A Satire, a Parody, and a Comic Masterpiece
The book called Gulliver’s Travels is a satire on four aspects of man: the physical, the political, the intellectual, and the moral. The book is also a brilliant parody of travel literature; and it is at once science fiction and a witty parody of science fiction. It expresses savage indignation at the follies, vices, and stupidities of men, and it shows an awareness of man’s tragic insufficiency. At the same time it is a great comic masterpiece, a fact which readers of solemn temperaments often fail to recognize.
The Book Neither Morbid, Nor the Work of a Madman
It would not be absolutely correct to think that Gulliver’s Travels expresses despair or that the book is nihilistic in its outlook. All Swift’s satire was certainly written in anger, contempt, or disgust; but it was written to promote self-knowledge in the faith that self-knowledge could lead to right action. Some commentators have wrongly called this book morbid, and some have gone so far as to think that it is the work of a man who was going mad at the time he wrote it. But the fact is that the gaiety and comedy of the voyages described in the book are an indication of Swift’s essential intellectual and spiritual good health. This book was written when Swift was at the height of his intellectual powers; and the comic spirit of the book as a whole rules out the view that it is morbid and that it shows the mental illness of the author.
Occasions on Which We Laugh in the Course of Our Reading the Book
As we go through this book, we laugh frequently. We laugh and were meant to laugh at the toy kingdom of the Lilliputians; at the acrobatic skill of the politicians and the courtiers; at the absurd jealousy of the diminutive minister who suspects an adulterous relationship between his wife and the giant Gulliver. We laugh at the plight of Gulliver in Brobdingnag: one of the lords of creation, frightened by a puppy, rendered ludicrous by the tricks of a mischievous monkey, in awe of a dwarf; embarrassed by the lascivious antics of the maids of honour; and at last content to be tended like a baby by his girl-nurse. We laugh at the abstractness of the philosophers of Laputa, and at the mad experimenters of Balnibarbi. And we are right in at least smiling at the preposterous horses, the Houyhnhnms, so limited and so positive in their knowledge and opinions, so skilled in such improbable tasks as threading needles or carrying trays, so complacent in their belief that they are “the perfection of nature”. Much of the pleasure that we feel in this book is due to this gay, comic, fanciful inventiveness. However, we should also keep in mind the fact that, beyond the mirth and liveliness of the book, are gravity, anger, anxiety, and frustration, and Swift intended that we should experience these also in full measure.
Our Laughter, Silenced by the Spectacle of Corrupt Human Nature
We can put the case by saying that, while the surface of the book is comic, at its centre is tragedy, transformed by means of style and tone into cold irony. Swift is a great master of shock. With perfect control of tone and pace, and with perfect timing, he startles us into an awareness of a dark abyss, the abyss of corrupt human nature. Swift forces us to look into the stupid, evil, brutal heart of humanity and, when we do, our laughter is abruptly silenced. Swift’s irony makes some readers call him a hateful misanthrope, but others have found this irony wholesome and invigorating.
Events Which Established the Tones of the Four Voyages
The title of the book tells us that it is an account of Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world. The four voyages of Gulliver are so arranged in the book as to show an intensification of tone as we travel through increasing darkness into the black heart of humanity. But the forward movement of the book is interrupted by the third voyage which is a grim comment on science, politics, economics as practised by madmen. (Swift uses the term madmen for those who misuse human reason.) The tone of each voyage is established by the nature of the event that brings about the adventure. In the first voyage (which is the gayest and the most benign), it is accident, or the carelessness of the look-out, which accounts for the shipwreck. In the second (which is much more savage in tone), Gulliver is left alone in a strange land through the cowardice of his shipmates. In the third, he is captured and later abandoned by pirates. In the fourth, his crew of cutthroat revolts, seizes the ship, and leaves him to starve on a nearby island.
The Idea of the Great Chain of Being Used by Swift in the First Two Voyages
The first two voyages show how effectively Swift uses the idea of the great chain of being. The philosopher Pascal had asked what is man in nature, and had thus answered the question: “A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything.” Swift translates this theme into a different key, and makes it the major instrument of his satire. In the first two voyages, Gulliver is made aware of the disproportion which Pascal had found in man. Placed on the isthmus of a middle state, Gulliver in his voyage to Lilliput looks down the chain of being and finds himself an awkward giant in that delicate kingdom. In the voyage to Brobdingnag he looks up the chain and discovers a race of superior beings among whom his pride melts on account of his humiliating knowledge of his own physical insignificance. Although the emphasis in these two voyages is upon physical size, it is notable that Lilliput calls into operation Gulliver’s kindliness and gentleness, and that Brobdingnag brings out his moral and physical courage. This means that, although man is comically and tragically disproportioned, man has moral virtues which he can exercise and which he does exercise.
