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Lecture 10 Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels A Modest Proposal. Part One Jonathan Swift. 1.1. His Life

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part one jonathan swift
Part One Jonathan Swift

1.1. His Life

  • Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin. His father, Jonathan Swift Sr., a lawyer and an English civil servant, died seven month's before his son was born. Abigail Erick, Swift's mother, was left without private income to support her family. Swift was taken or "stolen" to England by his nurse, and at the age of four he was sent back to Ireland. Swift's mother returned to England, and she left her son to her wealthy brother-in-law, Uncle Godwin.
  • Swift studied at Kilkenny Grammar School (1674-82), Trinity College in Dublin (1682-89), receiving his B.A. in 1686 and M.A. in 1692. At school Swift was not a very good student and his teachers noted his headstrong behavior. When the anti-Catholic Revolution of the year 1688 aroused reaction in Ireland, Swift moved to England to the household of Sir William Temple at Moor Park, Surrey - Lady Temple was a relative of Swift's mother. He worked there as a secretary (1689-95, 1696-99), but did not like his position as a servant in the household.
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In 1695 Swift was ordained in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Dublin. While in staying in Moor Park, Swift also was the teacher of a young girl, Esther Johnson, whom he called Stella. When she grew up she became an important person in his life. Stella moved to Ireland to live near him and followed him on his travels to London. Their relationship was a constant source of gossips. According to some speculations, they were married in 1716. Stella died in 1728 and Swift kept a lock of her hair among his papers for the rest of his life.
  • After William Temple's death in 1699, Swift returned to Ireland. He made several trips to London and gained fame with his essays. Throughout the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), Swift was one of the central characters in the literary and political life of London. From 1695 to 1696 Swift was the vicar of Kilroot. There he met Jane Wairing, with whom he had an affair. For Swift's disappointment, she did not consider him a suitable marriage partner. Between the years 1707 and 1709 Swift was an emissary for the Irish clergy in London. Swift contributed to the 'Bickerstaff Papers' and to the Tattler in 1708-09. He was a cofounder of the Scriblerus Club, which included such member as Pope, Gay, Congreve, and Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford.
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In 1710 Swift tried to open a political career among Whigs but changed his party and took over the Tory journal The Examiner. With the accession of George I, the Tories lost political power. Swift withdrew to Ireland. Hester Vanhomrigh, whom Swift had met in 1708, and whom he had tutored, followed him to Ireland after her mother had died. She was 22 years younger than Swift, who nicknamed her Vanessa. In the poem 'Cadenus and Vanessa' from 1713 Swift wrote about the affair: "Each girl, when pleased with what is taught, / Will have the teacher in her thought." In 1723 Swift broke off the relationship; she never recovered form his rejection.
  • From 1713 to 1742 Swift was the dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. It is thought that Swift suffered from Ménière's disease or Alzheimer's disease. Many considered him insane - however, from the beginning of his twentieth year he had suffered from deafness. Swift had predicted his mental decay when he was about 50 and had remarked to the poet Edward Young when they were gazing at the withered crown of a tree: "I shall be like that tree, I shall die from the top."
  • Jonathan Swift died in Dublin on October 19, 1745. He left behind a great mass of poetry and prose, chiefly in the form of pamphlets. William Makepeace Thackeray once said of the author: "So great a man he seems to me, that thinking of him is like thinking of an empire falling."
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1.2. His other major works

1.2.1"A Tale of a Tub"

written in the form of a parable: An old man died and left a coat, i.e., the Christian doctrine, to each of his three sons, Peter, Martin and Jack, with minute directions for its care and use. These three sons stand for Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. They evade their father’s will, interpret it each in his own way, and change the fashion of their garment. This is a satire upon all religious sects. The Roman Catholic Church and Puritans are terribly satirized while the Church of England is professed to be justified. But the Church of England looks just as ridiculous as any other church, for nothing is left to her but a thin cloak under which to hide her hypocrisy.

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1.2.2. "The Battle of the Books”

an unfinished work, mainly an attack on pedantry in the literary world of the time. The reader is told the story of the Bee and the Spider: A bee becomes entangled in a spider’s web. The two insects quarrel and Aesop is called in as arbitrator. The bee, who is to be taken as typifying the ancient writers, goes straight to nature, gathering his support from the flowers of the field and the garden, without any damage to them.

