Critical Essays On Gullivers Travels

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Readings of Gulliver’s Travels are diverse enough to have spawned histories on the critical debate itself. The work was an instant success; upon its anonymous publication in 1726, “it […] became the only subject of conversation; everybody wondered, everybody admired, and everybody sought for meanings that were never intended” (Character of Swift 331). Within a month of its publication, John Gay wrote Swift to say that if the author would return to England, he would “have the pleasure of a variety of commentators to explain the difficult passages [of his own book] to him” (Corresp. 184). Gay also informed Swift that the public generally regarded Swift as the work’s author (268), and from this early stage in the critical debate through the late-nineteenth-century, few critics distinguished between Swift the author and his imaginary cousin, the narrator, Gulliver (Fox 280). The Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms was therefore generally regarded as the misanthropic ramblings of Swift’s own diseased mind; the Houyhnhnms represented Swift’s ideal for mankind and the Yahoos were his “ridicule on human nature itself” (Orrery 41). Yet arguably beginning somewhere between A.O. Lovejoy’s 1920 essay, “The Pride of the Yahoo” and John F. Ross’s 1941 piece, “The Final Comedy of Gulliver,” critics began to see the fourth Voyage in a new light: “Gulliver in the last voyage is not Swift” (Ross 74). This new reading rendered Gulliver a tool of the satire; these critics note that Gulliver might as well be named “Gullible,” and that the reader himself must judge the narrator’s thoughts to be simple-minded (Fox 285). In Lilliput, Gulliver “sees little people where he should see little minds” (285) and readers should thus not be surprised that Gulliver is taken over by the Houyhnhnms’ false dichotomy between themselves and the Yahoos. Yet if the reader is not surprised, he or she must also understand that the dichotomy is overly simplistic; Gulliver is neither one nor the other and neither are readers.

Critics now widely accept the separation of author and narrator, but still interpret the work from two different camps. These camps generally differ in interpretations of the meaning of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, the purpose of Captain Mendez, and the meaning of Gulliver’s insanity at the Voyage’s close. The first, “Hard” school of thought, operates under the same basic principles as the early critics who linked Gulliver and Swift. In the school, the Houyhnhnms are Swift’s ideal for mankind, and the despicable Yahoos should depress or even anger the reader. The hard reading of Gulliver is difficult to justify; in letters to Pope and Bolingbroke, Swift explains that he has always rejected the definition of man as a rational animal, and it is therefore unlikely that he could have comparatively high standards for mankind. In the same letters Swift explains that he does not hate mankind; on the contrary, he feels that holding men to unattainable ideals is true misanthropy. Readings of the Yahoos as Swift’s hatred for mankind therefore seem similarly misguided.

The second, “Soft’ school of thought, operates under the same principles as the critics who see Gulliver as an object of the satire. The soft school seems easier to agree with; if Gulliver was insane by the end of the fourth Voyage, and madmen was “Swift’s term for those who misuse and abuse human reason” (Monk 319), then it follows that Swift intended his readers to be skeptical of the narrator’s opinions. The madman narrator device was a common tool of Swift’s when he wanted his readers to be critical; just as we are wary of the narrator in A Modest Proposal, so should we be with Gulliver.

If the soft school is easier to agree with, or rather, more difficult to find fault with, it should be asked what purpose Swift might have intended in the fourth Voyage. It is likely, I would argue, that the fourth Voyage is a critique on the uncritical mind—the mind which fails to recognize the falsity of a dichotomy between Houyhnhnm and Yahoo and the absurdity of the Houyhnhnm ideal driving Gulliver to madness. Yet Swift did not intend this critique to exist within the vacuum of his own literature; Swift also placed the critique within a real-world debate, the same one that he mentioned to Pope and Bolingbroke—whether or not man is a rational animal.

