A Test of Strength

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift satirizes a variety of topics, applying a comedic tone to his false narrative. In many ways, Swift’s novel takes popular elements from the captivity narrative. Although Swift forgoes the redemption by faith, they are several passages which appear to mimic the style and content that would have been seen in famous captivity narratives like Mary Rowlandson’s story of captivity by the Algonquians. One such instance, albeit significantly more boorish, is the scene is which Gulliver must relieve himself:

The best expedient I could think of, was to creep into my house, which I accordingly did; and shutting the gate after me, I went as far as the length of my chain would suffer, and discharged my body of that uneasy load.  But this was the only time I was ever guilty of so uncleanly an action; for which I cannot but hope the candid reader will give some allowance, after he has maturely and impartially considered my case, and the distress I was in…I would not have dwelt so long upon a circumstance that, perhaps, at first sight, may appear not very momentous, if I had not thought it necessary to justify my character, in point of cleanliness, to the world; which, I am told, some of my maligners have been pleased, upon this and other occasions, to call in question.

In this crass scene, Gulliver describes how he unburdens himself with much humiliation. In this moment, he suspends the fourth-wall to address the reader directly to justify himself and make a case for including it in the narrative. Readers that know Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, may notice a similarity between the rhetoric employed in the scene between her and King Phillip in which he offers her a “stinking tobacco pipe”. During that scene, Rowlandson writes about the offer in a roundabout way and takes the opportunity to convince her readers that she is too civilized to smoke from the pipe she was once fond of in her youth: “I thank God, He has now given me power over it; surely there are many who may be better employed than to lie sucking on a stinking tobacco-pipe”. Rowlandson includes this to exert her superiority and buttress her character as a Christian woman. Similarly, Gulliver feels the need to write that “I would not have dwelt so long upon a circumstance…if I had not thought it necessary to justify my character…to the world; which I am told, some of my maligners…call in question”. Like Rowlandson, who would have been under the scrutiny of readers looking checking for hallmarks of a good Puritan woman, Gulliver satirizes this issue more pointedly, addressing critics as “maligners”.

This instance of justifying character, while meant to be a moment of tension calling into question the strength of the faith of the author is satirized into a strength of “cleanliness” (as evidenced by the life “necessary to justify my character, in point of cleanliness”). While not directly acting as a parody to Rowlandson’s narrative, it is clear that Swift is attempting to mock and imitate using base humor to play off the novel’s serious tone. The manner in which how seriously Gulliver writes his travels too is an additional point of mimicry, and combined with the outlandish content of the novel, makes for a hilarious and witty satirical novel.

-Sara Nuila-Chae

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