  • The spider, like the modern authors, boasts of not being obliged to any other creature hut of drawing and spinning out all from himself. The ancients, going through every corner of nature, have produced honey and wax and furnished mankind with “the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light." In the great battle between ancient and modern books that follows, the moderns appeal for and to the malignant deity Criticism, who lives in a den at the top of snowy mountains. With Criticism are Ignorance, Pride, Noise and Impudence, Dullness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry and Ill-manners. Then the work ends “ being in several places imperfect, we cannot learn to which side the victory fell.
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Part Two Gulliver’s Travels

2.1. The story of Gulliver’s Travels

In the first part Gulliver describes his shipwreck in Lilliput where the tallest people were six inches high.

  • The emperor haltered himself to be the delight and terror of the universe, but it appeared quite absurd to Gulliver who was twelve times as tall as he. In his account of the two parties in the country, distinguished by the use of high and low heels, Swift satirizes the Tories and the Whigs in England. Religious disputes were laughed at in an account of a problem which divided the Lilliputians: “Should eggs be broken at the big end or the little end?" Then follows an ironical comment: "This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text, for the words are these, that all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end. And which is the convenient end seems, in my humble opinion, to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the Chief Magistrate to determine. "This part is full of references to current politics.
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In the second part, the voyage to Brobdingnag is described. Gulliver now found himself a dwarf among men sixty feet in height. The King, who regarded Europe as if it were an anthill, said, "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." And Gulliver, after living among such a great race, could not but feel tempted to laugh at the strutting and bowing of English lords and ladies as much as the King did at him.
  • The third part is a satire on philosophers and projectors, who were given to dwelling in the air, like the inhabitants of the Flying Island. In the Island of Sorcerors, Gulliver was able to call up famous men of ancient times and question them. Then be found the world to have been misled by prostitute writers into ascribing the greatest exploits in war to cowards, the wisest counsels to fools, and sincerity to flatteners. He saw, too, by looking at an old yeoman, how the race had greatly deteriorated through vice and corruption.
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In the last part, Gulliver’s satire is of the bitterest. Gulliver was now in a country where horses were possessed of reason, and were the governing class, while the Yahoos, though in the shape of men, were brute beasts with such vices as stealing and lying, In endeavouring to persuade the homes that he was not a Yahoo, Gulliver was made to show how little a man was re- moved from the brute. Gulliver’s account of the warfare among the English lords, given with no little pride, caused only disgust from the horses. He praised the life and virtues of the horses while he was disgusted with the Yahoos, whose relations reminded him of those existing in English society to such a degree that he shuddered at the prospect of returning to England. So, when he returned home, his family filled him with such disgust that he swooned when his wife kissed him.
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2.2. Swift’s Style:
  • Swift is one of the greatest masters of English prose. His language is simple, clear and vigorous. He said, "Proper words in proper places, makes the true definition of a style.” Keeping his object steadily before him, he drives straight on to the end. There are no ornaments in his writing, but it comes home to the reader.
  • In simple, direct and precise prose, Swift is almost unsurpassed in English literature. It is a great education in English to read Swift’s prose.
  • Swift is a master satirist, and his irony is deadly. But his satire is masked by an outward gravity, and an apparent calmness conceals his bitter irony. This makes his satire all the more powerful, as shown in his “ Modest Proposal."
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2.3. Analysis of Major Characters
  • Lemuel Gulliver
  • Although Gulliver is a bold adventurer who visits a multitude of strange lands, it is difficult to regard him as truly heroic. Even well before his slide into misanthropy at the end of the book, he simply does not show the stuff of which grand heroes are made. He is not cowardly—on the contrary, he undergoes the unnerving experiences of nearly being devoured by a giant rat, taken captive by pirates, shipwrecked on faraway shores, sexually assaulted by an eleven-year-old girl, and shot in the face with poison arrows. Additionally, the isolation from humanity that he endures for sixteen years must be hard to bear, though Gulliver rarely talks about such matters. Yet despite the courage Gulliver shows throughout his voyages, his character lacks basic greatness. This impression could be due to the fact that he rarely shows his feelings, reveals his soul, or experiences great passions of any sort. But other literary adventurers, like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, seem heroic without being particularly open about their emotions.
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What seems most lacking in Gulliver is not courage or feelings, but drive. One modern critic has described Gulliver as possessing the smallest will in all of Western literature: he is simply devoid of a sense of mission, a goal that would make his wandering into a quest. Odysseus’s goal is to get home again, Aeneas’s goal in Virgil’s Aeneid is to found Rome, but Gulliver’s goal on his sea voyage is uncertain. He says that he needs to make some money after the failure of his business, but he rarely mentions finances throughout the work and indeed almost never even mentions home. He has no awareness of any greatness in what he is doing or what he is working toward. In short, he has no aspirations. When he leaves home on his travels for the first time, he gives no impression that he regards himself as undertaking a great endeavor or embarking on a thrilling new challenge.
