"One of the greatest triumphs that the human soul has ever achieved" T.S. Eliot, 1923, (speaking of the fourth voyage) "A satire on the four aspects of man: the physical, the political, the intellectual and the moral... It is also a brilliant parody of travel literature; and 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 everywhere implicit in the book as a whole is an awareness of mans tragic insufficiency. But at the same time it is a great comic masterpiece" Samuel Holt Monk "unconvincing and unpopular with all but the professional misanthrope" William A. Eddy, 1923 Gullivers Travels elicits as many responses as there are readers of it.
Indeed, the commentary already available makes adding to it a daunting task. However, some solace can be found in the fact that this piece of work seems inexhaustible, with each new age offering different perspectives. I must confess to thinking that due to the seemingly simple question to this essay that I would not experience too many difficulties, to this I have been proven very wrong. I, like many others before me underestimated the complexities of Gulliver's Travels leaving me initially unable to decide what it was about.
There are so many themes running through this piece of work that it seems impossible say definitively what it is about! Swift's voice is very evident throughout the book, indeed there are times when his presence is felt so strongly that unlike a lot of authors works, I feel it would be impossible to justly consider the question without exploring contextual and historical perspectives as well as trying to discover a little of Swift's attitudes and personality. In the case of Swift, distinguishing the literary work from the literary life of the author is a particular problem, acknowledged by many of Swifts commentators including F.R. Leavis, who strongly disapproved of such commentary. Inability to separate Gulliver from Swift seems to lead inevitably to a psychoanalytic approach, (the dangers of which I shall discuss later) a problem which is made more difficult by Gulliver's lack of depth along with the strongly felt presence of Swift.
Gulliver appears to be more of a functional character rather than a realistic one, adding to the difficulty of distinguishing Swift's voice from Gullivers. The shallowness of the character of Gulliver has fueled discussion as to whether or not Gullivers Travels can be placed in the genre of the novel: "while it has, in the nature and locations of Gulliver's adventures, the improbability of romance, it has in it's narrative manner the realism of a novel" Tippett, pg 28 Whilst Allen argues that: "though possessing many of the attributes of a novelist [Swift] cannot be called one" Tippett on Allen, pg. 28 When considering what Gullivers Travels is about, it is difficult to ignore the influences of the many television and film adaptations, most of which reflect Johnson's sentiments. Indeed, Gullivers Travels has infiltrated our society to such an extent that it would be difficult to find anyone in the western world who would not hold some opinion of what Gullivers Travels is about. I believe that much of the popular opinion expressed would also concur with Johnson's. To say that Gullivers Travels is 'a story about little people and big people' is plainly a gross underestimation of this piece of work, and yet cannot be dismissed as untrue! It has been said of Gullivers Travels that: "from the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the Cabinet Council to the nursery" Tippett, (1989) cites John Gay, pg 20.
This is true, and from the eyes of a child it is a story about little people and big people. For Johnson to dismiss it as such is more a statement about Johnson's intellect than Swifts talents! On the other hand, there is a lot to be said in favour of the highly edited children's versions of Gullivers Travels, which I found more enjoyable than the recently read unabridged copy, which would have benefited from selective editing! The 'little people and big people' are important as regards perspective, which is a considerable theme: "nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison" (G.T. 11.1) Swift used perspective throughout the book to illustrate this.
For example, Gulliver comments that he is horrified by the sight of the huge 'monstrous breast' of a nursing mother in Brobdingnag, and on noticing how their skins were "rough and coarse and ill coloured" Gulliver: "reflect [s] upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are our own size, and their defects not to be seen but through a magnifying glass, where we find through experiment that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured. I remember when I was in Lilliput, the complexions of those diminutive people appeared to me the fairest in the world" (G.T. 11.1) Through the use of perspective, comparison, contrast, similarity and difference, Swift makes many illustrations. Indeed it is often through the use of similarity that he achieves great humorous effects. For example, that the Lilliputian vanities of woman are the same as in England! Also, that in Lugar do, that the mathematics of the scientists are as ridiculous and pretentious as their European counterparts! It is only by illustrating the differences of the lands that their similarities amuse, simple yet effective.
Swift also uses the comparisons of bodily size to illustrate his point that: "Reason did not extend it self with the Bulk of the Body: On the contrary, we observed in our Country, that the tallest Persons were usually least provided with it. That among other Animals, Bees and Ants had the Reputation of more Industry, Art and Sagacity, than many of the larger Kinds" (G.T. II: 6) Although the use of perspective is used throughout, It does not, alone explain what the book is about. The opening quotes illustrate what other people think Gullivers Travels is about; one certainty is that there is no definitive agreement of the question. A debate which becomes as tedious as Gullivers Travels itself, focuses on whether Swift was insane prior to his demise into senile dementia?
