The Secret of Its Appeal for Children
Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s most comprehensive and brilliantly worked out satire on man and civilization. At the same time this book has become a children’s classic. It is not hard to understand why the first two Parts of this book, describing the hero’s adventures first among tiny little people and then among enormous giants, should attract children for whom dolls and small-scale models of things always have a special attraction. Among the Lilliputians, Gulliver is among dolls, and among the Brobdingnagians he is himself a doll.
Satire on Mankind in General and on Particular Abuses of the Time
Swift’s object in Part I is to deflate human pride by showing all the pomp and circumstance of human pretension, all the stylization of cruelty, the vanities, rituals, political catchwords, meaningless controversies, that characterize man in society, existing in a community of minute creatures and so appearing as wholly contemptible. Conversely, when Swift places his hero among giants and makes him, now himself a tiny creature, boasts about the way his civilization works to contemptuously amused grown-ups, they can only react to his absurd boastings with the crushing comment that Gulliver’s people must be “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth”. But Swift’s attack is not simply on mankind in general. Nor does he make his points only by reducing the scale of the world we know and so making man ridiculously petty. The enormous size of the Brobdingnagians, who are observed with minute closeness by Gulliver as he is handled by them, enables Swift to vent his disgust with the flesh, with man as a physical animal who sweats and excretes-a disgust which grew on Swift until it became thoroughly obsessive. The Brobdingnagians are sometimes shown as living in a state of simple virtue in sharp contrast to the corruptions of European civilization; at other times their grossness simply emphasizes the horribleness of the human animal. Again, Swift is as much concerned to expose particular abuses of his own time as to attack mankind, and though most of the detailed political satire is lost on the ordinary reader today, there is, especially in Part I, a complex political allegory at work, based on Swift’s own experience of politics in Queen Anne’s reign. But even without a knowledge of these experiences, the full power of the work can be felt.
Lilliput Depicted Sometimes as Utopia and Sometimes as 18th Century
In Part I there is a deliberate inconsistency in the way in which the satire operates. Sometimes the Lilliputians ways are described in such a way as to make the reader realize how stupid and vicious the European ways are. “The nurseries for males of noble or eminent birth are provided with grave and learned professors and their several deputies. The clothes and food of the children are plain and simple. They are bred up in the principles of honour, justice, courage, modesty, clemency, religion, and love of their country; they are always employed in some business, except in the times of eating and sleeping, which are very short, and two hours for diversions, consisting of bodily exercises. They are dressed by men till four years of age, and then are obliged to dress themselves, although their quality be ever so great.” Lilliput is sometimes utopia and sometimes eighteenth-century
made utterly contemptible by the small size of the people who exhibit the same vices and follies as the English. The account of Lilliputian politics, with the quarrel between the High-Heels and the Low-Heels and between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians is clearly a parody of English politics. On the other hand, the chapter on Lilliputian laws and education is almost wholly utopian. “In choosing persons for all employments, they have more regard to good morals than to great abilities. They thought the want of moral virtues was so far from being supplied by superior endowments of the mind, that employments could never be put into such dangerous hands as those of persons so qualified.” The irony lies not so much in that here is a utopian system which exposes that of England , but rather that here, put into actual practice, is what the English people profess to believe in but nobody would ever dream of acting on. England
Gulliver the Object of a Farmer’s Contempt in Brobdingnag
In Brobdingnag everything is of enormous size. The first man whom Gulliver sees “appeared as tall as an ordinary spire steeple, and took about ten yards at every stride”. Gulliver realizes that he appears as ridiculous to these people as the Lilliputians had seemed to him. He is discovered by a farmer who “considered a while with the caution of one who endeavours to lay hold on a small dangerous animal in such a manner that it shall not be able either to scratch or bite him, as I myself have sometimes done with a weasel in
. I apprehended every moment that he would dash me against the ground, as we usually do any little hateful animal which we have a mind to destroy.” In a few words Swift has rendered man as an animal contemptible and cruel. England
A Satirical Exposure of Human Pride and Pretension (in Part II)
Gulliver becomes the domestic pet of the farmer’s nine-year-old daughter, and his experiences are detailed in the same circumstantial way as the Lilliputian adventures, with a careful account of the scale of everything and the means adopted to enable Gulliver to manage in this enormous world. Gulliver is treated as partly a pet, partly a freek of nature to be exhibited for profit, partly a baby, and partly a doll. In each of these aspects his experiences enable the author to indulge in a satirical exposure of human pride and pretension. Gulliver is then summoned to the royal court where the Queen buys him. He pleads his cause before her (having learned the language from the farmer’s daughter), and the Queen is “surprised at so much wit and good sense in so diminutive an animal”. The King at first conceives him to be a clock-work toy, but on hearing him speak admits that he is a rational creature-an ironic conclusion in the light of the rest of the book. Gulliver becomes a poet of the royal family, and has his own miniature furniture and utensils in a portable wooden box that serves as a bed-chamber for him. He tells the King about the English civilization. After he has described his country, its political parties, its religious conflicts, its wars, its trade, etc., the King lifts Gulliver with his right hand and, stroking him gently with the other, after a hearty fit of laughter, asks him whether he is a Whig or a Tory.
