Even today, after almost 300 years, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift stand as literary giants from the Eighteenth Century. Their monumental works, The Rape of the Lock and Gulliver’s Travels, respectively, expose facets of contemporary English life the authors despised. The two wrote from positions of disadvantage in Britain: Pope was catholic, while Swift was Irish. The convictions formed by these backgrounds play a very important role in their literature. Many other contrasts may be drawn between the two, yet ultimately they are still both master satirists. Although Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift held slightly different philosophies and used different mediums, both exhibited their belief in social, political, and religious reform in Restoration-era England by showing readers, both blatantly and subtly, what they opposed.
In his The Rape of the Lock, Pope obviously shows that he is against the social practices of the day by dramatizing a feud within two aristocratic families. “What mighty contests rise from trivial things,” he begins (L. 2 p. 1136). By exaggerating a simple argument over a lock of hair into a sprawling epic full of classical allusions, he is stating how ridiculous he finds many of the immaterial arguments that arise between groups of people. On a conscious level, this undoubtedly refers to the wealthy families of Europe who often let small, frivolous instances start rifts among themselves. However, on a deeper level, Pope could be arguing for religious equality in England, since as a Catholic he was denied many basic rights, and he probably felt that how one chose to worship God was irrelevant. This is comparable to the logic seen in Part 1 of Gulliver’s Travels, where Swift uses the apparently extraneous big-ender/little-ender dispute to imply that the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are nothing to start wars over.
Later in The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope uses the character Clarissa to show yet another view of the English social scene. In Canto 5, she essentially states that the beauty of women is overrated and that their moral qualities are often never taken into account. The footnotes of The Norton Anthology say that this has a striking resemblance to a speech in The Iliad (1151), however, in its inclusion, it is also presumably meant to be taken as Pope’s view on women. Clarissa’s oration, though, is unilaterally scoffed at. “So spake the dame, but no applause ensued,” Pope writes (L. 35 p 1151). Here, he is using the negative reaction to a wonderful, beautiful, and reasonable speech to show yet another problem he sees in not only contemporary Britain, but also human nature: common sense being sacrificed for things like tradition and personal pride.
Pope also gives religious commentary in The Rape of the Lock. “On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore” (canto 2 line 7 p. 1139). By having Belinda wear a “sparkling” Christian emblem, Pope is characterizing her as a spiritual person, presumably a Catholic like himself. Later in the canto, Ariel, in his address to the gathered sylphs, states that Belinda might “Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade, or lose her heart, or necklace” (L. 108-109, p. 1141-1142). The reference to forgetting prayers bears a striking resemblence to Catholic practice. In comparison is the allusion to the necklace found at the end of the line. Many readers would skim over this, thinking the necklace referred just to a piece of valuable jewelry. On the contrary, Pope deliberately used the necklace as an allegory for religion, since just a few lines earlier he said that Belinda’s necklace was a cross. This is quite possibly a metaphor for young, innocent Catholic girls of Pope’s time “losing their faith” by converting so they could marry wealthy Protestant Englishmen. By grouping the loss of her prayers or her cross in Ariel’s list of “dire disaster[s],” Pope is stating that he is quite opposed to any practice by the socialites or the government to convert people from Catholicism.
In essence, Alexander Pope used The Rape of the Lock as a vehicle to show that he was decidedly against the superficial lifestyle of the upper class, the common conception of Restoration-era females, and the overall treatment of Catholics in his present-day England. Similarly, Jonathan Swift utilized his novel Gulliver’s Travels to showcase his political and social criticism. Each part in his extensive fictional travel memoir exhibits a slightly unique view as to how Swift felt England could change for the better.
