Gulliver & 18thc Europeans as ‘pernicious odious vermin’!

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Swift was a humanitarian, deeply concerned with the political issues of his day and practically involved in supporting the poor and fighting for change. Gulliver’s Travels, much loved by children for its fantastical figures, tells us much about the political challenges of the eighteenth century. For more on Swift, Gulliver and the eighteenth century, see my free lecture on Gulliver’s Travels – extract follows.

Part 2 – Brobdingnag

The King is a useful vehicle for Swift’s satiric wit. He is a good monarch who refuses to separate government and morality, arguing: ‘whoever could make two ears of corn…to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would…do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together'(ch 7, p.176). The king asks Gulliver about Europe and Gulliver speaks of Parliament as it’s supposed to be, not as it is. Gulliver describes the laws in Brobdingnag as: ‘confined…within very narrow bounds; to common sense and reason, to justice and lenity, to the speedy determination of civil and criminal causes’, all of which, by damning implication, are absent from English law.

Gulliver offers something he believes to be valuable – gunpowder, which the King rejects – it just reaffirms European barbarity. His attack on the army expresses Swift’s sentiments as expressed in the Examiner essays. Gulliver refers to the King’s horrified refusal to accept his offer of gunpowder as ‘a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception'(p.175), which doesn’t say much for us!

The King’s speech concludes with a metaphor which sums up the insect and animal imagery which has worked throughout the 1st two voyages: ‘how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as I'(ch.3, p.146). His indictment on recent European history is damning: ‘an heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments'(p.172), summing us up as ‘the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth'(p.173).

Gulliver says that he tried to give a favourable impression, implying that Europe is even worse than the King supposes. Yet we also feel this is an insane way to view mankind – we reject it yet aren’t sure where we stand. This is fundamental to the satiric enterprise, which destabilises our view of ourselves.

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