During the eighteenth century, there was an incredible upheaval of commercialization in London, England. As a result, English society underwent significant, “changes in attitude and thought”, in an attempt to obtain the dignity and splendor of royalty and the upper class (McKendrick,2).
As a result, English society held themselves in very high regard, feeling that they were the elite society of mankind.
In his novel, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift satirizes this English society in many ways. In the novel, Swift uses metaphors to reveal his disapproval of English society. Through graphic representations of the body and its functions, Swift reveals to the reader that grandeur is merely an illusion, a facade behind which English society of his time attempted to hide from reality.
On his first voyage, Swift places Gulliver in a land of miniature people where his giant size is meant as a metaphor for his superiority over the Lilliputians, thus representing English society’s belief in superiority over all other cultures.
Yet, despite his belief in superiority, Swift shows that Gulliver is not as great as he imagines when the forces of nature call upon him to relieve himself. Gulliver comments to the reader that beforehand he, “was under great difficulties between urgency and shame”, and after the deed says that he felt, “guilty of so uncleanly an action” (Norton,2051).
By revealing to the reader Gulliver’s shame in carrying out a basic function of life, Swift comments on the self-imposed supremacy of English society. By humbling their representative, the author implies that despite the belief of the English to be the most civilized and refined society, they are still human beings who are slaves to the same forces as every other human being regardless of culture or race.
On the second voyage, Swift turns the tables on Gulliver and places him among a race of giant people, the Brobdingnagians, where Gulliver is viewed as the inferior. Due to his miniature size, Gulliver is able to examine the human body in a much more detailed manner.
Upon witnessing the undressing of the Maids of Honor, Gulliver expresses his aversion to their naked bodies. They were, “very far from being a tempting sight”, and gave him, “any other emotions than those of horror and disgust”, because of the acuteness, he was able to observe their “course and uneven [skin], so variously colored” (Norton,2104). Gulliver also talks of their moles, “here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from (them) thicker than pack-threads” (Norton,2104).
Earlier in the novel, upon witnessing the suckling of a baby, Gulliver tells the reader that upon seeing the woman’s breast he, “[reflected] upon the fair skins of [his] English ladies, who appear so beautiful… only because they are of [his] own size” (Norton,2088). In showing Gulliver’s disgust at the sight of such prestigious and beautiful women of Brobdingnag, Swift again comments on English society through a graphic portrayal of the human body.
Swift uses the Maids of Honor as a metaphor to comment on the women of England, whom, among eighteenth century English society, were believed to be the most beautiful of all the world. Showing that despite their apparent beauty, they are not perfect, and suffer the same flaws and imperfections of appearance as any other women.
At one point during Gulliver’s stay in Brobdingnag, Swift comments almost directly on his distaste for the self-imposed supremacy of English society over all other cultures. It happens when the King of the land, his Majesty, comments on, “how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as [Gulliver]”(Norton,2097).
Here, Swift bluntly criticizes the attitude of English society for considering themselves to be so high in rank and eminence, by implying that even the smallest and least civilized creature could assume such a high degree of superiority.
Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical novel of eighteenth-century English society, a society with superficial ideas of grandeur and nobility. Through clever representations, Jonathan Swift successfully humbles this society’s pride and human vanity. He reveals the flaws of their thinking by reducing them to what they are, human beings, which, like any other group of human beings is able to do, have merely adopted a superficial self-righteous attitude.
In doing so, Swift makes a broader statement about mankind today. Despite all the self-acclaimed advances in civilization and technology, we are still merely human; suffering from the same forces and flaws, impulses, and imperfections like everyone else.
McKendrick, Neil. Brewer, John. Plumb, J.H. The Birth of a Consumer Society, Indiana Universtiy Press, Great Britan, 1982.
Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels”. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Ed. M.H. Abrams, vol.1, New York: Norton, 1986.