Gulliver's giant feet walking in the diminuative forest of the lilliputians

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

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The Historical and Cultural Background of Swift's Satire

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Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726, was an instant hit, one of the top three sellers of the eighteenth century. It was only one of Swift's many significant works, however. Of his prose writings, the most famous include his attack on modern literature, The Battle of the Books; a critique of English oppression of the Irish, A Modest Proposal; and A Tale of a Tub, his defense of Protestantism and the Church of England. He is also well-known as a poet, particularly for his poems criticizing romance, such as Cassinus and Peter and A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Gulliver's Travels addresses almost all of Swift's primary concerns and involves some of the most important questions in literature and the development of the novel.

Gulliver's Travels remains Swift's most famous and popular work. Ricardo Quintana calls it a "satire taking the form of four imaginary voyages," a formulation which explains why the story does not have the traditional plot structure of rising action-climax-denouement. Because Swift depicts the ills and sins of his society, Gulliver's Travels can feel like a string of episodes tied together. The book gets its unity from Gulliver himself, since his perceptions drive the story and the satire. Swift uses Gulliver and his voyages primarily to examine problems with contemporary society, such as the evils of politics, humanity's frequent foolishness, and the importance of a thoughtful, self-aware, balanced perspective. In this sense, Gulliver's Travels addresses issues that still worry people today. A recent television version also testifies to the book's continued appeal. Although this version is generally faithful in many places, however, it is no substitute for the book.

Swift's story takes place simultaneously at two points in time and at two levels of meaning. First, it is a recollection: Lemuel Gulliver tells the story of his adventures after they are finished. The story of Gulliver sitting at home writing about his voyages is the "frame narrative," the story of the telling of the story. Like a frame around a painting, it gives shape to Gulliver's character and to the events that he recounts. As Richard Rodino writes, "Swift the author writes the story of Gulliver the author writing the story of Gulliver the character." Second, all the events except the frame narrative take place in the past. These two levels of time enable Swift to create a work that also has two levels of meaning: the straightforward story of Gulliver's adventures, and the satire of Swift's world. By making Gulliver look back on his life and explain it, Swift allows readers to see Gulliver as unreliable, a man whose opinions must be questioned.

The two levels of meaning, the adventure and the satire, come from Swift's use of a popular kind of literature, the travel narrative. It is important to remember while reading Gulliver's Travels that Swift's world was very different from ours. Captain Cook had not yet sailed around the world; he would not be born until 1728. Lewis and Clark would not head west across North America for another seventy years, and much of the continent was still inhabited only by Native American tribes. It was not unusual to be the first westerners to discover new islands (the Dutch found Easter Island in 1722), to make the first maps of a coast, or to find strange and exotic people, plants, and animals. The eighteenth-century public was as excited to read about travels to strange lands such as Africa, India, and the Middle East, as well as North and South America, as the twentieth-century public is to...

(This entire section contains 1806 words.)

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hear about celebrities. They were also used to a wider diversity of reading material, and, because it was so hard to prove things were true, were more comfortable with not knowing whether a story was fiction or not.

The travel narrative did more than allow Swift to create an exciting "true" story, however. It also gave him a way to criticize the familiar world of eighteenth-century England. Swift "defamiliarized" aspects of English life such as political or social practices by having Gulliver describe them to people who had never encountered them before, or as if they were things he had never seen before. In some cases, this defamiliarization is amusing. When the Lilliputians search Gulliver's pockets, for example, they find a "Globe, half Silver, and half some transparent Metal: For on the transparent Side we saw certain strange Figures circularly drawn, and thought we could touch them, until we found our Fingers stopped with that lucid Substance. He put this Engine to our Ears, which made an incessant Noise like that of a Water-Mill." What is this unusual object? A pocket watch. By making aspects of England such as fashions or the government seem strange to Gulliver or the people he meets, Swift could make those aspects seem strange to his readers, which in turn could make readers see how silly or bad these aspects of their lives really were.

But with his unreliable narrator, Gulliver, Swift could also extend his satire from the foolish things people do to the way they judge and think. When Swift wishes to criticize violence and wars, he has Gulliver describe something very comfortable and familiar to English readers—gunpowder—to someone who knows nothing about it. The response forces readers to question what they otherwise accept as part of life. Gulliver describes how the English put "Powder into large hollow Balls of Iron, and discharged them by an Engine into some City we were besieging; which would rip up the Pavement, tear the Houses to Pieces, burst and throw Splinters on every Side, dashing out the Brains of all who came near." The King of Brobdingnag does not react as Gulliver or the reader expects: "The King was struck with horror at the Description I had given of those terrible Engines, and the Proposal I had made. He was amazed how so impotent and groveling an Insect as I (these were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a Manner as to appear wholly unmoved at the Scenes of Blood and Desolation, which I had painted...." Confronted with the King's reaction, the reader can recognize that blowing people up really is appalling.