The Disproportion in the Lilliputians
But the satire of Swift is a double weapon. The inhabitants of these two strange lands (Lilliput and Brobdingnag) are also disproportioned. From the start the Lilliputians arouse our interest and win our liking. The pigmies of Lilliput ingeniously capture the giant whom chance has cast on their shore. They humanely solve the problem of feeding him. Their pretty land and their fascinating little city capture our fancy. But in the end they prove to be proud, envious, rapacious, treacherous, cruel, revengeful, jealous, and hypocritical. Their social and political systems have become corrupt. They are governed by an emperor who aims at destroying the neighbouring kingdom. The courtiers and ministers here are chosen not for their fitness but for their skill in walking on the tight rope and leaping over sticks or creeping under them. The pigmies of Lilliput are an example of the disproportion of man like Gulliver himself. Their vices, their appetites, their ambitions, and their passions are too big for their small stature. They appear to Gulliver to be venomous and petty, even as Gulliver and his kind must appear to some higher order of beings.
The Enlightened and Benevolent Brobdingnagians
In Brobdingnag we meet creatures ten or twelve times the size of Europeans, and we share Gulliver’s anxiety lest their moral natures be as brutish as their bodies. But the reverse is true. Through a violent shift of simple tone and point of view Gulliver, who seemed to be lovable and humane among the Lilliputians, appears disgraceful and morally insensitive in contrast to the enlightened and benevolent people of this land. Since Gulliver represents us (all human beings), his shame and ludicrousness are ours. When the peasants of Brobdingnag discover Gulliver, they feel both curiosity and dislike. The farmer picks him up with the caution of one who tries to catch a small dangerous animal in such a way that it shall not be able to scratch or bite him. Gulliver fears that his captor may dash him to the ground.
The Reaction of the Brobdingnagian King to Gulliver’s Description of
Gulliver is subjected to one humiliation after another, but he is still blind to the defects of European society. When he is questioned by the King about
, he describes, with enthusiasm, the class system, the constitution, the laws, the military glory, and the history of that country. In the King’s questions we hear the voice of morality condemning the institutions of the modem world. And the verdict of a moral being on European man is given in the following words in which we can perceive the King’s contempt: England
“But, by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”
(Part II, Chapter 6, Page 173)
Such a conclusion is inescapable because the King is high-minded, benevolent, and rational. The King and his people think practically, not theoretically; concretely, not metaphysically; simply, not intricately. Brobdingnag is Swift’s utopia of common good sense and morality; while Gulliver, conditioned by the corrupt society nom which he comes, appears to be blind to moral values. Gulliver’s account of the history of
in the seventeenth century draws the following crushing retort nom the King: England
“It was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments; the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice and ambition could produce.”
(Part II, Chapter 6, Page 172)
Gulliver’s Adverse Comments on the King’s Views
When Gulliver offers to the King a complete control over his subjects by teaching him to manufacture gunpowder, the King is horrified. Thereupon Gulliver, speaking as a European, feels surprise and contempt, and explains the King’s rejection as “a strange effect of narrow principles and short views”. The King is baffled by the concept of political science. He cannot understand how the art of government can be reduced to a science. This is how Gulliver comments on the King’s attitude:
“He confined the knowledge of governing within very narrow bounds, to common sense and reason, to justice and lenity, to the speedy determination of civil and criminal causes, with some other obvious topics which are not worth considering. And he gave it for his opinion that whoever could make two ears of com or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
(Part II, Chapter 7, Page 176)
The learning of the Brobdingnagians is simple and practical, “consisting only in morality, history, poetry, and mathematics”. It is noteworthy that Swift omits metaphysics, theoretical science, and theology nom the category of useful knowledge.
