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Swift, Jonathan

Entry updated 3 October 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1667-1745) Irish satirist, cleric and poet, dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, from 1713, who began publishing with the relatively innocuous Ode: to the King on his Irish Expedition (1691 chap), but who soon composed A Tale of a Tub [for subtitle see Checklist] (1704) anonymous, written almost a decade before it was published. The book incorporated a second Satire, usually called today "The Battle of the Books", which used the imagery of books taking sides in a Library in a pitched battle to highlight the contemporary debate of the benefits or failings of classical literature over modern. Swift was generally on the side of the classicists and he would often revert to the imagery of the fantastic to contrast political and religious problems that arose in the cause of progress. This was never better exemplified than in his most famous work, perhaps the most important of all works of Proto SF, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships (1726; rev 1735) [for details see Checklist], better known today as Gulliver's Travels. This short form of the title was used by commentators as early as the year of first publication, though not as the sole title of a reissue until 1821 [again see Checklist]. Written and published during years of cultural turmoil which almost simultaneously generated Satires like The Beggar's Opera (performed 17 January 1728 Theatre-Royal, London; 1729) by John Gay (1685-1732) and the Dunciad (1728) by Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the work is also in part pure sf, and certainly makes use of and in some cases invents narrative strategies which are now basic to sf; its influence, both direct and indirect, on subsequent sf has been enormous, as for example on H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and, even more directly, on his late satire Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928).

In each of its four books Captain Gulliver finds himself marooned in an Alien culture, each of these occupying a separate Island in a somewhat metaphysically conjoined Archipelago. Swift's Satire has two main forms: sometimes the culture in which he finds himself reflects aspects of British society in an exaggerated manner, so as to reveal its absurdities, and sometimes – more interestingly to sf readers – it is the differences between alien societies and ours which serve by contrast to make us see our own culture from a new perspective. This latter technique predominates in Book IV, "A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms", in which Gulliver finds himself stranded in a society of intelligent horses, who do not (for example) understand such concepts as War, the telling of untruths, or sexual passion (see Sex). The details of their culture are more convincing than was commonly the case with satire of this kind, and the satire itself more complex. Although the story is often read as a forceful attack on mankind – the brutish Yahoos who live there (see Apes as Human) are in fact humans – a more interesting reading, and one more readily supported from the text, is that Gulliver's admiring description of the life of pure intellect is part of Swift's ironic strategy, and that the reader is to see the horses as emotionally sterile and soulless. Swift's use of horse and Yahoo as sticks to beat one another is a double irony of a kind that has been much used in sf. What must be noted throughout is that Gulliver and the interpretation to be put on his responses are themselves subject to the author's complex scrutiny, a complexity of address that many of Swift's readers have, over the centuries, failed to note.

Books I and II, in which Gulliver voyages to Lilliput, where everyone is very small, and to Brobdingnag, where everyone is a giant (see Great and Small), are the best known, partly because bowdlerized versions have become children's classics; the originals are savage and bawdy. Book III is set in and around Laputa, an Island floating in the air and largely populated by semi-crazed scientific researchers (the first important appearance of the Mad Scientist in literature); in the distant city of Luggnagg live a group of depressing, senile immortals, "opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but uncapable of Friendship and dead to all natural Affection", the Struldbruggs (see Immortality). Many of the scientific experiments satirized by Swift were to become staples of later sf; though he shows their absurdity, he also has sympathy for the imaginative enthusiasm with which they are carried out. Most of Swift's work contains such paradoxes, some of which arose from discussions with fellow members of the Scriblerus Club, founded in London in 1712, which included John Gay (1685-1732), Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and the physician and satirist John Arbuthnot (1667-1735), who provided Swift with a variety of examples of scientific quackery such as trying to cook by sunlight, which Swift adapted in Gulliver's Travels to demonstrate the absurd research being undertaken at the University of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi. Occasionally, despite his attempts to parody science, Swift showed foresight. He noted the perils of increased longevity without improved healthcare, he suggested the state education of children and, most remarkably, stated that Mars had two moons, a fact that was not proved until 1877.

Swift became increasingly misanthropic as he grew older which, amongst those who knew him, added a bitter element of realism to another of his satirical strategies which has become important to Dystopian writing generally: he takes an outrageous proposition and debates it quite deadpan, as if he not only supports it but does not seriously expect opposition. Thus he satirized the more inhuman attitudes to poverty (then as now) in A Modest Proposal [for full title see Checklist] (1729 chap) by detailedly suggesting that Overpopulation and starvation in Ireland could each be cured at a stroke by using the children of the poor as food [for Skinned see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

For the many Sequels by Other Hands to Gulliver's Travels, see Gulliver. [PN/JC/MA]

see also: Astronomy; Bulgaria; Pierre François Guyot Desfontaines; Fantastic Voyages; Humour; Lost Races; Lost Worlds; Mathematics; Race in SF; Sociology; Utopias.

Jonathan Swift

born Dublin, Ireland: 30 November 1667

died Dublin, Ireland: 19 October 1745


The bibliographical record of Swift's publications remains somewhat contentious, Gulliver's Travels in particular continuing to pose some problems. We register several stages in the progress to a definitive critical text of this novel. We do not knowingly register abridgements or bowdlerizations; but many texts fail to acknowledge changes.

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