Swift uses perspective as his main theme. In the first two books, Gulliver himself is the wrong size, and Swift exploits the possibilities of Gulliver's inevitable difficulty in perceiving. In Lilliput, where Gulliver is so much bigger than everyone else, he has an exaggerated sense of his own importance and in the correctness of his understanding. In Brobdingnag, where he is so much smaller, Gulliver struggles to make everyone take him seriously. In the second two books, Gulliver thinks differently from the people he meets. The Laputans, for example, prize reason and the scientific method above even common sense, and even Gulliver understands the foolishness of his hosts. In Book IV, however, Gulliver is sucked in by the Houyhnhnms' (whin-hims) philosophy. Seduced into accepting a false either-or (he must be either a Yahoo or a Houyhnhnm, according to the Houyhnhnms, but in fact he is a third creature, a human), Gulliver becomes as extreme as the Laputans, learning to hate humanity, especially himself. Throughout Gulliver's Travels, Swift challenges his readers' acceptance of social, political, military, economic, and philosophical practices, and he concludes by reminding his readers of the frailty and foolishness involved in simply being human.

Book IV, the Voyage to Houyhnhnmland, is considered the darkest and most controversial part of Gulliver's Travels. Critics disagree about how much of Lemuel Gulliver's hatred for humanity is really Jonathan Swift's hatred for humanity. This disagreement involves two issues: 1) how much of Gulliver can we equate with Swift, and 2) how should we read the end of Gulliver's Travels? Critics sometimes call Gulliver a "persona " for Swift, meaning that Gulliver is a mask which Swift can put on and from behind which he can make certain critical statements. Most scholars, however, agree that Gulliver is not a persona but a character who occasionally gets to say things Swift really means, but more often says things that are the opposite of what Swift means.

The question, how we are to understand the last book, has caused much disagreement among readers since it first appeared in print. There are two ways of reading the message at the end of Book IV, the end of Gulliver's Travels: the "hard" and the "soft" readings. The hard reading says that Swift and Gulliver agree about how horrible humanity is and that our last view of Gulliver, stopping his nose with tobacco to avoid smelling other people and afraid to socialize with other " yahoos," is Swift's pronouncement on humanity. Gulliver's description of his happiness living with the Houyhnhnms is an indictment of human society: with the Houyhnhnms, he says, "I did not feel the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the injuries of a secret or open Enemy. I had no occasion for bribing, flattering or pimping, to procure the favour of any great Man, or of his Minion. I wanted no Fence against fraud or Oppression: here was neither Physician to destroy my Body, nor Lawyer to ruin my Fortune …" and so on.

The soft reading takes a very different stand. In this view, Gulliver is the butt of the joke just as other characters and even Gulliver have been elsewhere (think about his offer of gunpowder to the King of Brobdingnag, for example). His refusal to participate in human society is the result of his own unbalanced thinking, a cardinal sin in Swift's book. Instead of accurately depicting his fellow creatures as neither angels nor brutes and beasts, this reading says that Gulliver paints them with the unsubtle and unreliable brush of a fanatic. His daily conversations with his horses back in England are not the inevitable retreat forced on the sensitive man by the world, but a ridiculous affectation of a silly man.

The hard and soft readings are both functions of an anxiety that saturates and motivates Gulliver's Travels. After all, satire is the result of someone believing something is wrong with the world. While critics may disagree whether satire is positive—in other words, that it provokes improvement—or negative—in other words, that all it does is complain—they do agree that satire is the result of concern and dissatisfaction. Swift takes on issues that range all over the map of life, from politics and science to women's education and the production of literature. And although he was thinking of the problems facing the English at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Swift's combination of urgent social concern, creative imagination, and the possibilities of literary form appeals to readers of all ages and outlooks. It reminds us that great literature tells us as much about those who create it as it does about ourselves.

The Hairy Maid at the Harpsichord: Some Speculations on the Meaning of Gulliver's Travels

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When Gulliver first appears on the shores of the several remote nations he visits, the inhabitants respond to his monstrosity much as Londoners responded to monsters at Bartholomew Fair. The Lilliputians show "a thousand Marks of Wonder and Astonishment" when they first see him, and when he rises to his feet, "the Noise and Astonishment of the People ... [were] not to be expressed." In Brobdingnag, Gulliver "was shewn ten Times a Day to the Wonder and Satisfaction of all People." The Laputans "beheld [him] with all the Marks and Circumstances of Wonder." Not even the rational Houyhnhnms are immune to astonishment: "The Horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself, looked full in my Face with manifest Tokens of Wonder."

These first reactions give way to another, equally mindless response. Astonishment and wonder are succeeded by a desire to be diverted—most obviously in Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is trundled around the country like dwarfs were in England, but also in Lilliput, where the king uses Gulliver like the kings of Europe used giants, as a way of "diverting himself” and of "entertaining the Court." And the Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver reports "brought me into all Company, and made them treat me with Civility, because, as he told them privately, this would put me in good Humour, and make me more diverting."

