When it comes to English-language satire, few authors can top the legendary Jonathan Swift. Watch this lesson to learn about his two most important works, ~'A Modest Proposal~' and ~'Gulliver's Travels~'.
So, we're talking about Jonathan Swift (no relation to Taylor - at least, none that I'm aware of). He's actually one of the most famous satirists of the Western literary canon. He held political positions and religious positions in a variety of institutions in both England and Ireland, and that gave him lots of great material to work with. It led to the two really important works of Jonathan Swift's that we're going to talk about today, and that's A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels.
Swift was a child of two countries - England and Ireland - and I think that contributed to his eye for politics and his ability to observe differences between peoples and countries. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667, but he was born to English parents who had fled the country during the English Civil War. Swift's father died before he was born, and his mother returned to England, leaving him with an uncle who acted as sort of a benefactor, even paying for Jonathan Swift to go to school.
Jonathan Swift was a child of two countries: England and Ireland.
However, in another bout of political upheaval, the Glorious Revolution, Swift returned to England to live with his mother. She helped find him work as a secretary and the personal assistant of a diplomat, whose name was Sir William Temple. Temple was writing his memoirs at the time that Swift joined him, and Swift was able to assist him in that process - sort of an early introduction to his career as a writer.
He had an on-again, off-again working relationship with Temple, and between helping him write his memoirs, he also became ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland. After Temple died, Swift became a minister in a rural area outside of Dublin. He spent a lot of time during this period traveling back and forth between Dublin and London, championing the rights of poor Irish clergymen. He found sympathy amongst the Tories, which is an oppositional political party in London. It was also during this time that he began to anonymously publish his first political pamphlets, and that's sort of how his writing career got going after working with Temple. You can see, even in those early days, how his interest in writing and his interest in politics started to meld.
A few years later, when the Tories rose to power, Swift was made the editor of their weekly periodical, which was called The Examiner. But, easy come, easy go; when the opposing party, the Whigs, got back into power, many of the Tories were tried for treason, which was a bummer. Because of this, Swift again fled to Ireland, and that gave him the opportunity that he needed to really start his career as a real writer.
It was during this period that Swift produced many of his important works, including the two that I'm about to talk about. One is a satirical pamphlet, and the other is an epic parody of a travel narrative. Both are awesome, and let's go!
A Modest Proposal
Even though Gulliver's Travels, Swift's epic travel parody, was written first, we're going to talk about A Modest Proposal now. A Modest Proposal's full name is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (and that's 'publick' with a 'k' - fun fact). The topic of the pamphlet is one that Swift had taken up throughout his life - the conditions of impoverished Irish people. This time, Swift's dark sense of humor led him to suggest a pretty nasty way for the poor Irish to lead a better life - they could sell their babies to rich people to be eaten. Yes - baby-eating.
Of course, he wasn't serious - though not everyone picked up on that. Swift was actually employing a classical Latin form of satire in which an extreme position is taken up to ridicule it, and the audience is never really let in on the joke - they're supposed to figure it out for themselves that Swift is kidding. Of course, not everybody did. But you can even see the satire even in the title because what's so 'modest' about suggesting that people sell their babies to be eaten?
Swift had a few other targets that he was lampooning here as well, like the people of his time who thought that they could offer easy cure-alls to society's problems in just a little pamphlet. He was also pointing out the dehumanization of the lower classes - this is something he saw around him a lot - where poor people were basically reduced to statistics and not actually viewed as human beings.
Swift ultimately does introduce actual notions of reforms that he think would work, though he does this using a tactic called paralipsis, which is introducing a topic by saying it shouldn't be talked about (yeah, there's a word for that). The things that Swift embraces through this mocking tone include using only Irish-made goods, tightening up on personal spending habits and encouraging all Irish citizens to be more peaceful and understanding of their neighbors - relatively reasonable suggestions (much more so than selling your babies to be eaten). Of course, that part of the text hasn't really stuck with people as much as baby-eating. That vivid, unexpected image is what makes A Modest Proposal so famous even today and really one of the best examples of satire ever written because its point of view is so extreme.
So that was A Modest Proposal, and we're going to move on to Gulliver's Travels, which is really, I think, Swift's most famous work, and it's pretty incredible. It's an epic satire, a parody of a travel novel and also a sort of prototype for the science fiction genre that was to come. Gulliver's Travels is a four-tale story of the adventures of a ship captain named Gulliver. Throughout these books, he will travel to lots of lands and encounter all sorts of strange people and places, and each one is meant to illuminate some folly of the human condition that he's observed in his own life.
I'm going to go through what happens in each of the books, then we'll talk about what it was that Swift was trying to point out with each of these stories. Don't be afraid if you hear a lot of crazy names that make no sense, and if the way I pronounce them isn't the way you would pronounce them, I apologize - I'm really doing my best.
