Uncertainties and Surprises in the Narrative
The book Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical work which embraces many levels of intention and execution. Most accounts of imaginary societies sooner or later give themselves away by allowing their underlying logic to become too apparent, so that when there are no further surprises in store the effect becomes monotonous.In this sense there is nothing obvious about Gulliver’s Travels. The book keeps our interest at every point because we are never able to anticipate what is going to happen, and when something does happen we are not always sure what our response should be. The contradictory details and incongruities in the narrative add to our perplexities. Despite all the differences between A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels, the two books are similar in creating tension by means of the uncertainties and surprises to which the reader is exposed.
Two Contrasts in the Book
Gulliver’s Travels begins like a genuine account by an actual ship’s surgeon, and the reader of 1726 might well have wondered, until he came to Gulliver’s awakening after coming to shore, whether this was not a book of sober fact. Gulliver is perfectly in character––a
man, scientifically-minded, curious to observe the manners and dispositions of foreign lands, and a competent linguist. The world was full of just such professional sailors who felt that, in publishing accounts of their travels, they were contributing to scientific knowledge. Gulliver’s prose style is of the kind which had the approval of the Royal Society; it is seemingly matter-of-fact, free of literary colouring, recording observed details with the fullness and precision of some scientific instrument. As an imaginary voyage, Gulliver’s Travels is a superb parody, which preserves much of the spirit and the imaginative principle of the real voyages. But if this is the main contrast that runs through the book, we are sometimes aware of another contrast. There are moments when we have to ask ourselves whether our imaginary voyage is not becoming a parody of itself-whether, for instance, the utopian elements ate not slyly humorous. Furthermore, as the political allegory comes and goes we are left with further questions and further points of reference to keep track of. The tone modulates from that of a harsh indictment of crime and folly to one of good-natured fantasy. It was once assumed that Gulliver and Swift were, to all intents and purposes, the same person; but subsequently it was realized that Swift had created a fictional character. However, this realization has not put an end to our troubles. To say that Gulliver is not Swift but an imaginary character, merely raises a new set of questions. Who is Gulliver? What is it that happens to him? How have he and his experiences been contrived by this satirist who has succeeded in writing an amusing book that has never ceased to “vex” the world? Cambridge
Three Strands in the First Pattern
We can understand the structure of Gulliver’s Travels by considering certain patterns that seem to run through the book. The most obvious of these patterns has already been indicated above. Three strands enter into this: the account of actual travels, the imaginary voyage, and a parody of the latter. In other words, we have a basic theme, a variation on the basic theme, and sometimes a variation on the variation. The utopian passages in both Part I and Part IV look in two ways at once. The Lilliputians have––or once had––many admirable institutions, but these sometimes overreach themselves in the way that utopian institutions have always done ever since the time of Plato. The nurseries for children of noble and high birth are run on admirable principles, and it is no doubt that there are provisions which make it impossible for these children to be spoiled by their doting parents, but only a confirmed utopia-maker could have devised one in which the parents can see their children only twice a year, with their visits lasting not more than an hour, where they are allowed to kiss the children only at meeting and parting, where they are not allowed to whisper to their children or use any affectionate expressions or bring any presents in the shape of toys and sweetmeats. The utopia of horses, filled with the sound of whinnying, hoof-beats, and the champing of oats, is a rational community, true enough, but in outdoing all other utopias in point of consistency the satire directed at man’s irrationality suggests that it might extend itself to include his dreams of the good society.
The Second Pattern, Underlying the Sequence of the Four Voyages
A second pattern is the one underlying the sequence of the four voyages. It seems to be a weakness in the structure that Part III should intervene between Gulliver’s experiences in Brobdingnag and his later experiences in the country of the Houyhnhnms. But what appears to be a fault from the purely logical point of view seems to justify itself from the artistic point of view. In the first voyage (in Part I), we are not sure for some time, nor is Gulliver, about the true nature of the Lilliputians and their civilization, and though, eventually, Gulliver has good cause to conclude that these diminutive people are as contemptible morally as they are small in stature, this discovery does not leave him inwardly moved. Part II is more rigorous than this. Not only are the experiences less ambiguous but they bite more deeply into Gulliver’s sensibilities. Part IV really begins, psychologically, where the second leaves off, for the intensity of Gulliver’s reactions produces in him a state of shock which causes him to lose his self-esteem as one of the human race. The intervention of the third voyage, scattered in its effects and only once (in the episode of Struldbrugs) producing a marked psychic reaction on Gulliver’s part, is almost a functional necessity. Like the scherzo in a traditional four-movement symphony, it comes between the second and the fourth movements to break the tension and prepare the way for a stronger climax than could otherwise be achieved. This is only one of several details which it is easy enough to make out in this sequential pattern. The contrast given to us in the first two voyages between little men and big men may be an obvious one, but into it has gone the cosmic imagination of an age which had produced Boyle, Locke, and Newton––an age which thought of man as situated on the isthmus of his middle state, but permitted to catch glimpses through the microscope and the telescope of the created forms that filled the universe. But, if the pigmy-giant sequence might have occurred to almost anyone, the final sequence which takes us from societies of human beings into a world of animals is worthy of Swift’s comic wit. Rational animals were not new in literature. Nor was the idea that man, in abdicating reason, sinks lower than the beasts. Swift’s originality lies in devising a series of experiences of which the last is a violent and preposterous variation of those which have preceded. Gulliver, having seen himself in relation to little men in Part I and then big men in Part II, is finally and suddenly forced into comparison not with men at all but with animals in Part IV. This last situation is further complicated in so far as the comparison is not simple but complex, because there are two orders[†] of animals between which poor Gulliver stands dubiously. For Swift and his original readers what was essentially involved in Part IV was an outrageous paradox. Man and animal belonged to different levels of creation; they were forms for ever separate, related to one another not through any natural principles of growth and continuity but as links in the chain of being. The resolution of the paradox is afforded by the obvious moral symbolism which is present throughout the fourth voyage; man may so live as to be worthy of his God-given status; on the other hand he may, be forfeiting his humanity, become repulsive and bestial.
