Although Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has long since attained a level of unassailable canonicity, a considerable degree of the text’s continued popularity can be explained by the sheer imaginative virtuosity of the work. Many modern-day readers turn to Gulliver’s Travels simply for the pleasure of encountering Swift’s fanciful creations. While it is true that the work is valuable and enjoyable simply for its plot and surface elements, a much deeper level of meaning and significance can be achieved if the reader takes note of the strong satirical elements in the novel.
Taking the historical era in which Swift was writing into consideration, one of the major changes that was occurring was the shift to a more scientific, empirically-informed worldview, such as that advanced by the Royal Society and Francis Bacon. However, Swift and others were concerned that if this new scientific outlook could lead to disaster if it continued unchecked. Swift and other dissenters argued that science without context could have widespread deleterious consequences, and this position profoundly informs his satirical treatment of science and knowledge in Gulliver’s Travels. This paper will explore the method and function of Swift’s satirical treatment of these subjects in the novel.
Several critics have pointed out that considerable documentary evidence exists that suggests that Swift was not uniformly opposed to all science. Therefore, a dismissive reading of Swift’s satirical approach to science in Gulliver’s Travels that figures the author as a contrary Luddite would be overly facile and reductive. Indeed, Swift was a proponent of science in some forms, but he reacted strenuously against what he perceived as its misuse. The satirical treatment of science in Gulliver’s Travels is much more complex than a simple all-or-nothing rejection of the new scientific mindset that was becoming increasingly prevalent in Swift’s time.
Rather than objecting to the use of science in general, Swift seems to have taken issue with a particular form of scientific research, and it is with this type of offending science/scientist that Swift is chiefly concerned in the text. Namely, the type of science that Swift attacks is inapplicable science, or “pure theory,” that type of research that has no specific practical application. Even in Swift’s historical context, the origins of the current theory/practice dichotomy were already present . This distinction continues to operate in the academy today, where those types of researchers who pursue problems of application are viewed as inherently less valuable than their colleagues who deal in questions of pure theory. Swift’s merciless satire in Gulliver’s Travels is directed specifically at those in the “pure science” category, who view the practical as something they need not be concerned with.