Lecture 14: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver and his Travels were probably conceived sometime in 1714, during one of the meetings of the Scriblerus Club in London. Swift began writing the book in 1721 and worked on the manuscript over a number of years, finally publishing it in 1726. Of the book, he wrote to Pope in 1725, "...the chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it." And over the centuries, Gulliver's Travels has vexed readers and critics, who can't agree on how to perceive or interpret it.
In the character of Gulliver, Swift is using a familiar device: the traveller who journeys to strange places and is sooner or later forced to make comparisons between his native land and the wondrous places he has seen. Gulliver is an average Englishman: he is a member of the middle class, a middle son, from Nottinghamshire, in the middle of England. He serves as Swift's mask. Critics have disagreed about how much Gulliver represents Swift; some see him as Swift's comic tool; others see him as expressing Swift's own opinions and feelings; yet others say that sometimes Swift preserves a detachment from Gulliver, while at other times the mask slips and Swift shows through.
There are various ways to read Gulliver's Travels:
- First, it is a satire on travel books and those who write them. Gulliver overwhelms his readers with unnecessary detail, never sorting out what is important from what is trivial.
- Gulliver's Travels can also be read as simply a very funny story.
- It is also a satire on people and events of the day, notably Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister; most of the overt political satire appears in the first book, which details Gulliver's voyage to Lilliput.
- It is an allegory which exposes man's pride, abuse of his neighbors, and moral blindness.
One of the structurally unifying devices of the book is the use of an "accident" to force Gulliver into each of the countries on which he reports. In the first book, this accident is a simple shipwreck, which is not really anyone's fault. By Book IV, however, the "accident" is Gulliver's betrayal by his own shipmates; and it is in Book IV that Gulliver becomes most acutely aware of human faults.
In Book I, Swift lets us know that Gulliver's judgments and evaluations are not entirely to be trusted. Gulliver does not lie to us; but he fails to see, for example, after putting out the fire in the palace by urinating on it, why the Queen should be so offended and would wish to live elsewhere. In the case of the Lilliputian lady accused of immoral behavior with him, he attempts to defend her honor with protestations of their virtue, missing the obvious and compelling reason why there could be nothing between them: he is six feet tall and she is six inches tall.
Thus, by the time Gulliver reaches the land of the Houyhnhnms, we know not to accept all his evaluations at face value. But Gulliver's utter sincerity and anguish can cause us to forget that, so that we are inclined to believe, with him, that the Yahoos are despicable and the Houyhnhnms are ideal.
In fact, given Swift's famous misanthropy, it is tempting to think that Gulliver's opinion, that we are all Yahoos, dirty, disgusting, and corrupt, is also Swift's opinion. But Swift gives us many signals that Gulliver's perception is flawed, the most obvious of which is Gulliver's irrationality upon his return to England. Many critics see Swift's satire in Book IV as double-edged: against all people, for their Yahoo-like qualities, and against Gulliver, for his certainty that human nature is irredeemable.
Gulliver's Travels may also be read as a document opposing the more popular ideas of the time. Swift opposed intellectualism which relied solely on human reason, since he doubted that the human mind was capable of attaining metaphysical and theological truth. He also disliked the preoccupation with physics and astronomy; he thought people were far too concerned with the physical universe, at the expense of the spiritual life. In addition, science gave humans the illusion that progress had unlimited potential, in Swift's opinion an absurd idea, since humans were so limited by their human nature. He also disliked the prevailing attitude that human nature was essentially good. Another of his targets was the new wealthy class, whose fortunes were created by trade or speculation; he regarded them as irresponsible, corrupt and dangerous. And most of all, he disliked and feared the increasing power of the centralized government, believing its power was in opposition to ordinary human needs.
He takes careful aim at all of these ideas in Gulliver's Travels. In Book IV, for instance, Gulliver finds himself stranded between the purely rational Houyhnhnms and the purely sensual Yahoos. Gulliver believes he has to choose one side or the other, and chooses to be as much like the Houyhnhnms as he can; but he fails, because man is not a wholly rational animal. But he is not a wholly sensual animal either, and need not be so degraded as the Yahoos, who have no spirituality at all. Gulliver recoils in horror from the Yahoos (much as the intellectuals of Swift's day, to his sour amusement, recoiled from the real unpleasantness of human nature); but he can never be a Houyhnhnm--they, in fact, logically but unfeelingly reject him. They have no concept that a being who understands his own corruption can improve or redeem himself; Swift gives the Houyhnhnms a religion, but their actions reveal that they do not believe in salvation, since salvation is an emotional journey rather than a rational one. They are not capable of human bestiality, but neither are they capable of human glory.
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.
2. "Gulliver and the Gentle Reader," by C. J. Rawson, in The Writings of Jonathan Swift: A Norton Critical Edition, eds. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper
3. "Swift: The Metamorphosis of Irony," by A. E. Dyson, in The Writings of Jonathan Swift: A Norton Critical Edition, eds. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper
4. "The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver," by Samuel Holt Monk, in The Writings of Jonathan Swift: A Norton Critical Edition, eds. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper
5. "An Outline of Gulliver's Travels," by Allan Bloom, in The Writings of Jonathan Swift: A Norton Critical Edition, eds. Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper
6. Jonathan Swift, by Robert Hunting