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The Subtle Satire of Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” clearly uses satirical solutions to criticize the outlandish policies of the English government during the first half of the eighteenth century.  By the time of writing “A Modest Proposal,” the South Sea Bubble had popped, the English government was still under a pile of national debt, and the government was becoming more dependent upon foreign investors to finance its debt.  “A Modest Proposal” takes two of the most abhorred acts, cannibalism and infanticide, and combines them as a solution to the crippling poverty within the Kingdom (of which the Kingdom itself created).  Don’t solve the real problems causing poverty, we’ll just do the most savage thing thinkable and eat babies seems to be Swift’s underlying theme. 

I bring up the blatant satire present in “A Modest Proposal” only to contrast it with the far more subtle satire present in Part II of Gulliver’s Travels, in particular the part where the King criticizes the functioning of the English government.   Before arriving at this point, what did you all make of Gulliver arriving on the shores and living with a race of giants?  What did you feel was its purpose?   I speculate that its purpose was to make the mundane (what we take for granted) new again by giving it a different perspective.  As an aside, I just have to say that Swift must have spent a lot of time calculating the scale of this giant world to create this new perspective.   By essentially enlarging our perspective, Swift is setting up the reader to gain new insight into the larger problems in English society that are being taken for granted, and the culmination of this is when the King criticizes England (beginning at p. 106).  The last thing the King says to Gulliver: “I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth (111).   Gulliver’s response is to apologize to his readers for recalling the story.  He claims that his “Love of Truth” forced him to recall the story and that he even twisted the story to make it more favorable to the reader.  He even goes so far as to say that he would rather hide the deformities of his “Political Mother” behind her beauties (111).

Is Gulliver’s hearty defense of England sincere or is he being subtly satirical?  Swift is being satirical in my opinion, and I say this because his only method for defending England is through lying and manipulation of the truth (even though he loves truth).  He lies to the reader by omitting and changing information and he lies to the King by eluding his questions and distorting the truth.  When we can only defend our country through lying, is that really a defense at all?  Gulliver’s admission that he lied is what makes this part of the story satirical because England is only great when shrouded by lies.  It is not great when looked at from a different perspective, from the angle of truth, and Swift spends a great deal of effort cleansing the perspective of the reader in order for them to see that they are lying to themselves about the greatness of England.   

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