Turning Gulliver into a diversion is a way of neutralizing the threat of his monstrous difference, a way of managing the radically alien so that it does not disrupt the comforting assurances of the usual. Tied down in Lilliput, Gulliver is addressed by one of the officials:

... I saw a Stage erected about a Foot and a half from the Ground, capable of holding four of the Inhabitants, with two or three Ladders to mount it: From whence one of them, who seemed to be a Person of Quality, made me a long Speech, whereof I understood not one syllable.

This is a deliciously ludicrous moment, for to give a "long Speech" to a monster who obviously does not understand a word of it is to insist on the unexpungeable truth of the normal with a tenacity that verges on the solipsistic. But this is the strategy of the inhabitants in all the lands he visits. He is effortlessly assimilated into each society, leaving their quotidian realities unperturbed.

To be sure, very occasionally some of the creatures are willing to see Gulliver as a monstrous Other whom they allow, if not radically to critique or disrupt their own familiar reality, at least to comment on it. Like the Brobdingnagian king before him, the Houyhnhnm master is willing to listen to Gulliver because he thought "that it was no Shame to Learn Wisdom from Brutes, as Industry is taught by the Ant, and Building by the Swallow." But even the Houyhnhnms have their limits. They do learn from Gulliver the technique of castration that they can apply to their own local problem of pest control, but they appear to learn nothing at all about the confines of their own structures of thought and value that are exposed by the fact that the mere existence of Gulliver causes unprecedented puzzlement and disagreement. And so, in the end, all the creatures turn from his monstrosity and ignore what he might have to tell them about themselves.

In his encounter with monsters, Gulliver reacts much more complexly and in a greater variety of ways. Further, he tends (though this is not invariable) to react to the monstrous inhabitants he visits just oppositely from the way the inhabitants react to him, their monstrous visitor. If they assimilate him, thus leaving intact and unquestioned their own sense of the normal, he tends to take the monsters as normative and to assimilate into himself their realities. And yet, for all of this apparent openness to their difference, he gains no more self-knowledge from his dealings with monsters than they do from their dealings with him.

Gulliver achieves no awareness because in his dealings with monsters he is always anxious about his own identity, always caught up (like the gawkers at Bartholomew Fair) in the various strategies of defense against humiliating self-knowledge. Something of a paradigm of his psychology is revealed when he first sees the Brobdingnagians in the beginning of Book II:

I bemoaned my desolate Widow, and Fatherless Children: I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second Voyage against the Advice of all my Friends and Relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose Inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the World; where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my Hand, and perform those other Actions which will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire, while Posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by Millions. I reflected what a Mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this Nation, as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my Misfortunes; For, as human Creatures are observed to be more Savage and cruel in Proportion to their Bulk, what could I expect but to be a Morsel in the Mouth of the first among these enormous Barbarians who should happen to seize me.

There are several peculiar features in this passage, not the least of which, given the context, is Gulliver's use of the word "mortification." For at this moment, he is on the brink of a literal death, fearful that he is about to be made "a Morsel in the Mouth" of the Brobdingnagians, who, like Grim Reapers, are advancing on him "with Reaping-Hooks in their Hands, each Hook about the largeness of six Scythes." But in the face of this death, Gulliver dwells on another kind of "mortification," and the fact that the two are linked by association in his mind (and by etymology in Swift's) is suggestive. For Gulliver's encounter with monsters at this moment precipitates anxieties about his personal identity. The sight of the Brobdingnagians causes him to swing hysterically from fears of the loss of his identity, "mortification," the "death" of the self, to hypertrophied fantasies of immortality (he thinks his actions "will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire"). And he swings so violently because he has delivered his sense of his own identity over to others. He is as he is perceived. To be "mortified" is to be seen as "inconsiderable"; to be "the greatest Prodigy" is to be so "attested by Millions." And the double meaning of "prodigy" reveals both the direction Gulliver takes to achieve a comfortable identity and the cost he is willing to pay to achieve it: in order to be distinguished, he is willing to play the monster.

For these reasons, it seems to me that throughout the book most of Gulliver's misperceptions of the significance of the creatures and events he witnesses in these remote nations, his inability to see any important relation between them and himself, his skewed and partial judgments, and his loopy misinterpretations seldom arise from naiveté or stupidity. For if his encounters with monsters provoke a blurring of his identity, these varieties of misseeings become ways, often unconscious, by which he reconstructs a sense of himself that he finds pleasing.

