Satire in the works of Jonathan Swift and John Gay

by Catherine Cooper

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own, which is the chief reason so few are offended by it.

(Swift. Preface to The Battle of the Books)

'Satire . . . should be true up to a certain point' wrote George Eliot. The best and most disturbing satire almost always has a large element of possible truth to it. In this essay I wish to examine how writers, particularly Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and John Gay (1685-1732) have satirized the nature of man and his place in the great Chain of Being.

Gulliver's Travels

In Swift's Gulliver's Travels the observations on man are particularly astute and the satire particularly disturbing. Swift wrote the work 'to vex the world rather than divert it' and it has been considered by many to be a deeply misanthropic novel. Swift was, indeed, a misanthrope to a certain extent. He said he hated mankind but found it possible to love individuals. However, this seems difficult to believe when the bleak light in which Gulliver sees the human race by the end of the novel is observed.

The novel works largely by a series of contrasts. In Lilliput Gulliver is a giant, in Brobdingnag, a midget. The voyage to Lilliput serves mainly to satirize the British system of selecting rulers and their general lack of democracy. In Lilliput an important office is usually filled by the applicant who can jump the highest and decorations are awarded to the best leaper and creeper, which is clearly intended to typify the way of governing at the time, where offices and favours were granted to favourites rather than to the best or most worthy candidate. It is also important to note that Gulliver does not really notice the moral nastiness of the court, whereas he is quick to notice the physical ugliness of the giants in Brobdingnag This perhaps shows how blind people often are to their own follies.

Whilst in Lilliput, Gulliver was a giant. As soon as he enters Brobdingnag, he becomes a midget. This transition makes an extremely important point. The position of man in the Chain of Being can only be ascertained in relative terms, and only compared to races and forms of life which exist and about which we are aware. This idea is furthered to a much greater degree in the final book, when Gulliver decides that man is clearly far inferior to the Houyhnhnm race he discovers. There are many important points to note about Brobdingnag. Because these people are so huge, he sees every defect magnified and so finds them quite repulsive:

Their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured . . . with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads.

Clearly, our own race would appear equally as repulsive close up.

Brobdingnag is generally thought to have the political system which is closest to Swift's ideals. Our own political system is made to appear extremely uncivilised in comparison. After Gulliver has explained the British way of governing and our justice system to the King, the King comments:

I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.

Gulliver then attempts to impress and please the King by offering to tell him the secret of gunpowder. However, the King is horrified that Gulliver:

could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation, which (he) had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines.

Unsurprisingly, he then refuses Gulliver's offer of revealing the formula, saying that he:

would rather lose half his kingdom than be privy to such a secret.

Brobdingnag comes across as a much more passive and civilised society than ours. Clearly, it is not without imperfections, as is illustrated by Gulliver's descriptions of the hideousness of the characters and the rather vulgar behaviour of some of them (such as urinating in front of him or sitting him astride a nipple), but the reader will perhaps begin to realise that there may be better ways to govern than by the methods currently in practise. After satirizing the current corruption of our government in Lilliput, a possible solution is offered in Brobdingnag.

The third journey is probably the least impressive of the novel. The satire in this section is aimed mainly at the futile and worthless pursuits of certain sections of society, in particular, pretentious intellectuals and high society. Gulliver's first destination in this section is Laputa, where the inhabitants are so pretentious as to each require a 'flapper' to remind them when to speak, and as to serve meals where each item of food is pointlessly cut into a geometric shape, probably in order to satirise the pretentiousness of many aesthetes and pseudo-intellectuals.

Moving on to Lagodo, he is shown around the Academy where countless scientists are engaged in worthless pursuits. Included in these are a man who has spent eight years trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, a man trying to reduce human excrement to its original food, another attempting to change ice into gunpowder, an architect who has discovered a way to build houses working from the roof downwards and countless others. All the experiments being conducted are highly unlikely to succeed and would not be any use to anyone even if they did. This chapter is clearly satirizing the pursuits of 'intellectuals' but is also perhaps a comment on the worthlessness of human life in general.

