Swift's Portrayal of Mankind in Gulliver's Travels
Julia Maxwell
AP English 12 Mr. Herber
13 November 2017
Word Count:
Six inches - six inches is about the length of a notecard, or the length of a smartphone, or the average height of a Lilliputian. How can such a small and insignificant civilization say so much about the world Swift lived in and even about today? In the most famous portion of Gulliver's Travels, author, Jonathon Swift, writes in Gulliver's point of view about his travels to Lilliput. Swift was a satirist, political journalist, and churchman. He was born and raised a Whig, but was also passionately loyal to the Anglican Church (Quintana n.p.). His diverse background formed his opinions in multiple views of life, giving him the power to properly satirize it. In short, Swift had a lot to say. By satirizing important issues like the humans' belief in their own importance, the flaws in politics, and the frivolousness of religious disputes, Swift craftily demonstrates his disdain for mankind.
Through physical features and how the Lilliputian's run their society, Swift takes jabs at how humans find significance in the wrong things and their obsession with self-importance. Swift's first use of satire in the book is subtle but not to the attentive reader. The Lilliputian's take note of everything Gulliver does and conclude that his watch may be "the God that he worships…because he assured [the Lilliputians]…that he seldom did anything without consulting it" (Swift 29). Swift is addressing that Gulliver (and the reader) have a wrong sense of what is important in life. Instead of taking the time to worship God, people are infatuated and concentrated on material goods. When Gulliver introduces the reader to the Lilliputian politicians, the reader cannot help but find it humorous that they have such grand titles compared to their size. The titles of the emperor of Lilliput - "Delight and Terror of the Universe…Monarch of All Monarchs, taller than the Sons of Men…whose Head strikes against the Sun" (Swift 36) - and so on, are clearly mockery, but they also reflect the high self-importance of larger rulers (MacLachlan 112). Swift uses the size of the Lilliputians and how significant and grandiose they think they are to proportionally show how much more important humans think of themselves than they actually are. Through this symbolism, Swift is trying to say that contrary to what the reader and the rest of the population believe, one person out of billions really is small and irrelevant. Humans do not realize their own insignificance, which is shown when the Lilliputians believe by keeping Gulliver tied up they are in control of him. Really, Gulliver could easily escape. The reader believes the Lilliputians are too tiny to even matter, but that is what Swift believes about mankind (MacLachland 113). As Gulliver continues with his account of the politics of Lilliput, the reader realizes there are obvious resemblances between the trivial customs of these little people and those of Swift's contemporaries.
Although Swift does not come right out and say it, he satirizes the politics of England, during his time and in general. He does this through the actions of the Lilliputians. In the first part of Gulliver's Travels, Lilliputian government officials are chosen by their skill at rope-dancing, which the Lilliputians see as relevant, but which Gulliver recognizes as arbitrary and ridiculous. The would-be officials are almost literally forced to jump through hoops in order to qualify for their positions. Clearly, Swift intends for the reader to understand this scene as a satire of England's system of political appointments and to infer that England's system is similarly arbitrary (MacLachlan 116). While Gulliver is living there and happily serving the government of Lilliput, he does not realize the emperor is planning to get rid of him. The double-faced personality of the emperor is an example of Swift commenting on the flaws in politics in general. He knows politicians are paid to say what others want to hear, therefore one thing a politician says can easily contradict something else they say. Swift is calling out politicians for the sort of act they put on and does not appreciate them for this trait. Another way the author uses satire