This strategy is most obvious in Book I. Gulliver quickly loses sense of the Lilliputians' monstrosity, accepting their perceptions and finally their values as normal, for to see the world as the Lilliputians see it is to see himself to considerable advantage. He can think of himself as having "performed ... Wonders" simply by eating and drinking, and he can take pride in urinating, watching with awe that "Torrent which fell with such Noise and Violence from me." And so he willingly plays the monster. He begins "entertaining the Court with ... Feats." He is pleased that he can find a way to "divert" the emperor and nobility "after a very extraordinary Manner" by turning his handkerchief into an exercise field. He willingly yields to the king's "fancy of diverting himself” by acting the colossus. The longer he stays in Lilliput, the more he can entertain fantasies of what "so prodigious a Creature … I must appear to them." And the more deeply he implicates himself in the Lilliputian point of view, the more he can see himself as superior not only physically but socially as well. He fails to see the patent physical absurdity in the charge that he has had an affair with a Lilliputian lady not because he is stupid but because it is more flattering to mis-see it in this way; he can revel in visions of himself at the center of court society ("I have often had four Coaches and Horses at once on my table full of Company," he says, proving that the visits by the lady were by no means unique) and as an important player in Lilliputian social and court politics ("I had the Honour to be a Nardac, which the Treasurer himself is not; for all the World knows he is only a Clum-glum").

One can see Gulliver's strategy in little in the scene in which the Blefuscudian ministers ask him "to shew them some Proofs of [his] prodigious Strength, of which they had heard so many Wonders." Gulliver readily complies:

When I had for some time entertained their Excellencies to their infinite Satisfaction and Surprize, I desired they would do me the Honour to present my most humble Respects to the Emperor their Master, the Renown of whose Virtues had so justly filled the whole World with Admiration, and whose Royal Person I resolved to attend before I returned to my own Country. Accordingly, the next time I had the Honour to see our Emperor, I desired his general licence to wait on the Blefuscudian Monarch.

First, Gulliver has normalized the monsters, fully assimilating himself into their point of view ("our Emperor"). He then attributes to them an inflated stature that is in no ways theirs ("whose Virtues had so justly filled the whole World with Admiration"). He then performs before them, seeing himself as he fancies they see him ("I entertained their Excellencies to their Infinite Satisfaction and Surprize"). From this he reaps "Honour" and "Admiration"—indeed, the honor and admiration mean something only because he has previously attributed to the monsters a worthiness that makes their honor and admiration worth receiving....

To be distinguished, Gulliver has made a spectacle of himself. He has not engaged in the dialectic of monstrosity at all. Refusing to see in the Lilliputians their monstrosity, their sheer difference, he cannot see their monstrous sameness to humans. And not recognizing in their pettiness, vainglory, and power hunger this monstrous identity, Gulliver allows himself to be governed by precisely these same passions and hence becomes a monster—literally, by "entertaining the Court with … Feats" and allowing the king to use him as a way of "diverting himself” and morally by allowing his vanity to seduce him into the inanities of the Lilliputian social hierarchy and, even worse, into becoming an engine of war.

Gulliver's encounters with monsters are never this simple again. In Brobdingnag, he is so obviously treated as a monster that he himself complains of "being exposed for Money as a publick Spectacle" and of "the Ignominy of being carried about for a Monster." After Lilliput, Gulliver is increasingly mortified. His sense of his identity is continually under attack: he is "mortified" that the "smaller Birds" were not afraid of him, acting as if he were "no Creature at all"; he feels his "most Uneasiness" among the Maids of Honor, who treated him "like a Creature who had no Sort of Consequence." The Struldbruggs are "the most mortifying Sight" he had ever beheld. And among the Houyhnhnms, he is always haunted by his sense of identity with that "ugly Monster," the Yahoo. He is made so conscious of monstrosity both without and within that he can no longer deal in the easy self-deceptions by which he had fashioned his identity in Lilliput.

Still, he does manage his mortifying encounters with monsters by drawing from a repertoire of defenses. At times, he uses simple denial. It is not until he leaves Brobdingnag that he calls his traveling box what it really is, a "Dungeon," instead of what he usually calls it while he is in Brobdingnag, a "convenient Closet," and he never does allow himself to become aware that Glumdalclitch has treated him like a doll. At other times, he simply converts his mortification into anger against others. "Mortified" by the dwarf, Gulliver attacks him for his small stature. Classed among the "little odious Vermin" by the king of Brobdingnag, Gulliver condemns the king's "Short Views" for refusing the secret of gunpowder.

Gulliver even continues to try to play the monster, which worked so well in Lilliput. He voluntarily performs for his royal patrons, pleased that the Brobdingnagian queen was "agreeably entertained with my Skill and agility" when he performed his "Diversion" of rowing a boat, pleased that it was her "Diversion … to see me eat in Miniature." His stunts, particularly his flourishing his sword ("wherein my Dexterity was much admired,"), jumping over cow dung, playing the piano, and even dressing himself, recall the compensatory feats deformed dwarfs performed at Bartholomew Fair.... Such diverting tricks have their rewards. Gulliver thinks that he has "become a Favourite" and fancies that he is "esteemed among the greatest Officers." He even entertains the extraordinary notion that he "might live to do his Majesty some signal Service."

