Sex, Symbol, and Satire: Day 2

Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift

Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”


Chapter 7 of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me deals with symbols, including specifically their relation to sex.  Here we find the dangerous divide between imagined and real freedom.  The stakes could not be higher because the consequences of wrong choices can affect our lives in profound ways with eternal consequences.

As Karen Swallow Prior writes:

Both knowledge and honesty are essential to true freedom, even (or especially) sexual freedom. I certainly do not wish for a return to the kind of Pollyanna approach to sex so characteristic of previous generations; I harbor no desire to return to the tragic ignorance of my mother’s youth or that of Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Yet at the same time, none of the scenes I described above, common versions of sexual freedom the world offers, reflect true freedom. They symbolize sexual freedom, but disconnected as they are from the real purpose and meaning of sex, they are false symbols. Imagine two substances that look the same, say, white flour and rat poison. Imagine the symbol for each, a cluster of wheat and a skull and cross bones, placed on the wrong package. This is what happens when a symbol is separated from the reality it is supposed to reflect. It signifies the wrong thing. And it can lead to death rather than life, to a cage rather than freedom.

 

What symbols of promised sexual freedom are actually paths of imprisonment?

Psalm 119:105

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.


Dig Deeper

Literature, Liturgy & The Arts


Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, the author’s name did not appear on the book. The title page read “Travels into several remote Nations of the World, by Lemuel Gulliver …” Many people accepted this as fact. Travel books of the time told many tales that were no more strange than the imaginary adventures of Gulliver. One sea captain even claimed that he knew Captain Gulliver well.

Other readers condemned the book as full of exaggerations.Although it became one of the most famous books for children, it was not written for children. It was savage satire aimed at the human race. The tiny Lilliputians are vain, malicious, and bloodthirsty. The king and the court of Lilliput are a parody of the English king and court. The giants of Brobdingnag are amiable, but commonplace and insensitive. Laputa is full of the foolish philosophers and scientists whom Swift despised. The Houyhnhnms are horses who use degraded men, Yahoos, as men use horses elsewhere. Looking at mankind through the eyes of horses, Swift sees people as vicious, greedy, and ignorant.

From its first appearance Gulliver’s Travels delighted its readers instead of shocking them. In spite of his bitterness, Swift took a dry delight in making his narrative sound real even when it was fantastic. Children could enjoy the marvelous adventures of a traveler among pygmies and giants, on a flying island, and in a country where horses talk. Gulliver’s Travels soon became a children’s classic.

A large part of what Swift wrote is made up of pamphlets on political or ecclesiastical affairs and must be read in the light of history. But A Tale of a Tub, a satire on false religion, and The Battle of the Books, a burlesque of literary controversy (both published in 1704), are still read for their comic ridicule of human folly. Drapier’s Letters (1724), written to expose a minor scandal in the government of Ireland by the English, lifts the issue to something universal—the human rights of men against tyrants. The Journal to Stella is a brilliant picture of a brilliant age.

“Swift, Jonathan,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me

Booked draws on classics like Great Expectations, delights such as Charlotte’s Web, the poetry of Hopkins and Donne, and more. This thoughtful, straight-up memoir will be pure pleasure for book-lovers, teachers, and anyone who has struggled to find a way to articulate the inexpressible through a love of story.