Perhaps debate is the wrong term. In 1726, that man was a being defined by rationality was largely uncontested, yet Swift sought to debate the issue. Indeed, R.S. Crane notes that the elementary logic literature Swift would have read at Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin, ranged from Burgersdicius to Milton, but would have categorically contained the formula: Homo est animal rationale (850). The formula often appeared “without comment or explanation as the obviously correct formula for man’s distinctive nature, as if no one would ever question that man is, above all, a rational creature” (850). Swift, on the other hand, suggested in letters to Pope and Bolingbroke that man is not a wholly rational creature, but rather an animal capable of rationality. He also wrote that “[he had] got materials towards a treatise proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it should be only rationis capax” (854); Swift never explicitly mentions the title of the work, and it is possible that the manuscript was unpublished or lost, yet it seems more likely that the mentioned treatise turned into the Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms.

Yet how can we be sure? How can we know what Swift’s argument would have looked like? What methods would he have used? For one, if he had written to friends that he did not think man was animal rationale, but rather, rationis capax., his argument would contested what this meant for man’s place in the great chain of being, a hierarchical structure ranging from God to inanimate objects. The traditional place for man was above animals, but below angels, and Swift’s argument did not seek to object, but rather to display how animal rationale was angel, not man. If Angels were perfectly rational creatures, and man was defined in the same way, he could not be placed below angels in the chain, and this, Swift felt, was untrue. Yet how could Swift show man’s definition of himself was flawed? If Gulliver were to travel to an island occupied by perfectly rational men and perfectly irrational horses, Gulliver would be grouped with the men and Swift would never get his argument out. What he needed was a nation of angels.

Of course, he could have simply written a tale in which Gulliver travelled to an island occupied by both angels and beasts, but it is safe to argue that the Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms is that tale written in disguise. The Houyhnhms are in all capacities angels; they are a perfectly rational, albeit sometimes cold race. The Yahoos on the other hand are absolutely irrational; they lack any pittance of reason and are wholly ruled by sensuality. The races are therefore dichotomous, representing the true, unfailing definitions of rationality and irrationality that could not tenably exist, yet Swift would require for his argument.

Swift needed illustrations of the true extremes in order to show that Gulliver is neither Houyhnhnm or Yahoo, and allow him to represent man’s place in the great chain of being between angel and beast. With his small pittance of reason, which his Houyhnhnm master cannot imagine the origin of, and his Yahoo sensuality, the reader places Gulliver tenuously between the two races. It is worth noting that Swift’s illustration of Gulliver in the middle state is further encouraged by placing this Voyage after the first three; Swift has already accustomed the reader to Gulliver’s consistent middle state. From the first page of the book, Gulliver is precisely middle: he is the third of five children, of the middle class, and not particularly intelligent or unintelligent. In Lilliput he is too large, both in size and moral compass, and in Brobdingag he is too small in both. By the start of the fourth Voyage, it can be anticipated that Gulliver will be neither “wholly governed by reason,” as the Houyhnhnms are, nor will he be the “most unteachable of brutes.” The reader is ready to place him somewhere between the two, and this is exactly what Swift requires if he is to prove there is a difference between men and angels, and that difference is rationality.

But why would Swift use horses instead of angels? Was he just being overly roundabout? In actuality, it is quite likely that Swift uses horses in order to defamiliarize one of the most common arguments used to prove Homo est animal rationale. In the same logics that represent man as rational, an example animal was always needed to illustrate an “irrational” animal. It seems particularly incriminating that the most commonly used irrational animal was the horse; Porphyry’s Isagoge makes use of the analogy, “rational is to irrational as man is to horse,” several times, and in his followers’ literature, the juxtaposition of homo and equus had been used so often that it was considered a cliché (Crane 852). Furthermore, the equation of homo to animal rationale was set against the equation of equus to animal hinnibile (852), which it seems Swift quite bluntly mimics in the name ‘Houyhnhnm’.

