Aside from the more overt satire on English society, much of “Gulliver’s Travels” is devoted to exploring potential utopias. Although there are obvious examples of utopias in the text, most notably represented by the Houyhnhnms, many do not seem realistically attainable by English society because they would be far too different. As this thesis statement for Gulliver’s Travels suggests, the only realistic utopia that is presented in “Gulliver’s Travels” is that of the Lilliputians because their ways of governing are similar enough to England’s and in some ways they have a more open society. While there are many aspects of the Lilliputian society in “Gulliver’s Travels” that are absurd, these flaws are offset in some ways and the similarities of Lilliputian society to that of England are used only to point out that problems exist in all societies and it is ridiculous to expect that there will not be any.
While the Houyhnhnms in “Gulliver’s Travels” have an ideal way of life, the fact that Swift makes them non-human creatures is important because it suggests that only non-humanoid creatures are capable of living in a balanced and just utopia—that there is something inherent to the human race that breeds conflict. With this in mind it is important to realize that the Lilliputians are similar to Englishmen, the only difference being their diminutive size. Although Swift makes changes such as this in terms of plot, it clear that this is still a satire of English society in “Gulliver’s Travels” While it is true that the Lilliputians in “Gulliver’s Travels” are a way Swift remarks on the triviality of events that are made to seem important in politics and society, this depiction of their society nonetheless serves to remark upon the ways in which an English utopia could be achieved—especially in terms of law.
During Swift’s time the monarchy had a direct influence, even in the realm of law although there was a growing bureaucracy developing. This is satirized in “Gulliver’s Travels” by the Lilliputians who take extensive inventory of all of Gulliver’s possessions and are prone to making “official” edicts governing the lives of Gulliver and the rest of the citizens. At one point, amazed with the gall of the little people, Gulliver remarks in one of the important quotes from Gulliver’s Travels, “I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals, who durst venture to mount and walk on my body, while one of my hands was at liberty, without trembling at the sight of prodigious creature as I must appear to them” (2338). This overwhelming self-importance is key to Swift’s satire in “Gulliver’s Travels” as even the most minute issue is made to be of vast political and bureaucratic importance.
For example, to highlight this theme in “Gulliver’s Travels” by Swift, recall that a war broke out between Lilliput and Blefuscu because of the proper way to break eggs after an Emperor many years before cut his finger on an eggshell. “Whereupon the Emperor published an edict, commanding all his subjects, under great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us there have been six rebellions raised on this account” (3253). This makes the squabbles that resulted in great strife in England seem equally as silly, especially since so much of the debate was based on the “proper” way to interpret which end of the egg was the smallest. Although for the reader, the introduction to Lilliput sounds much like a miniature and more absurd England, as the description of the land and government continues it becomes clear that although the Lilliputians suffer from the same flaws inherent in English society (pompous government, rebellions over relatively minor issues, and a tendency to over-regulate the more mundane aspects of life, to name a few) they posses many beliefs that allow them to be more utopian—especially when compared to England.
While this satire is present in “Gulliver’s Travels” , it is worth noting that although the Lilliputians are objects of a great deal of ridicule, they are, despite their small size, in some ways more progressive than the England Swift seeks to discuss in the novel. For example, even though the Lilliputians have a well-established class system that is similar to that of England (with monarchs, aristocracy, and peasants) Gulliver remarks on the fact, “Whoever there can bring sufficient proof that he hath strictly observed the laws of his country for seventy-three moons, hath a claim to certain privileges, according to his quality and station in life” (2359). This conveys not only a deep respect for the aged in society but reflects a government that does not merely punish crimes, but rewards good behavior. This reward after many years of being an honest and upright citizen pays dividends and makes it worthwhile for a citizen to maintain good law-abiding behavior. What is most remarkable about this clause is that the gains from this good behavior are not passed down to sons or daughters but are the rewards strictly for the one who earned it. This eliminates class privileges since in Swift’s England, many of the privileges were inherited rather than earned thus creating a wealthy class that prone to idleness and a lack of concern for the future since they were sure to be taken care of because of old money. While there is an aristocracy in Lilliputian society, there is a sense that much of a person’s position is just as dependent on their personal characteristics and talents as is placed on inherited wealth or power. This is one of the clearest examples in the text of a realistic or attainable utopia since it is based on traditional English models of class and society yet is infused with greater incentive for the individual to attain their position.