Gulliver’s TravelsSwift’s Gulliver’s Travels is without question the most famous literature toemerge 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 trendsinitiated by seventeenth-century philosophy. In Book IV, we discover howGulliver’s journey into a discovery of what man is becomes a journey intomadness. We encounter, here, a cruel attack on man. This is an attack using twoof 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 ofabsolute reason; the second are creatures bearing an uncanny resemblance to manexcept for their animalistic brutality.Order now
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 achievesthe necessary comic distortion, which transforms the familiar into theridiculous. And Swift’s main technique for achieving this–and a wonderfultechnique for satire–is the basic plot of science fiction: the voyage by anaverage civilized human being into unknown territory and his return back home. This apparently simple plot immediately opens all sorts of satiricpossibilities, because it enables the writer constantly to play off threedifferent perspectives in order to give us the reader a comic sense of what isvery familiar. It can do this in the following ways: If the strange new countryis recognizably similar to our culture, then comic distortions in the New Worldenable 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 newcountry is some sort of utopia–a perfectly realized vision of the ideals oftenproclaimed but generally violated in our world–then the satirist can manipulatethe discrepancy between the ideal New World of the fiction and the corrupt worldwe live in to illustrate repeatedly just how empty the pretensions to goodnessreally are in our world.
However, the key to this technique is generally the useof the traveler, the figure who is, in effect, the reader’s contemporary andfellow countryman. How that figure reacts to the New World can be a constantsource of amusement and pointed satiric comment, because, in effect, this figurerepresents the contact between the normal world and the strange New World ofeither caricatured ridiculousness or utopian perfection. We can see Swift movingback and forth between the first two techniques, and this can create someconfusion. For example, in much of Book I, Lilliput is clearly a comicdistortion of life in Europe. The sections on the public rewards of leaping andcreeping or the endless disputes about whether one should eat one’s eggs bybreaking them at the bigger or the smaller end or the absurdity of the royalproclamations are obvious and funny distortions of the court life, the pompouspretentiousness of officials, and the religious disputes familiar to Swift’sreaders.
At the same time, however, there are passages where he holds up thelaws of Lilliput as some form of utopian ideal, in order to demonstrate just howmuch better they understand true reasonableness than do the Europeans. In bookII, he does the same: for most of the time the people of Brobdingnag are againcaricatured distorted Europeans, but clearly, the King of Brobdingnag is anideal figure. This shift in perspective on the New World is at times confusing. Swift is, in effect, manipulating the fictional world to suit his immediatesatirical purposes.
It is easy enough to see what he is doing, but it does, insome sense, violate our built-up expectations. Just how are we supposed to takeLilliput and Brobdingna–as a distorted Europe or as a utopia or what? This lackof a consistent independent reality to the fictional world which he has createdis one of the main reasons why Gulliver’s Travels is not considered one of thefirst novels (since one of the requirements of a novel, it is maintained, is aconsistent attitude towards the fictional reality one has created: one cannotsimply manipulate it at will to prove a moral point). We can see Gulliver slowlybecoming accustomed to a new kind of life, the life of reason that he is forcedto imitate from the model supplied by the horses. We can begin to see thatGulliver is impressed by the orderly and rational conduct of life he sees in theHouyhnhnms but, while the Houyhnhnms may provide Gulliver with a model manner oflife, Swift is forcing the careful reader to judge whether the life of thehorses is indeed a proper model for the life of man. It may be true that a mancan subsist on a diet of oats and milk and even thrive on them; but, are oatsthe 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 dietsignifies his choice of a manner of living.
Houyhnhnm life is much simpler thanhuman life because these ideal horses are not possessed with the impulse towardsevil that is powerfully present in many. Man’s life is a good deal moredifficult; he can be good, but with great effort, while the Houyhnhnms are goodwithout effort and are consequently not nearly so interesting as men are. Gulliver’s great mistake is his blindness to the poignant difficulty involvedin man’s attempts to battle his basic instincts in order to lead the goodlife. Gulliver will be blinded by the glorious but inhuman example of theHouyhnhnms. In Book IV, Swift deals more consistently with this innuendo in theNew 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 asense of shifting purpose at work.
That may help to account, in part, for thegreat power of the Fourth Voyage. For me Swift’s language, though strong, isstill in control. The vision is harsh, the anger extreme, but that’s a sign ofthe intense moral anger Swift feels at the transformation of life around him inways that are leading, he thinks, to moral disaster. The central Christian andSocratic emphasis on virtue is losing ground to something he sees as a facileillusion–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 therational organization of human experience and the application of the newreasoning to all aspects of human life is going to tempt human beings with arich lure: the promise of happiness. Under the banner of the new rationality,the traditional notions of virtue will become irrelevant, as human beingssubstitute for excellence of character the development of the individual humanlife according to some telos, some spiritual goal–the idea that properlyorganized practical rules, structures of authority, rational inquiry intoefficient causes, profitable commercial ventures, and laws will provide the sureguide, because, after all, human beings are rational creatures. In the firstthree books of the Travels, Swift has exposed satiric ridicule to theinstitutions, the customs, the beliefs, and the behavior of man. In Book IV,however, he turns his attention to human nature itself.
He seeks to discoverwhat might be called a definition of man; a definition that will account for theapparent mess man has managed to make of his life and his world. Swift thereforeplaces Gulliver (an ordinary mortal) directly between the figures of impossibleperfection, the Houyhnhnms, and the figures of impossible degradation, theYahoos. Gulliver is shaken to the core of his being when he suddenly sees, inthe Yahoos, the terrible sight of man as animal. The Yahoos are images of whatman would become were he totally devoid of reason and completely removed fromcivilization: they are images of the animal potential in man. The fact is,however, that man is neither Yahoo nor Houyhnhnm; he is an imperfect creaturewho, nevertheless, has the power to live a decent life if only he will recognizehow limited he is.
Swift presents us with figures like Count Munodi and CaptainMendez who are decent, compassionate, wise and humble men who have become awareof 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 sinof pride as he is in the very process of condemning man for being proud.
Ironically, Gulliver’s madness. . . his own pride.
. . proves how imperfect acreature man is. The tragedy is that, in the name of perfection, Gulliver missesthe opportunity to achieve whatever goodness is in his power to attain. Book IVof Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous and most powerful protest againstthis modern project. The severity of his anger is, I think, a symptom of theextent 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 relevantthan many of his contemporaries.