If then, the pairing of man and horse was a commonplace in literature Swift was familiar with, and the purpose of defamiliarization is to enhance perception of the familiar and open the argument for reconsideration, then it is likely that Swift knew the effect of inverting the places of men and horses. The most important effect would have been that Gulliver does not fit preciously with either group; he has the body of the Yahoo, but rationality closer to that of a Houyhnhnm. He occupies, “the most uncomfortable position in [the] chain, since to a limited degree he shares the intelligence of higher creatures, and to an unlimited degree the sensuality of animals. He is the middle link because he is the transitional point between the purely intelligent and the purely sensual” (Monk 318). He is capable of desiring the pure rationality of the Houyhnhnm, but incapable of achieving it and must learn with horror that he more closely resembles the Yahoo. Yet herein the reader must begin to distrust Gulliver’s judgment; as Gulliver learns that female Yahoos lust after him, he forgets his link to the Houyhnhnms and bemoans his Yahoo nature. Gulliver neglects the possibility of a middle link, and instead inverts the original distinction of man as rational and horse as irrational.

Here both the Houyhnhnms and Gulliver have made the same reductive mistake that Swift feels philosophers have made in their definitions of men and horses. The Houyhnhnms make the converse fallacy of accident: they have never seen a Yahoo with any rationality, and because of Gulliver’s physical likeness to the Yahoos, the Houyhnhnms dismiss his pittance of rationality. Gulliver on the other hand makes an ad hominem fallacy; despite his knowledge that he is somewhat rational, his despicable physical form overrides his rationality. He has come to accept the Houyhnhnms’ false dichotomy on the basis of physical form alone.  When Gulliver returns home, he dismisses the good-hearted Captain Mendez as a Yahoo and prefers the company of the horses in his stable despite their unintelligence. He judges the form of horses and men as indicative of their rationality, and consistently misjudges. Surely, his wife and Captain Mendez would make better company, but Gulliver cannot stand them for their physical likeness to Yahoos. These uncritical and reductive schemas, Swift would argue, are inherently flawed; man cannot make define all humans as rational creatures—this would mean brain dead people are still more rational than horses simply because they physically resemble humans.

Indeed, it is Swift’s overwhelming illustration of Captain Mendez as a moral human being which proves the falsity of the Houyhnhnm-Yahoo dichotomy, and by proxy, the man as a rational being definition. While Mendez is almost certainly a Jew, he embodies the Christian morality we can imagine Dean Swift much admired. Mendez offers Gulliver his best suit of clothes, feeds him extravagantly, brings him home free of charge, houses him for some time, and pays his way to back to England. Never does Mendez seek anything in return; he is the perfect good neighbor and perhaps everything that Swift thought humans could aspire to be. Yet Gulliver overlooks the facts, and dismisses him as only a Yahoo with some small pittance of reason.

Swift’s illustration of Mendez as the good neighbor is almost as hyperbolic as his illustration of the Houyhnhnms as rational and Yahoos as irrational; it cannot be thought that he meant Mendez to be anything else. Mendez has no hidden motives. He is a statically good character. He is undeveloped, and serves only as a tool to divide Swift and Gulliver. We must imagine that Swift laughs at Gulliver’s poor judgment of Mendez and his simplification of men and horses. Yet Swift does not merely wish to be invective; he understands that this attitude will get him nowhere. Instead, Mendez must serve as Swift’s true ideal of what man aspire to be.

If Gulliver is driven mad by an unattainable ideal, Swift surely does not wish his readers to fare the same. He has written to Pope and Bolingbroke that true misanthropy is forcing man to think he can be something that he clearly cannot. Instead, he works against the uncritical reader. The critical reader will see that Mendez has overcome his Yahoo nature in whatever way he can. He uses his small pittance of reason to good, Christian ends and aspires to be no more than he can. As Samuel Monk says, “the philanthropist will not be angry when he has to recognize the corruptions and limitations of human nature; he will settle for a creature who is capable of reason and will do the best he can with him” (317). Swift has shown no one to be perfectly rational except the imaginary Houyhnhnms, and has served his purpose to prove man incapable of the title. Gulliver’s attachment to rationality is one of pride; he cannot let go of his undeserved entitlement to it, and is led to his subsequent downfall. Through the fourth Voyage, Swift begs his generation not to be too proud and not to be overly optimistic for mankind. Humans can be better than Yahoos, but not by much.