  • We may also note Gulliver’s lack of ingenuity and savvy. Other great travelers, such as Odysseus, get themselves out of dangerous situations by exercising their wit and ability to trick others. Gulliver seems too dull for any battles of wit and too unimaginative to think up tricks, and thus he ends up being passive in most of the situations in which he finds himself. He is held captive several times throughout his voyages, but he is never once released through his own stratagems, relying instead on chance factors for his liberation. Once presented with a way out, he works hard to escape, as when he repairs the boat he finds that delivers him from Blefuscu, but he is never actively ingenious in attaining freedom. This example summarizes quite well Gulliver’s intelligence, which is factual and practical rather than imaginative or introspective.
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Gulliver is gullible, as his name suggests. For example, he misses the obvious ways in which the Lilliputians exploit him. While he is quite adept at navigational calculations and the humdrum details of seafaring, he is far less able to reflect on himself or his nation in any profoundly critical way. Traveling to such different countries and returning to England in between each voyage, he seems poised to make some great anthropological speculations about cultural differences around the world, about how societies are similar despite their variations or different despite their similarities. But, frustratingly, Gulliver gives us nothing of the sort. He provides us only with literal facts and narrative events, never with any generalizing or philosophizing. He is a self-hating, self-proclaimed Yahoo at the end, announcing his misanthropy quite loudly, but even this attitude is difficult to accept as the moral of the story. Gulliver is not a figure with whom we identify but, rather, part of the array of personalities and behaviors about which we must make judgments.
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The Queen of Brobdingnag
  • The Brobdingnagian queen is hardly a well-developed character in this novel, but she is important in one sense: she is one of the very few females in Gulliver’s Travels who is given much notice. Gulliver’s own wife is scarcely even mentioned, even at what one would expect to be the touching moment of homecoming at the end of the fourth voyage. Gulliver seems little more than indifferent to his wife. The farmer’s daughter in Brobdingnag wins some of Gulliver’s attention but chiefly because she cares for him so tenderly. Gulliver is courteous to the empress of Lilliput but presumably mainly because she is royalty. The queen of Brobdingnag, however, arouses some deeper feelings in Gulliver that go beyond her royal status. He compliments her effusively, as he does no other female personage in the work, calling her infinitely witty and humorous. He describes in proud detail the manner in which he is permitted to kiss the tip of her little finger. For her part, the queen seems earnest in her concern about Gulliver’s welfare. When her court dwarf insults him, she gives the dwarf away to another household as punishment. The interaction between Gulliver and the queen hints that Gulliver is indeed capable of emotional connections.
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Lord Munodi
  • Lord Munodi is a minor character, but he plays the important role of showing the possibility of individual dissent within a brainwashed community. While the inhabitants of Lagado pursue their attempts to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and to eliminate all verbs and adjectives from their language, Munodi is a rare example of practical intelligence. Having tried unsuccessfully to convince his fellows of their misguided public policies, he has given up and is content to practice what he preaches on his own estates. In his kindness to strangers, Munodi is also a counterexample to the contemptuous treatment that the other Laputians and Lagadans show Gulliver. He takes his guest on a tour of the kingdom, explains the advantages of his own estates without boasting, and is, in general, a figure of great common sense and humanity amid theoretical delusions and impractical fantasizing. As a figure isolated from his community, Munodi is similar to Gulliver, though Gulliver is unaware of his alienation while Munodi suffers acutely from his. Indeed, in Munodi we glimpse what Gulliver could be if he were wiser: a figure able to think critically about life and society.
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Don Pedro de Mendez
  • Don Pedro is a minor character in terms of plot, but he plays an important symbolic role at the end of the novel. He treats the half-deranged Gulliver with great patience, even tenderness, when he allows him to travel on his ship as far as Lisbon, offering to give him his own finest suit of clothes to replace the seaman’s tatters, and giving him twenty pounds for his journey home to England. Don Pedro never judges Gulliver, despite Gulliver’s abominably antisocial behavior on the trip back. Ironically, though Don Pedro shows the same kind of generosity and understanding that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master earlier shows him, Gulliver still considers Don Pedro a repulsive Yahoo. Were Gulliver able to escape his own delusions, he might be able to see the Houyhnhnm-like reasonableness and kindness in Don Pedro’s behavior. Don Pedro is thus the touchstone through which we see that Gulliver is no longer a reliable and objective commentator on the reality he sees but, rather, a skewed observer of a reality colored by private delusions.
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Mary Burton Gulliver
  • Gulliver’s wife is mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the novel and appears only for an instant at the conclusion. Gulliver never thinks about Mary on his travels and never feels guilty about his lack of attention to her. A dozen far more trivial characters get much greater attention than she receives. She is, in this respect, the opposite of Odysseus’s wife Penelope in the Odyssey, who is never far from her husband’s thoughts and is the final destination of his journey. Mary’s neglected presence in Gulliver’s narrative gives her a certain claim to importance. It suggests that despite Gulliver’s curiosity about new lands and exotic races, he is virtually indifferent to those people closest to him. His lack of interest in his wife bespeaks his underdeveloped inner life. Gulliver is a man of skill and knowledge in certain practical matters, but he is disadvantaged in self-reflection, personal interactions, and perhaps overall wisdom.
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2.4. Themes

