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Chaucer and Swift Essay

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Comparative essay on Chaucer and Swift's satirical views
  In both The General Prologue and Gulliver’s Travels , Geoffrey Chaucer and Jonathan Swift have satirized aspects of the estates system of medieval Europe and the political (class) system of a more modernized European society. The General Prologue; an estates satire (system of 3 classes- commoners, nobility and clergy), was written by Chaucer in the 14 th  century (1380-1392). Satire was a ‘window’ in Medieval Europe through which one saw how the system had ‘gone out of hand’.  Chaucer creates his satire through various personalities of his pilgrims- the knight, merchant and religious figures. Gulliver’s Travels , written almost 400 years later by Swift (in 1726), satirizes the modern political/ class system. He satirizes the Lilliputians ’  pretence that they are good people and the Lilliputian Emperor, who is supposed to be King George I. Both authors are critical of greed and corruption in the 14 th  and 18 th  century. Chaucer’s portrait of the knight in The General Prologue depicts him as a stereotypical man. This can be seen when Chaucer describes him as ‘ A KNIGHT there was and that a worthy man’, and also ‘He was a very perfect gentle knight’. The knight can be interpreted as the one who is usually the hero whenever there is trouble. However, in the analysis of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, it is said that the knight was a mere mercenary (one who fights for money).  This means that the knight doesn’t care which side he is on, as long as one pays him more. Through the knight, Chaucer has satirized the type of person that has an outward appearance of one thing ( ‘perfect’) and an actual personality of another. This flaw is common among the upper classes of the estates system, especially the clergy and nobility, and is still a common one throughout the higher socio- economic classes of today’s ‘ranking’ system.    Swift has, like Chaucer, also satirized this flaw through his characters, the Lilliputians. When Gulliver first comes upon their shores, the Lilliputians, although they tie him down, treat him rather nicely. The Lilliputians show their intentions of not harming him through an orator making a speech, of which Gulliver ‘could observe many Periods of Threatenings, and others of Promises, Pity and Kindness’ , through which the conclusion is drawn that they will not ill-treat him, unless he provokes them first. However, when they realise that Gulliver can be used to their advantage in destroying Blefuscu, the Lilliputians instantly aren’t as hospitable anymore. Their greed is clear when Gulliver says ‘And so unmeasurable is the Ambition of the Princes, that he seemed to think of nothing less than reducing the whole Empire of Blefuscu into a Province’ . Like Chaucer, Swift has satirized this flaw, but through a whole ‘group’ of characters  than one. The Merchant, in Chaucer’s The General Prologue, is the satirical embodiment of a person with a moral weakness. The merchant is said to be wealthy which is shown when he is described- ‘ In motley,   and high on horse he sat’ and ‘Upon his head a Flandrish beaver hat, His boots clasped fair and fetisly’ . Motely was an expensive cloth with variegated colours and patterns, so not everyone could afford it, meaning that the merchant was rich. Later on, Chaucer says ‘ There wist   no wight that he was in debt’ (which means there was no person who knew he was in debt). In Chaucer’s time,  being indebted was symbolic of moral weakness, since one would spend the money rather than saving it. In another analysis, when Chaucer says ‘Forsooth he was a worthy man withal’, he is supposed to have written it ironically, since the merchant was not at all worthy.  Swift has likewise satirized this flaw through the Lilliputian Emperor. The Emperor, who represents King George I, is easily influenced by his favourites, Flimnap and Skyresh Bolgolam. The Emperor prefers to listen to Flimnap more than his own conscience. This is evident during Chapter 5 of Voyage to Lilliput, as the Emperor greets Gulliver rather coldly, and Gulliver hears from a certain whisper ‘ that Flimnap and Bolgolam had represented my intercourse with those ambassa dors as a mark of disaffection’. Gulliver also says- ‘I have some private reasons to believe, that this visit from his majesty gave Flimnap an opportunity of doing me ill offices to his master’  when the Emperor dines with him. With a similar  purpose to Chaucer, Swift has satirized this flaw, except in his instance, as a mirror of King George I, who supposedly has a weak moral. Chaucer has also, in his satire, expressed the corruption of the Church, which was a major flaw in his time. The Church, because of the amount of power it had, usually became ‘faulty’ in their reasoning. Chaucer has shown this through 2 of his pilgrims- the prioress and monk. They are all religious figures, yet they don’t behave as they should in one way or another.  In The General Prologue, it is quite evident in places that Chaucer is mocking the Church- ‘A  pair of beads gauded all with green,   And thereon hung a brooch of gold full sheen On which was written first a crowned A, And after: Amor Vincit Omnia’ (the prioress is too flashy  and wears too much jewellery) and ‘A MONK the re was, a fair for the mastery,   An outrider that loved venery. ’, meaning that the monk loved h unting, which is against the rules of a monastery. This shows that the Church is much more lenient with its own people.    Swift, whose society was now more dependent on the government than the church, satirized the corruption of the government instead. The British government, which had the most power, replaced the Church of medieval times. Swift’s  fictional satire morphed the British government into a race of tiny, cruel, self-serving people whom inhabit an island. This government corruption is evident when one of the Lilliputians read a contract- ‘FIRST, The  Man-Mountain  shall not depart from our Dominions, without our License under our Great Seal’, which  proves how they believe Gulliver can be controlled; despite him being much larger, showing how highly they think of themselves. Swift ’s satire is based off a more modern approach to politics, while Chaucer’s is more medieval - the corruption of the Church.   In conclusion, both Chaucer and Swift have created satires that mock the flaws of the ranking systems of their time. Chaucer mocked the flaws of the higher classes- clergy and nobility through his estates satire by creating twisted versions of stereotypical characters. Swift has created a satire on the more modern class system of his day, which mocks human nature,  politics and society. Chaucer has parodied the flaw of dishonesty through the Knight, moral weakness through the merchant and corruption of the Church throughout The General Prologue, mainly using the friar, monk and prioress. Swift mocked his system using the Lilliputians, which represented its corruption and dishonesty. The Lilliputian Emperor was symbolic of King George I. The two authors had provided their readers with a valuable insight into their world and satirized the many flaws of their time, which includes ones of ours as well.


Jul 23, 2017
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