Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Nature of Satire and Enjoyment of Gulliver's Travels

People encounter satire in various forms; in the mocking political commentary of the Capitol Steps, the gentle ridicule of the American family in "The Simpson's" and in the laughter-raising political commentary of the satiric newspaper "The Onion." Nevertheless, people may enjoy these art forms and not fully grasp the nature and purpose of satire as a form of literature. The enjoyment of satire requires a greater familiarity with the characteristics of the genre than other forms of literature. A new edition of Gulliver's Travels has come out that keeps some of the flavor of the original keeping some of the original capitalization and printing of the eighteenth century edition.

By nature satire is a less straightforward type of literature than many. It implies, suggests, and exaggerates. As many have pointed out, the appreciation of the genre of satire requires knowledge of the use of many literary techniques including: irony, distancing and the use of a persona for the speaker to highlight the author’s view point. Satire usually has corrupt customs or practices as its target and a familiarity with that target is also necessary to fully enjoy satire. So a review of a few principles of satire may help people enjoy works in this mode. According to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary satire is the “use of irony, sarcasm in verse or prose in which human folly is held up to scorn or derision.” There are two main types of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian. Horatian satire a mild form of satire that is a playful exposure of folly or vice using mockery and exaggeration. The best example of this kind of satire is the TV cartoon show, "The Simpson's." The habits, attitudes, and preoccupations of Homer Simpson and his family are ridiculed in a gentle way that shows some affection for the objects of mockery. The second type of satire is Juvenalian. This kind of satire is contemptuous, and abrasive. This kind of satire seeks to "address some evil in society" through the use of "scorn, outrage and savage ridicule." The characteristics of this form of satire are "irony, sarcasm and moral indignation." It is often serious in tone rather than playful. Satire often has a political component and is used to attack some political regimes.
The literary work "Guilliver’s Travels" by Jonathan Swift is a good example of a combination of both kinds of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian satire. Swift used both methods as the first journalistic satirist and his sharp observations of the workings of politics in the different kingdoms in "Gulliver’s travels" reveal the effectiveness of the method of close journalistic observation of the institutions of society. His focus in satire was on revealing the foibles of society as a whole rather than those of individuals. One of the main techniques of satire applied by Swift in " Gulliver's Travels " to ridicule social faults by diminution. Diminution is often accomplished through use of critical terms and exaggeration. But Swift has the genius to literally make the kingdom he is satirizing small in size.

In "Gulliver’s Travels" Swift uses the method of diminution as a physical reality for his character and to great effect. The people Gulliver encounters on his first Island where he is stranded are very small in height. They are of course the Lilliputians. Their extremely small stature allows Swift to magnify the folly of their foibles and strange customs by the humorous way they strike us. The customs and institutions of the court can then be made to seem even more ridiculous when one sees them from the perspective of a giant. The most significant moment for this satire is the scene where the courtiers of the king compete for political office. Here Swift examines their method of competition that involves jumping on a taut rope to see who can jump the highest. Political office is given to the one who jumps the highest. This ridiculous competition is made even more absurd because the courtiers are only a few inches high. The custom of jumping to obtain a political office is demeaning to the person of the courtiers but again the fact that they are so small increases the sense we have of how they are morally demeaned by those customs.
Always with Swift and all satire there is an implied standard of human dignity and worth in play where the one senses the distance between the ideal and the real. The court life of Lilliput is far from ideal. It is ridiculous, small minded and maddening in its triviality. Many commentators have mentioned that Swift is criticizing the court life under George 1st and Queen Anne along with the corruption of Parliament under the Prime Minister Walpole. But knowledge of the details of history doesn't matter so much as having a general sense for what court life involves and dangers of favoritism. We also don't need much knowledge of the details of the politics of Congress to recognize the attitudes of pride and arrogance the Capitol Steps is ridiculing.
In addition, Swift uses another technique of satire: the mask or persona, in this case the persona of the unreliable narrator, Gulliver, who seeks to instruct us about what he sees in different lands. Gulliver as naive observer who shows an unthinking admiration for the ways of this diminutive court that only increases our uneasiness with what we are viewing. Here again Swift is using the satiric technique of inverting praise and blame that is another method of satire. Gulliver's admiration of the ways of the court only increases our disapproval of them and him. The persona of Gulliver is that of a complaisant naive English traveler who is only able to play the one note of amazement and approval. He cannot recognize moral degradation when he sees it. The consistent wrongness of the judgements of the narrator increases the effect of humor and our offense at what he is praising so that we come to object to what he approves. The best contemporary example might be a reference to the family activities that Homer Simpson approves.
Looking at the methods of satire used to depict of the life of the court of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, we can enjoy them more if we have a sense of the parameters of satire in general. That knowledge can help us to appreciate the humor of this classic work. Satire is a method of literary exposition that encourages critical thinking about our world and helps us to evaluate the customs of our own society by seeing them in relation to an ideal of humanity that everyone shares to some extent. Once we catch on to the often used methods of distancing, diminution, exaggeration and the inversion of praise and blame, we can enjoy the work more and finally get the joke as well as enjoy a good laugh at humanity. It is hopefully a laugh that is not harsh but informed by insight into the follies of humankind.


aardvarkseyes said...

Thank you so much for this article, especially the first part. As somebody who writes satire (I think), primarily on my own Web site, Les Pages aux Folles, I am often appalled at the things that people claim to be satire.

There is an assumption, for instance, that just because a piece of writing deals with politics, it is necessarily satire (for example: Saturday Night Live, late night talk show monologues). Mostly, these are personal attacks rather than explorations of policies or institutional biases. As I sometimes point out: if you can substitute one public figure for another in a joke (ie: substituting Dan Quayle for George W. Bush in a joke about IQ), it is not specific enough to be satirical.

Then, there are people like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, who spew bile by the tankful, then, when challenged, claim that they were being satirical. I wonder, sometimes, if they know they meaning of the word (or care).

You have given us a standard against which pretenders to the title can be measured. Thank you, again.

Anonymous said...

Wow, some blogs are actually good! Thanks for writing one of them.

Sachin said...

Gulliver travels is one of my favs. Thanks for the info