2.4.1. Might Versus Right

  • Gulliver’s Travels implicitly poses the question of whether physical power or moral righteousness should be the governing factor in social life. Gulliver experiences the advantages of physical might both as one who has it, as a giant in Lilliput where he can defeat the Blefuscudian navy by virtue of his immense size, and as one who does not have it, as a miniature visitor to Brobdingnag where he is harassed by the hugeness of everything from insects to household pets. His first encounter with another society is one of entrapment, when he is physically tied down by the Lilliputians; later, in Brobdingnag, he is enslaved by a farmer. He also observes physical force used against others, as with the Houyhnhnms’ chaining up of the Yahoos.
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But alongside the use of physical force, there are also many claims to power based on moral correctness. The whole point of the egg controversy that has set Lilliput against Blefuscu is not merely a cultural difference but, instead, a religious and moral issue related to the proper interpretation of a passage in their holy book. This difference of opinion seems to justify, in their eyes at least, the warfare it has sparked. Similarly, the use of physical force against the Yahoos is justified for the Houyhnhnms by their sense of moral superiority: they are cleaner, better behaved, and more rational. But overall, the novel tends to show that claims to rule on the basis of moral righteousness are often just as arbitrary as, and sometimes simply disguises for, simple physical subjugation. The Laputans keep the lower land of Balnibarbi in check through force because they believe themselves to be more rational, even though we might see them as absurd and unpleasant. Similarly, the ruling elite of Balnibarbi believes itself to be in the right in driving Lord Munodi from power, although we perceive that Munodi is the rational party. Claims to moral superiority are, in the end, as hard to justify as the random use of physical force to dominate others.
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2.4.2.The Individual Versus Society
  • Like many narratives about voyages to nonexistent lands, Gulliver’s Travels explores the idea of utopia—an imaginary model of the ideal community. The idea of a utopia is an ancient one, going back at least as far as the description in Plato’s Republic of a city-state governed by the wise and expressed most famously in English by Thomas More’s Utopia. Swift nods to both works in his own narrative, though his attitude toward utopia is much more skeptical, and one of the main aspects he points out about famous historical utopias is the tendency to privilege the collective group over the individual. The children of Plato’s Republic are raised communally, with no knowledge of their biological parents, in the understanding that this system enhances social fairness. Swift has the Lilliputians similarly raise their offspring collectively, but its results are not exactly utopian, since Lilliput is torn by conspiracies, jealousies, and backstabbing.
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The Houyhnhnms also practice strict family planning, dictating that the parents of two females should exchange a child with a family of two males, so that the male-to-female ratio is perfectly maintained. Indeed, they come closer to the utopian ideal than the Lilliputians in their wisdom and rational simplicity. But there is something unsettling about the Houyhnhnms’ indistinct personalities and about how they are the only social group that Gulliver encounters who do not have proper names. Despite minor physical differences, they are all so good and rational that they are more or less interchangeable, without individual identities. In their absolute fusion with their society and lack of individuality, they are in a sense the exact opposite of Gulliver, who has hardly any sense of belonging to his native society and exists only as an individual eternally wandering the seas. Gulliver’s intense grief when forced to leave the Houyhnhnms may have something to do with his longing for union with a community in which he can lose his human identity. In any case, such a union is impossible for him, since he is not a horse, and all the other societies he visits make him feel alienated as well.
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Gulliver’s Travels could in fact be described as one of the first novels of modern alienation, focusing on an individual’s repeated failures to integrate into societies to which he does not belong. England itself is not much of a homeland for Gulliver, and, with his surgeon’s business unprofitable and his father’s estate insufficient to support him, he may be right to feel alienated from it. He never speaks fondly or nostalgically about England, and every time he returns home, he is quick to leave again. Gulliver never complains explicitly about feeling lonely, but the embittered and antisocial misanthrope we see at the end of the novel is clearly a profoundly isolated individual. Thus, if Swift’s satire mocks the excesses of communal life, it may also mock the excesses of individualism in its portrait of a miserable and lonely Gulliver talking to his horses at home in England.
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2.4.3. The Limits of Human Understanding
  • The idea that humans are not meant to know everything and that all understanding has a natural limit is important in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift singles out theoretical knowledge in particular for attack: his portrait of the disagreeable and self-centered Laputans, who show blatant contempt for those who are not sunk in private theorizing, is a clear satire against those who pride themselves on knowledge above all else. Practical knowledge is also satirized when it does not produce results, as in the academy of Balnibarbi, where the experiments for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers amount to nothing. Swift insists that there is a realm of understanding into which humans are simply not supposed to venture. Thus his depictions of rational societies, like Brobdingnag and Houyhnhnmland, emphasize not these people’s knowledge or understanding of abstract ideas but their ability to live their lives in a wise and steady way.
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The Brobdingnagian king knows shockingly little about the abstractions of political science, yet his country seems prosperous and well governed. Similarly, the Houyhnhnms know little about arcane subjects like astronomy, though they know how long a month is by observing the moon, since that knowledge has a practical effect on their well-being. Aspiring to higher fields of knowledge would be meaningless to them and would interfere with their happiness. In such contexts, it appears that living a happy and well-ordered life seems to be the very thing for which Swift thinks knowledge is useful.
  • Swift also emphasizes the importance of self-understanding. Gulliver is initially remarkably lacking in self-reflection and self-awareness. He makes no mention of his emotions, passions, dreams, or aspirations, and he shows no interest in describing his own psychology to us. Accordingly, he may strike us as frustratingly hollow or empty, though it is likely that his personal emptiness is part of the overall meaning of the novel. By the end, he has come close to a kind of twisted self-knowledge in his deranged belief that he is a Yahoo. His revulsion with the human condition, shown in his shabby treatment of the generous Don Pedro, extends to himself as well, so that he ends the novel in a thinly disguised state of self-hatred. Swift may thus be saying that self-knowledge has its necessary limits just as theoretical knowledge does, and that if we look too closely at ourselves we might not be able to carry on living happily.
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2.5. Symbols

