Who are the Slamecksans, and who are the citizens of Blefuscu? In what ways are these characters similar? How does the pairing of these characters illuminate the satire’s major themes?
The comedy of Jonathan Swift’s Slamecksans derives from the tension between their silly problems and the grave language in which these problems are described. Likewise, the Blefuscu episode is humorous because it marries a serious reporter’s voice with an incredibly trivial subject. Much of Swift’s comedy follows the pattern of the Slamecksan and Blefuscu episodes, poking fun at minor sources of major human anxieties. The Slamecksans and the citizens of Blefuscu thus concisely demonstrate Swift’s comic method as well as his interest in the common human tendency to overreact to mildly stressful situations.
Although the concerns of the Lilliputian political faction known as the Slamecksans are negligible, Swift uses them as a source of high comedy by describing them in an incongruously grave manner. The tiny man who approaches Lemuel Gulliver to tell him about the Slamecksans wears a look of distress, but Swift undercuts the messenger’s concerns by pointing out that Lemuel must first offer to position his ear close to the tiny sentinel, then pick up the sentinel and hold him close to his face. The small man’s speech contains serious political language, including references to factions and the national Constitution, but Swift undercuts the momentousness of the speech by pointing out that the issue at hand is a conflict between wearers of high and low heels. The messenger makes a worrisome reference to mixed signals from a powerful political figure, but Swift makes these signals ridiculous when he forces us to visualize a man wobbling on a mismatched pair of high- and low-heeled shoes. By pairing recognizably dry, political jargon with the absurd subject of shoe preferences, Swift encourages his readers to laugh at the seriousness with which people regard factional disputes in the real world.
Similarly, the description of the Lilliputians’ war with Blefuscu involves a hilarious mixing of sober diction and a ludicrous topic. Swift somberly notes that 30,000 little people have died in the war with Blefuscu, but he undermines the impact of the statistic when he points out that the people were fighting over the proper way to crack an egg. Swift triggers readers’ thoughts of crucial Constitutional debates when he alludes to the disagreement between Lilliput and Blefescu over the interpretation of the Blefescu’s doctrine, the Brundrecral, but he again subverts expectations of high drama by hilariously noting that the phrase in question is: “All true believers shall crack their eggs at the convenient end.” Swift gravely refers to the origins of the tension with Blefuscu, but he again makes the matter ridiculous when he points out that decades of strife resulted from one Lilliputian having cut his finger on an eggshell. Again, Swift finds comedy in the juxtaposition of formal language and trivial subjects, and in doing so, implicitly encourages readers to laugh at the petty struggles and obsessions that characterize political life in the real world.
Throughout Lemuel’s travels in Lilliput, Swift employs this jarring combination of subject and tone to poke fun at self-dramatizing behavior. The Lilliputians take great pride in their military parade, but Swift exposes the foolishness of their grandiose actions by dryly pointing out that they must walk through the legs of Lemuel’s tattered pants (and thus underneath his genitals) as they march. The peevish demands of Skyresh are related in the most objective, solemn language, but Swift makes his concerns ridiculous by reminding us that he has no real control over Lemuel, his gigantic “prisoner.” The Lilliputians revere and honor their towering emperor, but Swift encourages us to laugh at the monarch by noting that he is merely fractions of an inch taller than the other citizens and that he dresses in garish, preposterous clothing.
Through these ludicrous episodes, Swift leads readers to do more than laugh—he encourages them to apply their laughter to the real world and to reflect on the gravity with which full-size people often regard their own, ultimately Lilliputian lives. The European landscape of Swift’s day was being ravaged by political, religious, and ethnic tensions. While none of these issues are as frivolous a case for war as egg-cracking etiquette or heel height, Swift’s satire urges readers to examine their grievances carefully before acting upon them—lest they become as laughable as the Lilliputians.
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