”Voyages into Several Remote Nations”: Imaginary Geographies in the Satiric Novel of the Globalized World


This paper will identify a particular type of fictitious country invented as a setting for satirical novels, exemplified by Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief (1932) and Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan (2006), distinguishing this type from other types of invented nations primarily by the manner in which such settings allow for particular satiric effects. Fictitious countries of this type are composites of actual places (Waugh’s Azania a “fanciful confusion” of Abyssinia and Zanzibar, Shteyngart’s Absurdsvani an ex-Soviet republic on the Caspian resembling Azerbaijan in some features, not others) and thus distinct from the wholly fantastic settings typical of satiric apologues (e.g. Gulliver’s Travels) and from thinly disguised satiric representations of specific, known places and societies. The locations of such countries are presented with a precisely calibrated balance of specificity and vagueness. These “remote nations” are plausibly connected to their authors’ and assumed readers’ “real worlds” by protagonists from familiar though satirically portrayed places (Waugh’s 1930s London, Shteyngart’s millennial New York and St. Petersburg). Parallel in some ways to the “Ruritanian” settings of popular adventure novels and farces but rendered in emphatically antiromantic detail, such settings allow for a range of satiric effects in their freedom from but connection to the facts of the contemporary political and social world each novel portrays. In both novels the antiheroic Western protagonist’s encounter with the non-Western Other casts satiric reflections in many directions but chiefly westward. To differing degrees, moreover, the two novels shift from the distancing effects of satiric irony to an emotional involvement with characters more typical of novelistic art, particularly in portraying violence. The paper will argue that the capacity for such shifts is in part a function of this type of setting and that Shteyngart’s novel demonstrates that such settings remain a tenable device for fiction in a globalized world.

Джон Мълън е специалист по ранно модерна британска литература, от 2004 г. е преподавател по реторика и литература в Американсия университет в България, Благоевград.




“Voyages into Several Remote Nations”:

Imaginary Geographies in the Satiric Novel of the Globalizing World Part I



This paper is the first part of an exploration of the satiric imagination as it works through the invention of imaginary settings for extended fictional narratives, including novels, that are largely or predominantly satirical. More specifically, it will examine how invented settings situated in regions that are imagined as being geographically distant from but plausibly existing contemporaneously with the actual and known worlds of  the satirists and their assumed readers provide sites for various kinds of direct and indirect critiques of existing institutions, social arrangements, beliefs, and so on. In general terms we will consider how different sorts of the satiric fictions establish different sorts of links or correspondences between their imaginary geographies and conventional geography and how different implied relations between the imaginary and the actual make possible (or are more or less conducive to) different sorts of satiric devices and effects. On this basis we will attempt to distinguish among various types of imaginary settings for satiric narrative. In the second part we will examine in what ways these sorts of settings can provide tenable vehicles for contemporary satire by focusing on two novels, Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief (1932) and the more recent Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan (2006), that exemplify a particular kind of imaginary geography that can be compared with instances of other kinds in recent satire. In this first part, however, we will set the terms of our discussion with tentative definition of both imagination and satire, of some general observations about how the satiric imagination works and how, more specifically, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels provides a paradigmatic instance of satire with one kind of imaginative geography to which the others will be compared.

In keeping with the theme of this conference, our first and most basic question might be: What is imagination? From Greek antiquity through the Early Modern period in the West, the term imagination (imaginatio or phantasia) usually referred to a distinct faculty of the mind that processes empirical data from the five physical senses into images, the faculty that combines sense impressions to create in the mind images of things that do exist in nature and, more problematically, things that do not.  Followers of Aristotle typically ranked imagination as an inferior faculty to reason, though superior to mere sensation. That is, while the imagination is capable of considering the shapes of things in a way that sensation, incapable of perceiving anything beyond the matter it is in contact with, cannot, imagination itself is incapable of considering universal species, which only the higher faculty of reason can do. (For a characteristic and influential treatment, see Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, Bk. V, ch. iv.) Moreover, Aristotle himself held that the imagination (so defined) can be “in error” in a way that sense perception itself cannot: it can delude the mind with chimeras (On the Soul, ch. 3). At the same time, however, Aristotle also famously held (in ch. 9 of the Poetics) that poetry—a term that for him comprised all of what we today commonly call “imaginative” literature, including fiction and drama—is “a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” Of course, theories of the imagination have altered as theories of the mind more generally have risen and fallen as, for instance, when a still basically Aristotelian conception of the poetic imagination as a mimetic “mirror” (to use M.H. Abrams’ terms) that had prevailed from the Renaissance through much of the eighteenth century was supplanted by the Romantic conception of it as a creative “lamp” capable of revealing transcendent truth beyond the grasp of the immediately observable. Theories of the imagination have long grappled with the relation of the empirical to the imagined and the imagined to the universal.

