As we know, the first part of Gulliver’s Travels is a story about Gulliver’s journey to the country of the Lilliputians. From the very beginning we can see some strange similarity between what is being narrated by the author and what was happening in the foreign policy of England at that time. At the moment when Swift was writing Gulliver’s Travels England was very active in respect of colonization of other countries. Despite its small size, it was very powerful and strong because of its formidable fleet. This allowed England to get to know new places, people, ways of living, even some very exotic ones and totally different to their own culture, for example, the Americas. So, one of the possible interpretations of Gulliver’s arrival at Lilliputians’ land is the parallel between him and other Englishmen who were going to unknown places and were meeting other nations that were shockingly dissimilar to them.
However, this difference that Swift shows between Gulliver and the Lilliputians – the difference in size – has its important consequences. We can see that Gulliver is much stronger than the nation where he has become a prisoner. He has power to do whatever he wants in this new land he has discovered by chance (it is important to notice that the power is not only physical but it is also based on the technological achievement of Gulliver’s culture). But despite this fact, Gulliver seems to be afraid of the Lilliputians arrows and he condescends to be held prisoner. Probably here Swift makes an allusion to the policy of England in relation to the countries it was colonizing: though it is more powerful, it condescends not to destroy their native identity.
Besides this, there are some resemblances that concern places that Gulliver describes at arriving to Lilliput. Thus the temple “polluted some years ago by an unnatural murder” may remind us of the Banqueting-House at White-Hall where King Charles I was beheaded.² However many other critics argue that there has been no hint in the narrative that features of the Lilliputian landscape should be taken as allusions to contemporary England. “From the earliest commentaries it has been suggested that this refers to Westminster Hall in which Charles I had been condemned to death, but the real explanation may be,” John Chalker sensibly notes, “that Swift had to justify the existence of an empty building large enough to contain Gulliver”.³
In the following chapters of Part I Gulliver describes the political structure and customs of Lilliput. It is easy to notice satire on British government in many cases. For example, the fact that the officials are chosen by their skill at rope-dancing seems to be ridiculous. In order to get a powerful position in society people are ready to literally jump through hoops. Obviously enough, there is an insinuation here at the British system of political appointments and at the fact that it is more important to be adroit than well-qualified to obtain a position in the government.
It is worth noticing, however, that Gulliver never mentions that he finds some Lilliputians’ traditions ridiculous. Nor does he point out the similarities between what he sees and what happens in England. Swift leaves the reader to perceive the satire and to interpret it himself.
In further chapters the parallel drawn between the Lilliputians and the British becomes even more obvious. Lilliput and Blefuscu represent England and France. The violent conflict between Big-Endians and Little-Endians stands for the centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants. As far as the Tramecksan and the Slamecksan are concerned, there is no difficulty to recognize the Whigs and Tories of English politics. Gulliver reports Reldresal’s description of Lilliputian party politics:
You are to understand, that for above seventy Moons past, there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan, and Slamecksan, from the high and low Heels on their Shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.
It is alledged indeed, that the High Heels are most agreeable to our ancient Constitution: But however this be, his Majesty hath determined to make use of only low Heels in the Administration of the Government, and all Offices in the Gift of the Crown; as you cannot but observe; and particularly, that his Majesty’s Imperial Heels are lower at least by a Drurr than any of his Court…We compute the Tramecksan, or High-Heels, to exceed us in Number; but the Power is wholly on our Side. We apprehend his Imperial Highness, the Heir to the Crown, to have some Tendency towards the High-Heels; at least we can plainly discover one of his Heels higher than the other… (1, p.39-40. From now on I will use this edition as a reference for the quotations).
“In this passage there are not only clear pointers alerting us to a possible parallel between Lilliputian politics and British politics, there are also good reasons why Swift should wish to allude to the state of the nation this way. In the early eighteenth century, there were indeed “two parties” in the nation. Alternative names for Tories and Whigs were the High Church and the Low Church parties. The preservation of the constitution in Church and State was a fundamental tenet of Tory dogma, yet the government of George I was dominated by Whigs. Despite being nominal head of the Church of England, George I was not an Anglican, and therefore most decidedly not a High Churchman. The Tories were generally thought to comprise the majority of Englishmen. And finally the Prince of Wales, the future George II, was thought in 1726 to favor the Tories to a certain extent.” (2, p.344).
