Swift, Defoe, Civil War, and the Meaning of (Bare) Life

In: Reading Swift
Author:
Melinda Alliker Rabb Brown University Providence

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Abstract

The English Civil Wars had profound effects on eighteenth-century literature, yet the manifestations of those effects often are indirect. This essay argues that works by Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe displace the trauma of that internal conflict – a conflict that destroyed bodies and beliefs – onto fictions that at first appear not to be about war. Readings of texts including Gulliver’s Travels, The Drapier’s Letters, The Journal of the Plague Year, and Robinson Crusoe are framed by first-hand accounts of military experiences during the Wars, such as preparing, fighting, and surviving battle or siege, and by concepts such as sovereignty, the state of exception, and bare life. Civil war raised fundamental questions about the value of life, epitomized in the practice of granting no quarter. Both Swift and Defoe find ways to examine the political and moral dilemma of who is empowered to decide if a life is worth living.

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Reading Swift

Papers from The Seventh Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift

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