The Views of the King of Brobdingnag
Swift’s attack on human pride is relentless. The King observes “how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as I”. And thus the King continues “while my colour came and went several times, with indignation to hear our noble country, the mistress of arts and arms, the scourge of France, the arbitress of Europe, the seat of virtue, piety, honour, and truth, the pride and envy of the world, so contemptuously treated”. Gulliver’s education has barely begun. It proceeds rapidly in Chapter 7 where he boasts of his country and its customs only to arouse in the King extreme contempt. “Nothing but an extreme love of truth”, this chapter begins, “could have hindered me from concealing this part of my story”. It tells of the ultimate humiliation not only of himself but of the civilization he represents. Here is corrupt man facing humane reasonableness: “I remember very well, in a discourse one day with the King, when I happened to say there were several thousand books among us written upon the art of government, it gave him (directly contrary to my intention) a very mean opinion of our understanding. He professed both to abominate and despise all mystery, refinement, and intrigue either in a prince or a minister. He could not tell what I meant by secrets of state, where an enemy or some rival nation were not in the case. 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 to 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.” The ideal nature of the Brobdingnagians becomes ever clearer in this section. Even their prose style is “clear, masculine, and smooth, but not florid”. Gulliver discovers a book treating of the weakness of human kind, which was “in little esteem except among the women and the vulgar”. And reading here further matter to diminish human pride, he is led for the first time to “believe, upon a strict inquiry, those quarrels might be shown as ill-grounded among us, as they are among that people.”
Swift’s Recognition of the Kindness and Sympathy of the Two Ships’ Captains
When Gulliver is carried off by an eagle and dropped into the sea, whence he is rescued by an English ship, the Brobdingnagian adventure comes to an end. But this adventure leaves more enduring marks on Gulliver than the Lilliputian had done. The kindness of the ship’s captain to Gulliver passes without comment, although it seems to contradict the indictment against mankind which runs through the book. (The same can be said about the even greater kindness of the captain of the Portuguese ship that rescues him in Part IV.) It takes Gulliver a long time to get accustomed to the smallness of “the houses, the trees, the cattle, and the people” once he is back in
. That as far as the people are concerned it is a moral smallness, he is not fully aware until after his last voyage. And yet the two ships’ captains are models of kindness and sympathy: it is almost as if Swift were illustrating his remark to Alexander Pope that he hated man but loved individuals. England
The Character of the People of Laputa
Part 1II, the voyage to Laputa, is less interesting both because of its lack of unity and because the objects of the satire here are more relevant to Swift’s own time. Swift here attacks every kind of unpractical scholarship, every vain philosophy, and the absurd and pretentious schemes of economists and promoters. It is here that we see most clearly how Swift’s exaltation of reason leads to anti-intellectualism. Speculative thought is depicted here as ridiculous. The Laputan people have servants called “flappers” whose duty it is to draw their attention to what needs to be seen or heard; these people are normally indifferent to what goes on around them till they are roused by some external action upon their organs of speech and hearing. They neglect practical matters in order to indulge in theory. Their houses are very ill-built,; in the common actions and behaviour of life they are most clumsy, awkward, and unhandy people; and they are slow and perplexed in their conceptions about all subjects except mathematics and music. They are complete strangers to imagination, fancy, and invention, and their intellectual interests are confined to the two sciences already mentioned, namely mathematics and music.