We see that Swift in his book satirically describes the real situation in Europe, and in England in particular, and many times this description consists of a number of useless and shallow conflicts. All the confrontation between High-Heels and Low-Heels, Big and Little Endians, between Lilliput and Blefuscu are meaningless in their essence. But does this mean that the questions of religion, national identity, politics were of no importance to the author? In all times they have been significant for everyone and they continue to be such nowadays. Did Swift reject their importance? The text does not say much about it, but the story about Big and Little Endians’ antipathy may shed some light on the author’s idea. As we know, their conflict centres around the way it is legitimate to crack an egg. However, this reason seems to be ridiculous because there cannot be right or wrong form of breaking an eggshell. Everyone does it as he pleases. So, probably, what Swift was insinuating in this allegory was that there cannot be right or wrong way of worshipping God. Big Endians and Little Endians have the same religious text, but they disagree on interpretation of one passage which says that all true believers must break eggs at the convenient end. Obviously enough, this phrase can be understood in two different ways, and it is not possible to prove that one is correct and the other not. Similarly, one religious text – Christian Bible – can be interpreted differently, and no one can be sure that his comprehension of it is the right one, simply because there is no, and never will be, proof of it. That is why it is useless and meaningless to argue about something that is so relative and cannot have any conclusive answer.
And what about the Emperor of Lilliput? Are there any similarities between him and the king of England, George I? The Emperor of Lilliput is called by Swift “a renowned Patron of Learning” (p.21) and “an excellent Horseman”, “strong and masculine, with an Austrian Lip, and arched Nose, his Complexion olive” (p.24). He is “twenty-eight Years and three Quarters old, of which he had reigned about seven, in great Felicity, and generally victorious” (p.25). Gulliver thinks him to be “a most magnanimous Prince” (p.30).
Swift, as we know, was not in the habit of praising the king, and this does not immediately strike us as a description of George I, who was 66 when Gulliver’s Travels appeared. No juggling with Swift’s figures can make the Emperor of Lilliput’s age correspond meaningfully with George I’s. It is of course possible to resort to the old device of the political satirist, irony. As Swift advised in his “Directions for a Birthday Song”:
Thus your Encomiums, to be strong,
Must be apply’d directly wrong:
A Tyrant for his Mercy praise,
And crown a Royal Dunce with Bays:
A squinting Monkey load with charms;
And paint a Coward fierce in arms.
Is he to Avarice inclin’d?
Extol him for his generous mind…4
So, it seems that the Emperor was described as almost the exact antithesis of George I. He is not meant to portray the King of England, nor is he drawn from him. However Swift forces us to compare the two. There is no need for the author to present a consistent allegory to score his political point. In this case his method is one of analogy: reasoning from parallel cases.
Another interesting episode in Part I is a moment when there is fire in the empress’s rooms, and in order to prevent a disaster Gulliver extinguishes the fire by urinating on the palace in flames. Despite the fact that this action was considered a crime in Lilliput, Gulliver was pardoned. However the empress did not want to return to her rescued apartments. When we start thinking about this humorous episode the first thing that comes to mind is that this may be a disguised way to show Swift’s real attitude towards the politics and royalty. He expresses his “respect” to them and indicates their insignificance for him. Besides, this passage can be interpreted as an allusion to certain events in Swift’s own life: for example, if we take the empress of Lilliput for Queen Anne of England and Gulliver’s public urination for his work A Tale of a Tub, this idea may make sense. A Tale of a Tub (published in 1704) is one of the most famous satires written by Swift where he ridicules religion, politics, literature, medicine. At the time it was written, politics and religion were still linked very closely in England, and the religious and political aspects of the satire can often hardly be separated. This work made Swift notorious, and was widely misunderstood, especially by Queen Anne who took it as profanity. The Lilliputian empress’s disgust at Gulliver’s urination is analogous to Queen Anne’s criticism of Swift’s work and her attempts to limit his prospects in the Church of England.
Close to the end of Part I Swift becomes more serious and his satire changes into something positive: the author describes certain customs in Lilliput that he himself sympathizes with. For example, treating fraud as a worse crime than theft and making false testimony a capital crime seem to be reasonable as the whole society depends on trust. Dishonesty and corruption can be extremely damaging to the country. Though in the beginning this unusual Lilliputian tradition may look like another instance of Swift’s irony, from the favourable way that he describes it we can infer that, actually, he approves of it.
Other examples of some strange but sensible customs are those that are connected with the contribution to the good of the nation. Here, as in the case of the description of the Emperor of Lilliput, we may notice the opposition between the way things are in Britain and in Lilliput. This is a contrast between individualistic and communal form of living. Apparently, Swift is in favour of the latter. So, again, despite being funny and exaggerated at first sight, these traditions contain some grain of reasonableness if we think about them: anyone who treats his benefactor badly must be a public enemy, that is why ingratitude is punished by death; children must be raised by the whole community because parents think only about their own interests when bringing up babies, so the best citizens can be reared only in public nurseries; there are no beggars at all, since the poor are well looked after.
However, in the use of all these customs it is easy to notice the tendency of each society to assume that these customs are natural. The Lilliputians do not question their cultural norms because they have no reason to believe that there is any other way to behave and conduct affairs. When alternatives are proposed, as in the case of the egg-breaking controversy, the discussion ends in violent conflict. The same may be true to every country, England as well. Swift here may be speaking ironically of British self-assurance and feeling of prepotency, because things can be arranged differently (and not worse than in England) and the Lilliputian society is a possible example of it.