This is the question asked by many commentators of Swift, and most seem to conclude that he was indeed non compos ment is. This I feel is the main complication of author-centred approaches when looking at swift. However, psychoanalytical approaches have had such an influence upon Swiftian criticism that it would be fool hardy to ignore them. The psycho biographical approach to swift probably began with the Earl of Orrey's On the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, (1752) In which he condemns the voyage to the land of Houyhnhnms as "a real insult upon mankind" [in] "the last part of his imaginary travels... Swift has indulged in misanthropy that is intolerable. The representation which he has given us of human nature, must terrify, and even debase the mind of the reader who views it" (Fox cites Orrey, Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism pg. 273) The opinion expressed by Orrey was soon to be extended upon and still flourishes in modern commentary, most concluding as Orrey did, that Swift was a misanthrope, a misogynist and was indeed pathological!
A lot of these comments arose not only from Gullivers Fourth voyage; the primary weapon of commentators such as Huxley, Murrey, Stephen and Greenacre to name but a few, is Swift's preoccupation with anality and the anal product! Stephen concluded that: "His [Swift's] indulgence in revolting images is to some extent an indication of a diseased condition of the mind, perhaps of actual mental decay" Tippett, (1989) cites Stephen (1882), pg 24 Aldous Huxley, whom Brown gives credit for first recognizing the "central importance of the excremental theme in Swift" states: "Swift's Greatness lies in the intensity, the almost insane violence of the 'hatred of the bowels' which is the essence of his misanthropy and which underlies the whole of his work" Brown on Huxley, pg. 611/612 (The Norton Critical edition) I believe that Huxley has is correct that the excremental theme does have central importance in Swift, but I do not agree with the rest of the statement. Norman O Browns essay The excremental Vision from which this quote is taken gives an altogether more convincing and refreshing explanation to Swift's Excremental Vision, a term which Brown has borrowed from An essay by Murry of the same title, but with radically differing conclusions. Brown goes on, with great wit, to dismiss the writings of Huxley, Murry and the psychoanalysts attempts to write off Swift as: "a neurotic who exhibited psychosexual infantilism, with a particular showing of coprophilia, associated with misogyny, misanthropy, mysophilia and mysophobia" Brown cites Karp man, (1942) pg. 614 Not to mention Greenacre's comments on the symbolism of Gulliver being "a little man in a little boat" (Brown), to which Greenacre explains as: "The common symbolism of the man in the boat as the clitoris suggests the identification with the female phallus thought to be characteristic of the male transvestite" Brown cites Greenacre, pg. 615 Brown then, in my view, rightly protests: "Common humility makes us turn away from Huxley, Murry and the psychoanalysts. By what right do they issue certificates of lunacy? By virtue of their own preeminent sanity?
Brown, pg 615 However, rather than dismiss psychoanalytical criticism, he argues that the reason Gullivers Travels, along with other works of Swift, lends itself so easily to psychoanalytic interpretation is in fact because Swifts 'excremental vision' has many parallels with Frauds theories, ultimately that: "The correlative doctrine in psychoanalysis is of course the equation of money and feces" Brown, pg 630 Resisting the temptation to go on quoting Browns many comparisons of Freudian psychoanalysis to what he terms Swiftian psychoanalysis, suffice to say that Brown concludes that where Freud explored the unconscious from a psychological standpoint: "Swift is carried by the logic of myth (myth, like wit, reaches the unconscious) to make the same equation" Brown, pg 630 i.e. that of money and feces! Brown convincingly illustrates that what Swift was saying through his excremental vision, was in fact that: "Shame and repression of anality did not exist in the age of innocence" Brown, pg. 630 For Swift then, the excremental vision is an attack on the pride of man, which in the age of innocence was a sin, and which Swift witnesses in his lifetime as becoming a virtue: "For Swift it becomes the decisive weapon in his assault on the p retentions, the pride, even the self respect of mankind" Brown, pg 611 This brings us to the need to look at the contextual and historical aspects of Gullivers Travels, along with a need to understand something of Swifts religious and socio-political beliefs (which I will discuss later) in order to gain greater understanding of what Gullivers Travels is actually about. As well as finding Browns essay a very convincing argument, the problem I have with much of the psychoanalytical criticisms of Swift is that I believe the whole issue of 'excrement' throughout Swifts work is too evident to have been Swift's unconscious at work. Thus, if he knew he was writing it, as I believe he did, then he also must have had a reason for it!
