What is Swift's attitude towards Mankind in Gulliver's Travels?

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In general, it is clear that Swift's depiction of the societies his protagonist, Gulliver, encounters during his adventures suggests a cynical perspective. Swift's point of view is not positive or encouraging. Many interpreters regard his character, Gulliver, as a symbolic representation of the objective viewer--someone who does not make any judgments and who does not discriminate. It is through Gulliver's eyes that we are made aware of humankind's iniquities, idiosyncrasies, and foolishness. Each adventure depicts an experience that exposes one or more of these shortcomings.

Gulliver's experiences in Lilliput, for example, seem to depict our desire for material wealth, our arrogance, and our obsession with pride and self promotion. We are, in our feebleness, intent on proving ourselves better than others by conducting irrelevant excursions and undertakings to prove an insignificant point. In the end we are really left with nothing.

Gulliver's experiences in Brobdingnag accentuate our insignificance. We are small, feeble, and unimportant in the greater scheme of things. Gulliver's encounters here show how we can be fooled by our own perspective when we believe that we are superior and above everything. Gulliver is humbled by his encounters in Brobdingnag and becomes a mere plaything. This depiction surely indicates that there are powers greater than ours that dominate us. We should therefore not allow our egos to lay claim to a greater importance.

Through his depictions of Gulliver's adventures on the flying island, Laputa, Swift ridicules our foolish adherence to impractical and idealistic philosophies and theories which serve no real purpose. He clearly expresses disdain for the fact that we adopt these as ultimate proof of our intellectual superiority when, in fact, such ideologies do not prove anything nor empower our advancement. It is all smoke and mirrors.

Swift's most damning criticism of humankind is revealed in Gulliver's journey to the land of the Houyhnhnms. The onomatopoeic nature of the name sounds like a jeer and, to a certain extent, copies the neighing of a horse. This, in itself, depicts Swift's view of humankind. It is as if the superior horses are displaying their contempt for humans when they neigh. The horses are depicted as wise, intelligent, compassionate, and caring, unlike the humans, the Yahoos, who are shown to be savage idiots.

It should be evident that Swift, through the persona he has created, is deeply disappointed by the folly of humankind. Being human, it seems, means very little or nothing at all.  

belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope, or hater of humanity, because of the viciousness of his satires on human nature and government. However, it is more accurate to say that Swift saw the inherent indecency in much of human culture, such as corruption in government and overpowering religion in education, and took steps to identify it in his work. For example, when describing the social structure of the Yahoos, he writes:

"...in most herds there was a sort of ruling Yahoo (as among us there is generally some leading or principal stag in a park), who was always more deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition, than any of the rest... He usually continues in office till a worse can be found."
(Swift, Gulliver's Travels, eNotes eText)

This is a direct jab at the tendency to elect leaders who are incompetent or corrupt because of social pressures. Swift was not writing in order to condemn humanity for its mistakes, but to demonstrate those mistakes and encourage mankind to change their ways. It is likely that Swift was disgusted by the deterioration of civilization, as wealth and technology made people complacent, and desired to wake the common man up and give purpose to the idea that humanity can deliberately change for the better.