2.5.1. Lilliputians

  • The Lilliputians symbolize humankind’s wildly excessive pride in its own puny existence. Swift fully intends the irony of representing the tiniest race visited by Gulliver as by far the most vainglorious and smug, both collectively and individually. There is surely no character more odious in all of Gulliver’s travels than the noxious Skyresh. There is more backbiting and conspiracy in Lilliput than anywhere else, and more of the pettiness of small minds who imagine themselves to be grand. Gulliver is a naïve consumer of the Lilliputians’ grandiose imaginings: he is flattered by the attention of their royal family and cowed by their threats of punishment, forgetting that they have no real physical power over him. Their formally worded condemnation of Gulliver on grounds of treason is a model of pompous and self-important verbiage, but it works quite effectively on the naïve Gulliver.
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The Lilliputians show off not only to Gulliver but to themselves as well. There is no mention of armies proudly marching in any of the other societies Gulliver visits—only in Lilliput and neighboring Blefuscu are the six-inch inhabitants possessed of the need to show off their patriotic glories with such displays. When the Lilliputian emperor requests that Gulliver serve as a kind of makeshift Arch of Triumph for the troops to pass under, it is a pathetic reminder that their grand parade—in full view of Gulliver’s nether regions—is supremely silly, a basically absurd way to boost the collective ego of the nation. Indeed, the war with Blefuscu is itself an absurdity springing from wounded vanity, since the cause is not a material concern like disputed territory but, rather, the proper interpretation of scripture by the emperor’s forebears and the hurt feelings resulting from the disagreement. All in all, the Lilliputians symbolize misplaced human pride, and point out Gulliver’s inability to diagnose it correctly.
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2.5.2.Brobdingnagians
  • The Brobdingnagians symbolize the private, personal, and physical side of humans when examined up close and in great detail. The philosophical era of the Enlightenment tended to overlook the routines of everyday life and the sordid or tedious little facts of existence, but in Brobdingnag such facts become very important for Gulliver, sometimes matters of life and death. An eighteenth-century philosopher could afford to ignore the fly buzzing around his head or the skin pores on his servant girl, but in his shrunken state Gulliver is forced to pay great attention to such things. He is forced take the domestic sphere seriously as well. In other lands it is difficult for Gulliver, being such an outsider, to get glimpses of family relations or private affairs, but in Brobdingnag he is treated as a doll or a plaything, and thus is made privy to the urination of housemaids and the sexual lives of women. The Brobdingnagians do not symbolize a solely negative human characteristic, as the Laputans do. They are not merely ridiculous—some aspects of them are disgusting, like their gigantic stench and the excrement left by their insects, but others are noble, like the queen’s goodwill toward Gulliver and the king’s commonsense views of politics. More than anything else, the Brobdingnagians symbolize a dimension of human existence visible at close range, under close scrutiny.
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2.5.3. Laputans
  • The Laputans represent the folly of theoretical knowledge that has no relation to human life and no use in the actual world. As a profound cultural conservative, Swift was a critic of the newfangled ideas springing up around him at the dawn of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, a period of great intellectual experimentation and theorization. He much preferred the traditional knowledge that had been tested over centuries. Laputa symbolizes the absurdity of knowledge that has never been tested or applied, the ludicrous side of Enlightenment intellectualism. Even down below in Balnibarbi, where the local academy is more inclined to practical application, knowledge is not made socially useful as Swift demands. Indeed, theoretical knowledge there has proven positively disastrous, resulting in the ruin of agriculture and architecture and the impoverishment of the population. Even up above, the pursuit of theoretical understanding has not improved the lot of the Laputans. They have few material worries, dependent as they are upon the Balnibarbians below. But they are tormented by worries about the trajectories of comets and other astronomical speculations: their theories have not made them wise, but neurotic and disagreeable. The Laputans do not symbolize reason itself but rather the pursuit of a form of knowledge that is not directly related to the improvement of human life.
