Gulliver’s Travel to the Laputa as a Critique of the Enlightenment Thought

    In the third part of his voyage, the narrator of Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver finds himself on a floating island, named Laputa. Gulliver is welcomed by the Laputans, and begins to observe their culture and lifestyle. But what is the contribution of Gulliver’s third voyage to the work’s overall satire? Each travel of Gulliver illustrates both utopic (egalitarian society of the Houyhnhnmland and peaceful Brobdingnagians) and dystopic worldviews (the military government of the Lilliputians) and the readers are invited to question different aspects of human nature and civilisation. One of Swift’s dystopian satires deals with the inhabitants of Laputa. Swift expresses his scepticism regarding the Enlightenment thinkers through the Laputans and the works of the projectors of Lagado.

    The first criticism over the Enlightenment thought can be observed in Part 3, Chapter 2, when Gulliver encounters with the Laputans, whose minds are bodies cannot function at the same time without being “roused by their flappers” (2406), since their minds are heavily preoccupied by critical thinking. Although they are very skilful at mathematics and music, their investigations do not produce a satisfactory or practical outcome anyhow. Gulliver expresses his surprise by saying: “I have not seen a more clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people … in their conceptions upon all other subjects, except those of mathematics and music” (2408). Also in the same chapter, a tailor is sent to take Gulliver’s measures and weave a cloth to him. The tailor takes his altitude “by a quadrant … with a rule and compasses” (2407) then weaves a cloth that is “very ill made” because of miscalculations. As Walter Scott points out in his introduction to Swift’s works, the tailor’s mistake may be alluded to Sir Isaac Newton’s miscalculation of the distance between the sun and the earth (qtd. in Bloom 126).

From Lagado to Ireland

    Swift’s second criticism centred on the Enlightenment projectors. When Gulliver leaves the flying island Laputa, he visits Balnibarbi island and there he is allowed to examine the works of the Grand Academy of Lagado projectors. There, Gulliver meets with different scholars who are trying to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers or to transform human excrement into its original food. All of their studies are based on meticulous calculations and yet in practice, they are useless. As Nicolson and Mohler suggest, Gulliver’s encounter with the projectors of Academy of Lagado is a parody of the 18th century science (qtd. in Merton 275). Swift draws parallels between the vain enterprises of the Enlightenment thinkers and their allegorical counterparts. At the same time, Swift’s another Enlightenment critique can be examined outside of the realms of Gulliver’s “distant lands”. After the succession of George I and return of Whig government, Swift began to his self-imposed exile and moved to Ireland. There he wrote many pamphlets and essays to draw attention to Irish problems. Three years after the first publication of Gulliver’s Travels, in 1729, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal”, one of his bitterest criticism of both the British government and the Enlightenment projectors. In his pamphlet, Swift employs the discourse of a social engineer, whose “modest” proposal is to sell Irish children as food to the privileged class. Even though the underlying message of the essay is “the English are devouring the Irish” (Gunnarsdóttir 18), Swift also attacks to the Enlightenment projectors. What Swift also implies about the proposals of the projectors of his time is, since the social or economic problems in a society require meticulous examinations as well as researches regarding to its roots, the projectors who are obsessively trying to improve the conditions but not paying attention to the roots, would propose some solutions, but only temporary ones and these solutions would prove themselves as impractical as the Academy of Lagado projectors’ works.

    The main function of the satire is not only to ridicule constitutions or personages, but also to improve their conditions. And as an answer to the previous question, the function of Gulliver’s travel to the Laputa is to mock Swift’s contemporary scientists and thinkers, as well as to improve the conditions of the society by pointing out the over usage of reason. Swift, first of all, mocks with the 18th century scientists and thinkers through the inhabitants of the Laputa, and second, scrutinises his contemporary projectors and their vain attempts in the name of progress.

Works cited

    Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Classic Critical Views: Jonathan Swift. Ed. Daniel Cook. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009. Print.

    Gunnarsdóttir, Bryndís. The Satire as a Social Mirror: Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in Context. Thesis. The U of Iceland, 2009. Skemman. Web. 9 May 2015. <;.

    Merton, Robert C. “The “Motionless” Motion of Swift’s Flying Island.” Journal of the History of Ideas 27.2 (1966): 275-77. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2015. <;.

    Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams. Eighth ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2006. 2023-2462. Print.

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