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Jonathan Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels outlines a very odd sequence of events that are experienced by a sailor named Lemuel Gulliver. Throughout these adventures, Gulliver finds himself, on four different occasions, accidently coming across different races of peoples and creatures. These races teach him new languages, customs, lessons, and general knowledge of their own individual societies. These descriptions are many times believed to be Jonathan Swift’s way of critiquing The Enlightenment that occurred during the eighteenth-century all over the world. This critique brings a satirical look at religion, morality, equality, and the ability to adapt to other societies.
In Gulliver’s first adventure, he comes across the land of Lilliput. In this land, there are two groups of people, the Lilliputans and the Belfescuans. These two groups of people used to be one society until there was a disagreement over how the people were to crack their eggs. The disagreement was whether they should crack their eggs from the large end or the small end of the egg. Because of this disagreement, there was a war and many people died and the Belfescuans decided to move to the other side of the island and start their own society (Swift, 25). This disagreement of cracking eggs is a comparison to the religious differences occurring in Europe just before the Enlightenment. Although the Lilliputan’s disagreement over cracking eggs is a much more minuscule and quite elementary disagreement than those of religions during the Reformation, there are still some comparisons. The religious reformations began when Martin Luther decided that there were several things about the Catholic Church that he disagreed with. When Martin Luther went to the church to complain about these issues, such as the ability to “buy” indulgences from priests, the church ignored these ideas. Therefore, after posting the 95 Theses on his thoughts for change and spreading his ideas, Luther decided it was time to branch away from the Church. Although Luther was one of the beginning revolutionists to go against Catholicism, there was hundreds of others who followed in his footsteps to create societies that would act in ways that they thought were just. Similarly, the Belfescuans were formed when the then-emperor cut his hand breaking an egg large-end first and decided eggs should in fact be broken small-end first. After this declaration, there was a split among the society and the two societies were formed to break eggs as they pleased (Swift, 25-26).
On Gulliver’s second accidental journey, he comes upon a land of giants in Brobdingnag who are a very simple people, it seems. Unaware of the invention of gunpowder, Gulliver demonstrates the purpose of gunpowder to the king of Brobdingnag. The king becomes very frightened and decides that he does not want to have anything to do with the gunpowder, thinking of what kind of physical and moral destruction this could cause to his empire (Swift, 94). This is similar to the ideas of many Enlightenment thinkers, like Cesare Beccaria, who believed that humans should begin taking a more moral and rational approach at punishing criminals. With the absence of gunpowder, Brobdingnag has been able to keep crime rates low and overall morality high, it seems. Swift alludes that the introduction of such a weapon could lead to inhumane practices, such as the unfair punishments that were handed out before the Enlightenment (Coffin, 457). These unfair punishments, however were criticized by many philosophers of the Enlightenment, which sparked more humane practices for punishing criminals.
Slavery is also a big issue during Gulliver’s travels. Whether it be when Gulliver was first captured outside of Lilliput, or whether it was during the time he was captured in Brobdingnag. Swift compares Gulliver to a slave during the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers were too afraid to abolish slavery in fear of any revolts that might arise. “Slavery corrupted its victims, destroyed their natural virtue, and crushed their natural love of liberty. Enslaved people, by this logic, were not ready for freedom” (Coffin, 461). This is how the Lilliputans felt with Gulliver. They were afraid that if they let Gulliver be free all together, that he would be furious and destroy their buildings and kill their citizens. This is why they only allowed Gulliver small freedoms over long periods of time, so they could make sure that he was not a threat to society. With this gradual sense of freedom, Gulliver proved to have adapted to the Lilliputan’s society and turned out to be very useful in the community. The Enlightenment thinkers also believed that giving slaves small amounts of freedom would make for an easier transition into society (Coffin, 461).
In addition to the equality of slaves, another main theme throughout Swift’s novel is the idea of equality for all persons. During The Enlightenment, there were social, economical, sexual and many other inequalities among different types of people. Swift incorporates this thought when Gulliver is in the land of the Houyhnhnms. In this land, there are Houyhnhnms, who are in essence a group of intelligent horses. Also, there are Yahoos who are a strange animals that are comparable to a human (Swift, 165). The Houyhnhms are much more superior and intellectually advanced than the Yahoos. Although it seems ironical that horses are superior to a human-like being, this is a way of showing how, for example, some thought that men were superior to women. Jean-Jacques Rousseau fought for many rights for people and the idea that people should not be ruled by a government unless they chose to. However, he still believed that men should be superior to women in almost all aspects. This is comparable to the Houyhnhms being superior to all Yahoos, without any regard for advancing the intelligence or social standing of the Yahoos. During the Enlightenment, women, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, began to make strides towards equality with men. Just as Rousseau compared the inequalities of men and women to limiting women’s duties to “being a mother and wife” (Coffin, 463), Swift shows that the inequalities of the Houyhnhms and the Yahoos as being very large and that the Yahoos were not to be used for much except labor (Swift, 172).
Not only does Swift discuss the ruling of individual groups of people, but he also discussed the point of societies falling under strict rule. In Gulliver’s adventure to Laputa, he is told the many ways that the island as a whole is used to rule over the cities on the ground. They rule by using the ultimate power of being able to control weather and cause severe destruction to cities (Swift, 124). Swift is alluding that the island of Laputa is similar to that of absolutist rulers in England. Absolutist rulers have almost all powers to do almost anything they wish to those that they rule. However, similar to the city that successfully rebelled against the floating island of Laputa, such philosophers as David Hume and Immanuel Kant taught people that they should only be ruled if and by whom they want to be ruled. In the case in Gulliver’s Travels, the city below the island did not want to be ruled by the floating island, so they took action and were able to set up their own government to live by their own society’s standards (Swift, 126).
Throughout all four islands that Gulliver comes across, he learns a new, totally different, way of living at each island. Whether if this involves a new language at each island, new types of food, or different ways to govern, Gulliver adapts to each and finds strengths in each society’s rules and realizes that their rules are well-suited for their specified needs. This ability for Gulliver to adapt relates to the ability of societies across the world to learn and accept new cultures and ideas from each other during the Enlightenment. This spread of cultures has allowed societies to adapt ideas that allow for the betterment of their society. Although Swift takes a very comical view of this using examples such as the fact that the peoples of Laputa must be hit with “flappers” in order to talk or to listen, this still shows that some societies act differently and Gulliver had to adapt also by being hit several times on the ears and mouth while in conversation with the Laputans (Swift, 114).
Throughout Jonathan Swift’s novel, Gulliver’s Travels, there are many satirical relationships between Swift’s adventures and the events of The Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century. These relationships are usually very extreme, but do provide parallels, sometimes criticizing, main themes of events during the Enlightenment. Throughout his travels, Gulliver becomes a better-rounded person from interaction with creatures of all sorts. Similarly to Gulliver, the Enlightenment period put the world as a whole under massive changes in technology, culture and religion. These changes have allowed for the successes and downfalls of today’s society as we know it.
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