The next chapter returns to political satire. Gulliver relates, extremely scathingly, the methods of investigation used in Tribnia and Langden (anagrams of Britain and England). He writes:

The plots in that kingdom are usually the workmanship of those persons who desire to raise their own characters of profound politicians, to restore new vigour to a crazy administration, to stifle or divert general discontents, to fill their coffers with forfeitures, and raise or sink the opinion of public credit, as either shall best answer their private advantage.

Gulliver adds that these plotters also first decide who is to be accused of the plotting, and prepare evidence against them. Swift appears to have included this book (it was the last written) in order to convey various ideas (such as suspicions such as the one illustrated above) which he did not manage to include elsewhere.

Another idea he conveys in this section is the horrific nature of old age, through the Struldbruggs. The misanthropic Swift appears to be mocking the common idea that to live forever would be a wonderful thing. These immortal creatures are presented as ugly, senile and thoroughly miserable. Gulliver describes himself as 'struck with inexpressible delight' when he hears about the Struldbruggs, while Swift silently mocks his naivety. When he hears how they must live and sees for himself their condition he describes them as 'the most mortifying sight (he) ever beheld' and as possessing:

not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.

There are two important points to note here, firstly, Swift obviously sees old age as unpleasant and secondly, he also appears to think that life is greatly overrated; for him, the idea of living forever is terrifying.

Having built up gradually throughout the novel, Swift's misanthropy reaches a climax in the final book. In this he proves to himself that life is definitely not worth living (at least, not if we continue to live in the same manner), that the human race is utterly despicable and that man has only a very lowly position in the great Chain of Being. In this final book he meets the Houyhnhnms, the horses who possess reason and appear to him to be perfect creatures. A stark contrast to these animals are the bestial Yahoos, who inhabit the same island and act as slaves. Gulliver writes:

My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure.

Gulliver becomes increasingly horrified as he recognises more and more similarities between the human race and the Yahoos. In some ways humans appear to be worse than Yahoos. Gulliver claims that he finds only the 'rudiments' of 'lewdness, coquetry and scandal' among female Yahoos. In addition, considering that humans believe themselves to be creatures of reason, behaving in a similar manner to a bestial Yahoo who has no concept of reason appears to be inexcusable. Swift writes thus of the thoughts of Gulliver's 'master' (a Houyhnhnm):

when a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident that instead of reason, we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill-shapen body, not only larger, but more distorted.

There are two very different ways of thinking about this final book; the 'hard school' believe that Gulliver is right to see man as a Yahoo and the Houyhnhnms as ideal creatures, and also believe that Gulliver's view closely corresponds to Swift's view. The 'soft school' believe that Gulliver is wrong, and man is not merely a Yahoo. It has, however, also been suggested that the Yahoos:

illustrate the depravity to which human nature will sink if man allows himself to be governed entirely by the passion of pride.

It must also be noted that the Yahoos are severely repressed by their Houyhnhnm masters, and if they had been allowed more freedom or more education, they might not have become the bestial beings which they are. As Kelly and Wilding noted, the are high potential low achievers. In this case, Swift could be criticising the lack of equal opportunities in society, and making the point that a peasant given the same opportunities as a lord could achieve just as much, and vice versa. The interpretation depends mainly on whether the satire is aimed at Gulliver, as a madman who returns to civilisation irrationally loathing his family and talking to horses, or whether it is aimed at society in general.

The satire in this final section is extremely disturbing; unlike most satire which is aimed at individuals or very small sections of society, (such as Pope's Dunciad), the satire in this (taking the 'hard-school' reading) is aimed at everyone. No one can claim that they are above that type of behaviour. The hard school critic must accept that he is a lower being than a Yahoo.

Swift thus displays in Gulliver's Travels how loathsome he believes the human race to be, how corrupt the authoritative powers are and how man possesses a much lower grade in the great Chain of Being than he somewhat arrogantly believes himself to.

