Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a famous, classic novel that satirized many aspects of government, religion and human nature. Written in the eighteenth century, this three-hundred-year-old novel remains well known today because of its timeless criticism that can still be applied to contemporary politics and religious faiths. In eighteenth century England, the home of both Swift and his character Lemuel Gulliver, the ruling constitutional monarchy was made up of two governing bodies, the monarch and his or her personal advisors, and the English Parliament, the members of which were elected by the people. Though this may have seemed like a well structured government, it was in fact deeply flawed and had many illogical systems.
England was also Protestant at the time, where the church had significant influence in the nation, and even started wars against their Catholic neighbour, France. Arguably, the religious system of England acted very unreasonably and contradictory to its own ideals, including keeping peace. Swift, the creator of this novel, was not only an author, but also an English politician and a Protestant priest. This made him very qualified to make judgments about England, and offers a reason why his satires can be used as evidence against eighteenth century England. Swift wrote these satires due to his disappointment with certain aspects of England. Through the numerous adventures and satires found in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift proves how England during the eighteenth century had an illogical government system, specifically a constitutional monarchy, as well a flawed religious system.
The first fault of the English’s constitutional monarchy is found within their method of choosing successors. The King or Queen of England is selected through family ties. The son or daughter of the ruling monarch ascends to the throne once the current monarch dies. The problem with monarchies is that the king or queen may not be capable of leading a country because they are chosen by birth. Swift satirizes this method though Lemuel Gulliver’s first adventure, A Voyage to Lilliput. The two nations within this section are Lilliput and Blefuscu, which are fictional representations of England and France respectively. Akin to England, Lilliput is ruled by a monarch, known to Gulliver as the Emperor. The Emperor is assisted by a council of ministers, those of whom are selected in a very illogical manner; they are chosen based their ability to rope dance. People who perform the best are given a position within the government. This is one of Swift’s first satires, which he uses to help the reader see the flaw with the monarchy. The fact that being part of a family or bloodline is completely irrelevant to one’s leadership abilities, just like rope dancing is not related to any government work.
Heredity should not be the method used to choose leaders because it is not guaranteed that the new king or queen is suited for such a position. This is the reason why the method used by monarchs to choose successors is flawed. This satire can actually be applied to historical England, specifically the monarch in power during Swift’s time, King George I. George I is of German descent, but only became the English monarch because he was a Protestant. According to the Act of Settlement 1701, Catholics cannot inherit the throne. George was selected to be the king even though over 50 Catholics were closer to George’s predecessor, Queen Anne. The fact that participating in a certain religion eliminates the possibility of being a leader is absolutely illogical, as personal religious faith does not dictate how capable a leader is. This only emphasizes how flawed the method of choosing successors is. George I’s ascension to the English throne is probably one of the motivations for Swift to create this satire. Through the rope dancing satire and historical knowledge of King George I’s ascension, it is evident that the English monarchy had a very illogical method of selecting future monarchs.
The religious system of England is the next aspect Swift satirizes. England is predominantly Protestant while their neighbour France is Catholic. Even though both faiths are branches of Christianity, the two nations have fought many wars against each other, which contradicts one of Christianity’s central beliefs of peace. In this satire, Swift shows that the two church’s conflicts are utterly pointless and conflicting with their own ideals. After observing the Lilliputian government, Gulliver is told about the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Several decades ago, a former Emperor of Lilliput declared that eggs shall be cracked on the small end when preparing meals. However, many people disagreed and took refuge in Blefuscu due to fear of prosecution, which eventually sparked a war between the two nations. Though the two nations preach with the same religious text, they differ from each other due to their difference in egg-cracking. Lilliput is now Little-Endian, while Blefuscu is Big-Endian.
The fact that a conflict can be started over breaking eggs seem pointless and silly, but most importantly, their religious text already describes how followers should crack their egg. In their text, it clearly states, “That all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end” (Swift 47). Even Gulliver finds this startling, who says that “which is the convenient end, seems in my humble opinion, to be left to every man’s conscience” (Swift 47). In essence, there is no wrong or correct way to break the egg; it is up to each and every individual. The flaw found within Protestants and Catholics, or metaphorically the Little-Endians and Big-Endians, is the fact that they have pointless conflicts with each other.
People should not fight wars against each other over how to worship God, as there is no right or wrong way. Unfortunately, this is not the case as many wars have been fought between branches of Christianity, especially during the Protestant and Catholic Reformation. Wars such as the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Year’s War have caused millions of deaths, which is completely detrimental to a religion meant to promote peace. The flaw found within Protestants and Little-Endians is obviously the pointless wars they have with other branches of the same religion. Not only is it unreasonable to start a war over how to worship God, fighting a war is completely contradictory to the church’s central tenets. It is clear that the English religious systems, which have been Protestant-led since the Protestant Reformation, are flawed due to its fruitless conflicts and self-contradictory actions.
