Winter 1998

Gulliver’s Travels is a testament to the ubiquity of corruption in human institutions. In all of Gulliver’s adventures the reader is confronted by examples of greed and vice which render humankind and its political institutions degenerate. This is not surprising when one considers that Swift was an Anglican clergyman who sincerely believed that postlapsarian humanity was inherently depraved. Yet Swift was also a diligent political operative and erstwhile pamphleteer with a considerable appetite for the adversity and acrimony of party politics. Swift’s political activity remained consistent with his Christianity–he fought for the establishment of peace, justice and political stability within the framework of his conception of the ideal political arrangement, a benevolent monarchy balanced by a diligent nobility. Despite some notable victories, Swift and his Tory allies were effectively exiled from the halls of power after the Death of Queen Anne and the ascension of the Whigs under King William I. This left Swift dispirited, and his natural tendency to cynicism was heightened by the aftermath of this brief period of political triumph:

his brilliant pamphleteering in 1711-13 on behalf of the Tory government’s peace policy was successful in its immediate aims. But the death of Queen Anne and the triumph of the Whigs blasted Swift’s hopes that the peace would inaugurate a new era of prosperity and stability under tory auspices (Lock, 1).

In many ways Gulliver’s Travels was an attempt to vindicate the reputations of Swift and his Tory compatriots, particularly, Oxford and Bolingbroke. Swift was proud of the role Tory ministers had played in the negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended hostilities with France in 1713. Swift believed that the charges of appeasement and even treason leveled against the Tories were motivated by Whig blood lust and war profiteering. As a condemnation of such horrific human behavior, Gulliver’s Travels is far more effective than Swift’s nonfiction account of his involvement in party politics, History of the Last Four Years of the Queen.

Gulliver’s Travels abounds with allusions to the type of political machinations which led to his retirement from politics and his eventual self-imposed exile back to Ireland. This has led many critics to assume that the book, particularly the first two sections, is an allegory for Swift’s personal trials and travails in service of Queen Anne. Throughout the past two and a half centuries, numerous reviewers have tried to find historical counterparts in even the most minute occurrences from Gulliver’s Travels in their efforts to prove the book was really intended merely to lampoon Swift’s particular political rivals. This absurd reading of Gulliver’s Travels is, thankfully, no longer as prevalent as it once was.

Those who would argue that the scope of the intended meaning of Gulliver’s Travels is limited to a parody of contemporary English politics ignore not only Swift’s protestations to the contrary, but common sense as well. Swift’s personal experiences had a profound affect on his satire, as did his cynical reading of history and his basic theological predisposition. Swift “believed in the general conformity of human nature” and this nature was inherently corrupt (Lock, 33).

The central theme of Gulliver’s Travels is the imperfectabilityofhumanity and the universality of political corruption. Although the book contains many allusions to specific people and events from the period of the queen’s last ministry and other periods, it is not a political allegory in which every character, action, and motive contributes to a portrait of a single period (Varey, 41).