And yet such defenses become more and more insufficient. "I was the Favourite of a great King and Queen, and the Delight of the whole Court," he says of his tenure in Brobdingnag; "but it was on such a Foot as ill became the Dignity of human Kind." Increasingly, Gulliver seems incapable of silencing the voices of the monsters, and he begins to entertain "Mortifying Reflections." He realizes that the Brobdingnagians are a reproach to the petty pride of Europeans, including himself. By the end of his stay in Brobdingnag, having been surrounded by "such prodigious Objects," Gulliver "could never endure to look in a Glass … because the Comparison gave me so dispicable a Conceit of my self."

Gulliver's self-loathing and misanthropy culminate in Book IV, of course, and to all appearances he seems to enter into the full dialectic of monsters, recognizing in the Yahoos their secret alliance with himself. Initially, he sees the Yahoo as a complete Other: "singular" and "deformed," an "ugly Monster," it appears to be a species other than man. Even after Gulliver recognizes in the Yahoo the "perfect human Figure," he resists identifying it with himself, insisting on distinguishing it from "my own Species." But Gulliver's certitude about what constitutes "my own Species" begins to erode. The more he observes the Yahoos, the more the two species begin to merge in his mind, and in spite of his attempt to keep them separate, he quietly elides them, so that he unselfconsciously begins to call humans Yahoos, and before too long, when he refers to "my own Species," he means "European Yahoos." By the end of his stay with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver believes that humans are Yahoos, and it is within the Yahoo species that he finally classifies himself ("I [am] a poor Yahoo," he tells the Portuguese crew when they find him on the island). His final assessment of man is that he is a "Lump of Deformity," exactly like the "deformed" and "ugly Monster," the Yahoo. His identification of the two species is complete, and he appears to be consumed by selfdisgust: "When I happened to behold the Reflection of my own Form in a Lake or Fountain, I turned away my Face in Horror and detestation of my self; and could better endure the Sight of a common Yahoo, than of my own Person."

And yet, for all of his mortification, Gulliver never once truly entertains those "Mortifying Reflections" that Congreve did. Gulliver's apparent acknowledgment of the identity between the Yahoos and himself, it turns out, is his most elaborate defense. Indeed, Gulliver's willingness to see an identity between the two species is suspicious, if for no other reason than that, after his first gestures of resistance, he begins to pursue it with so much relish. Initially, of course, he is appalled. He hears the Houyhnhnms call him Yahoo "to my everlasting mortification." In Brobdingnag, when Gulliver was "mortified," his first impulse (in fantasy, at any rate) was to make himself singular in order to distinguish himself. And this is his initial reaction among the Houyhnhnms. Mortified to learn that the master Houyhnhnm identifies him with that species of monsters, Gulliver conceals the secret of this clothing "in order to distinguish myself as much as possible, from that cursed Race of Yahoos."

But soon, Gulliver no longer tries to distinguish himself. In fact, he presses for the identity. When he is assaulted by the female Yahoo, the incident becomes "Matter of Diversion to my Master and his Family, as well as of Mortification to my self”—but this is a "Mortification" that Gulliver has sought out (and one, significantly, that has led to someone else's "Diversion"). He has purposefully titillated himself by toying with the identification, much as the monstermongers in London titillated their viewers with the promise of a hidden identity between them and the monsters: "And I have Reason to believe, [the Yahoos] had some Imagination that I was one of their own Species, which I often assisted myself, by stripping up my Sleeves, and shewing my naked Arms and Breast in their Sight." It is an identity he seeks with enthusiasm.

As I ought to have understood human Nature much better than I supposed it possible for my Master to do, so it was easy to apply the Character he gave of the Yahoos to myself and to my Countrymen; and I believe I could yet make farther Discoveries from my own Observation. I therefore often begged his Honour to let me go among the Herds of Yahoos in the Neighbourhood.

Armed with his observations, Gulliver returns to teach his master Houyhnhnm the truth that man is a Yahoo. Now, why Gulliver would "give so free a Representation of my own Species, among a Race of Mortals who were already too apt to conceive the vilest Opinion of Human Kind, from that entire Congruity betwixt me and their Yahoos" becomes clearer and clearer as Book IV draws to a close:

At first, I did not feel that natural Awe which the Yahoos and all other Animals bear toward [the Houyhnhnms]; but it grew upon me by Degrees, much sooner than I imagined, and was mingled with a respectful Love and Gratitude, that they would condescend to distinguish me from the rest of my Species.

"To distinguish me from the rest of my Species": here is the motive for Gulliver's misanthropy and self-loathing. In order to be distinguished, Gulliver must first identify himself and humankind with the Yahoos; once having done that, he can then distinguish himself from the identity he himself has created by conspicuously doing those things Yahoos cannot do: be self-critical, judge himself, loath his own nature. By identifying himself with the Yahoos, and then by attacking both them and himself, Gulliver distinguishes himself not only from the Yahoos but from the "self” he claims to be, for he makes himself superior to that "self” by condemning it.

