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Swift wanted to vex the world in part because he was so thoroughly vexed by it. More so than the other great satirists of the age, he made his services as a political pamphleteer available at different times to the powerful on both sides of the political fence. He was not so much a turncoat or opportunist as someone who saw the unworthiness on both sides of any issue, and this view is also what contributes to make his works so vexing, so impossible to pin down as arguments for one side of any controversy in which they engage. Like most of Swift’s works, Gulliver’s Travels is a political satire; like the best of them, its condemnation of all-too-human weakness is broad and ambiguous enough to transcend its local historical context.
The death of Queen Anne in 1714 put an abrupt end to the Tory party’s power, and thus to all Swift’s hopes of continuing a political career in England. In the words of Samuel Johnson, "Swift now, much against his will, commenced Irishman for life, and was to contrive how he might be best accommodated in a country where he considered himself as in a state of exile."
Gulliver’s Travels is an allegory not simply of eighteenth-century politics, of course, but also of one of the fundamental conceptual oppositions informing Enlightenment thought: reason versus passion. The most obvious topic for controversial student discussion is that of whether the text cues readers to view the passion-driven Yahoos as an allegory of the actual human condition, or the rational Houyhnhnms as a desirable or attainable ideal of civilized human behavior.
Should we strive to be Houyhnhnms? Are the Houyhnhnms being set up as an ideal in contrast to the Yahoos? What are their good and bad qualities or associations? Their society seems to replicate the utopian ideals of Plato’s Republic. Symbolically—as identifiably horses and therefore animals—they are equally allusive of another Platonic dialogue, the Phaedrus, where the soul is likened to a charioteer charged with the difficult task of driving two mismatched horses, one guided by reason (logos), the other driven by sexual appetites and controlled only with extreme difficulty.
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