Second question: what do we mean by satire? Although this genre or mode is notoriously protean, and word satire resists definition, one trait we may identify with the satiric imagination from its earliest known manifestations is a close bond with the empirical, a firm grounding in the particular and the immediate, a concern with what is directly experienced in the present rather than with what is remote from that experience. Aristophanes and other writers of Greek Old Comedy ridiculed specific living Athenians by name. Horace and Juvenal, the two prototypical practitioners of the Roman genre from which our term satire originated, detailed the particular vices, vanities, corruptions, and hypocrisies of the social world they knew first-hand in their often racy and ostensibly unstructured verse monologues and dialogues. Not only do the sermones and epistles of Horace and the satirae of Juvenal provide what are arguably the most vividly realized images of life in early imperial Rome as it could have been directly experienced, but both poets explicitly eschewed the idealized characters, stereotyped themes, and remote settings of epic, tragic, and pastoral poetry composed by their less original but more ambitious contemporaries (see especially Hor. Sat. 2.1 and Juv. Sat. 1). The satiric imagination, we might say, is much more mirror than lamp, even if it is a kind of mirror “wherein”—as Swift put it in his preface to The Battel of the Books— “Beholders do generally discover everybody’s Face but their Own”  (Writings 375).

Theorists of satire down to the present have generally acknowledged this grounding in the actual and the particular as one definitive characteristic of satire. Notably, Edward Rosenheim, whose definition of satire in his 1963 study Swift and the Satirist’s Art was widely accepted among theorists of satire for a generation, insisted on the historicity and particularity of the satirist’s target or “victim” as the key distinction between satire and comedy. Rosenheim situated satire on a continuum or “spectrum” between comedy, on the one hand, which he understands as targeting universal human follies, and, on the other hand, “polemical rhetoric,” which aims to persuade its audience to reject some specific person, institution, policy, or trend (as, for instance, in a “negative” campaign speech), thus differentiating the satiric from the comic and the polemical even while linking it to both (10-31). Satire, as he defined it, “consists of an attack by means of a manifest fiction on discernible historical particulars” (30).  According to this definition, the employment of a “manifest fiction” differentiates the satiric “attack” from the polemical just as the historical particularity of the target sets it off from the comic. This “manifest fiction” may consist, he elaborates, in “distortions, analogies, or pure fabrications” (21). For Rosenheim, finally, the three essential components of satire as such, in all its varied forms in works belonging to varied literary genres across varied eras and cultures, are the element of “attack” (which may be  “persuasive” in its corrective or cautionary intent or merely “punitive” in heaping scorn already assumed to be  deserved ) on a target perceived to have violated or deviated from some value or standard endorsed by the satirist, the actuality of the target in a concrete historical context (as opposed to more general or “universal” aberrations portrayed in comedy), and the use in this attack of a “manifest fiction,” which, whatever form it takes, consists in some sort of departure from actuality. It is in identifying these last two components—the grounding in the actual and the departure from the actual into the conspicuously imaginary—as alike essential to satire that the terms of his definition are most relevant to our purpose here.

At this point we should note that Rosenheim’s definition of satire is adopted here with some reservations. It reflects certain assumptions that underlay a theory of satire that took shape between the end of the 1950s and the middle of the 1960s in studies by Rosenheim, Sheldon Sacks, Alvin B. Kernan, Robert C. Elliott, Ronald Paulson, and other North American critics and scholars, whose theory of satire formed the consensus among students of the subject for the next three decades or so (Griffin 1-3).  This theory, still widely accepted in standard treatments of the topic today, assumes—as Ruben Quintero asserted as recently as 2011that satire “remains militantly rhetorical and hortatory,” that it “cannot function without a standard against which readers can compare its subject,” and that the satirist, “either explicitly or implicitly, tries to sway us toward an ideal alternative, toward a condition of what the satirist believes should be” (3). However, as Dustin Griffin argued in his 1994 book Satire: A Critical Reintroduction, while such assumptions have largely gone unchallenged since the 1960s, they have not been borne out in practical criticism of individual works, which reveal more complexity and ambiguity than this theory accounts for. Despite some difference in emphasis, with Rosenheim and Sacks at the University of Chicago stressing satire’s rootedness in historical circumstance and the others (mainly at Yale) understanding satire primarily as a rhetorical art of laus et vituperatio, these theorists broadly concurred in their understanding of what satirists do and intend (Griffin 28-31). Griffin identifies the limitations of this theory, particularly in its Chicago variant:

[By] insisting on the generic identity and coherence of satire, Sacks and Rosenheim construct a schematic diagram that does not correspond to our intuitive sense of what actually goes on in satire. Because it is directed against identifiable particulars, satire in their view is a clear and unambiguous attack. And yet it is a commonplace that satire is often ambiguous, obscure, or double-edged. (30)

Griffin thus disputes some basic assumptions shared by mid-century theorists of both camps and their followers: that satire always (or at least is most typically satirical when it) entails a single-minded and purposeful “attack” that implies a defense of some positive value or standard against which the satirist judges the target of the satiric attack; that satirists must therefore be unequivocal in their judgments and certain of the moral positions they hold; that satirists either assume or seek to engender such certainty in their readers (35-37). Finding little evidence of such assurance and singleness of purpose in many acknowledged masterpieces of satire, he argues that, rather than engaging in a punitive or persuasive (and in Bakhtin’s term monologic) attack, satirists from Horace onward have more characteristically been apt to engage either  in a dialogic “rhetoric of inquiry” that suggests an intent “to explore a moral issue rather than to settle it” (37-42) or in a “rhetoric of provocation” that, often in the form of paradoxes “designed to expose or demolish a foolish certainty,” serves rather to shatter readers’ moral complacency than to affirm some value or standard (52-54).