In Part 1, Lemuel Gulliver visits Lilliput as a giant, being able to view a model of England with a much larger prospective. As stated earlier, one of the main devices used by Swift in the first part is the big-ender/little-ender egg dispute. Not only does the evidently superfluous argument serve as an allusion to the sparring between Protestants and Catholics, but it, along with the never-ending struggles with the neighboring Blefuscu, is also used to represent the extreme foolishness of the fighting between England and France. Swift makes very clear comparisons throughout the first part to political figures and contemporary events, ranging from Robert Walpole to the Earl of Nottingham to the Test Act. He uses these references to show his disgust with the political practices of the Whigs, and in a broader sense, the English parliamentary monarachy as a whole.
By actually placing the “Articles of Impeachment against Quinbus Flestrin” (p 1004) and the rules by which Gulliver must live when he first arrived (p 989), Swift is conveying the pretentiousness and overbearing bureaucracy of government. How ridiculous is it that these miniscule people made out several laws and articles when they were dealing with something that they really did not understand or have complete control over? Swift again is showing that he is against the backward policies of Parliament.
In Part 2, Gulliver finds himself the Lilliputian among enormous giants, in the land of Brobdingnag. As in Part 1, the larger species represents the wiser, more enlightened culture. Therefore, Jonathan Swift used the near-perfect society, and the their monarch’s scorn of Gulliver’s people, to show the shortcomings of England.
With Gulliver’s incessant and arduous defense of his homeland while talking with the King of Brobdingnag, the author is also showing his displeasure with the arrogant attitude of the English people. Gulliver mocks the fact that “the learning of these people is very defective…morality, history, poetry, and mathematics” and that “no law must exceed in words the number of letters in their alphabet” (p 1045). It was intuitively Swift’s hope that the reader noticed that the giant people were ideal, and that Gulliver, representing the English people, was wrong for deriding them in his narrative. Perhaps by trying to destroy the myth of British superiority and nationalism, Swift was making an anti-colonialism statement, since natives of foreign lands were often viewed as inferior to the English, the same way Gulliver saw the people of Brobdingnag.
Yet an even greater stance against colonialism is taken in Part 3, where Gulliver visits the island of Laputa, a floating land that demands payments from the countries below to fund its scientific endeavors. Although he never really cared for his homeland, this section probably meant the most to Swift, because his country, Ireland, was constantly under the threat of English imperialism. Also through this section of the work, Swift states how trifling he finds much of the science of the day, pointing to the absurdity of some of their experiments and activities, ranging from “breeding naked sheep” (p. 1059) to the council that attempts to make their language more efficient (p. 1061).
Part 4 of Gulliver’s Travels shows the land of the Houyhnhnms, an ideal horse-like creature that is meant to show the average reader how humankind as a whole has gone wrong. Swift reinforces the ideas that the English lifestyle is not immaculate by drawing comparisons between the savageous Yahoos and the English. In the end, the reader, like Gulliver, is supposed to be questioning the purpose of human existence.
Overall, Jonathan Swift highlights the flaws and problems with many different aspects of British life in Gulliver’s Travels. Through showing that he is adamantly against the Whig government, English colonialism, warring with France, religious feuding, extravagant scientific exploration, the haughty attitude of English nobles, and the flaws with humanity itself, Jonathan Swift is making his argument for massive reform, be it political or social upheaval.
Swift takes a much broader view of opposition than Alexander Pope, whose targets are mostly revealed as he mocks the upper-class socialites. Swift also chose to use a fictional travel journal that could have been read by anyone to share his beliefs, whereas Pope used a mock epic poem where only the educated would fully understand the references.
However, despite these differences, both writers felt the need for change in Restoration England. By displaying what they were opposed to, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope show readers exactly what they stand for. Each would argue for personal freedom in religious matters, and both would agree that the disposition, in general, of many Englishmen is misguided. Both would also more than likely welcome radical political change on the British Isles, or at least a change in the common political practices. All in all, The Rape of the Lock and Gulliver’s Travels, as well as their respective authors, are paramount in English literature in part because of their ability to convey the ideas and beliefs of the authors in a unique method.