In Book IV, Swift reveals that self-loathing can become a mechanism of self-love, that self-love can turn the dialectic of monster-viewing into a parody where the identification of the self with monsters becomes a way to deny any truly "Mortifying Reflections." But for all of its knotted intricacy, Gulliver's final construction of his identity is merely a variation on all his earlier constructions. When he takes leave of the master Houyhnhnm, Gulliver "was going to prostrate myself to kiss his Hoof, but he did me the Honour to raise it gently to my Mouth," and Gulliver is besmitten "that so illustrious a Person should descend to give so great a Mark of Distinction to a Creature so inferior as I." From the beginning, Gulliver has been driven by this desire for "Distinction," and throughout he has been willing to play the monster in order to be distinguished. In so doing, he really does become a monster, for Gulliver is proud that he "passed for a Prodigy" among the Houyhnhnms, proud that they "looked upon it as a Prodigy, that a brute Animal should discover such Marks of a rational Creature." And he makes sure that he continues to pass for a prodigy by identifying himself with the monstrous Yahoos in order to distinguish himself from them. In the end, he becomes to the Houyhnhnm, as well as to himself, the "wonderful Yahoo," the epithet recalling all those wonderful monsters that were on show at Bartholomew Fair.

Back in England, when he is laughed at for imitating the Houyhnhnms' gait and whinny, he can "hear [himself] ridiculed ... without the least Mortification" because he has perfected an identity that has put him beyond mortification. Of course, in doing so, he has had to define himself out of the human species (as he reveals with the slip of his pen in the very last sentence he writes when he tells Sympson that he fears he shall be corrupted by continuing to associate with "your Species"). Gulliver, therefore, becomes, like a Yahoo, a true monster, utterly "singular," outside all species. And so it is appropriate that when he returns to England he, like all monsters, is plagued by "the Concourse of curious People coming to him at his House in Redriff."

Source: Dennis Todd, "The Hairy Maid at the Harpsichord: Some Speculations on the Meaning of Gulliver's Travels," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 239-283.

The Satirist Satirized: Studies of the Great Misanthropes

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If we ask who is the satirist of Gulliver's Travels, the answer obviously is Swift—or, if he is not "of” Gulliver's Travels, he is the satirist who creates the satire of Gulliver's Travels. But in the extended sense of the term we are familiar with Gulliver is also a satirist....

This of course is the Gulliver of the Fourth Voyage, worlds removed from the ship's surgeon who was charmed with the Lilliputians and quick with praise of "my own dear native Country." That Gulliver, he of the early voyages, is so far from being a satirist that he is often the butt par excellence of satire: Swift's satire, of course, and, within the work, the King of Brobdingnag's; but also, in a sense, of his own—his, that is, when he is an old man, sitting down to unaccustomed literary labors to compose his memoirs....

The Gulliver who writes, then, is Gulliver the misanthrope who stuffs his nose with tobacco leaves and keeps a long table between himself and his wife. It is he who "creates" the ship's surgeon—a man capable of longing for the tongue of Demosthenes so that he may celebrate his country in a style equal to its unparalleled merits. Given the emotional and intellectual imbalance of the old seaman, he is remarkably successful in producing an objective portrait of himself as he was in time long past.

The actual, as opposed to the fictive, situation, of course, is that Swift has created two dominant points of view to control the materials of the Travels: that of his favorite ingénu (the younger Gulliver) and that of the misanthrope. The technique has obvious advantages. An ingénu is a superb agent of indirect satire as he roams the world uncritically recording or even embracing the folly which it is the satirist's business to undermine.... On the other hand, a misanthrope can develop all the great power of direct, hyperbolic criticism. By allowing Gulliver, an uncritical lover of man, to become an uncritical hater of man, Swift has it both ways.

The technique is not that of the novelist, however. Swift pays little regard to psychological consistency; Gulliver's character can hardly be said to develop; it simply changes. If one takes seriously the premise that Gulliver writes his memoirs after his rebirth, then many passages in the early voyages turn out to be inconsistent and out of character. "There are," says Gulliver of Lilliput, "some Laws and Customs in this Empire very peculiar; and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my own dear Country, I should be tempted to say a little in their Justification." ... (The laws from Swift's point of view, from the point of view of reason, are excellent.) Here Gulliver is trapped in a conflict between his patriotism and his reason; as he is an ingénu his patriotism wins. But note the tense: "I should be tempted"; that is, now—at the time of writing. Given this tense, and given the logic of the controlling situation, it must follow that this is the utterance of Gulliver as he composes the work. At the time he writes, however, Gulliver is committed so irrevocably to the claims of reason that the appeal of patriotism could not possibly have meaning for him—could not, that is, if we assume general consistency in Gulliver's character....