Swift’s Attack on Human Pride and Vanity
Swift makes a brilliant use of the chain of being in order to make his attack on pride in the first two voyages more powerful. As we are expected to recognize ourselves in the Lilliputians, and also in Gulliver when he arrives in Brobdingnag, we become aware of our own pettiness; we become aware of the disproportion of the human race and of the shocking difference between what we profess and what we are. But Swift uses the good giants to strike a blow at human vanity and to introduce a motif which afterwards he employs with a terrible effect in the last voyage. That motif is disgust, of which Swift is a great master. Philosophers of the time were never tired of admiring the beautiful perfection of the human body, its intricateness, its perfect power of speech and expression, its happy appropriateness to the particular place which men occupy in the scheme of things. But how does this glorious human body appear to inferior creatures like insects? Swifts wants us to understand the answer by making us share Gulliver’s disgust at the cancerous breasts and lousy bodies of the beggars, and at the blotched colour, the huge pores, the coarse hairs, and the nauseating odours of the maids of hon9ur. Such is the skin, perhaps, that the Borbdingnagians love to touch. Human beauty is only apparent, while human disproportion is real.
Part III, Loosely Episodic
The account of the third voyage of Gulliver has generally been regarded as the least successful. However, as at least one critic points out, it is the funniest account in the whole book. Structurally this account is loosely episodic, lacking a unity of action and tone. In this account we have the details of Gulliver’s visit to Laputa or the flying island, to Lagado (which is the capital of Balnibarbi), to Glubbdubdrib, to Luggnagg, and to
. It is because Gulliver visits several countries in the course of this voyage that his account appears to be sprawling and not well-knit. It would seem that Swift has put all the material here which he could not work into the other three voyages. This third voyage is a kind of fantasia on two themes which Swift treats under a single metaphor. The metaphor is science, and the themes are politics and the abuse of reason. Japan
The Comic Obsessions of the People of Laputa (in Part III)
The people of Laputa or the flying island visited by Gulliver in the course of his third voyage are obsessed with only two branches of knowledge––namely, mathematics and music. These obsessions render these people awkward and clumsy so far as the common actions and behaviour of life are concerned. They are very bad reasoners; and imagination, fancy, and invention are alien to them. The tailor who is ordered to make a suit of clothes for Gulliver first takes Gulliver’s altitude with a quadrant; and then, with rule and compasses, sketches the dimensions and outlines of Gulliver’s whole body on a sheet of paper. After six days, the tailor brings a suit of clothes which is very badly made and which is quite out of shape because he had made a mistake in his calculations. The obsession with music makes these people think that they can hear the music of the spheres. Besides, these people are in a state of constant fear because of the changes which they think would take place in the heavenly bodies. They apprehend that the earth would, in course of time, be swallowed up by the sun or that the face of the sun would by degrees become dark and therefore give no more light to the world. The astronomers on this island have been able to make discoveries beyond those made by European astronomers. The astronomers here have made a catalogue of ten thousand fixed stars; they have discovered two satellites revolving about Mars; and they have observed ninety-three different comets. All this is intended to be a satire on the scientific experiments of the time, because Swift was no believer in science.
Satire on New Agricultural Methods Prevailing in Lagado (in Part III)
The satire on scientific research continues when Gulliver is informed by Munodi that the new agricultural methods, introduced in Lagado by those who had fallen under the influence of life in Laputa, have proved to be a complete failure. Munodi points out that the new methods had yielded no results, so that the whole country now lies in a state of neglect, with the houses in ruins and the people without food or clothes. By the new schemes which were introduced into Lagado, Swift may have meant the new agricultural methods in vogue in
in the beginning of the eighteenth century. It is noteworthy that the various projects introduced by the persons who had visited Laputa and fallen under the influence of the Laputans are impractical. One such project is that “all the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundredfold more than they do at present.” England
Satire on Preposterous Scientific Projects in Lagado (in Part III)
The scientific experiments in this part of the book also include the various researches that are in progress at the
in Lagado. The projects at this Academy are fantastic and preposterous. Experiments are being made to extract sunbeams out of cucumbers, to convert human excrement into its original food, to build houses from the roof downwards to the foundation, to obtain silk from cobwebs, and to produce books on various subjects by the use of a machine and without having to use one’s brain. Academy of Projectors
Satire on Politicians in Lagado (in Part III)
So far as politics is concerned, Swift makes us laugh at the foolishness and selfishness of the favourites of monarchs and others engaged in the game of politics. There is a school of political projects at the