Griffin likewise disputes the received assumption that irony in satire is, in Wayne Booth’s terms, “stable”—that once the opposition between what is said on the surface and what the satirist “really meant” is recognized the reader can confidently reconstruct the latter and “arrive at a single fixed meaning” (65). For Griffin, the opposition between what is said and what is meant is rarely so clear in satire because, while the presence of irony is usually detectable, the degree to which the surface meaning is subverted can be—and in the work of satirists like Swift typically is—difficult to determine, and this indeterminacy is central to the way much satire works (64-65). He argues that irony “should be understood not simply as a binary switch, either ‘on’ or ‘off,’ but more like a rheostat, a rhetorical dimmer switch that allows for a continuous range of effects between ‘I almost mean what I say’ and ‘I mean the opposite of what I say’” (65-66). Finally, asserting that much satire “involves what Booth calls unstable irony” (67), Griffin questions how far satirists actually control “the irony they have let loose”:

Sometimes one may suspect the satirist of consciously giving in to the attractions of irony in order to let the satiric inquiry go where it will. Perhaps the inquiry is all, the end in itself. In such limiting cases, the process of inquiry is truly open-ended; its exploration has no territory to map, no particular complacency to disturb. (69)

The sum of Griffin’s critique, then, is to cast doubt on whether satirists’ intentions, meanings, and attitudes toward their “victims” are always (or even ever) as single-minded or straightforward as the theory of Rosenheim and company assumes and to claim for satire a greater range of effects than this theory acknowledges as truly satiric.

Nevertheless, Rosenheim’s definition can still be useful for our discussion, particularly in its identification of two apparently contrary elements as alike essential to satire: on the one hand,  the grounding in empirical “facts” in its targeting of “discernible historical particulars” and, on the other hand, the transmutation of these “facts” in its use of a “manifest fiction.” To offer a tentative generalization about the relation of these two elements, we might say that satire is always referential, directing our attention to some concrete phenomenon existing outside the work, but is never wholly referential.  Of course, the same might be said of many other types of fiction besides satire, so perhaps we should add the rather obvious distinction that satire entails both the adoption of a predominantly critical posture toward the phenomenon it refers to (which may imply, as Griffin argues, open-ended inquiry or provocation through unresolvable paradox as well as a persuasive or punitive “attack”) and the intention to evoke laughter (which may range from grim to uproarious or from utterly scornful to relatively benign) in its treatment of this phenomenon. The point here, however, is that attending to the different ways satirists handle the interplay between “historical particulars” they refer to and the “manifest fictions” they invent is central to understanding the different ways the satiric imagination can work.

As mentioned earlier, Rosenheim listed three types of “manifest fictions” employed in satire: “distortions, analogies, or pure fabrications” (21). While none of these is the exclusive property of satire, we might say that the works we recognize as satiric generally show a freer or broader use of these sorts of fictions than non-satiric or less satiric works. In fictional narratives, for instance, satirists seem able get away with more hyperbolic or grotesque distortions, more obvious analogies, and more fantastic fabrications than writers of conventionally realistic fiction that aims at verisimilitude by presenting psychologically credible characters acting in probable series of events in settings resembling the world experienced by the author and assumed readers. Arguably, in considering the relation of satire to the novel (another generic label that resists definition), the degree to which a piece of narrative fiction departs from the canons of verisimilitude,  compromises the reader’s suspension of disbelief, or distances the reader from characters and incidents can serve as one measure of the degree to which it is satiric rather than novelistic.

It has already been suggested here that the satiric imagination is more “mirror” than “lamp.” Satire should, however, be specifically distinguished as a “distorting mirror.” This phrase comes from the title of the chapter on narrative fiction in Gilbert Highet’s 1962 book, The Anatomy of Satire, a taxonomy of satire’s subgenres and survey of its recurring motifs from antiquity to his own era. In this chapter on satire in fictional narratives Highet catalogues the satiric uses of such narrative types as fantastic “voyages to strange lands” or to other worlds, visions of the future, animal tales, and “distorted visions of this world,” listing examples of each and contrasting some types with counterparts in non-satiric fictions (148-230). While Highet’s study shares some problematic assumptions with other the studies of satire produced around the same time, the phrase is apt, and the catalogue is useful in distinguishing among the varied ways satirists simultaneously mirror and distort the world referred to outside the fiction. The aspect of this I will focus on here is the imagination of settings—specifically the invention and rendering of imaginary settings in works that bring together the two motifs that Highet labeled “voyages to strange lands” and “distorted visions of this world” in that the invented setting not only reflects satirically on the non-fictional world existing outside the fiction but is also explicitly connected to this non-fictional world within the fiction itself. I will also try to distinguish among different types within this category, the kinds of satiric effects such settings make available, and the means by which such satiric narratives can be assimilated to other types of fiction beyond satire, in particular the realistic novel.

