SWIFT, JONATHAN (1667-1745), an English author, wrote the story Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a masterpiece of literature. Swift is called a great satirist because of his ability to ridicule customs, ideas, and habits he considered silly or harmful. [Satire is a kind of literature that uses wit to condemn wickedness and folly.] His satire is often bitter, but it is also often humorous. Swift was deeply concerned about the welfare and about the behavior of his fellow men, and he used his talent to strike out against those men, institutions, and ideas that he considered foolish.…
Scholars are still trying to discover all the ways in which real persons, institutions, and events are represented in Gulliver’s Travels. But readers need not be scholars to find pleasure in the book and to find themselves set to thinking about its distinctive picture of life. (The World Book Encyclopedia, Worldbook-Childcraft International, 1978, volume 18, page 828)
In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the twelfth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959).
After identifying Gulliver’s Travels as a satire, Adler and Wolff consider its first two parts on Gulliver’s voyages to Lilliput and to Brobdingnag together, its third and fourth parts on Gulliver’s voyages to Laputa (and other places) and to the country of the Houyhnhnms separately, and three specific questions on the reading. Here I’ll sketch Swift’s life, summarize briefly Gulliver’s Travels, and share the questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the reading.
The Life of Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667. His father (Jonathan the elder) died a few months before his birth, leaving his wife, baby daughter, and the unborn Jonathan to the care of his brothers. Jonathan’s Uncle Godwin sent him to Kilkenny Grammar School, then the best in Ireland, at the age of six and to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1682. He received a B.A. in 1686 and continued at Trinity College as a candidate for a master’s degree until 1689, when the Irish Revolution of 1688 forced him, an Englishman, to leave Ireland.
Swift became secretary and personal assistant to Sir William Temple, an essayist and retired diplomat, at Moor Park in Surrey, England, but returned to Dublin in 1690 when King William reconquered Ireland. For the next several years he moved back and forth between Ireland and England. In 1692 he received the degree of M.A. at Oxford, and in 1695 during one of his stays in Ireland he was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church. His ten years’ connection with Temple acquainted him with men and affairs and provided him the opportunity for extensive reading and writing.
Shortly after Temple’s death in 1699, Swift became minister of a small church in Larocor near Dublin. To Larocor he invited Esther Johnson, whom he had tutored when they resided with Temple at Moor Park, and her companion, Rebecca Dingley. Later, when he was living in London (1710-13), he wrote a series of daily letters to the two ladies recording his busy life and inmost thoughts, which were collected and published as Journal to Stella after his death. There is speculation that Swift and Stella were secretly married.
After the publication of A Tale of a Tub (1704), which makes fun of some of the practices and teachings of the Church, Swift began building a reputation as a wit. When Queen Anne’s Tory ministers needed someone to write political pamphlets, they asked Swift. When Queen Anne died in 1714, Swift’s Tory friends fell from power and he returned to Dublin to be dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He spent the rest of his life in Ireland except for visits to England in 1726 and 1727.
Swift was followed to Dublin by Esther Vanhomrigh, a young girl whom he had come to know in London and nicknamed Vanessa. His relations with her are ambiguous, as they are with Stella. At length (in 1723) Vanessa wrote to Stella or Swift demanding to know whether they were married. Swift returned the letter and ended contact with her. Within a few weeks Vanessa died. Stella died five years later (in 1728).
About 1720 Swift began writing Gulliver’s Travels. It was an immediate success when it was published in 1726. Swift also wrote pamphlets supporting Irish causes.
During his last years Swift suffered acute physical torture from an ailment that had long plagued him with giddiness and nausea (now known to be Ménière’s disease). In March of 1742 guardians were appointed to care for him, and after a paralytic stroke in September of the same year he sank into complete mental apathy, which lasted until his death on October 19, 1745. He was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and on the wall was affixed a Latin epitaph that he had himself composed and that may be translated:
The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, dean of this cathedral church, is buried here, where fierce indignation can no more lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate, if you can, one who strove with all his strength to champion liberty. (“Swift, Jonathan,” The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 17, page 859)
My primary sources for the above are the biographical note on pages ix-x of the volume on Swift (and another writer) in Great Books of the Western World (volume 36; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) and the The New Encyclopedia Britannica article on him quoted from above. For more on him, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Swift.
Gulliver’s Four Voyages
On his first voyage Gulliver visits Lilliput, where the people are only 1/12 his size. They treat him well at first and he helps them, but after a time they turn against him. On his second voyage Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, where the people are 12 times his size and treat him as a pet. All sorts of funny situations occur in the two places, examples being Gulliver’s pulling behind him a whole fleet of warships full of sailors and soldiers in Lilliput and his being carried in the mouth of a dog in Brobdingnag. He is relieved to be accidentally delivered from each place.
On his third voyage Gulliver visits Laputa, Balnibardbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan. The conduct of the people of these countries represents the kinds of foolishness that Gulliver saw in his world, especially by impractical scientists and philosophers. For example, one of the projects that Gulliver viewed in the grand academy of Lagoda in Laputa was getting sunshine from cucumbers. Again Gulliver was relieved to be able to return to England.
On his fourth voyage Gulliver visits a country ruled by wise and gentle horses called Houyhnhnms. The country also has savage, stupid animals who look like human beings. The Houyhnhnms distrust Gulliver because he resembles the Yahoos and, although he wants to stay with them, eventually force him to leave.
1. What are the similarities and differences between satire and tragedy?
Adler and Wolff answer that they are similar in that each emphasizes the insignificance of man and that they different in that in tragedy man’s insignificance is used to stir admiration of his nobility in suffering but that in satire it is used to stir amused contempt.
2. Consider the following statements about man.
The statements are Psalms 8:4-8; statements from two books which we considered earlier in this series of articles, Sophocles’s Antigone and Aristotle’s Politics; and this statement from Gulliver’s Travels: “He looked upon [men] as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which nature had not given us” (Gulliver’s Travels, pages 159-60).
3. Which of the four parts of Gulliver’s Travels is most successful?
After conceding that the answer to this question would probably vary somewhat from person to person according to taste, Adler and Wolff explain that they consider “Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” the most successful because it makes Swift’s point most forcefully.