A Tale of a Tub

Gulliver's Travels was not Swift's only attack on humanity. In A Tale of a Tub he satirizes, amongst many other things, man's vanity. The brothers are much more concerned about the adornment of their coats than they are about adhering to their father's will. He furthers this idea by the inclusion of the hack writer's incessant nonsensical digressions, which he adds in pretentiously merely because he is fond of obscure writing. These digressions are not a means of conveying a message or entertaining his readers, they are merely a gratuitous indulgence of his vanity and pretensions.

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal is particularly shocking because although the idea is obviously grotesque ethics aside, it is basically a good idea which would solve many of Ireland's problems. The main target of the satire here is probably the governing body of Ireland, (mainly English noblemen), who had recently imposed heavy duty on livestock and forbidden the export of wool, thus making life extremely difficult for the Irish peasants. Swift feels that Ireland is in such a state of turmoil that the only way to remedy it is by employing extreme methods. He is also satirizing the lack of concern which the rich have for the problems of the poor. A tone of despair runs through the entire short work.

Story of the Injured Lady

Swift's despair at the ruling of Ireland can also be seen in his Story of the Injured Lady, in which the injured lady (Ireland) is abandoned by her lover (England) for another woman (Scotland).

These short works seem to display a belief that people are intensely selfish; that the ruling body rule for their own advantage rather than for the advantage of the masses. However, it could be argued that, to a certain extent, this was true.

Although much of Swift's work is written in a humorous mariner, so much so that some of his works can easily be enjoyed by children, the view of humanity he presents is bleak and it is made obvious that he despairs at the state of the human race. However, many other writers have satirized the follies of mankind in a much more light-hearted way.

John Gay

John Gay appears, in his early writings, to be much less misanthropic than Swift, although later in life his views of humanity seem to darken. In The Shepherd's Week which Gay wrote as an attack on Phillips and his idealised pastoral poetry, Gay presented his shepherds as extremely down-to-earth and often rather crude. However, Phillips was not his only target. Through the work, he brings to his readers' attention some of the more petty or unpleasant aspects of human nature. 'Monday' brings us two shepherds trying to outdo each other with tales of their lovers. Gay obviously wishes to display the somewhat ostentatious and petty nature of man. He leaves us in no doubt as to what his opinion of such pointless, exaggerated boasting is. Cloddipole enters at the end of the pastoral and tells the squabbling shepherds:

They're weary of your songs - and so am I.

The target of 'Tuesday' is man's Propensity for self-indulgent wallowing in self pity. This is continued in 'Wednesday', where man's tendency to melodrama is also hinted at. Sparabella laments her own unhappiness and decides to commit suicide, but at the end of the poem, night falls and Gay writes:

The prudent maiden deems it now too late,
And 'till to morrow comes, defers her fate.

The young shepherdess obviously has no intention of ending her life but is probably enjoying the attention she is receiving by making a display of her sorrow.

'Friday' is probably the most amusing of these short pastorals. Bumkinet and Grubbinol lament at great length the death of Blouzelinda with rather melodramatic claims such as:

Is Blouzelinda dead? farewel my glee!
No happiness is now reserved for me.

and describe her as:

The peerless maid that did all maids excell.

and cry:

Lament, ye fields, and rueful symptoms show,
Henceforth let not the smelling primrose grow;
Let weeds instead of butter-flow'rs appear,
And meads, instead of daisies, hemlock bear;
For cowslips sweet let dandelions spread,
For Blouzelinda, blithsome maid, is dead!

Following the two shepherds' long lament that they can never again be happy, the fickle nature of mankind is displayed extremely effectively and succinctly in the final paragraph of the poem:

Thus wail 'd the louts, in melancholy strain,
'Till bonny Susan sped a-cross the plain;
They seiz'd the lass in apron clean array'd,
And to the ale-house forc'd the willing maid;
In ale and kisses they forget their cares,
And Susan Blouzelinda's loss repairs.

Gay's shepherds are much more like real people and thereby much less idealised than the shepherds which appeared in the pastorals of more traditional writers such as Phillips or the classical writers such as Virgil. Thus, through his series of pastorals, Gay reveals that the human race is extremely selfish, self-indulgent, melodramatic and fickle, but he does so in a light-hearted manner and seemingly without the bitterness with which Swift seems to write.