Works Cited

Carnochan, W. B. “Gulliver: The Satirist on Himself.” Gulliver’s Travels 2nd Norton Critical Edition (1955): 338-50. Print.

“Character of Jonathan Swift, D.D., Dean of Saint Patrick’s, Dublin,.” The European Magazine, and London Review 18 (Nov. 1790): 329-35. Print.

Crane, R. S. “The Houyhnhnms, The Yahoos, and the History of Ideas.” The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift Norton Critical Edition (1967): 848-56. Print.

Crane, R. S. “The Rationale of the Fourth Voyage.” Gulliver’s Travels 2nd Norton Critical Edition (1955): 331-38. Print.

Fox, Christopher. “A Critical History of Gulliver’s Travels.” Gulliver’s Travels (1980): 269-304. Print.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. “‘Pride’ in Eighteenth-Century Thought.” Essays in the History of Ideas. New York: Capricon Books, 1960. 62-68.

Monk, Samuel H. “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver.” Gulliver’s Travels 2nd Norton Critical Edition (1955): 312-30. Print.

Orrery, John, Earl of. Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Dublin. 3rd ed. London, 1752.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift. 1726. 313-502. Print.

“Swift’s Correspondence.” Gulliver’s Travels 2nd Norton Critical Edition. 263-271. Print.

Ross, John F. “The Final Comedy of Lemuel Gulliver.” Tuveson 71-89.

Tuveson, Ernest. Swift: The Dean as Satirist. The University of Toronto Quarterly. Vol. 22. (1955). 368-75.

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Brett Shollenberger is an sustainability consultant, writer, improviser, and editor specializing in the design of higher ed. programs and holistic communications strategies. He has a B.A. in English from Dickinson College, where he was named Ruth Sellers Maxwell Scholar of Literature for 2011. Brett Shollenberger is currently a sustainability programs analyst for GreenerU and an improv comic with Improv Asylum.

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It has been said that Dean Jonathan Swift hated humanity but loved the individual. His hatred is brought out in this caustic political and social satire aimed at the English people, humanity in general, and the Whigs in particular. By means of a disarming simplicity of style and of careful attention to detail in order to heighten the effect of the narrative, Swift produced one of the outstanding pieces of satire in world literature. Swift himself attempted to conceal his authorship of the book under its original title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

When Swift created the character of Lemuel Gulliver as his narrator for Gulliver’s Travels, he developed a personality with many qualities admired by an eighteenth century audience and still admired by many readers. Gulliver is a decent sort of person: hopeful, simple, fairly direct, and full of good will. He is a scientist, a trained doctor, and, as any good scientist should, he loves detail. His literal-minded attitude makes him a keen observer of the world around him. Furthermore, he is, like another famous novel character of the eighteenth century—Robinson Crusoe—encouragingly resourceful in emergencies. Why is it, then, that such a seemingly admirable, even heroic character, should become, in the end, an embittered misanthrope, hating the world and turning against everyone, including people who show him kindness?

The answer lies in what Swift meant for his character to be, and Gulliver was certainly not intended to be heroic. Readers often confuse Gulliver the character and Swift the author, but to do so is to miss the point of Gulliver’s Travels. The novel is a satire, and Gulliver is a mask for Swift the satirist. In fact, Swift does not share Gulliver’s rationalistic, scientific responses to the world or Gulliver’s beliefs in progress and in the perfectibility of humanity. Swift, on the contrary, believed that such values were dangerous, and that to put such complete faith in the material world, as scientific Gulliver did, was folly. Gulliver is a product of his age, and he is intended as a character to demonstrate the weakness underlying the values of the Enlightenment—the failure to recognize the power of the irrational.

Despite Gulliver’s apparent congeniality in the opening chapters of the novel, Swift makes it clear that Gulliver has serious shortcomings, including blind spots about human nature, his own included. Book 3, the least readable section of Gulliver’s Travels, is in some ways the most revealing part of the book. In it Gulliver complains, for example, that the wives of the scientists he is observing run away with the servants. The fact is that Gulliver—himself a scientist—gives little thought to the well-being of his own wife. In the eleven years covered in Gulliver’s travel book, Swift’s narrator spends a total of seven months and ten days with his wife.