. Swift ironically tells us that the professors at this school have a scheme for persuading Kings to choose favourites on the basis of wisdom, capacity, and virtue; for teaching ministers of the government to be guided by the public good; for rewarding merit and ability; for choosing for employment persons who are properly qualified; and so on. One ingenious professor has proposed that every legislator should be given a certain medicine which will keep him in a fit mental condition so that he should not talk any nonsense during the whole session of the legislative assembly. Another professor has suggested that the favourites of kings should be given suitable medicines to stimulate their memories so that they should not forget their promises to the public. Another suggestion is that every legislator, after stating his opinion and arguing in defence of it, should be compelled to give his vote directly contrary because, if that is done, the result would be in the interests of the public. A method involving a surgical operation to bring about a reconciliation between the views of two opposing parties in a country has also been developed. Furthermore, methods have been devised for raising funds through taxation without upsetting the members of the public. One of the professors has devised ways and means for discovering plots and conspiracies against the government. These ways and means include an investigation of the diet of all suspected persons, their times of eating, upon which side they lie in bed, with which hand they wipe their posteriors, and so on. Academy of Lagado
Satire on Historians, Literary Critics, and Others (in Part III)
In addition to the two major targets of satire in Part III, we also have a criticism of historians and historical researches. Alexander and Hannibal, for instance, give to Gulliver different versions of certain events from those found in books of history. The commentators and critics of Homer and Aristotle are also ridiculed for having grossly misrepresented these two great authors to the world. Swift also mocks at men and women of great families who had married persons of the lowest classes, thus injecting inferior blood into their families. Those who have risen to worldly greatness by adopting shameful methods are also the objects of Swift’s satirical attack. And, finally, there is the grim and corrosive satire on the human longing for immortality which is symbolized by the Struldbrugs.
The Fourth Voyage, a Target of Attack
The fourth voyage in Gulliver’s Travels marks the climax of the book. This great section has provoked violent attacks on Swift and his book. The reason for these attacks is that this portion of the book has been misunderstood. This portion has offended the unreflective and pious Christian, the sentimentalist, and the optimist. According to Thackeray, the meaning of this part of the book was that “man is utterly wicked, desperate, and imbecile, and his passions are monstrous and his boosted power mean, that he is and deserves to be the shame of brutes, and ignorance is better than his vaunted reason.” Thackeray adds: “It is Yahoo language, a monster gibbering shrieks and gnashing imprecations against mankind, filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.” The view that Swift was a savage, mad, embittered misanthrope is largely based upon this misinterpretation of the last voyage. Actually, the account of the last voyage is the work of a Christian-humanist and a moralist.
Reasons for the Attack on the Account of the Fourth Voyage
The reasons why the account of the last voyage has been misunderstood are as follows:
1. The sheer intensity and violent rhetoric of the voyage are overwhelming and may almost paralyze the critical faculty of certain readers.
2. Gulliver in the frenzy of his mad misanthropy has been too easily identified with Swift himself. Actually, Gulliver is speaking for himself, and not for Swift. A careful reading would reveal the fact that Gulliver becomes the victim of Swift’s irony as he grows to hate the human race. The final pages of the book are grimly comic.
3. The primary symbols of this voyage have been totally misunderstood. The Houyhnhnms have been regarded as Swift’s ideal for man, and the Yahoos have been identified as his representation of what men are in actual fact. Neither of these opinions seems to be correct.
Gulliver, Situated on the Isthmus* of a
In the first two voyages Gulliver is shown uncomfortably situated on the isthmus of a middle state between the very small (Lilliput) and the very large (Brobdingnag). In the last voyage also he stands on an isthmus, but now the isthmus exists between the purely rational and the purely sensual-between Houyhnhnm and Yahoo. Neither of these symbols can stand for men, because Gulliver is himself the symbol of mankind. Unfortunately, Gulliver shares somehow in the nature of both extremes. Swift simply isolates the two elements that combine in the duality of man; the middle link, in order to allow Gulliver to contemplate each in its essence.
The Portrayal of the Houyhnhnms (in Part IV)
Swift does not recommend that Gulliver (who represents us also) should try to become a Houyhnhnm. We find that in every sense Houyhnhnm-land is a rationalistic paradise. The Houyhnhnms are the embodiment of pure reason. They know neither love nor grief nor lust nor ambition. They cannot lie, and they do not understand the meaning of opinion. Their society is an aristocracy, based upon the slave labour of the Yahoos and the work of a specially-bred servant class. They face the processes of life, such as marriage, child-birth, accident, and death with a stoical calm. Their society is a planned society that has achieved the mild anarchy which many utopian dreamers have aspired to. They practise eugenics and they control the size of their population. Children are educated by the State. The agrarian economy is supervised by a democratic council. The government is conducted entirely by periodic assemblies. The Houyhnhnms feel natural human affection for one another, but they love every one equally. This picture is all very admirable, but it is remote from the possibilities of human life.