Gay's later Fables, however, are on the whole less humorous and slightly more bleak in their outlook. In Fable XXIV (1727) Gay tells the story of a butterfly and a snail. He first describes the butterfly sitting on a rose with an attitude of 'pert conceit' calling rather scathingly to the snail below:

What means yon peasant's daily toil,
From choaking weeds to rid the soil?

However, the snail is unperturbed by the butterfly's arrogance, and reminds him that, until recently, he too crawled along the earth in the form of a caterpillar. The snail concludes the fable with these words:

Snail I was born, and snail shall end.
And what's a butterfly? At best,
He's but a caterpillar, drest:
And all thy race (a numerous seed)
Shall prove of caterpillar breed.

Gay here appears to be admiring the fact that the snail is unashamed of what he is and criticising the butterfly for looking down on him, despite the fact that the butterfly was, until recently, equally as 'low'. It seems possible that the butterfly in this fable represents sections of society such as pseudo-intellectuals and 'nouveau-riche' bigots who tend to look down on others who, Gay seems to believe, should be admired for being happy in their more lowly position. This, like his poem London, seems to be an attack on man's often unfounded vanity.

In Fable X (1727) Gay explores another unpleasant aspect of character which is often found in the human race; selfishness. The tale is ironically called The Hare and Many Friends. The protagonist is a hare, of whom Gay writes:

Her care was never to offend,
And ev' ry creature was her friend.

However, when the hare lies exhausted after having been chased by a dog, she asks each of her passing 'friends' to help her. They each refuse, giving feeble or selfish excuses (rather like in the much earlier morality play Everyman in which one of his friends tells him he cannot accompany him on his journey because he has stubbed his toe.) Many of the 'friends' say that there are more friends approaching, and assume that one of them will help the exhausted hare. The final animal to meet the hare before she is caught by the hounds is a calf who claims that he is too weak to help, and is also afraid to in case his friends disapprove. This fable appears to be quite a savage attack on human nature. Gay obviously believes that people are too selfish, too lazy or too concerned about other people's opinion of them to help each other. Gay does not actually deal with man's place in the Chain of Being, but nevertheless makes some astute, even if rather unflattering observations upon the nature of man.


Not all satirists of the time had such a bleak view of human nature as Swift or Gay in his later years. The 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' Lord Byron actually seemed to enjoy life while tearing apart various contemporaries through his satire. However, this is perhaps due to the fact that his satire was nearly always aimed at individuals or very small sections of society (such as his poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers) rather than at the whole of humanity.

Swift wrote in his preface to The Battle of the Books:

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own, which is the chief reason so few are offended by it.

This is, of course, true of much satirical writing, hut writings such as the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels and some of Gay's Fables contradict this. Such writings are aimed at everyone; us as a race in general. And while we may laugh with Byron or Pope at the expense of others, writings which criticise ourselves are much more disturbing.

Parts of the writings of Swift and Gay portray humanity in an extremely unfavourable light, and Swift, through Gulliver's changes of situation, one minute a giant, the next, a midget and finally a Yahoo, makes it clear that our position in the Chain of Being is extremely precarious and seems to imply at the end of the novel that we are, in fact, even lower than the loathsome Yahoo.

Although such writings are enjoyable to read because of their humour and their parts which contain ironies and satire which are directed at groups which do not include ourselves, there is undoubtedly a disturbing element in the writings when we realise of what we are being accused. Whether we agree or not is, of course an entirely different matter. Michael Foot wrote that Gulliver's Travels is a 'perpetually unfinished argument', which is perhaps why it has been read, enjoyed arid discussed for so many years, without it being conclusively proved that we are either contemptible Yahoos or the civilised beings we always presumed we are. These satirical writings insinuate rather than directly accuse, and there is surely a comfort in that.

© Catherine Cooper, April 2001

See also: Books on Film > Jonathan Swift Books > Jonathan Swift Web Sites >

Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy