Jonathan Swift was one of the most important artists of his time because he was one of the first pessimist writers who treated political topics in his works. His most important novel, Gulliver’s Travels, was studied by the critics for a long time because they weren’t able to understand if the story was true or not. He had a long life and he produced a lot of important and relevant works.
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667 from Jonathan Swift and Abigail Erick. His father died before his birth and his mother decided to return to England. Jonathan was left in the care of his influential and important uncle Godwin Swift (1629-1695) who took the whole responsibility for the youth and sent him and one of Jonathan’s cousins to Kilkenny college.
In 1682 he attended Trinity College financed by Godwin’s son, Willoughby, and in 1686 the young writer received his B.A. While he was studying for his Master’s degree Jonathan was forced to leave Ireland for England because of the political troubles surrounding the Glorious Revolution. Arrived at the British island, thanks of his mother’s help, he got a position as secretary and personal assistant of Sir William Temple, an English diplomat that, after arranging the Triple Alliance, retired to write his memories. After three years Temple sent Swift to William II to urge the king to consent to a bill for triennial Parliaments. Swift left Temple in 1690 for Ireland because of his health, but he returned to England the following year. Then he became an ordained priest in the Established Church of Ireland. The writer met a girl that refused him, so he promised to leave England forever. Probably she refused him so he came back to England and during this time he wrote The Battle of the Books. On 27th January 1699 Temple died. In February 1702, Swift received his degree and he returned to Ireland accompanied by Esther Johnson, who was his pupil. Many people thought that they were secretly married in 1716. During a visit to England, he published a Tale of a Tub and the Battle of the Books and began to gain a reputation as a writer. Swift became increasingly active politically in those years and he published the political pamphlet The conduct of the Allies, attacking the Whig government for its inability to handle the war with France. He recorded his experiences and thoughts during this difficult time in a long series of letters to Esther Johnson. During this year in London Swift fell in love with one of the Vanhomrigh family’s daughters: Esther. After the fall of the Tory government he returned to Ireland. During these years, he began writing his master piece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first surgeon, and then captain of several ships, better known as Gulliver’s Travels . Much of the materials reflect his political experiences of the preceding decade. During a visit to London he stayed with Alexander Pope, an old friend, who helped him arrange for the anonymous publication of his book. It was an immediate hit. On 27th January 1728 Esther Johnson died . That became a frequent feature in Swift’s life from this point. In 1738 he began to show signs of illness and he saw the realization of his worst fears of becoming mentally disabled. In 1744, Alexander Pope died. On 19th October Swift died too.
Swift’s works are all characterized by a pessimism which has divided critics and readers for ages. It’s considered one of the most important and maybe the greatest writer of English prose because he writes in a simple way without using any embellishments or rhetorical language.
In fact everybody, both adults and children, can read his works and his stories.
The writer was also the first that used the “first person narrator” in his works. The narrator is very important because his voice tells us the story and he seems to know everything that happens. With this method Swift gives to the reader the impression of listening to a first-hand account of things and he feels emotionally involved.
THE BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (1697)
The first pamphlet to give Swift fame was The Battle of the Books (1697), where he imagines a battle between the books written by the ancients ( led by Homer and Virgil ) and those written by the moderns. Swift recognizes the superiority of the ancient times in comparison to the modern ones because they couldn’t live anymore by now and he took the opportunity to mock his modern rivals.
A TALE OF A TUB (1704)
In 1704 A Tale of a Tub, one of Swift’s most important satirical works, came out. It’s a prose satire on corruption in religion and learning, directed especially against the Roman Church. It was written between 1694-1697, and it also mocked, in a funny way, the different forms of pedantry and presumption. Despite the anonymous publication of the book, Swift retained that it was the reason why the Anglican authorities precluded him a brilliant clerical career.
DRAPIER’S LETTERS (1724)
It was published in 1724 and it tells about the Irish problem of the independence and Swift is favorable to this important change.
GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1726)
Gulliver’s travel is a novel in four books that tells about the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver (a surgeon of a merchant ship). The adventures described are fictional, but the book has a realistic appearance, with the use of details of real contemporary navigations. The first publication was in 1726 in Dublin, but it was anonymous. Gulliver’s Travel belongs to the genre of the philosophical novel, which spread from the first half of the eighteenth century in the Enlightenment environment. Behind the plot and imaginative adventure genre, the novel has the aim to give us an ironic portrait of the society, whose vices and defects are emphasized through the features of the characters in the story. Swift creates a parallelism between his journey into the fantastic world and his contemporary time. He emphasizes a lot the faults of his society, because in his opinion it’s always important to remember to try to improve.
Although Gulliver is a bold adventurer who visits a multitude of strange lands, it is difficult to regard him as truly heroic. In fact differently from characters like Odysseus and Aeneas he never makes great enterprises as a common hero.
He never shows his feelings and his courage but those aren’t the greatest lacks. What seems most lacking is drive. He is only devoted to his mission but he hasn’t a goal of his own to reach. He has no aspirations and he only justifies his travels with the target of earning money. When he leaves home he doesn’t give the impression of being excited by a new adventure. He also demonstrates
to have a very weak intelligence. For example he is caught several times and he never uses his brain to escape. Gulliver is not a figure with whom we identify but, rather, part of the array of personalities and behaviors about which we must make judgments.
FIRST VOYAGE (travel to Lilliput)
Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput. The Lilliputtians are very small people and they look like insects compared to Gulliver. Initially they make him prisoner, but they gradually come to trust him. In fact they use Gulliver in their wars against the neighbouring country. In the end they allow Gulliver to leave the country and he comes back home with a boat.
SECOND VOYAGE (travel to Brobdingnag)
Gulliver goes to the island of Brobdingnag, where the population is composed by giants. Not only the people are giants, but even the animals and the insects; in fact Gulliver has to defend himself from them. Gulliver leaves the island by accident: he is kidnapped by an eagle that carries him above the sea and drops him. Finally he is rescued by an English ship.
THIRD VOYAGE (travel to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib and Luggnagg)
Gulliver starts a new trip and he arrives in the flying island of Laputa. In these lands lives a population, who despises all practical occupation. In fact they have an incredible knowledge, but it is only theoretical and abstract. An example of their madness is the Scientific Academy in the city of Lagado, where absurd experiments are conducted. Then he visited Glubbdubdrib, a city where the population is composed by wizards. He also visits the island of Luggnagg, that has commercial relationships with Japan. In fact Gulliver goes to Japan, Amsterdam and finally comes back home.
FOURTH VOYAGE (travel to Huyhnhnm)
The last travel carries Gulliver to the island of Huyhnhnm, where the habitants are horses. They are very intelligent and they can talk. There are also the Yahoos, a population that closely resemble men, but they are cruel and filthy. Gulliver admits that Yahoos are very much like men and he hate them for their behavior. He decides to stay with horses forever, but they can’t tolerate the presence of Gulliver because he looks like a Yahoo. He comes back home and he decides to live in a stable because of his hatred against Yahoos.
A MODEST PROPOSAL (1729)
This work represents Swift’s most famous satirical work after Gulliver’s travels. It’s a pamphlet which gives an excellent example of the writer’s biting sarcasm.
Written in protest to the oppressive treatment of the Catholic peasants of Ireland by the English, A Modest Proposal could be easily compared to the writings of his time or even down to the present day. This proposal was thought by Swift “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public”.
The word “modest” in the title has the idea of an exaggeration of epic proportion and it’s an evident symbol of Swift’s satire. In fact the author says that Ireland’s overpopulation problem could be solved by selling one-year-old children on the market to be used as a food.
Swift was innovative for his period because of his style. We think that his works are sometimes funny and easy to read despite the predominant sarcasm of the stories and that an important novel like Gulliver’s Travels is a model followed also by contemporary writers today. He managed to combine the serious aim of criticizing the society ofhis historical period with the entertainment produced by paradoxical and funny situations, creating a surprising work.
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