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Travelogue as Social Commentary

A travelogue like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) explores the culture, customs and the rituals of the imaginary lands which caricature contemporary English society, it serves as documents of social commentary in the same way as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1386-1400) have some observations on the social conditions of people of his time. These two texts have been compared and contrasted for their comparative analysis and criticism of contemporary societies.

If Swift’s intention of writing Gulliver’s Travels was to vex the world rather than divert it, then he has successfully created a satirical masterpiece which is both universal and topical in scope. But Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is more universal and less topical in nature. Parallels may found between the historical and political events of the eighteenth century and the incidents in Gulliver’s Travels.

The first attack on the quality of the contemporary politics is to be found in the publisher Sympson’s (a fictitious character) preface to the reader in which he recommends the book as “a better entertainment to our young noblemen than the common scribbles of politics and party. ” (Norton. 973)The veracity of Gulliver’s observations and description is also confirmed in the publisher’s note: “the only fault I find is, that the author, after the manner of the travellers, is a little circumstantial. ”

The controversy arises about this political fantasy as to whether Swift reflected his own views on politics and religion or whether these are only the views of his fictional character Gulliver. This dystopia is regarded as a satire on politics, intelligentsia, manners and morality of England and Ireland in his day . Political offices were offered by English King on the basis of lobby. The Treasurer of the Lilliputians, Flimnap, reminds us of Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister of England. Dancing on tight ropes represents Walpole’s political and diplomatic skill in parliamentary affairs.

The three fine silk threads awarded stand for the various prizes awarded by English King to his favorites. The contemporary conflict between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants is reflected in the fight between the Big Endians and the Little Endians. Queen Anne’s displeasure at Swift’s A Tale of the Tub has been satirized in the Little empress’s indignation at Gulliver extinguishing the fire at her palace. King Brobdingnag’s disparaging comments on English history is nothing but a series of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, revolutions and banishments.

If we compare Swift with Chaucer, we find his The Canterbury Tales surprisingly lacking in faithful rendering of social realities. There is no mention of any war with France and their breaking away from the English yoke in 1378. Hardly any allusion is made to either the uprising of the oppressed peasantry or the religious schism that divided England. In spite of Chaucer’s participation in the military and diplomatic events, we find no mention of Richard II’s deposition by his cousin Henry of Lancaster.

Only in the description of the young squire in the Prologue (ll. 85-88) we find reference to the great national war. Because of scant interest in war he sends away his soldier, the Knight, to fight in foreign lands. Chaucer does not show much interest in either the troubles or turmoil of his country, or in its triumphs. All we get to know about the terrible plague of his time is from the physician who made money in the Pardoner’s Tale and that thousands died of the epidemic. Chaucer emerges more universal than topical in The Canterbury Tales. But Chaucer has drawn the pilgrims from various stations of life and their speeches and behavior are very appropriate to their vocations.

In Part III the voyage to Leputa the flying island echoes the English exploitation of the Irish and a satire on Newtonian mathematics: “The place is stored with great variety of sextants, quadrants, telescopes, astrolabes, and other astronomical instruments. ” (Swift. 191) The Grand Academy of Lagado is undisguised parody on extravagance of the Royal Society, “Every room hath in it one or more projectors, and I believe I could not be in fewer than five hundred rooms,” and the absurdity of research is mocked. “to reduce human excrement to original food. ” (Swift. 209)

New criticism, literary and historical, is satirized in Gulliver’s voyage to Glubbdubdrib. Voyage to Luggnagg only deepens profound disillusion about the future of mankind. We are greatly amused by the useless experiments and researches, which are going on at the academy of Projectors in Lugado. In contrast the priest and other religious figures found in The Canterbury Tales are depicted as individuals, yet they show some traits of their profession. Corruption in the church is exposed. The Church is guilty of ostentation of wealth while all the time glorifying poverty and suffering for the sake of God.

The churchmen are known to accept bribes, and bribe others for gain. They indulge in the pleasures of the senses just like laymen. The monk is seen to be biased against the Pardoner. In Part II dwarfish Gulliver’s microscopic vision discovers the “most pernicious race of little vermin” and then referring to Berkley’s Theory of Vision (1709) adds philosophically, “Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us, nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison. ” (Norton. 1015) Chaucer’s tales are like modern best-sellers aimed to entertain the pilgrims on their way and to relieve them of the boredom of their journey.

Therefore, they are full of murder violence, cheating, adulteries, and other immoral actions. But they give us a broad canvass of life with broadminded morality seasoned with good humor. The lying, cheating and hypocrisies are a part of human nature (as Swift demonstrates) which is more universal than a reliable picture of contemporary life.

Work Cited

Abrams, M. H. and Greenblatt, Stephen (eds. ) The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. New York. W. W. Norton & Co. 2001. pp. 173-276; 966-1118 Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. N. York. Bantam. 2005 May 27, 2008

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