A Satire on Inventors and Promoters of New Schemes
From Laputa, Gulliver goes to Balnibarbi and its capital Lagado. In the description of the Academy of Projectors in Lagado, Swift satirizes inventors and promoters of schemes for improving everything: “In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments and tools for all trades and manufactures whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing.” Swift has a great deal of fun with his description of the professors of the Academy and their pursuits: “A new method of teaching was for a proposition and demonstration to be fairly written on a thin wafer, with ink composed of a cephalic tincture. This the student was to swallow upon a fasting stomach, and for three days eat nothing but bread and water. As the water digested, the tincture mounted to his brain, bearing the proposition along with it.” The satire here is more comic than bitter, except in the passage explaining their method of proving the guilt of persons suspected of plotting against the State. The anagrammatic method of exposing a plot is thus illustrated “So for example, in should say in a letter to a friend, ‘Our brother Tom has just got the piles’, a skilful decipherer would discover that the same letters which compose that sentence may be analyzed into the following words: ‘Resist, a plot is brought home; the tour (tower)’.” The whole thing is preposterous.
The Most Shattering Satire in Part IV
Nevertheless, the satire in Part III is largely confused or trivial. It is in Part IV that Swift’s satire becomes most shattering, though at the same time it tends to destroy itself. The Houyhnhnms are a race of noble horses who live according to the laws of “reason and nature”. Serving them and despised by them are the beastly Yahoos, a degenerate species of man. Gulliver himself recognizes how detestable the Yahoos are before he realizes, to his horror and astonishment, that those abominable animals have human figures in all respects. Gulliver this time makes no attempt to assert the superiority or even the decency of the human race. He is content to try to persuade the Houyhnhnms of the relationship between human beings and horses in his own country. In giving an account of the state of England, Gulliver speaks directly with Swift’s own voice: “Now your Honour is to know that these judges are persons appointed to decide all controversies of property, as well as for the trial of criminals, and picked out from the most dexterous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy and, having been biased all their lives against truth and equity, lie under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury, and oppression, that I have known several of them to have refused a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty by doing anything unbecoming their nature or their office.” As Gulliver proceeds with his account of England, he speaks more and more from the point of view of the Houyhnhnms who regard British institutions as the plain results of gross defects in reason and therefore in virtue. He apologizes to the reader for “giving so free a representation of my own species”, but explains that “the many virtues of those excellent quadrupeds, placed in opposite view to human corruptions, had so for opened my eyes and enlarged my understanding that I began to view the actions and passions of men in a very different light, and to think the honour of my own kind not worth managing.” Disgust for the human species increases steadily as the narrative proceeds, and Gulliver learns to live as a humble admirer and servant of the Houyhnhnms.
A Dreary Utopia in Part IV
As we read the account of the life of the Houyhnhnms we feel that this life of reason as led by them is curiously dead. We could even say that the reason which governs the Houyhnhnms is really a desire for death. These people are exempt from love, friendship, curiosity, fear, sorrow, anger, and hatred. (The last-mentioned two feelings-anger and hatred-they experience only towards the Yahoos in their country.) They show no fondness for their young ones. Their reason rules out any demonstration of love except an abstract and universal benevolence. They take no pleasure in sex, producing two children out of rational duty and thereafter abstaining. Their poetry is wholly didactic, usually containing “some exalted notions of friendship and benevolence, or the praises of those who were victors in races, and other bodily exercises”. The Houyhnhnms continue for generation after generation to live prudently, maintaining their population at exactly the same level, avoiding all passion, suffering from no diseases, meeting death indifferently, and training up their young ones in the same principles. If their country is intended as a utopia, it is a dreary utopia indeed.
Swift’s Violent Rejection of Mankind at the End
Swift ends his book by describing Gulliver’s difficulty in reconciling himself to live among the Yahoos in England after his experience with the noble Houyhnhnm race; and there is finally an attack on human pride when Gulliver says: “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 hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a lawyer, a pickpocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whore-master, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like; but when I behold a lump of deformity, and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.” The catalogue of lawyers, pickpockets, fools, lords, politicians, etc., is a savage rejection of all human institutions. The very length of this catalogue and the extremes it contains indicate the violence with which Swift rejects all human attempts to make any distinction between kinds of behaviour and of function. All categories of people are covered by a single contemptible image––the Yahoo, who is proud of his Yahooness. Thus Swift adopts a nihilistic position, forgetting that all men are not Yahoos, and forgetting also the kindness of the Portuguese captain. Also, it appears that Swift is himself speaking here through Gulliver.
[It should be noted that all critics do not share this opinion. According to some, it is not Swift himself who is speaking through Gulliver at this particular point in the book. Gulliver’s thorough-going misanthropy and cynicism are not to be attributed to Swift himself. Swift was a cynic and a misanthrope no doubt, but not of this extreme kind. Indeed, from this point of view, we can even say that at this point in the book Swift is making fun of Gulliver for having become such a thorough hater of mankind.