The Houyhnhnms’ Way of Life Not Ideal
Nor does Swift intend us to accept this as an ideal way of life. The Houyhnhnms are obviously Cartesians,* and obviously stoics. Swift was antiCartesian from the beginning for the simple reason that he held that Descartes was self-deceived and that man’s reason was incapable of the feats that Descartes attributed to it. Similarly, Swift was opposed to stoicism, and he recorded his adverse view of it elsewhere in his work. “The stoical scheme of supplying our wants, by lopping off our desires, is like cutting off our feet when we want shoes,” Swift has written. It is Gulliver, not Swift, who is greatly impressed by the Houyhnhnms and who aspires to rise above the human condition and to become pure intelligence as these horses are.
The Yahoos, Symbolic of the Bestial Element in Human Nature
The Yahoos constitute the most powerful single symbol in the entire work of Swift. They do not represent Swift’s view of man; they rather represent Swift’s view of the bestial element in man, the unenlightened, unregenerate, irrational element in human nature. That is the reason why the Houyhnhnms classify Gulliver with the Yahoos. That is why the female Yahoo wishes to copulate with him. That is why, despite his instinctive shrinking from them, Gulliver has to admit with shame and horror that he is more like the Yahoos than like the Houyhnhnms. Because of his neglect or misuse of human reason, the European man has sunk nearer to the Yahoo pole of his nature than he has risen toward the Houyhnhnm pole. The seeds of human society and of human depravity, as they exist in
Europe, are clearly found in the society and conduct of the Yahoos. Gulliver looks into the ugly abyss of human nature unlighted by the frail light of reason and of morality; and the sight drives him mad.
Gulliver’s Misanthropy, Resulting from His Experience of the Yahoos
It is Gulliver, not Swift, who, feeling repelled by what he sees, identifies the Yahoos with men, and so he, not Swift, turns a misanthrope. Since he does not want to be a Yahoo, he seeks to become a Houyhnhnm as nearly as possible. But he can do so only by denying his place in and responsibility to the human condition, by aspiring above the middle link, which is man, to the next higher link which is that of the purely rational. The wise Houyhnhnm, to whom he gives a terrifying account of European man and society, concludes that the corruption of reason is worse than brutality itself, and that man is more dangerous than the Yahoo. This is profoundly true. But its effect on Gulliver is to awaken a loathing of all that is human.
Gulliver’s Alienation from the Human Race
Although the Houyhnhnms never acknowledge that Gulliver is more than an unusually gifted Yahoo, he aspires to their rationality, stoicism, and simple wisdom. Thinking that he has attained these qualities, he feeds his growing misanthropy on pride, which alienates him not only from his remote kinsmen, the Yahoos, but eventually from his brethren, the human race.
Gulliver, a Changed Man at the End
From the moment that the banished Gulliver in despair sets sail from Houyhnhnm-land, his pride, his misanthropy, and his madness become apparent. Deceived by his worship of pure reason, he commits the error of the Houyhnhnms in equating human beings with the Yahoos. When he is captured by a Portuguese crew and forced to return from sullen solitude to humanity, he trembles between fear and hatred. The Captain of the ship, Don Pedro de Mendez, like Gulliver himself, shares the nature of the Houyhnhnm and the Yahoo, and like the Gulliver of the first voyage he is tolerant, sympathetic, kindly, patient, and charitable. But Gulliver can no longer recognize these traits in a human being. With the short-sightedness of the Houyhnhnms, he perceives only the Yahoo and is repelled by Don Pedro’s clothes, food, and odour. Gradually, however, he is nursed back to partial health, and is compelled to admit, in the very tones of his admired horses, that his benefactor has a “very good human understanding”. But the Gulliver who writes this book is still under the control of his obsession, and when we last see him he prefers the smell and conversation of his two horses to the company of his wife and children. This is misanthropy in the manner of Timon* of Athens, not in the manner of Swift. In the ironic coda with which the book ends, Swift directs his savage, comic gaze straight at Gulliver and his insane pretensions:
“My reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult, if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature has entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a lawyer, a pick-pocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whore-monger, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like. This is all according to the due course of things. But when I behold a lump of deformity, and diseases both of body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience; neither shall I ever be able to comprehend how such an animal and such a vice could tally together”.
(Part IV, Chapter 12, Page 345)