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2.5.4. Houyhnhnms
  • The Houyhnhnms represent an ideal of rational existence, a life governed by sense and moderation of which philosophers since Plato have long dreamed. Indeed, there are echoes of Plato’s Republic in the Houyhnhnms’ rejection of light entertainment and vain displays of luxury, their appeal to reason rather than any holy writings as the criterion for proper action, and their communal approach to family planning. As in Plato’s ideal community, the Houyhnhnms have no need to lie nor any word for lying. They do not use force but only strong exhortation. Their subjugation of the Yahoos appears more necessary than cruel and perhaps the best way to deal with an unfortunate blot on their otherwise ideal society. In these ways and others, the Houyhnhnms seem like model citizens, and Gulliver’s intense grief when he is forced to leave them suggests that they have made an impact on him greater than that of any other society he has visited. His derangement on Don Pedro’s ship, in which he snubs the generous man as a Yahoo-like creature, implies that he strongly identifies with the Houyhnhnms.
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But we may be less ready than Gulliver to take the Houyhnhnms as ideals of human existence. They have no names in the narrative nor any need for names, since they are virtually interchangeable, with little individual identity. Their lives seem harmonious and happy, although quite lacking in vigor, challenge, and excitement. Indeed, this apparent ease may be why Swift chooses to make them horses rather than human types like every other group in the novel. He may be hinting, to those more insightful than Gulliver, that the Houyhnhnms should not be considered human ideals at all. In any case, they symbolize a standard of rational existence to be either espoused or rejected by both Gulliver and us.
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2.5.5 England
  • As the site of his father’s disappointingly “small estate” and Gulliver’s failing business, England seems to symbolize deficiency or insufficiency, at least in the financial sense that matters most to Gulliver. England is passed over very quickly in the first paragraph of Chapter I, as if to show that it is simply there as the starting point to be left quickly behind. Gulliver seems to have very few nationalistic or patriotic feelings about England, and he rarely mentions his homeland on his travels. In this sense, Gulliver’s Travels is quite unlike other travel narratives like the Odyssey, in which Odysseus misses his homeland and laments his wanderings. England is where Gulliver’s wife and family live, but they too are hardly mentioned. Yet Swift chooses to have Gulliver return home after each of his four journeys instead of having him continue on one long trip to four different places, so that England is kept constantly in the picture and given a steady, unspoken importance. By the end of the fourth journey, England is brought more explicitly into the fabric of Gulliver’s Travels when Gulliver, in his neurotic state, starts confusing Houyhnhnmland with his homeland, referring to Englishmen as Yahoos. The distinction between native and foreign thus unravels—the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos are not just races populating a faraway land but rather types that Gulliver projects upon those around him. The possibility thus arises that all the races Gulliver encounters could be versions of the English and that his travels merely allow him to see various aspects of human nature more clearly.
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Part Three A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick.