To define one's life, one enumerates the solid, unproblematic facts that have gone to make it, and one uses solid, unproblematic sentences—simple and straightforward as one's own character....

The lack of modulation is striking. The predominantly declarative sentences set out the things that happen in their concrete particularity, piling them up but making no differentiation among them. There is something monstrous in the way that Gulliver can describe the taking of a geographical fix, the deaths of twelve seamen, the wreck of the ship, the loss of his companions, his inability to sit up after his sleep ashore—all in sentences similar in structure and identical in tone. Ordinarily, by his style a writer judges his material, places it for his reader in the context of moral experience. Here, the lack of modulation in the style is a moral commentary on the writer—on Gulliver....

But while we may equate the impassivity of tone with an impassivity of sensibility, we are overwhelmed by the impression of Gulliver's commitment to hard, undeniable fact. Dr. Johnson speaks finely of Swift's "vigilance of minute attention"; we see it most impressively as Gulliver records his reaction to the Lilliputians. The pages are peppered with citations of numbers, figures, dimensions: I count over thirty such citations in the last three paragraphs of Chapter One, each figure increasing our sense of the reality of the scene; for nothing, we tend to think, is so real as number.... Swift (not Gulliver, now) is parodying the lifestyle that finds its only meaning in things, that lives entirely in the particularity of externals, without being able to discriminate among them. This explains in part the function of the scatological passages of Parts I and II which have been found so offensive. The style also helps prepare for the satire on language theory in Part III. But, parody or no, Gulliver's style is a marvellous instrument for narration, building easily and with increasing fluidity the substantiality of his world.

Gulliver, then, succeeds in the novelist's great task of creating the illusion of reality. But again we must recall that he is not a novelist. The reality he creates is one of externals only. He does not create a sense of reality about himself—or rather, to step now outside the framework of the Travels, Swift does not create a sense of reality about Gulliver. Gulliver is not a character in the sense that Tom Jones, say, is a character. He has the most minimal subjective life; even his passion at the end is hardly rooted in personality. He is, in fact, an abstraction, manipulated in the service of satire....

The paucity of Gulliver's inner life needs little documentation. To be sure, he is shown as decent and kindly and honorable, at the beginning: we are delighted with his stalwart vindication of the honor of the Treasurer's wife, whom malicious gossip accused of having an affair with him. But his life is primarily of the senses. He sees—how superbly he sees!—he hears, smells, feels. Poke him and he twitches; but there is little evidence of rational activity. The leaping and creeping contest at the Lilliputian court is a diversion for him, nothing more; he sees no resemblance between it and practices in any other court in the world. Except for an occasional (dramatically inconsistent) episode where he is startled into an expression of bitterness, Gulliver's is a life without nuance. The nuances are there, of course, everywhere, but must be supplied by the reader....

[The] overriding function [of the climactic two chapters of the fourth voyage] is to develop with cold implacability the horror of English civilization as Gulliver sees it....

Against the destructiveness of Gulliver's onslaught, we look for the kind of positives that are evident in the episode of the Brobdingnagian King. We naturally turn to the Houyhnhnms who represent to Gulliver (and surely in some sense to Swift) one pole of an antinomy: "The Perfection of Nature" over against the repulsiveness of Yahoo-man. Both Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms are at pains to point out wherein Houyhnhnm perfection lies. It is first physical: Gulliver is lost in awe of the "Strength, Comeliness and Speed" of the horses, whereas he can view his own person only with detestation.... Houyhnhnm perfection is next mental: the horses' lives are "wholly governed" by reason, an infallible faculty, at least to the degree that there is nothing "problematical" about it; reason strikes them with immediate conviction, so that opinion and controversy are unknown. Their perfection is finally moral. They lead austere lives devoted to temperance, industry, and cleanliness; they have no idea of what is evil in a rational creature, have no vice, no lusts, and their passions are firmly controlled by the rational faculty. Their principal virtues are friendship and benevolence, which extend to the whole race; and love as we understand it is unknown. For Gulliver the Houyhnhnms are the repository of all that is good.

Here are positives in abundance, the only question being whether they are unqualifiedly Swift's positives. Most critics have felt that they are and that Gulliver's Travels (to say nothing of Swift's character) suffers thereby....

