The Age of Enlightenment occurring in the 17th and 18th century England and Europe remains one of the most prominent periods of history and development in human civilization. This period was chosen along with the respective works and their authors because of the changes that occurred in the literary space which have laid the foundation to much of what is known in the modern world, demonstrating thought-provoking ideas, new approaches to storytelling and genres, and redefining the concepts of writing. The major contributors in English literature during Enlightenment were Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which became tremendously acclaimed by both readers and scholars for their representation and perspectives on this key era. Although their literary styles and philosophies are dramatically different, the novels express the very core principles of Enlightenment: that individuals may display a level of free thinking, question governments and the existing quo, and embrace individuality and self-determination.
Historical and Literary Period
The Enlightenment saw tremendous social changes, coming from developments in the areas of philosophy and politics. A range of political philosophies emerged at the time driven by prominent figures such as Voltaire, Locke, and Rousseau, which developed the theories to modern societies and democracies such as the various social contract theories, and pursuit of life, liberty, and property (White, 2018). A power struggle in the form of the English Civil War occurred in the mid-17th century, followed shortly by a peaceful coup establishing a pro-public monarch. It led to prominent political and policy transformations (White, 2018). As a result, the English Bill of Rights was drafted, which tremendously boosted personal liberties, enhanced representative forms of government, and allowed for a freer environment to express thoughts, that ultimately led to the emergence of many of the well-known philosophies and works from that time period.
The literature of the time was defined by many of the above principles and events. Ideas that took form in this context were individualism, self-discovery and fulfilment, and class divides, from a social perspective. These themes are seen consistently through English literature of the period, highlighting the challenges of modernization, struggles of the working class, the role of government, and reason and liberty. One of the most prominent elements that emerged in Enlightenment literature is long prose, authors were now willing to write extensive manuscripts with stories, where characters were well-developed with unique personalities and views. Literature was no longer grounded in religion, but was liberated with emerging genres such as fiction, poetry, satire, and fantasy, along with the many factual and scientific texts published at the time (Miami-Dade College, 2020). Writing styles shifted as well, become less ornate and sophisticated, being more plain and straightforward, making the writing intriguing and accessible to the general public beyond intellectuals.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe was a prominent Enlightenment era English writer, scholar, journalist, and businessman, best known for one of the world’s greatest classics Robinson Crusoe. Defoe was an Enlightenment man, born and supporting religion but also choosing to accepting fresh ideas and daring defy the status quo. He was greatly interested in the components of human nature and morality, as well as the growth of a man spiritually and mentally as one was ‘enlightened,’ which served as a background to many themes in his novel. Robinson Crusoe was inspired by a real-life story of a castaway surviving on an island, but had little resemblance to it. At this time, the expansion and colonization of the English Empire was entering a new stage, as the culture encountered lands and people much different that their own, many of whom they considered savages. In the novel, dubbed as realistic fiction, a young affluent man who is shipwrecked on an island. The man eventually adapts, learns, and survives, even creating a calendar, domesticating goats, and embracing Christianity from reading the Bible, but he is missing the ultimate piece which is a presence of human society.
By all accounts, the story of Robinson Crusoe is one of the development of the Enlightened man, which uses knowledge and reason to survive, while also taking the value of faith and morals to guide his decision-making. Reflecting English colonialism, Crusoe encounters a local native who is a cannibal, wanting at first to kill him as punishment. However, he reflects on the human nature, realizing that this cannibal does not know any better, so Crusoe chooses to ‘adopt’ him by teaching him English and converting to Christianity; in the view of the English, civilizing these native societies. Crusoe recalls, “in a little Time I began to speak to him, and teach him to speak to me… I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my Name” (Defoe, ch. 8). English colonies at this time encountering natives similarly sought to ‘domesticate’ them and convert them to Christianity, seeing this as a means of ‘enlightenment.’