Fictional narratives with imaginary settings can and often do function in ways akin or even identical to those of satire, depending on the kind and degree of correspondence between the fictional and non-fictional worlds. The settings of science-fiction or fantasy narratives often present analogies to the actual that may be satiric in effect. It is a commonplace, moreover, to observe that utopian fiction nearly always implies a critique of (or at least an inquiry into) contemporary problems by presenting desirable alternatives that stand in telling contrast to existing conditions. Even more closely akin to satire, typically, in its critical distortion of the actual is the kind of dystopian fiction exemplified most famously by such novels as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and so on. As James F. Carens observed about these novels and Evelyn Waugh’s similarly dystopian Love Among the Ruins, “The real point of all these novels is that the brave new world is now. …the satirical force of all these works derives from the fact that the authors have carried to extremes tendencies which already undeniably exist (52). Such fictions, that is, attack or inquire into what the authors see as problems in existing conditions by extrapolating them into the near future, or perhaps into a more distant future that still bears a discernible resemblance to the immediate present, and exaggerating them for emphasis. We might add that part of such novels’ satiric force can also derive from the concrete links that some of them establish between the imagined future and the known present—for instance, the fact that Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith was evidently born around 1945 and is thus explicitly imagined as having lived in a past identified with the writer’s present—which add a sense of plausibility to the mordant caricatures or nightmare scenarios conjured by the novelist. Such links to the “discernible historical particulars” of the here and now can thus heighten the urgency of these dystopian narratives’ cautionary preachments or sharpen the edge of their ridicule. Of course, fictions with imaginary settings more fully removed from direct experience—distant planets, faraway galaxies, parallel universes, realms of myth and fantasy—can and do allude, satirically or otherwise, to actual events or existing conditions of immediate concern to their creators and readers, but these operate through different sorts of correspondence (including analogy and contrast) between the fictional world and the world outside the fiction; consequently, if a work of fiction with such a setting is satirical, its satiric force would be of a necessarily different sort. In general terms, then, the degree to which concrete links are established within a work of fiction between an imaginary setting and the “real” world more directly familiar to assumed readers constitutes a key factor in determining the precise ways the satiric imagination can operate in that work.

A similar range of possibilities and a similar set of considerations can be identified when one looks at the ways the satiric imagination operates through “manifest fictions” in which the “discernible historical particulars” under attack or inquiry by the satirist are projected not forward in time or beyond the Earth but to some invented terrestrial location imagined as geographically remote from but contemporaneous with the known world of the writer and assumed readers. Very generally, as with satiric works that have futuristic, extraterrestrial, or other settings remote from direct experience, satires set in some putatively undiscovered corner of the globe can operate through various kinds of correspondence (analogy, contrast, exaggeration, and so on) between the imagined setting and the world existing outside the fiction. More specifically, like the dystopian fictions set in a relatively near future, fictions with this sort of setting may derive some satiric force from concrete links established between the invented location and the known world—for instance, when a representative figure from the latter undertakes a more or less plausible journey to the former. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels presents, of course, the best known instance of such voyages to imagined “remote nations” used as a vehicle of satire. We will examine it here as a paradigm of the potential for various satiric effects offered by this particular kind of imaginary geography before considering how uses of imaginary geography more recent satirical narratives share some affinities with it while showing significant differences.

First published in 1726 under the title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World and attributed to Lemuel Gulliver, described on the title page as “First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships” and pictured in medallion portrait on the frontispiece—all features “ostensibly signalling a true account” and with “no overt sign of Swift’s authorship” (Rawson xi)—the book blurs the boundaries between fictional and non-fictional narrative to a degree verging on hoax. Of course, the conditions in each of the four “remote nations” reported by the protagonist-narrator are so extravagantly fantastic—inhabitants one twelfth or twelve times the size of all other humans, flying islands, rationalist horses, and so on—that it is impossible either to mistake his accounts of them for the true reports he claims they are or even to respond to these accounts as the kind of realistic fiction that allows for and depends on a reasonable suspension of disbelief. (We should say “almost impossible to mistake” here because, as Swift  sardonically noted in a letter to Alexander Pope shortly after publication, a bishop who had read it “said that the Book was full of improbable lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it” (Swift Writings 590).) Nevertheless, the work as a whole and each of the four voyages establish concrete links between the imaginary geography of the satiric fiction and the actual geography known to Swift’s contemporaries, and these links do lend, initially at least, a certain degree of plausibility to the narrative despite the wildly implausible features of the invented settings.