Gulliver, too, is caught up in Swift’s web of satire in Gulliver’s Travels. Satire as a literary form tends to be ironic; the author says one thing but means another. Consequently, readers can assume that much of what Gulliver observes as good and much of what he thinks and does are not what Swift thinks.

As a type of the eighteenth century, Gulliver exhibits its major values: belief in rationality, in the perfectibility of humanity, in the idea of progress, and in the Lockean philosophy of the human mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, at the time of birth, controlled and developed entirely by the differing strokes and impressions made on it by the environment. Swift, in contrast to Gulliver, hated the abstraction that accompanied rational thinking; he abhorred the rejection of the past that resulted from a rationalistic faith in the new and improved; and he cast strong doubts on humanity’s ability to gain knowledge through reason and logic.

The world Gulliver discovers during his travels is significant in Swift’s satire. The Lilliputians, averaging not quite six inches in height, display the pettiness and the smallness Swift detected in much that motivates human institutions such as church and state. It is petty religious problems that lead to continual war in Lilliput. The Brobdingnagians continue the satire in part 2 by exaggerating human grossness through their enlarged size. (Swift divided human measurements by a twelfth for the Lilliputians and multiplied by twelve for the Brobdingnagians.)

The tiny people of part 1 and the giants of part 2 establish a pattern of contrasts that Swift follows in part 4 with the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The Yahoos, “their heads and breasts covered with a thick hair, some frizzled and others lank,” naked otherwise and scampering up trees like nimble squirrels, represent the animal aspect of humanity when that animality is viewed as separate from the rational. The Houyhnhnms, completing the other half of the split, know no lust, pain, or pleasure. Their rational temperaments totally rule what passions they have. The land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopia to Gulliver, and he tells the horse people that his homeland is unfortunately governed by Yahoos.

The reader who takes all of this at face value misses much of the satire. What is the land of the Houyhnhnms really like, how much is it a utopia? Friendship, benevolence, honesty, and equality are the principal virtues there. Decency and civility guide every action. As a result, each pair of horses mates to have one colt of each sex; after that, they no longer stay together. The marriages are exacted to ensure nice color combinations in the offspring. To the young, marriage is “one of the necessary actions of a reasonable being.” After the function of the marriage has been fulfilled—after the race has been propagated—the two members of the couple are no closer to each other than to anybody else in the whole country. It is this kind of “equality” that Swift satirizes. As a product of the rational attitude, such a value strips life of its fullness, denies the power of emotion and instinct, subjugates all to logic, reason, the intellect, and makes life dull and uninteresting—as predictable as a scientific experiment.

Looking upon the Houyhnhnms as the perfect creatures, Gulliver makes his own life back in England intolerable: I . . . return to enjoy my own speculations in my little garden at Redriff; to apply those excellent lessons of virtue which I learned among the Houyhnhnms; to instruct the Yahoos of my own family as far as I shall find them docible animals; to behold my figure often in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature.

When Gulliver holds up the rational as perfect and when he cannot find a rational man to meet his ideal, he concludes in disillusionment that humanity is totally animalistic, like the ugly Yahoos. In addition to being a satire and a parody of travel books, Gulliver’s Travels is an initiation novel. As Gulliver develops, he changes, but he fails to learn an important lesson of life, or he learns it wrong. His naïve optimism about progress and rationality leads him to bitter disillusionment.

It is tragically ironic that Swift died at the age of seventy-eight after three years of living without his reason, a victim of Ménière’s disease, dying “like a rat in a hole.” For many years, he had struggled against fits of deafness and giddiness, symptoms of the disease. As a master of the language of satire, Swift remains unequaled, despite his suffering and ill health. He gathered in Gulliver’s Travels, written late in his life, all the experience he had culled from both courts and streets. For Swift knew people, and, as individuals, he loved them; but when they changed into groups, he hated them, satirized them, and stung them into realizing the dangers of the herd. Gulliver never understood this.

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