Gullivers Travels Essay

Gulliver’s TravelsSwift’s Gulliver’s Travels is without question the most famous literature to emerge from this 18th century Tory satiric tradition. It is the strongest, funniest, and yet in some ways most despairing cry for a halt to the trends initiated by seventeenth-century philosophy. In Book IV, we discover how Gulliver’s journey into a discovery of what man is becomes a journey into madness. We encounter, here, a cruel attack on man. This is an attack using two of the most striking literary metaphors for man: the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The first are beings in every way like horses except for their possession of absolute reason; the second are creatures bearing an uncanny resemblance to man except for their animalistic brutality. Swift’s use of these creatures, Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, as an approach to the problem of the nature of man, has attracted more critical attention than has any other part of his work.

Now, the first important question to ask of any satirist is how he or she achieves the necessary comic distortion, which transforms the familiar into the ridiculous. And Swift’s main technique for achieving this–and a wonderful technique for satire–is the basic plot of science fiction: the voyage by an average civilized human being into unknown territory and his return back home. This apparently simple plot immediately opens all sorts of satiric possibilities, because it enables the writer constantly to play off three different perspectives in order to give us the reader a comic sense of what is very familiar. It can do this in the following ways:
If the strange new country is recognizably similar to our culture, then comic distortions in the New World enable the writer to satirize the familiar in a host of different ways, providing, in effect, a cartoon style view of our world. If the strange new country is some sort of utopia–a perfectly realized vision of the ideals often proclaimed but generally violated in our world–then the satirist can manipulate the discrepancy between the ideal New World of the fiction and the corrupt world we live in to illustrate repeatedly just how empty the pretensions to goodness really are in our world.

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However, the key to this technique is generally the use of the traveler, the figure who is, in effect, the reader’s contemporary and fellow countryman. How that figure reacts to the New World can be a constant source of amusement and pointed satiric comment, because, in effect, this figure represents the contact between the normal world and the strange New World of either caricatured ridiculousness or utopian perfection.

We can see Swift moving back and forth between the first two techniques, and this can create some confusion. For example, in much of Book I, Lilliput is clearly a comic distortion of life in Europe. The sections on the public rewards of leaping and creeping or the endless disputes about whether one should eat one’s eggs by breaking them at the bigger or the smaller end or the absurdity of the royal proclamations are obvious and funny distortions of the court life, the pompous pretentiousness of officials, and the religious disputes familiar to Swift’s readers.

At the same time, however, there are passages where he holds up the laws of Lilliput as some form of utopian ideal, in order to demonstrate just how much better they understand true reasonableness than do the Europeans. In book II, he does the same: for most of the time the people of Brobdingnag are again caricatured distorted Europeans, but clearly, the King of Brobdingnag is an ideal figure.

This shift in perspective on the New World is at times confusing. Swift is, in effect, manipulating the fictional world to suit his immediate satirical purposes. It is easy enough to see what he is doing, but it does, in some sense, violate our built-up expectations. Just how are we supposed to take Lilliput and Brobdingna–as a distorted Europe or as a utopia or what? This lack of a consistent independent reality to the fictional world which he has created is one of the main reasons why Gulliver’s Travels is not considered one of the first novels (since one of the requirements of a novel, it is maintained, is a consistent attitude towards the fictional reality one has created: one cannot simply manipulate it at will to prove a moral point).

We can see Gulliver slowly becoming accustomed to a new kind of life, the life of reason that he is forced to imitate from the model supplied by the horses. We can begin to see that Gulliver is impressed by the orderly and rational conduct of life he sees in the Houyhnhnms but, while the Houyhnhnms may provide Gulliver with a model manner of life, Swift is forcing the careful reader to judge whether the life of the horses is indeed a proper model for the life of man. It may be true that a man can subsist on a diet of oats and milk and even thrive on them; but, are oats the only alternative to asses’ flesh, the food of the Yahoos? In other words, Gulliver’s choice of diet is not really the point; rather, his choice of diet signifies his choice of a manner of living.
Houyhnhnm life is much simpler than human life because these ideal horses are not possessed with the impulse towards evil that is powerfully present in many. Man’s life is a good deal more difficult; he can be good, but with great effort, while the Houyhnhnms are good without effort and are consequently not nearly so interesting as men are. Gulliver’s great mistake is his blindness to the poignant difficulty involved in man’s attempts to battle his basic instincts in order to lead the good life. Gulliver will be blinded by the glorious but inhuman example of the Houyhnhnms.

In Book IV, Swift deals more consistently with this innuendo in the New World by dividing it into two groups; the satirized Europeans, the Yahoos, and the ideally reasonable creatures, the horses. So, here there is less of a sense of shifting purpose at work. That may help to account, in part, for the great power of the Fourth Voyage.

For me Swift’s language, though strong, is still in control. The vision is harsh, the anger extreme, but that’s a sign of the intense moral anger Swift feels at the transformation of life around him in ways that are leading, he thinks, to moral disaster. The central Christian and Socratic emphasis on virtue is losing ground to something he sees as a facile illusion–that reason, wealth, money, and power could somehow do the job for us, which had been traditionally placed upon our moral characters.

In the New World, faith, hope, and charity, Swift sees, are going to be irrelevant, because the rational organization of human experience and the application of the new reasoning to all aspects of human life is going to tempt human beings with a rich lure: the promise of happiness. Under the banner of the new rationality, the traditional notions of virtue will become irrelevant, as human beings substitute for excellence of character the development of the individual human life according to some telos, some spiritual goal–the idea that properly organized practical rules, structures of authority, rational inquiry into efficient causes, profitable commercial ventures, and laws will provide the sure guide, because, after all, human beings are rational creatures.

In the first three books of the Travels, Swift has exposed satiric ridicule to the institutions, the customs, the beliefs, and the behavior of man. In Book IV, however, he turns his attention to human nature itself. He seeks to discover what might be called a definition of man; a definition that will account for the apparent mess man has managed to make of his life and his world. Swift therefore places Gulliver (an ordinary mortal) directly between the figures of impossible perfection, the Houyhnhnms, and the figures of impossible degradation, the Yahoos. Gulliver is shaken to the core of his being when he suddenly sees, in the Yahoos, the terrible sight of man as animal. The Yahoos are images of what man would become were he totally devoid of reason and completely removed from civilization: they are images of the animal potential in man.

The fact is, however, that man is neither Yahoo nor Houyhnhnm; he is an imperfect creature who, nevertheless, has the power to live a decent life if only he will recognize how limited he is. Swift presents us with figures like Count Munodi and Captain Mendez who are decent, compassionate, wise and humble men who have become aware of their capabilities only by recognizing their limitations. Without pride, these figures live the kind of good life attainable by humanity.

Gulliver, however, goes mad when he realizes that man is incapable of absolute perfection. Unable to come to terms with his limited capabilities, he thus commits the sin of pride as he is in the very process of condemning man for being proud. Ironically, Gulliver’s madness…his own pride…proves how imperfect a creature man is. The tragedy is that, in the name of perfection, Gulliver misses the opportunity to achieve whatever goodness is in his power to attain.

Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous and most powerful protest against this modern project. The severity of his anger is, I think, a symptom of the extent to which he realized the battle was already being lost. To us, however, over two hundred years later, Swift’s point is perhaps more vividly relevant than many of his contemporaries.


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