Once we accept the universality of Swift’s basic message it is possible to separate particular references to his personal history without falling into the trap of looking for a grand design of allegory in Gulliver’s Travels because “if there is no allegory, there still may be covert allusions to actual persons and events (Lock, 111). Such allusions are most prevalent in Gulliver’s “Voyage to Lilliput.” Arthur E. Case, an advocate of a highly allegorical reading of Gulliver’s Travels, does expose some interesting parallels between the book and Swift’s personal political history. He is convincing, for example, when he points out, as others have, that the “High Heels” and “Low-Heels” of Lilliput are clearly references to the Whigs and Tories, just as Big-Endians and Small-Endians represent the absurdity of the theological dispute between contemporary Catholics and Protestants (Case, 73). Moreover, Swift is obviously recounting the difficulty the Tories faced in negotiating the “Treaty of Utrecht” when the Emperor of Lilliput warns him that “we labor under two mighty Evils; a violent Faction at home, and the Danger of an Invasion by a most potent enemy abroad” (Gulliver, 29-30). But this is surely a timeless phenomenon which, for example, afflicted both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The shabby, ungrateful treatment Gulliver receives from the Emperor and his backbiting ministers in Lilliput after he has saved their kingdom in wartime and helped negotiate a just peace is analogous to the way Swift and his Tory compatriots were dealt with by the Whigs who replaced them. Upon defeating the Blefuscudian navy, Gulliver refuses on moral grounds the Lilliputian King’s request that Gulliver should obliterate “the Big-Endian Exiles, and compelling that people break the smaller End of their Egg; by which he would remain the sole Monarch of the whole World” (Gulliver, 34). Gulliver quite properly maintains that he is unwilling to follow the King’s demand because he “would never be an Instrument of bringing a free and brave People into Slavery” (Gulliver, 35). Here there is an obvious parallel between the Lilliputians and the “Whig desire for a crushing defeat of France (which) is pictured as a malicious and despotic wish of the Emperor to humiliate and tyrannize” a vanquished foe (Case, 75).

Case makes a cogent case that Gulliver’s experiences in Lilliput serve as an allegory for the diplomatic exploits of the Tory ministers Oxford and Bolingbroke during the last four years of Anne’s reign. Gulliver appears to relive this decisive period in Swift’s life. According to Case, the strongest arguments in favor of this interpretation of the “Voyage to Lilliput” are “its consistency and the exactness with which it follows the chronology of the events which it symbolizes” (Case, 79). Unfortunately, just three lines after making this assertion Case is forced to concede that “there are, of course, a few cases in which Swift takes slight and unimportant liberties with chronology for the sake of simplicity” (Case, 79). However, Case bolsters his argument by demonstrating how the four charges made against Gulliver are similar to the actual charges brought against Oxford and Bolingbroke (Case, 77-8). And there can be little doubt that the accusations of the treason faced by Gulliver for his role in negotiating a humane peace treaty with the Blefuscudians echo Whig declarations “that the Tories were robbing England of the fruits of victory by granting the enemy (France) easy terms” in the Treaty of Utrecht (Case, 75). The official charges against Gulliver, that he “did, like a false Traitor, aid, abet, comfort, and divert the said Ambassadors” mirror the attempts by Whigs to prosecute Oxford and Bolingbroke for their loyal diplomatic service to the crown (Gulliver, 49). It was horrific for Swift to see his personal heroes betrayed and humiliated as the result of fratricidal political intrigue which certainly exacerbated his natural proclivity for political pessimism. Gulliver is obviously referring to Oxford and Bolingbroke when he observes, in a rare moment of intellectual clarity that: “Of so little Weight are the greatest Services to Princes, when put into the Balance with a refusal to gratify their passions” (Gulliver,35).

If Swift merely intended to vindicate his allies and attack his adversaries when writing Gulliver’s Travels, the work would not have survived the scrutiny of time. Rather than simply exposing the moral depravity of those who had done him wrong, Swift was writing for the ages. His goal, then, was “to attack not particular Whigs or Whig policy, nor even Whiggism, but the perennial political disease of which Whiggery wash only a contemporary manifestation” (Lock, 2). Gulliver’s Travels is much more than the embodiment of Swift’s personal political frustrations; it is an attempt to chronicle the universality of political degeneracy and the frailty of humanity and its institutions. Swift himself articulates this fact in his angry reaction to a French translator of Gulliver’s Travels who has the temerity to suggest the book “was not written for France, but for England, and that what it contains of direct and particular satire does not touch us” (Knowles, 30). Swift’s response to this is direct and explicit:

If then, the works of Mr. Gulliver are calculated only for the British Isles, that traveller must pass for a very wretched writer. The same vices and the same follies reign everywhere, at least in the civilised countries of Europe, and the author who writes only for a town, a province, a Kingdom, or even a country, so far from being deserving to be translated, does not even deserve to be read (Knowles, 30-1).

by Richard W. Bray

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