Along with the obfuscation of authorship in the book’s front matter, the narrative itself blurs the boundaries between the actual and the imaginary in that it appears initially to adhere to the conventions of the non-fiction travel books that constituted a popular non-fiction genre in the early eighteenth century. A widely read example of this genre was A New Voyage Round the World, published 1697-1709, by William Dampier, whom Swift has Gulliver claim as his cousin in that prefatory letter to his fictional publisher that was added to later editions of the Travels (Swift, Writings iv; Rawson 284). From the brief autobiographical remarks that open  Gulliver’s first voyage, which seem at first glance to characterize the narrator as a fairly ordinary and unimaginative middle-class Englishman and which situate his story firmly and specifically in the recent past, the narrative mimics the typical manner of such accounts of actual voyages in their unadorned and matter-of-fact style and their profusion of specific and seemingly factual information such as exact embarkation dates, precise distances between ports of call, locations by coordinates of longitude and latitude, and so on. Each voyage, moreover, takes Gulliver, quite plausibly at first, from the known and familiar world of near-contemporary England, through the less familiar but still known regions overseas with which English sailors and merchants were in regular contact, until he arrives in an unknown region, one of the blank spaces on contemporary maps, where each imaginary “remote nation” is situated. In his first voyage, for instance, Gulliver “set sail from Bristol, May 4th, 1699,” and while proceeding “thence to the East-Indies, we were driven by a violent Storm to the North-west of Van Diemen’s Land” —that is, the island of Tasmania, off the coast of what was not yet known to be the continent of Australia—where “we found ourselves in the Latitude of 30 Degrees 2 Minutes South” (Swift, Writings 4). Here, located with geographical precision, is exact spot on the globe where the ship is wrecked, leaving Gulliver the sole survivor to wade ashore in Lilliput.

The other three voyages show the same movement from the known through the less known to an entirely unknown region where the narrator-protagonist is left alone. This movement is a prerequisite to the kind of satire the Travels achieves because it isolates Gulliver as the sole representative of the known world of English or European civilization in a places in which various types of satirical correspondence with this known world are possible and from which he can plausibly return to this known world. All of the voyages likewise show a similar appearance of geographical precision linking each imaginary place to the known world, though with some variations in the basic pattern. Although the circumstances of Gulliver’s abandonment in the second and fourth voyages leave him temporarily uncertain about where he has landed, he eventually learns exactly where he has been. And although Swift (or Gulliver) makes some errors in the geography of the third voyage, these occur in the context of linking the imaginary “remote nations” described in this voyage to the entirely real but then almost entirely isolated nation of Japan and do not, in themselves, substantially detract from the plausibility of Gulliver’s journey. More importantly, in each voyage the narrator-protagonist moves from the world he represents to a place that, being uncharted on any contemporary map but explicitly incorporated into the geography of the already charted world, provides a site where the satiric imagination operates freely, linked to but not bound by the facts of the “real” world closer to home.

Gulliver’s second voyage, initially bound for the port of Surat in India, takes him around the Cape of Good Hope and past the “Streights of Madagascar” into the Indian Ocean, where a twenty-day-long storm drives the ship “a little to the East of the Molucca Islands, and about three Degrees Northward of the Line,” after which “a strong Wind West South-west” carries the ship “about five hundred Leagues to the East [into the Pacific Ocean], so that the oldest Sailor on Board could not tell in what part of the World we were” (Swift, Writings 63-64). In this unknown part of the world Gulliver again finds himself alone when the others on a landing party he had joined leave him behind on the shore of country he later learns is Brobdingnag, a peninsula “between Japan and California” that extends into the Pacific Ocean from the (imaginary but for Swift’s assumed readers plausibly existing) landmass that joins “the great Continent of Tartary” (Siberia) with “the North-west Parts of America”—a point of information that he offers to “our Geographers of Europe” to assist them in “correcting modern Maps” (Swift, Writings 88).

In Part Three, after landing at “Fort St. George” (Madras or Chennai in India), Gulliver undertakes a trading voyage to “Tonquin” (Tonkin in Vietnam) and then from there to “the neighbouring Islands,” during which a “great Storm” drives his sloop “five Days to the North-North-East, and then to the East,” where is he is captured by Japanese pirates and a Dutch renegade “in the Latitude of 46 N and of Longitude 183” (Swift, Writings 127-29). Of course, the latter number is a mistake, either conscious or unconscious on Swift’s part, since the highest number for a line of longitude is 180, the meridian equidistant (180 degrees east and west) from the Prime Meridian that runs through Greenwich. Despite this mistake, the location is evidently in some uncharted area of the mid Pacific, east of Japan and south of the Aleutians. Set adrift here by the pirates “in a small Canoe,” Gulliver sails to a small barren island, where he is picked up by the inhabitants of Laputa, a flying “island” that stays aloft and moves horizontally by means of a lodestone (Swift, Writings 129-31; 139-43). Laputa rules a stationary island, Balnibarbi, which Gulliver rather inconsistently identifies as part of a continent extending “Eastward to that unknown Tract of America, Westward of California” after his visit there (Swift, Writings 164).   From Balnibarbi he travels to another island, Luggnagg, “situated to the North-West about 29 Degees North Latitude, and 140 Longitude,” standing “South Eastwards of Japan, about an hundred Leagues distant” (Swift, Writings 164-65).  From here he “took Shipping for Japan,” from where, after a brief stay in disguise as a Dutch merchant (the Dutch being the only Westerners allowed even limited access to Japan at this time), he returns to Europe on a ship bound from “Nangasac” (Nagasaki) to Amsterdam (Swift, Writings 185-86).

