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Satire in Lilliput

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

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 raises and lowers
the stick for performers to jump over or crawl under is actually
not a test of jumping or crawling; it’s a test of one’s ability to
adapt to rapidly changing conditions brought about by a monarch’s
whim_and the prize is nothing more than a snippet of thread. And,
most importantly, note that Gulliver stopped his game when someone
got hurt. The Emperor’s exercises go on until somebody loses.

The first thing Gulliver does in Chapter IV is visit the capital
city, Mildendo. Again, he is tremendously impressed by the
Lilliputian’s technological and organizational skill, as evidenced
by the beauty of their city. Now that he is an “insider”, Gulliver
is told of the political problems besetting the country, both from
the inside and from the outside. The domestic problem is an
intense feud between people who wear low heels (such as the
Emperor) and people who wear high heels, whom the Emperor would
like to see out of power. Unfortunately, however, the Emperor’s
son has a fancy for high heels himself, but his fear of his father
causes him to wear a low-heeled shoe on one foot and a high-heeled
shoe on the other; this is why he limps. Lilliput is also under
threat of invasion from a neighboring country, Blefuscu; the
nature of their aggression seems to be religious. Apparently the
current Emperor’s grandfather initiated a new religion which
demanded that believers break their eggs on the smaller end. Many
Lilliputians refused to do so, as since time immemorial their
creed had been to break their eggs on the larger end, and they
insisted on their right to do so. This caused them to emigrate to
Blefuscu, and now that country, bolstered by its new angry
citizens, is planning an invasion against Lilliput.

Obviously Swift is saying that the argument between the Low-Heels
and the High-Heels is ridiculous_almost as silly as the jihad
between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders. During Swift’s
lifetime, an equally high level of animosity existed between the
various English sects which considered themselves Protestant, and
between the English Protestants collectively and the Catholics on
the Continent. Swift, an Anglican clergyman himself, is clearly
showing how ridiculous such dissention is among people who all
profess to be followers of the same path.

And pity the poor Emperor’s son, who has to hobble along the
middle of the road in pain. Like any good satire, “Gulliver’s
Travels” cannot be read purely as an analogy, as some scholars
have tried to do. You cannot say that the Emperor “is” George I,
or Filimap “is” Robert Walpole. The Emperor is the Emperor and
Filimap is himself. But by making the political and religious
situations of the eighteenth century seem even more ridiculous
than they already were, Swift he was able to make people view
their actual life choices more rationally.

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