Gulliver's Travels - Satire in Lilliput


Travels - Satire in Lilliput

Generations of schoolchildren raised on
the first Book of "Gulliver's Travels" have loved it as a delightful visit
to a fantasy kingdom full of creatures they can relate to-little creatures,
like themselves. Few casual readers look deeply enough to recognize the
satire just below the surface. But Jonathan Swift was one of the great
satirists of his or any other age, and "Gulliver's Travels" is surely the
apex of his art.

"Gulliver's Travels" tells the story of

Lemuel Gulliver, a ship's surgeon who has a number of rather extraordinary
adventures, comprising four sections or "Books." In Book I, his ship is
blown off course and Gulliver is shipwrecked. He wakes up flat on his back
on the shore, and discovers that he cannot move; he has been bound to the
earth by thousands of tiny crisscrossing threads. He soon discovers that
his captors are tiny men about six inches high, natives of the land of

Lilliput. He is released from his prone position only to be confined in
a ruined temple by ninety-one tiny but unbreakable chains. In spite of
his predicament, Gulliver is at first impressed by the intelligence and
organizational abilities of the Lilliputians.

In this section, Swift introduces us to
the essential conflict of Book I: the naive, ordinary, but compassionate

"Everyman" at the mercy of an army of people with "small minds". Because
they are technologically adept, Gulliver does not yet see how small-minded
the Lilliputians are.

In Chapter II, the Emperor of Lilliput
arrives to take a look at the "giant", and Gulliver is equally impressed
by the Emperor and his courtiers. They are handsome and richly dressed,
and the Emperor attempts to speak to Gulliver civilly (although they are
unable to understand one another). The Emperor decrees that every morning

Gulliver is to be delivered "six beeves, forty sheep, and other victuals,"
along with as much bread and wine as he needs, his basic needs are to be
attended to, and six scholars are to teach Gulliver the language of his
new compatriots.

Again, in this chapter, Gulliver is won
over by the fact that the Lilliputians are well-dressed and articulate
(despite the fact that they speak a language he cannot understand). He
is still held captive by these people, both metaphorically, as in being
entranced by them, and literally. It is in this chapter that Gulliver first
asks to be freed and is refused.

As Chapter III opens, Gulliver and his
captors have become great friends. Much in the style of a travelogue, Gulliver
describes for the reader some of the unusual forms of entertainment practiced
by the Lilliputians. For instance, anyone desiring a high position at court
is required to jump up and down on a tightrope stretched six inches above
the floor (and remember, Lilliputians are only six inches high). Only those
who are able to do it win the office, and anyone wishing to remain in office
may be asked to do it again. If he fails, he's out the door, and a successful
rope-dancer takes his place. Gulliver remarks that it would seem that noble
birth or a fine educational background would seem to be better predictors
of one's ability to govern than dancing on a rope, but the Lilliputians
find no sense in that. A similar "trial" requires office-seekers to jump
over or crawl under a stick, sort of a combination vault and limbo exercise.

The Emperor, who holds the stick, raises or lowers the stick suddenly and
without warning, so the performer is obliged to change tactics midstream.

Winners receive a snippet of colored thread, which they wear on their clothing
with great pride. Gulliver delights the Emperor by inventing some new forms
of entertainment, also; one involves making the calvary perform military
maneuvers on the drum-taut surface of his handkerchief, stretched above
the ground, but when a rider is thrown, Gulliver stops the game. At the
end of this chapter, Gulliver is freed after agreeing to nine silly conditions.

Chapter III is where it really gets interesting.

Look at the types of entertainment the Lilliputians engage in, and why
they do so. Swift makes a point of telling us that the only people who
perform the rope dance are people seeking to acquire or maintain a high
position at court, so this is actually not a form of "entertainment" at
all; it's a form of political selection. And, Swift implies, it makes as
much sense as the way many political appointments in his day were made-which
is to say it makes no sense at all. The exercise in which the Emperor