV, it is that the Houyhnhnms embody rationalism, although it is worthwhile to note, going back to Clifford’s quote, that even this has been disputed. But how can we assume then that Swift doesn’t endorse rationality? Unlike Swift’s feelings regarding political institutions, his stance on the Enlightenment idea of humans as magnificently rational creatures is quite clear. He states in a letter to Alexander Pope that he has got “Materials Towards a Treatis proving the falsity of that Definition animal rationale; and to show it should be only rationis capax” (Swift 14). In other words, he concedes that humans are capable of rational thought, but argues that they should not be defined by this rationality. In another discussion of reason, Swift maintains that “Although Reason were intended by Providence to govern our Passions…it seems that…God hath intended our Passions to prevail over Reason” (28). Since Swift certainly does not approve of over-rationalism and the Houyhnhnms are an overly-rational society, we are led to the conclusion that they are the very opposite of Swift’s ideal.Unfortunately, the one conclusion we can draw based on fairly concrete premises is then weakened by Swift himself. Once again, Swift complicates matters by developing the Houyhnhnm society so that it has good and bad characteristics, and thereby becomes a symbol for conflicting concepts. The Houyhnhnms never lie, being so honest that the word “lie” is not even in their vocabulary. Swift, being a clergyman, probably approved of honesty. Here is Houyhnhnm society embodying something Swift supports. But does Swift support the idea of marriage occurring without “courtship, love, presents, jointures, [or] settlements” (317), being based instead on a rational decision made by parents? Considering that Swift explicitly states that “no wise Man ever married from the Dictates of Reason” (28), we have to assume that he does not approve of the cold logic of Houyhnhnm marriages. To further confound our perception of Houyhnhnm society, we then learn that the Houyhnhnms never get sick, are healthy athletes, and esteem the qualities of friendship and benevolence above all else. These are generally qualities that contribute to the welfare of society. These good qualities combined with the less desirable Houyhnhnm institutions and traditions leave us with a messy array of contradictory symbols and ideas. If Swift had really wanted to convince people that humans are not, nor should be, rational animals, he would have done better creating a rational society with less admirable qualities and more undesirable institutions.An analysis of the Yahoos, the dirty, savage human animals, proves likewise confusing and ambiguous. Like the Houyhnhnms, it is unclear exactly what the Yahoos represent. Are they a symbol for man’s primitive tendencies? Do they represent the end product of years of oppression? Our quest for the meaning of the Yahoos is primarily inhibited by Gulliver’s biased narration. Since we can’t know precisely when Gulliver is speaking for Swift and when he is being himself, we can’t make any conclusions about what Swift intends with the Yahoos. Less direct interaction occurs between Gulliver and the Yahoos than with the Houyhnhnms, so we learn less about their society; most of the information we receive about them is through Gulliver’s prejudiced Houyhnhnm master. Although we are repulsed by them, the Yahoos are the closest characters to real humans, and this fact remains to confuse and baffle us with regards to Swift’s intent.Thus we reach an impasse, where Gulliver’s narration is a mixture of exaggerated Swift ideas and radical actions by Gulliver, where Houyhnhnm society is a mixture of over-rationalism and positive traits, and where the Yahoos act like animals but retain human form. Is there anyone who will argue that Gulliver’s Travels is a piece of cake to interpret and therefore a useful document for changing the world? Possibly. But whoever does will be hard put to find another person with the same interpretation and the same confidence in his or her understanding of Swift’s contentions. And one or two people will encounter many difficulties in attempting to change the world based on a satire whose meaning few can agree on.Swift might have known all along that his book was not to be as influential as he hoped. He probably realized that the qualities of satire that render it inoffensive to many people also render it ineffectual. He knew his audience was diverse, and that some of them would “be persuaded that Gulliver was a real person” (Watt 48) and therefore miss out on the hidden implications. Swift’s literary friends like Alexander Pope, on the other hand, would better be able to grasp the novel’s meaning. However, the intellectuals who were capable of delving into the subtleties of Swift’s satire were few in number. Because of the complexity of Swift’s satire, Gulliver’s Travels garnered a variety of reactions, few of which were either passionately affirmative or strongly condemning. The novel did not stir up the intense, long-lasting controversy that novels with social implications like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did; it did not prompt governmental reforms like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did. Is it perhaps, then, that the medium of satire in its very nature confounds the potential for the written word to enact social or political change? Not necessarily there is a whole genre of anti-war satires such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five that have greatly contributed to anti-war movements. But Jonathan Swift is considered one of the greatest satirists of all time, while Joseph Heller only receives nods for satirical ability. Strangely enough, the aspects of Swift’s satire that make it great, its twists and turns, its layers, and the confusion it creates in the reader, are essentially what render it powerless as a social or political tool. Swift avoids censure by many groups by disguising his real thoughts through layers of complex characters and narration, but through this his message is lost and readers are left only with a sense of conflicting ideas. This is not to say that Swift had no influence at all; there is no doubt that he provided a literary playground for centuries of scholars who recognize his genius. It is only the world that Swift hoped to mend which will not change itself to meet his hazy and veiled recommendations.

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