 Gulliver’s final voyage begins, like the others, moving plausibly enough from familiar England to places regularly visited by contemporary English seafarers: Portsmouth to Tenerife in the Canary Islands and then to “Barbadoes, and the Leeward Islands” (191) in the Caribbean. However, in perhaps significant contrast to the other voyages, the location of “remote nation” he reaches (the land of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos) is wholly unknown to Gulliver when he first arrives and remains unknown until late in Part Four. Early in the voyage Gulliver, now captain, faces a mutiny by his crew and is confined inside his cabin for “many Weeks,” during which he “knew not what Course they took,” so he has no clue about his whereabouts when they set him ashore on an island (192). In fact, Gulliver does not discover the location of this island until after the Houyhnhnms order him to leave it, at which point, recalling some words he had overheard from the mutineers, he guesses his position to be “about ten Degrees Southward of the Cape of Good Hope, or about 45 Degrees Southern Latitude” and so decides “to steer my Course Eastward, hoping to reach the South-West Coast of New Holland”—that is, of Australia—where he does at last arrive (248). From here, after he is attacked and wounded by local “Savages,” he is forcibly rescued by the crew of a Portuguese ship and is brought unwillingly back home via Lisbon. Arguably, Gulliver’s apparent lack of interest in determining the location of “Houyhnhnms Land” while he is there is one sign of the alienation from his own species that he undergoes there.

Substantially complementing the text in establishing the imaginative geography of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s Travels are the maps that illustrate each of the four voyages. These maps not only contribute to the initial illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction but also serve to situate the “remote nations” in regions beyond the known world but explicitly contiguous to it. Each map places the “remote nations” invented by Swift into the same cartographic space with specific “remote nations” that were known or at least generally thought to be real. The map in Part One locates the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu (“Discovered A.D. 1699”) directly south of the large, commercially important island of Sumatra, the outlines of which, along with those of with smaller islands and the Straits of Sunda, are  rendered in plausible detail in the top right-hand corner, with “Dimens Land” (Tasmania) more sketchily rendered at the bottom right. Although the map omits the Australian continent (which in any case had not yet been circumnavigated and was not known to be such) and misplaces Tasmania , it  situates the fictional world of the first voyage unmistakably in the eastern Indian Ocean.

The map in Part Two seems (at least today) to correspond less faithfully to geographical facts since the outline of the western coast of North America, to which Brobdingnag (“Discovered AD 1703”) is attached by a narrow isthmus, bears almost no resemblance to any other map rendition. However, since  no accurate information about this region was available to Europeans (at least before Vitus Bering’s explorations, which began in 1728 and only became widely known much later), any mapping of the northeast Pacific was almost entirely a matter of conjecture, and one place name on the map, the Streights of Annian,” is, in fact, derived from early conjectural maps (Falk 565-67). While the absence of concrete information about these northern regions left the imagination free to invent, Swift (or his publisher’s cartographer) includes actual place names for locations further south that would have been familiar his to English readers—“New Albion,” the name Sir Francis Drake gave California, and “Pt. Sr. Francis Drake”—as well as others, including “C. Mendocino” and “P. Monterey,” that are still familiar today. The fanciful geography of Brobdingnag is thus imagined as much in accordance with reality as available knowledge allowed.

The maps in Parts Three and Four show the positions of their respective imaginary “remote nations” with similarly specific reference to named places that Swift’s contemporaries already knew, accepted, or conjectured as real. The map in Part Three locates Balnibarbi (“Discovered AD. 1707”), Luggnagg, and Glubbdubdrib  quite close to Japan, north of which, across the “Sea of Corea,” is the “Land of Iesso,” which, in turn, faces an incompletely sketched shoreline of “Company’s Land” to the east across the “Straits of the Vries,” while further to the north lie “Parts Unknown.” Apart from Swift’s imaginary islands, all of these place names occur on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European maps in roughly the same positions given here: “Iesso” was the name by which Europeans usually referred to Hokkaido; “Company’s Land” was a nonexistent landmass believed to have been discovered by Martin Gerritsen de Vries of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) near Japan in 1643 (Falk 566). In fact, in its positioning and naming of these places, including the “Parts Unknown,” this map resembles the map titled “Asia Corrected from the Observation Communicated to the Royal Geographical Society at London and the Royal Academy at Paris,” published by J. Senex in 1711 (See Fig. 10., Falk 570). Likewise, in Part Four, by locating “Houyhnhnms Land” in the sea immediately south of a coastline labeled “Lewin’s Land” (a.k.a. Leeuwin’s Land, the southwest promontory of Australia, named after a VOC ship sent to explore the area in 1622), to the north of which is “Edel’s Land” and to the east of which is another coast called “Nuyt’s Land” (also in what is now Western Australia and named and partially charted by VOC  explorers), the accompanying map places the invented land of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos in close proximity to places that Swift’s contemporaries would have been able to recognize as real even though their knowledge of  these places was only fragmentary or conjectural.

