The theme in Gulliver’s Travels of utopia is persistent throughout the novel by Jonathan Swift and is present in all of the societies Gulliver encounters. In order to point out the ways in which Lilliput is the picture for an attainable utopia for England, Jonathan Swift takes several pages of “Gulliver’s Travels” to detail the laws by which the citizens are governed. Although there is comment about revolutions occurring over trivial matters, there is no discussion of laws being the subject of public outcry and it can be assumed that the populace considers them fair. All of the legal codes in Lilliput in “Gulliver’s Travels” are based on European models, but they all have an added clause that differentiates them from England’s and somehow makes them better for the whole of society.
As mentioned above, the law rewards good behavior but it also has rules for punishing bad actions as well, some of which may sound a bit extreme particularly to the modern reader. For example, the Lilliputians decree, in one of the important quotes from Gulliver’s Travels, “All crimes against the state are punished here with the utmost severity; but if the person accused make his innocence plainly to appear on his trial, the accuser is immediately put to an ignominious death” (2359) and the person that was accused is compensated for his trouble. In this society in “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, it is possible to maintain one’s innocence (just as in Swift’s England) and but there is the deviation on the “real world” code that the accuser is punished and the accused has the right to compensation.
While this thesis statement about Gulliver’s Travels may sound extreme, it would prevent the courts being tied up in frivolous battles since an accuser would want to make absolute certain he was correct about the guilt of the accused under pain of death. In many ways then, this represents a more utopian vision of the function of courts because with such a law, law itself would be reserved for only the most serious offenses and crimes. As another utopian twist on traditional English codes, the Lilliputians “look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore, seldom fail to punish it with death for they allege; that care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man’s goods from thieves, but honesty hath no fence against superior cunning” (2359).
The English way of viewing these two crimes is that theft is worse because it threatens the capital or ultimate “worth” of a person by taking away goods. In this more socialist (to use the term very loosely) land, tricking someone out of their goods is even worse because one cannot defend against it is utopian because it rests on the assumption of personal responsibility versus that of the law. In other words, as long as person uses their common sense to protect against theft, one has no right to steal from them. Again, the idea behind Swift’s definition of these extensive legal codes is present the idea that a utopia is not unrealistic—it just involves a tweaking of the laws and a greater understanding of individual responsibility (as opposed to relying on the law alone to solve problems).
After relating the details of English society to the King in Brobdingnag in “Gulliver’s Travels”, the pinnacle of utopian societies and ideals in the text, the King “was perfectly astonished with the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last century, protesting that it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, or other ambition could produce” (2403). Although the laws and edicts of Lilliput might seem similar to those in England (thus same in this utopian King’s eyes) there is no discussion of the lust, malice, cruelty, or hatred that is so prominent in England’s history. As this thesis statement for Gulliver’s Travels is carried through, we see that, n this way, through “Gulliver’s Travels” Swift seems to be suggesting that Lilliput is a viable alternative to English law and the revisions to the law based on a Lilliputian mindset might make the history of England seem less barbarian.
Although the Lilliputians offer a realistic model for making England a better place, there are several aspects of the Houyhnhnms that could be integrated into England as well. Gulliver points out, “Temperance, industry, exercise, and cleanliness are the lesson equally enjoined to the young ones [Houyhnhnms] of both sexes; and my master thought it monstrous in is to give the females a different kind of education from the males, except in some articles of domestic management; whereby, as he truly observed, one half of our natives were good for nothing but to bring creatures into the world, and to trust the care of their children to such useless animals, he said was a greater instance of brutality.”(2462). By seeming appalled at this inequality, the point is clear—the English brutality does not begin or end with law but rather, branches out to all aspects of life. It is worth noting that the Houyhnhnms are presented as mythical beasts, however, while the Lilliputians are just like ordinary men except for their size. This is indicative of Swift’s visions of attainable and realistic utopias because it expresses the thought that only non-humans can achieve a perfect utopia. For human beings, the work toward the goal of a perfect society will be long and might never yield the results of the Houyhnhnms but by integrating new viewpoints, perhaps a utopia is closer than it seems
Other articles and essays in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Comparison of Use of Irony & Satire in “A Modest Proposal” and “Gulliver’s Travels” • Comparison of The Metamorphosis, Gulliver’s Travels and The Death of Ivan Ilych • Analysis and Short Summary of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift • Irony and Social Critique in “A Modest Proposal” and Candide