The Third Pattern: The Ironic Mode
The third pattern might be described as the ironic mode in which much of Gulliver’s Travels has been cast. By means of this pattern, control is exercised over the book as a whole and over many of the details. The irony here is of a kind that came naturally to more than one eighteenth-century writer, Goldsmith being another who understood its use. The narrative and dramatic literature of the Enlightenment dealt freely with current ideas, but did so in its own way. Theories about man and society appear constantly in the plays and narratives of the period, and frequently assume major importance as a thematic element. These concepts and principles are often brought before us in a perfectly direct and straightforward manner, and are to be understood as generalizations to which everyone subscribes as a matter of course. But there is another method of presentation which is also employed and which often alternates with the first in the same work. In the latter case, the ideas are introduced through the distorting medium of some character who is made to voice them in his own fashion or to colour them with his own experience. The question where direct and public statement ends and dramatic presentation takes over is sometimes difficult for the reader to decide. The question is: What is straightforward and what is ironic (by virtue of a double point of view brought into play)? It is through the use which Swift has made his central character, Lemuel Gulliver, that he has created a masterpiece of eighteenth century comic art. The positive doctrines and precepts appearing in this book were all of them familiar to Swift’s time. It is the ironic refraction supplied by Gulliver that gives rise to the extraordinary effects.
The Comedy of Exploration and Exclusion
Comedy, in Swift, is sometimes the comedy of discontinuity. We strip, we analyze, and we are shocked by the discrepancy which we find between appearance and reality. Again, we have what we come to recognize as comedy in terms of a special situation: a certain state of affairs begins to define itself, becomes increasingly and arrogantly certain of its own identity, and grows, expands, improvises, aggrandizes itself at the expense of everything within reach. The digressions in The Tale of a Tub and the enthusiasm of Peter and Jack as depicted in the fable of the coats illustrate this second mode. But the comedy of Gulliver’s Travels is something different from both these types. It is a comedy of what we may call exploration and exclusion. Only once in the course of all the four voyages do we have an episode which turns upon sudden exposure. When Gulliver, on hearing of the Struldbrugs, assumes that they are universally envied for their immortality he is permitted by his hosts to indulge in eloquent praise of the blessings of long life before being shown the repulsive truth. Ordinarily Gulliver is not deceived in this manner by outward appearances only to learn the actual state of affairs in a moment of horrible revelation. Nor has he created any of the situations in which he finds himself. He is projected by the forces of Nature into a number of strange societies which he proceeds to explore somewhat in the manner of a modem cultural anthropologist. He is a perfectly normal Englishman who has never known what it means to be a misfit or an unacceptable eccentric. When he awakens to find himself among the Lilliputians his first feeling is one of mingled astonishment and curiosity. The earlier experiences which he undergoes leave him of two minds about this society, for he sees the shortcomings of the little people and at the same time acquires genuine respect for their original institutions. But on further acquaintance the Lilliputians reveal themselves as thoroughly contemptible. They have, meanwhile, turned against the giant in their midst, but by this time Gulliver’s self-esteem is not to be affected by any judgment which such people can pass against him. He has made his explorations; he finds himself an object of hatred; but he in turn has rejected this entire society. Back again in
, he is psychologically quite unaltered. But Brobdingnag produces a different kind of reaction. Again there is exploration, and again an element of uncertainty in the earlier stage. The first of the giants whom Gulliver encounters are not, except the nine-year girl who becomes his nurse, particularly admirable people, and his first master almost works him to death out of sheer greed. Are the Brobdingnagians to prove as coarse in sentiment as they are big in size? When Gulliver reaches the court he finds that the aristocracy bear an entirely different character. Yet throughout his entire stay among the giants, the sense of security which he has in the presence of this amiable race is mixed with a feeling of nausea caused by the sights and smells, which he must endure. There is, however, nothing ambiguous about the judgment which is eventually passed, not upon Gulliver as an individual but upon Europeans as a people, who are declared to be “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” This is a new experience for Gulliver who for the first time in his life finds himself rejected as an unwholesome deviate, though hitherto he has been a normal and acceptable person. His response to the situation is to seek protection in a newly-acquired pride and to convince himself not only that the estimable characteristics of the Brobdingnagians are absurd but that European civilization has virtues which these people clearly do not possess. England
The Third Pattern in the Climactic Fourth Voyage
This pattern of ironic refraction and the comedy of exclusion almost drops from sight in Part III but it becomes the compositional principle behind the climactic fourth voyage. Here the exploratory element has been reduced to a minimum. From the first, by a flash of intuition, Gulliver is convinced of the moral virtues of the Houyhnhnms, and the recognition scene in the second chapter leaves him under the necessity of acknowledging the close physical resemblance between himself and the detestable Yahoos. Part IV is almost entirely exclusion––the overwhelming emotional experience of one who is brought to see himself and his class as hopelessly tainted and deserving banishment from any rational society. However, Gulliver remains a figure in a comedy even though he suffers a sudden conviction of guilt and displays an extraordinary capacity for self-torture. That is the paradox which many readers fail to grasp. Gulliver’s Travels vexes; but it is still, in more ways than one, the merry work that Dr. Arbuthnot called it. In this book Swift’s comic vision found a perfect expression.