  • by Dr. Jonathan Swift. 1729
  • It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbados.
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I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
  • But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.
  • As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.
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The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers: As I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.
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I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
  • I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.
  • I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
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For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an Episcopal curate.
  • Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress, and help to pay their landlord's rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.
  • Thirdly, Whereas the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation's stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit of a new dish, introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.
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Fourthly, The constant breeders, besides the gain of eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year.
  • Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns, where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection; and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating; and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.
  • Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.
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But, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.
  • I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.
3 1 summary
3.1. Summary
  • The full title of Swift's pamphlet is "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick." The tract is an ironically conceived attempt to "find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method" for converting the starving children of Ireland into "sound and useful members of the Commonwealth." Across the country poor children, predominantly Catholics, are living in squalor because their families are too poor to keep them fed and clothed.
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The author argues, by hard-edged economic reasoning as well as from a self-righteous moral stance, for a way to turn this problem into its own solution. His proposal, in effect, is to fatten up these undernourished children and feed them to Ireland's rich land-owners. Children of the poor could be sold into a meat market at the age of one, he argues, thus combating overpopulation and unemployment, sparing families the expense of child-bearing while providing them with a little extra income, improving the culinary experience of the wealthy, and contributing to the overall economic well-being of the nation.
  • The author offers statistical support for his assertions and gives specific data about the number of children to be sold, their weight and price, and the projected consumption patterns. He suggests some recipes for preparing this delicious new meat, and he feels sure that innovative cooks will be quick to generate more. He also anticipates that the practice of selling and eating children will have positive effects on family morality: husbands will treat their wives with more respect, and parents will value their children in ways hitherto unknown. His conclusion is that the implementation of this project will do more to solve Ireland's complex social, political, and economic problems than any other measure that has been proposed.
3 2 analysis
3.2. Analysis
  • In A Modest Proposal, Swift vents his mounting aggravation at the ineptitude of Ireland's politicians, the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the tyranny of the English, and the squalor and degradation in which he sees so many Irish people living. While A Modest Proposal bemoans the bleak situation of an Ireland almost totally subject to England's exploitation, it also expresses Swift's utter disgust at the Irish people's seeming inability to mobilize on their own behalf. Without excusing any party, the essay shows that not only the English but also the Irish themselves--and not only the Irish politicians but also the masses--are responsible for the nation's lamentable state. His compassion for the misery of the Irish people is a severe one, and he includes a critique of their incompetence in dealing with their own problems.
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Political pamphleteering was a fashionable pastime in Swift's day, which saw vast numbers of tracts and essays advancing political opinions and proposing remedies for Ireland's economic and social ills. Swift's tract parodies the style and method of these, and the grim irony of his own solution reveals his personal despair at the failure of all this paper journalism to achieve any actual progress. His piece protests the utter inefficacy of Irish political leadership, and it also attacks the orientation of so many contemporary reformers toward economic utilitarianism. While Swift himself was an astute economic thinker, he often expressed contempt for the application of supposedly scientific management ideas to humanitarian concerns.
  • The main rhetorical challenge of this bitingly ironic essay is capturing the attention of an audience whose indifference has been well tested. Swift makes his point negatively, stringing together an appalling set of morally untenable positions in order to cast blame and aspersions far and wide. The essay progresses through a series of surprises that first shocks the reader and then causes her to think critically not only about policies, but also about motivations and values.
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