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Anna Ehrlich

Anna Ehrlich "The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it," said Art Buchwald. In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift does just that. The elaborate fantasy lands that Swift crafts are vehicles for his satirical critique of human beings. Through Gulliver's opinions and adventures, Swift offers scathing commentary on the ironies and weaknesses of human society, many of which are still relevant today.

In Gulliver's first adventure, in the land of Lilliput, Swift presents a culture in which government leaders are selected according to their jumping abilities, not governing capabilities. Satirizing the political situation in England during the late 17th and early 18th century, he relays that government is only politics: officials are picked based on loyalties and political affiliations, not merit. Unfortunately, this system is still prevalent today. Recently, the United States has seen a stunning example of this: several Federal Attorneys were fired, allegedly for political reasons, because they stopped jumping and ducking when they were asked. Notably, their appointments were supposed to be non-partisan.

When Gulliver finds himself in the utopia of the Houyhnhnms, he is surprised to find that these creatures do not understand the world "lie." Swift presents unconditional truth as an ideal by placing it in this utopia. He juxtaposes unconditional truth against the rampant deceit that runs freely in the human (Yahoo) world. "The thing which is not," (p. 270) continues to be prevalent in current society. The inclination to lie is seen in individual lives. There is no adult who can truthfully state that he/she has never told a lie.

The term "swiftian" has come to imply biting ironic wit because Swift uses irony to comment on the flaws and hypocrisies of society. In the land of Lilliput, a crisis arises when the Queen's chamber catches on fire. Fortunately, Gulliver urinates on the castle and puts the fire out. Although Gulliver broke the rules of the land by urinating on the queen's palace, he saved her life and building as well. The incident is initially dismissed by the Lilliputians because their Queen was saved. However, when the country decides they do not want Gulliver to live there any more, in an ironic moment, the Lilliputian court rules that Gulliver must be exiled from their land. Swift points out the hypocritical tendency that people have to bend the rules when it is convenient and to follow them for the same reason.

Swift repeatedly uses Gulliver as a mouthpiece for his cynical views. Brobdingnag, the second place the Gulliver visits, is the land of giants. Upon his arrival he is discovered and taken into one of the enormous creature's homes. For the next several weeks his "master" takes Gulliver through the country to make money off of the spectacle that such a small person in their land created. Gulliver moans, "The frequent labours I underwent every day made in a few weeks a very considerable change in my health...the farmer observed it, and concluding I soon must die, resolved to make as good a hand of me as he could (pp. 113-114)." The master continues to make him work more. Swift employs this complaint, through the mouth of Gulliver, to comment on this Irish society at the time. This metaphor of the little Gulliver, the Irish, being overworked and then discarded offers a biting commentary on the way that the giants, the English Whigs, were abusing the Irish.

Swift's satirical commentary offers a biting critique of the flaws of human nature and human society during his lifetime. Through the use of satire, he is able to convey a vision of human folly that remains as pertinent today as it did 300 years ago.


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