The detailed narrative and seemingly authentic maps thus concretely link the invented “remote nations” of all four voyages to the known world existing outside the fiction. By explicitly locating these settings in uncharted “Parts Unknown” beyond but contiguous to regions already charted, the imaginary geography of the Travels creates the conditions that make possible the particular variety of satiric effects this work achieves. It allows Gulliver, the fictional representative of the (non-fictional) society under inquiry or attack in Swift’s satire, not only to travel plausibly from this actual setting to the invented settings where this attack or inquiry is conducted through a wide range of satiric fictions, but also, just as crucially, to return plausibly to this society. The narrative can thus move Gulliver, with no abrupt change in the kind of suspension of disbelief it seems to demand, back and forth between the familiar world of his home in Wapping or Redriff during the reigns of King William III and Queen Anne, via distant but more or less explored lands in or around the Indian Ocean or northern Pacific, and the purely imaginary places off the map where he encounters self-important pygmies, wise giants, magicians who summon dead people to converse with the living, horses who govern themselves by Reason, and other creatures of a satiric imagination unrestrained by ordinary demands to adhere to facts or probabilities. Arguably, the range of satiric devices and effects in Gulliver’s Travels largely depends on the fact that the invented settings are, on the one hand, assimilated into the world charted by conventional geography and thus tied explicitly (even if tenuously) to the “discernible historical particulars” of Gulliver’s (and Swift’s) own world but are, on the other hand, situated beyond this charted world in terrae incognitae where the satiric imagination has free rein to invent extravagantly “manifest fictions.”

What particular kinds of satiric fiction, then, does the particular imaginary geography of Gulliver’s Travels make possible, and what are the particular targets of its satire? These questions form the subject of a huge body of scholarly interpretation, analysis, and debate, but our purposes here require only a brief overview, based on a distillation of the interpretive consensus, of the various ways the satiric imagination operates in each of the four voyages in order to provide a basis for comparison with some more recent satiric narratives that do employ invented “remote nations” as settings but must do so either without the latitude of invention that the existence (in conventional geography) of blank spaces on the map makes possible or without the satiric force derived from plausible, concrete links between the imaginary setting and the present-day world existing outside fiction and represented or referred to within it.

First, we can observe that in Gulliver’s Travels the invented settings constitute a site rather than a target of satire. That is, all of the objects of satiric attack or inquiry are features of specifically English or more generally European civilization of Swift’s own era or, even more generally, of the human condition itself rather than features of any existing “remote nations.” There is nothing in the representation of Lilliput and Blefuscu of the first voyage to suggest their specific location in the Indian Ocean, nothing particularly North American or North Pacific about Brobdingnag in the second, nothing East Asian about the invented nations in the third, and nothing especially Australian about the society of the Houynhnms and Yahoos in the last voyage. There is indeed some incidental satire on certain “discernible historical particulars” of the non-fictional overseas settings Gulliver traverses as he moves to or from the imaginary settings—for instance, the portrayal of Dutch cruelty and unscrupulousness at the beginning and end of Part Three and the scathing account of what is described with bitter irony as “a modern Colony sent out to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People” (Swift Writings 258) in the final chapter of Part Four—but even here the targets are European. Gulliver himself is frequently a target in his capacity as a representative of his civilization or of a particular mindset, but the conditions and inhabitants of the imaginary places he visits and reports on function as “distorting mirrors” that reflect satiric criticism, scorn, amusement, disgust, and indignation in one direction: back toward the social and intellectual world Gulliver comes from and represents.

The mirrors do so, however, through a wide range of varied satiric devices. In Part One the two main devices are diminution and analogy while the chief targets are general human pride and specific events and factions in British politics of the recent past. The reduction in scale of everything in this world by one twelfth the size provides, of course, a means of concretely illustrating the absurdity of human self-importance and emphasizing the pettiness of the religious conflict between Little-Endian Lilliput and Big-Endian Blefuscu, the fictional analogues for Protestant Britain and Catholic France. The close parallels between the impeachment of Gulliver for actions he commits while saving Lilliput from invasion, extinguishing a fire in the palace, and making peace with Blefuscu and the impeachment of Swift’s Tory allies by their Whig successors form a fairly obvious (at least to Swift’s assumed readers) instance of satiric attack by analogy. For the most part, then, by satiric analogy Lilliput stands for Britain, and the satiric force derives from a recognition of  the correspondence between them while the diminution in physical size contributes by making the targets ridiculous. However, at a few points in Part One the satire depends on the utopian contrast Lilliput provides to existing conditions in Britain , as, for instance, in the account in the sixth chapter of certain “very peculiar” laws and customs in Lilliput, such as the punishment of false accusations or the tendency to “look upon Fraud as a greater Crime than Theft,” about which Gulliver says that “if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear country, I should be tempted to say a little in their Justification” (Swift, Writings 38).