In the first book, Gulliver is shipwrecked and ends up in a place called Lilliput, and it's a land of tiny people that are all under six inches tall - so, of course, Gulliver is a giant because he's what we would consider a regular-sized person. Gulliver takes up a position in the Lilliputian court, where he's put to work attacking their enemies, who are the Blefuscudians. These groups are at war over how to crack an egg. Gulliver refuses to use his massive size to obliterate the enemies completely, which pisses them off. Then he also puts out a fire by urinating on it, and I think that was really the nail in the coffin for Gulliver on Lilliput. He's charged with treason, but because he's a giant, he manages to escape and returns to England for the time being. That's the first book.
In the second book, the tables are turned, and Gulliver is abandoned in the land of Brobdingnag, which is a place full of giants. So, before Gulliver was much bigger than the inhabitants, and now he's much smaller. He's taken in by a local farmer as a curiosity (like, 'Oh, look at the tiny guy I found!') and is purchased by the Queen for her collection of oddities (which sort of reminds me of something that the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland would do, but that's just me). While he's in the company of the royal family, Gulliver regales them with stories of his life in England, and it seems that the people there are all a little bummed out by it. They think England sounds like a violent and petty place. Eventually, as you might expect, a giant eagle snatches Gulliver up and drops him into the sea, where he's received by a group of sailors.
The third book finds Gulliver marooned after a pirate attack in the land of Laputa, a floating island whose inhabitants rigorously pursue mathematics and science but for no real reason; they just like inane experimentation. For those of us who aren't scientifically inclined ourselves, this can be how we view all people who rigorously pursue math and science. During this voyage, he also takes a side-trip to the land of Luggnagg, which is populated with ancient immortals called Struldbrugs, who age but never seem to die. Eventually, Gulliver manages to escape by way of Japan and then returns to England. A lot more happens than I'm talking about - these are just really the bullet points here.
In the fourth and final book, Gulliver suffers a mutiny at the hands of his crew and winds up on an island controlled by the Houyhnhnms. They are incredibly wise but highly dispassionate horse-people. On that island, humans are wild, second-class citizens called Yahoos. Gulliver finds great joy in this society of the wise Houyhnhnms, but eventually they figure out that Gulliver's just another Yahoo, and they exile him. Gulliver eventually does get back home to England, but now he's a changed man; he spends most of his time thinking about these experiences that he's had and refusing the company of people he now considers Yahoos (which are just other humans), and he'll even go to the stables to hang out with horses because he misses the company of the Houyhnhnms. So ends Gulliver's Travels.
That's what happens in the book, which can seem like a lot of ridiculous nonsense, just like a crazy fairy story, but there's really more going on. Critics have literally filled books talking about the deeper meanings of all of his journeys and the people that Gulliver encounters, so we're just going to scratch the surface here a little bit.
Each land that Gulliver visits is pretty clearly meant to represent some exaggerated human trait or philosophy that he observed at his time. The Lilliputians are small, and they're warlike. They fight over stupid things like cracking an egg. This is how we imagine Swift viewed England at the time. In the second book, the tables are turned, and Swift can't escape the association of his countrymen; in the land of peaceful giants, he's a quaint oddity from the land of angry, violent people.
In the third book, the Laputians criticize this slavish devotion to science and reason without a sense behind it - it's not too dissimilar from one of his attacks in A Modest Proposal, actually. The immortal, miserable Struldbrugs show that even having all the time in the world to think about stuff doesn't necessarily guarantee happiness. Then finally, the fourth book presents the hyper-rational Houyhnhnms, a race Gulliver desperately wants to be a part of but yet cannot. Gulliver's realization that he is, at least in part, a wild Yahoo is sobering for him; having seen the alternative - the way he could be living - he never really feels comfortable amongst his own people again. (That's kind of a bummer.)
There's really a whole lot more that I could say about Gulliver's Travels, but that's a really quick overview of its plot and themes, and I hope you'll check it out for yourself, as well as A Modest Proposal. Swift really used Gulliver to satirize the human condition; through exaggerated comedy, he ridiculed prominent thoughts of his day, but he also tried to offer people some comfort. Gulliver, after all, has to accept that he's passionate, not always logical and just a human being at the end of the day, even if he'd rather be something else (in this case, a horse-person...). Regardless, you have to be who you are, even if you think the alternative might be better.
This same idea comes up in A Modest Proposal as well - there's the central notion which is based on a totally dispassionate sentiment - that Ireland can take care of its poor if they would only sell babies to be eaten. Looking at these two works combined, it really seems as though Swift was advocating for a more compassionate way of life, workable reforms for the conditions in Ireland and England and really just more sympathy amongst peoples and an effort to understand each other instead of offering crazy solutions, like going to war or eating babies. Even in Swift's broad, unflinching comedy, humanity always shines through, and that's what I'd like you to remember about Jonathan Swift.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe Jonathan Swift's early life and how he got started writing
- Summarize A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels
- Discuss the satire Swift employs in both of these works