It seems likely that a close reading of Gulliver's fourth voyage is such a shocking experience as to anesthetize the feeling for the ludicrous of even the most sensitive readers (perhaps particularly the most sensitive readers). I do not mean to deny the horror of the work, which is radical; but the horror is ringed, as it were, by Swift's mocking laughter. For example, Coleridge is outraged at the way "the horse discourses on the human frame with the grossest prejudices that could possibly be inspired by vanity and self-opinion." Human limbs, Coleridge stoutly insists, are much better suited for climbing and for managing tools than are fetlocks. Swift lacks "reverence for the original frame of man." True, Swift did lack reverence for human clay; but he also wrote the scene of the Houyhnhnm's denigration of the human body as comedy. It is very funny. It is a kind of parody of the eighteenth century's concern over man's coveting various attributes of the animals, "the strength of bulls, the fur of bears." It is even connected, as we shall see, with the theme of man's coveting suprahuman reason.... The equine chauvinism of the Houyhnhnms, amusing as it is, undercuts their authority; it must raise doubts in our minds about their adequacy as guides to human excellence, to say nothing of the adequacy of Gulliver, who wants to become a horse and whose capacities in matters requiring moral and intellectual discrimination have not been such as to inspire confidence.

Our dubieties are likely to be strengthened by a careful reading of the last part of the voyage. Although Gulliver presumes to doubt the reasonableness of the Houyhnhnm decision to banish him, he builds his canoe of Yahoo skins and prepares, brokenhearted, to sail into exile.... He reaches an island, where he is the victim of an unprovoked attack by savages who wound him with an arrow, and is then picked up, against his will, by Portuguese sailors. An odd situation arises here if we remember that it is the misanthropic Gulliver who is writing his memoirs. It is he who in describing the Portuguese insists on their admirable qualities.... Captain Pedro de Mendez "was a very courteous and generous Person"; in his dealings with Gulliver he is shown consistently to be a wise and compassionate man. Yet Gulliver is unable to distinguish morally between the savages who had wounded him and this human being whose benevolence is worthy Houyhnhnm-land. Because the Captain is a man (a Yahoo in Gulliver's terms), Gulliver is perpetually on the verge of fainting at his mere presence.... But the Gulliver who is writing (five years, he says, after his return to England) is of precisely the same mind. He shows not the slightest compunction at his earlier fierce denial of spiritual kinship with the Portuguese; he still stuffs his nose against the hated smell of humanity, keeps a long table between his wife and himself, and talks willingly only to horses.

The violence of Gulliver's alienation, his demand...for the absolute, incapacitate him for what Lionel Trilling calls the "common routine" of life—that feeling for the ordinary, the elemental, the enduring which validates all tragic art. Each of Gulliver's voyages begins with a departure from the common routine, each ends with a return to it.... This commonplace family represents a fixed point of stability and calm in Gulliver's life, a kind of norm of humble though enduring human values. Gulliver comes from this life, his early literary style is an emblem of it; and it is against the background given by the common routine that his wild rejection shows so startlingly....

In short, Gulliver's idée fixe is tested in the world of human experience. The notion that all men are Yahoos cannot accommodate a Don Pedro de Mendez any more than it can accommodate the long-suffering family at Redriff. But this is our own ironic insight, unavailable to Gulliver, who has never been capable of evaluating the significance of his own experience. Gulliver persistently moulds the world according to his idea of it, instead of moulding his idea according to the reality of things—which must include the Portuguese. Such behavior defines comic absurdity as Bergson expounds it. In other contexts this kind of "inversion of common sense" is characteristic of insanity....

The last words of Gulliver's memoir are part of the complex process of discrediting his vision of the world. He ends with a virulent diatribe against pride, a sin of which he himself is conspicuously guilty. [He] whips his own faults in other men....

Gulliver's great function is to lay bare the rottenness at the core of human institutions and to show man what, in Gulliver's view, he is: an animal cursed with enough reason to make him more repulsive and more dangerous than the Yahoos. Satirists have always used the transforming power of language to reduce man to the level of the beast, but few have debased man as systematically and as ruthlessly as does Gulliver. To find parallels one must go to the theologians.... It would be possible in that case to think of Gulliver as a satirist of man within the Christian tradition. But Swift, as this essay has tried to show, writes as a humanist, not as a theologian. His,/i> satire undercuts Gulliver's vision of man, which is shown dramatically, concretely, to be incommensurate with man's total experience. The vision, to be sure, has a certain abstract cogency, and in Houyhnhnm-land it carries conviction; but Gulliver ….. fails to assume the human burden of discriminating morally between man in the abstract and John, Peter, Thomas, and Don Pedro de Mendez. Swift, in life and in this work, insists upon that responsibility.

This reading of Gulliver's Travels dissolves a logical paradox. Insofar as Gulliver's vision of man obtains, Swift is implicated: if all men are Yahoos, the creator of Gulliver is a Yahoo among the rest, and Gulliver's Travels (and all literary works whatsoever) are no more than the noisome braying of an odious beast. As a clergyman, there is a sense in which Swift might have accepted those implications; but as a humanist and an author he could not. He could accept his own involvement in the great range of human folly which Gulliver avidly depicts, but he could not accept the total Yahoodom of man.

Source: Robert C. Elliott, "The Satirist Satirized: Studies of the Great Misanthropes," in his Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art, Princeton University Press, 1960, pp. 130-222.


Critical Overview


Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver's Travels