The next satire Swift created is related to the flaws of the English Parliament, the governing body which, along with the monarchy, forms the English constitutional monarchy. The two main flaws found within the Parliament are the method in which members were elected and how elected members were rewarded in order to keep them away from corruption or free from bribery. These flaws are addressed in Gulliver’s second adventure, A Voyage to Brobdingnag. Gulliver and the King of Brobdingnag converse a long time about England and its society, including the English government. After being told how the English government works, the King points out several flaws within the government in the form of rhetorical questions, the answers for which are meant to be formulated by the reader. The first question he proposes to Gulliver is related to how members of Parliament (or MPs) are elected. Though Gulliver explains that the MPs are “freely picked and culled out by the people themselves, for their great abilities, and love of their country” (Swift 135), the King is not impressed.
The King immediately questions, “Whether, a stranger with a strong purse, might not influence the vulgar voters to chuse him before their own landlords, or the most considerable gentleman in the neighbourhood” (Swift 136). In essence, the King is asking how voters are not swayed by the rich, who can give bribes to voters for their support. As history has proven, vote-buying is a very possible scheme for the rich to be elected, such as the “Spendthrift Election” of England in 1768. In that year, three earls spent over ₤100,000 to win a seat in the parliament. The English government of the eighteenth century essentially had no laws to prevent vote-buying, and leaders could become elected simply based on how rich they were. This is obviously the first flaw found within the English Parliament. Even though the MPs should have been picked “for their great abilities, and love of their country,” the rich can simply bribe voters until they are elected. This eliminates the candidates with actual skill and devotion to their nation, which decreases the capabilities of the government and acts as a fault. The second flaw is found within the Parliament’s treatment of their members.
Up until 1911, members of the English Parliament did not receive a salary. This meant that a career as an MP was both unrewarding and acted as a great expense to the family the MP was in. The King questions Gulliver: How it came to pass, that people were so violently bent upon getting into this assembly, which [Gulliver] allowed to be a great trouble and expence, often to the ruin of their families, without any salary or pension … that his Majesty seemed to doubt it might possibly not be always sincere: and, he desired to know, whether such zealous gentlemen could have any views of refunding themselves for the charges and trouble they were at, by sacrificing the publick good, to the designs of a weak and vicious prince, in conjunction with a corrupted ministry (Swift 136-137). In essence, the King claims that since the MPs are so poorly rewarded, it is highly possible that the MPs will sacrifice the public good for money.
Unfortunately, based on the historical reality of the MPs during the eighteenth century, this claim is true. Between 1701 and 1732, eighteen MPs were expelled from the Parliament due to accepting bribes, participating in illegal lotteries, or partaking in fraudulent activities for personal gain. Even Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of England, took money for personal use and was expelled for corruption in 1712. Since the MPs did not receive a salary, they often became corrupted in order to sustain themselves. Based on these facts, the King had proposed astonishing questions to Gulliver, which identified genuine flaws within the English Parliament. A combination of both historical MPs and the King’s reasoning proves that the English Parliament, the second half of the constitutional monarchy, is definitely flawed.
Swift’s satires clearly shown that both the constitutional monarchy of England and the religious organizations during the 1700s had many faults and imperfections. The constitutional monarchy does not select the best possible candidates to become leaders, and even if they are selected, they are constantly affected by corruption and bribery. The churches take unreasonable and pointless actions, which are evidently against their own beliefs. Their institutions were so flawed that even the modest King of Brobdingnag concludes by saying to Gulliver, “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” (Swift 140).
The most surprising revelation from this novel is its Parliamentary criticism can still be applied to modern democracies. Many occupations outside of the government, such as CEOs, earn millions of dollars while government members such as the Prime Minister of the UK earn £142,500, which is great, but pales in comparison to other jobs. Even though their jobs involve a lot more risk and responsibility, they are paid less, which may work as an incentive for government workers to accept bribes and become corrupt. Gulliver’s Travels remains well-known today because of its ageless criticism of society, and does magnificently at displaying the troubles of eighteenth century England.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 1726. New York: Knopf Publishing Group,
2006. Print. Grego, Joseph. A History of Parliamentary Elections and Electioneering in the Old Days. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=Z8QNwwkg784C&pg=PR14&dq= spendthrift+election%22+came+in+Northamptonshire+in+1768,&hl=en&ei=gVXBTe2BFcnliALW8KisAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=spendthrift%20election%22%20came%20in%20Northamptonshire%20in%201768%2C&f=false “Frequently Asked Questions.” parliament.uk. Government of the United Kingdom. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.
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