Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is best known today for his novel Gulliver's Travels (1726), one of English literature's greatest satires. Read in its expurgated form, it has been enjoyed by generations of children for its entertainment value alone. But the lasting importance of the book lies in its merciless analysis of the failings of human nature. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift holds a mirror to the face of mankind and shows a degenerate reflection.
Born in Dublin, Swift's career was divided between literature and the Church: he became dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1713. He wrote poetry and political journalism, but it was in prose satire that his true genius was expressed, reaching its peak with Gulliver's Travels . Written, as he said, to "vex the world rather than divert it", the novel nevertheless became immediately popular both in England and continental Europe. Composed in a form fashionable at the time, that of the fictitious voyage, the book uses the fantastic experiences of its protagonist as a means of commenting on human nature and society. At a distance from his own people, Gulliver sees them more clearly, and in time is able to penetrate to the heart of corrupt human nature.
In the first of his four voyages, Gulliver discovers the land of Lilliput, where the people are so tiny he can easily hold one in his hand. The inhabitants of this strange country are naturally terrified at first at the appearance of such a giant among them, but soon begin to appreciate the practical usefulness and entertainment to be got from such a creature. Gulliver faithfully follows all the Lilliputians' orders and requests, but in the end is deeply disappointed to find that his best efforts cannot stop certain politicians from hating him and plotting his destruction. In fear for his life, Gulliver escapes from Lilliput and returns to England, but it is not long before his thirst for travel sets him on his next voyage, to Brobdingnag.
In this second part of his travels, the world of Lilliput is reversed , and Gulliver now finds himself a tiny creature in a land of giants. Though the people of Brobdingnag are kinder to him than the Lilliputians were, he is shocked to see the human form magnified to such an extent that every imperfection is visible:
"This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen, but through a magnifying glass."
Taken into the streets, Gulliver views the poor with all their diseases in terrifying close-up:
"There was a woman with a cancer in her breast... full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept , and covered my whole body."
Not surprisingly, these lines are missing from the children's version of the Travels! Throughout the book Swift comments on the animal part of our nature, creating a picture of humanity as depraved both morally and physically. Even when man ignores his bodily functions and concentrates instead on intellectual matters, Swift finds much to make fun of, as in Gulliver's encounters with the crazed academics of Balnibarbi in the third part of his travels. These respected scientists spend their lives engaged in such insane projects as trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers, building houses from the roof downwards, and "reforming" language to the extent that there are no words left in it.
Only in the fourth and final part of Gulliver's odyssey does Swift allow his hero to come into contact with a truly advanced and admirable society. The inhabitants of this land are not men, however, but horses, or, as they call themselves, houyhnhnms. Their country is also populated with creatures similar to humans, but of a very primitive nature - the Yahoos. The houyhnhnms are noble and without vice , and easily control the dirty, uncivilized Yahoos. The houyhnhnms learn to their surprise that Gulliver is a rational being, although he physically resembles the Yahoos in many ways. After spending some years in the company of these cultured horses, Gulliver so hates the thought of other humans that when he finally returns to his homeland he can hardly tolerate the sight of even his wife and children.
Swift's pessimistic view of humanity in Gulliver's Travels has led many to view him as a complete misanthrope . But a misanthrope would be unlikely to include in his tale so much humour and entertainment. Swift's mirror on mankind is not flattering, but not without hope for us poor Yahoos either.