Writing on the Stall: Swift’s Use of Bathroom Humor
Throughout his career, Jonathan Swift consistently blurred the line between highbrow satire and lowbrow humor. A polarizing figure in English and Irish literature, Swift’s off-color writing style still finds a way to leave students and scholars either grinning or groaning. Beneath Swift’s steady stream of bodily fluids, there is merit to his immature subject matter. Under a camouflage of urination and defecation, Swift masterfully critiques his surroundings, cutting into the rulers, thinkers, and writers of his era. While the occasional cringe is inevitable, his underlying social messages are still appropriate to this day.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift first sets his sights on the self-absorbed aristocracy, dehumanized by wealth, pride, and power. Much like Europe’s imperial mindset at the time, Lilliput’s royalty is fueled by expansion, violence, and vanity. After attempting to utilize Gulliver’s physical prowess in an unnecessary war, the Lilliputian leaders command Gulliver to save their majesty’s palace from burning to the ground. Utilizing Gulliver’s sizable bladder, Swift reveals the shallow nature of Lilliputian politics. Rather than celebrating Gulliver for saving her life or her estate, the empress “firmly resolved that those buildings should never be repaired for her use” and instead insisted on “vowing revenge.” Swift humorously reduces the wealthy politicians to powerless tyrants, extinguishing their airs along with the fire. By paralleling European politics of the time however, he indirectly drenches his own government as well.
Later in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift shifts his focus from royalty to rationality. At the Grand Academy of Lagado, Gulliver meets a culture completely dedicated to the sciences. Swift lampoons his era’s enlightened thinkers by directly parodying their own experiments, this time implementing a different body part. One of the academy’s most famed physicians claims to be able cure illnesses by inserting objects “eight inches up the anus.” Another hopes to “reduce human excrement to its original food.” Guided by real-life research, Swift ridicules philosophers with common sense, showing that even the world’s most brilliant minds are still capable of humbling mistakes.
In his poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Swift moves from satirizing the sciences to poking fun at the arts. He attacks romanticized ideals of femininity by once again focusing on their bodily functions. Imitating the epic illusions used by his literary peers, Swift compares Celia’s chamber pot to Pandora’s Box and Paradise Lost. After further deconstruction of the feminine ideal, Swift’s male protagonist reaches the disturbing conclusion that his darling “Celia shits!” This crude discovery grounds both genders in reality and parodies any poem portraying women as anything other than eating, breathing, pooping characters.
While readers typically focus on Swift’s mastery of bathroom humor, his critical portrayal of accepted governmental, scientific, and artistic standards remains applicable to today’s society. Instead of using bodily fluids as a crutch, Swift strategically hides his highbrow social attack within the bladders and bowels of his characters. From vain politicians to irrational logicians to idealized women, he humanizes the social elite and unifies the world through one of our few shared experiences – the restroom.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels: The Project Gutenberg eBook. The Gutenberg Organization. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/829/829-h/829-h.htm>.
Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” Poems & Poets. The Poetry Foundation. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180934>.