Crusoe is deeply developed as a character, emphasizing his many flaws and failures, but he grows and learns, embracing some philosophical concepts of the time such as Locke’s Human Understanding, which suggests that knowledge stems from perception and curiosity, and Kant’s self-determination. The novel is written as a manner of flashback autobiography in first-person narration, using prose and description of events. It is journalistic in its style, with a strong reliance on reason, accounts, and lists of actions and descriptions. The story also holds some reflection, as the character ponders moments of morality and draws conclusions from them post-fact.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift was a scholar, writer, and politician in the midst of the English Enlightenment. He was personally affected by the political events of the Glorious Revolution, forcing him to leave his home in Ireland, and he was always sentimental to his country’s struggle of independence from the English. Swift was also heavily religious and an Anglican cleric. He was a strong critic of the Enlightenment era movements, believing that the turn towards science was leading to nowhere, because it relied on human senses which are imperfect. Meanwhile, the philosophical and political believes of the era which were believed to lead to liberation were viewed by Swift as the opposite as the creation of systems which would oppress and control people by power-seeking governments. Swift was critical of the power ambitions of the British Commonwealth and its government, driving him to styles of literature which were either political critiques as well as satire, which was the basis to Gulliver’s Travels and one of Swift’s final works.
Swift’s masterpiece is Gulliver’s Travels, a heavily satirical piece of the fictional satire genre. It is focused on the adventures of Gulliver, a rather foil character with no distinguishable persona, but rather used as a device to explore the people and cultures of four locations that he visits in his fantastical travels. Each part of the story represents some part of English society, politics, or human condition that Swift wittily highlights or outright mocks. For example, the war between Lilliput and a nearby kingdom over something ridiculous as ends of an egg, meaning to symbolize the continuous bickering and wars between France and England. In the last place that he visits, there are horse like creatures, one race that is intelligent and reasonable and the other that is foolish and brute. Gulliver describes it as “My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abdominal animal a perfect human figure” (Swift, ch. 2). This highlighted the class divides in England but also sought to emphasize the human condition which Swift believed was degrading to that of animalistic nature, seeking to disagree with everything and break the established norms.
The novel strongly critiqued the rule of government and societal expectations on many levels, emphasizing the ultimate lack of reason and connection to the people along with overwhelming hypocrisy. Although the novel is written in the format of prose and a fantasy fairy tale, it utilizes stylistic elements to drive the themes through events of the plot and descriptors. Given that it is a satire, the writing reaches a certain level of absurdity and parody, such as that Lilliputians selected government ministers by seeing who can best do a “rope dance,” an absurdity meant to represent English politics where ministers were selected not on competence but on personal connection and wealth. The novel has many aspects of symbolism, allegory, and metaphors. It is written in a serious manner, but because of the satirical nature, takes advantage of the humor at hand.
The novels are drastically differing in their genres and approaches to the Englightenment ideas. Robinson Crusoe is written in a journalistic style, praising British imperialism and presenting an embodiment of the ‘enlightened’ man, while Guilliver’s Travels is a satire, driven by allegory, humorous comparisons, and endless metaphors and symbolisms, it is critical of humanity. Defoe (1996) presents the story, albeit fictional, as a “history of fact” (Preface). To achieve this verisimilitude, he applies a specific writing style and techniques, with a documentary-level approach, fact-focused descriptors, and an introspection of the protagonist’s both outward and inner world. The novel often goes into detailed discussions on relatively inconsequential elements to the story, such as the design of Crusoe’s constructions on the island, observing of tides and weather, and theological discussions. Defoe embraces a writing approach that could be described as formal realism. In Swift’s novel, realism can be detected as well but it is evidently a pretense in the concept of the satire. For example, he describes some nautical concepts, but uses language that is used to mock them. Swift employs what is known as ‘low realism’ – where there is presence of certain behaviors or sciences, but they are obscure to the point, representing cruel realities and limitations of the human condition.
Both Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe are classic novels of the English Enlightenment era. They demonstrate in their own ways the differing perspectives on the major shifts of this challenging but innovative period. Although drastically clashing in writing styles and ideologies, the novels represent the very foundational ideas of Enlightenment, which is that people can demonstrate a level of free thinking, challenge governments and status quo, and pursue individualism and self-determination at various levels as emphasized by English culture and philosophy. The characters of the novels going out into the world and encountering situations and perspectives, which challenge their own beliefs, leading to personal growth, is at the very core of Enlightenment as a historical and literary era.
Defoe, D. (1996). The life and adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Project Gutenberg.
Miami-Dade College. (2020). British literature from 1660 to today: Enlightenment.
Swift, J. (1997). Gulliver’s travels. Project Gutenberg.
White, M. (2018). The Enlightenment.