In Part Two, where the size difference between the fictional and non-fictional worlds is reversed, the satiric attack on human pride is conducted through the magnification of physical details by presenting the  perspective of Gulliver’s heightened senses, the effect of which is to imply that any appearance of human beauty as illusory. And rather than being presented through a fictional analogy as in Part One, the central critique of British institutions in Part Two is given more directly from the perspective of an astute and unprejudiced outsider, the King of Brobdingnag. Most notably, after hearing Gulliver’s “admirable Panegyrick” on his own country’s history, constitution, legal system, religious establishment and so on, the King poses many embarrassing questions and concludes “the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of odious little Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth”—sentiments  Gulliver’s attributes to “a certain Narrowness of Thinking; from which we and  the politer Countries of Europe are wholly exempted” (Swift, Writings 107-109). Of course, the protagonist-narrator’s reaction ironically exposes the limits of his own perspective and the mindset he represents. Brobdingnag also presents a number of utopian contrasts with Gulliver’s Britain, such as the confining of the art of governing to “common Sense and Reason, to Justice and Lenity…”(Swift, Writings 111), which Gulliver fails to recognize as desirable. In each of the first two voyages, then, the vivid imagining of how extreme differences in size might be experienced are combined with a variety of fictional parallels to and perspectives on Britain.

The satiric devices and targets in Part Three are somewhat more scattershot. The description of the Laputians’ eyes, one turned up, the other turned inward, provides a grotesque symbol of the obsession with astronomy and abstract mathematics for which Swift attacked contemporary intellectuals; the nightmare vision of poverty in the countryside of Balnibarbi provides a warning against what Swift considered the over-hasty adoption of untested methods of agriculture in the name of progress; the ludicrous experiments by the projectors of the Academy of Lagado are recognizable caricatures of experiments conducted by members of  the Royal Society, and the “School of political Projectors” there offers a mélange of utopian proposals, whimsical jokes, gross impossibilities, and thinly disguised analogies to actual political abuses. Moreover, the necromancers of Glubbdubdrib afford the opportunity for Lucianic dialogues with the dead, and the depiction of the Struldbruggs is a horrifying rejoinder to the vanity of the human wish to avoid death. Finally, the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos of the fourth voyage are richly ambiguous symbols that raise disturbing questions about the human condition and arguably constitute something more than a satiric fiction.

The foregoing survey of the satiric devices and targets in Gulliver’s Travels is by no means exhaustive, nor does it adequately indicate the complexity of the book’s satiric achievement. It is intended merely to suggest the range and diversity of the types of fictions employed on the objects of Swift’s attacks and inquiries. As we have argued, this range and diversity is predicated to some extent on the imaginative freedom afforded by the location of the “remote nations” in unmapped regions of the globe where Gulliver can be envisioned as traveling to and returning from without too obvious a strain on credibility.

What sorts of imaginary settings remain tenable sites of satiric attack and inquiry, however, after the globe has been more or less fully mapped, when there are no longer “parts Unknown” where a protagonist representing “our” civilization might be imagined with any degree of plausibility as being the first and only visitor? What conditions do the realities of regular shipping lines or air travel, global news agencies, diplomatic presences, GPS, and Internet access impose on the invention of imaginary geographies? What other possibilities do these realities open up for the satiric imagination? These are questions we will consider in the next part of our exploration.


Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp. New York: Oxford UP, 1953. Print.

Aristotle. On the Soul. Transl. J. A. Smith. Internet Classics Archive (MIT). Web,

——. Poetics.  Transl. S. H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961. Print.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Transl. Victor Watts. Revised ed. London: Penguin, 1999.

Carens, James F. The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh. Seattle and London: U of Washington P, 1966. Print

Falk, Marvin W. “Images of Pre-Discovery Alaska in the Work of European Cartographers” ARC

37. 4 (Dec. 1984): 562-573. Web.

Griffin, Dustin. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. U of Kentucky P, 1994. Print.

Highet, Gilbert. The Anatomy of Satire. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1962. Print.

Quntero, Ruben.  A Companion to Satire Ancient and Modern. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Rawson, Claude. Ed.  Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford: World’s Classics, 2005.

Rosenhiem, Edward W. Jr. Swift and the Satirist’s Art. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1963. Print

Shteyngart, Gary. Absurdistan.  New York: Random House, 2006.

Swift, Jonathan. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Robert A Greenberg and William Bowman

Piper.New York: Norton, 1973.

Waugh, Evelyn. Black Mischief.  London: Penguin, 1932. Print




Нагоре ↑

« »