On this particular point, I agree with Brown. The accusation of whether Swift was a misanthrope, and whether we agree with sentiments like these: "unconvincing and unpopular with all but the professional misanthrope" William A. Eddy, 1923 of which there are many, depends greatly on our own personal interpretation of the text, along with our own attitudes towards mankind. In a letter to Pope Swift stated: "When you think of the world, give it one lash the more at my request. I have ever hated all Nations professions and Communities, and all my love is towards individuals; for instance, I hate the tribe of Lawyers, but love Councillor such a one, Judge such a one; ... so with Physicians (I will not speak of my own Trade), Soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest, but principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I hastily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth". JS letter to Alexander Pope, 29 Sept. 1725 This corresponds closely with: "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-Master, 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 in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience" (G.T. IV: 12) my underlining Pride, I believe is one of the core dislikes of Swift's. I Do not believe that Swift was totally a misanthrope, but I did feel that he was frustrated, disheartened and perhaps even a little afraid by the way he saw society changing. I think he simply understood the limitations of mankind but accepted that, not hated it. As a religious man, he believed that man did have many faults, but that pride was not an inevitable fault of mankind but was an avoidable sin: "therefore I here entreat those who have any Tincture of this absurd Vice [pride], that they will not presume to come in my sight". (G.T. 1 V: 12) Colonialism is another theme in Gullivers Travels, and although at times is very contradictory, is at other times treated with brilliant irony: "For instance, A Crew of Pirates are driven by a Storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers Land from the Top-mast, they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a couple more by Force for a Sample, return Home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity, the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust, the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People". (G.T. IV: 12) I would suggest that this statement rings more of 'healthy cynicism' than misanthrope!
Swift accepted the limitation of mankind, however, what he hated was that mankind did not make the most of the good attributes it possessed, and indeed, seemed to be degenerating: "That he looked upon us as sort of Animals to whose Share, by what Accident he could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our natural Corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us" (G.T. IV: 7) To look at the Historical period in which Swift wrote Gullivers Travels is also a useful tool to shed light on what Gullivers Travels is about: "In it's general conception, in the characterization of Gulliver and in innumerable significant details it reveals itself as a reaction to the religious, intellectual and scientific tendencies of it's age and for many critics it can only be properly explained in this light". Tippett, pg. 43 Here, I believe Swift to be giving a moral warning rather to his readers rather than an all out condemnation. Remember that Swift was a religious man, who would have believed in the sinfulness of man, and that without divine grace would be unable to overcome his natural sinful nature. What Swift was afraid of was the future decline of moral standards due to the changing philosophy of the time. Written a few decades earlier, he probably would not have been labeled a misanthrope at all!
Swift seems to regret the changes taking place in society. In the eighteenth century there were basically two schools of thought: "optimism and benevolence are ranged against pessimistic views of human nature, the advocacy of the new science against the defense of older forms of humanistic learning, speculative philosophy against a traditional dependence upon divine revelation, in short the modern against the traditional". Tippett, pg. 44 Needless to say, Swift was a traditionalist: "I have got materials toward a treatise proving the falsity of the definition animal rationale, and to show it should be only retionis capa x. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy (though not in Timon's manner) the whole building of my travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion".
1725 Some critics have related the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos with the two opposing philosophical views of the eighteenth century, with Gulliver somewhere between the two, not totally rational, yet not without reason. If we assume this to be correct, then was Swift saying that man is Yahoo, or that man is in danger of becoming Yahoo without divine grace? I believe he was saying the later; because man is not totally rational then he is unable to govern himself successfully. The danger of having a small amount of reason is that mans passions are in danger of overcoming that reason. I think it absurd, as some commentators have said that Swift is advocating the Houyhnhnm as the ideal state, as he was well aware of the faults of mankind.
Also, in many ways the Houyhnhnms were absurd creatures, I think it more likely that he used the contrast between the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to illustrate that mankind was not as rational as some would like to believe. If we combine Swifts personal attitudes with Browns explanation that Swift had great insight into the 'universal neurosis of mankind', (Brown, pg. 617) then many of the traditional explanations of Swift as a madman seem extremely unlikely. Ultimately then, I must conclude that underlying the many themes of political satire, science, perspective, commodification, colonialism... etc. that if forced to say what Gullivers Travels is about, I would have to say that it is a moral fable, warning against the changing philosophy of humankind that Swift was witnessing. If this was the case or not one thing I can conclusively say is that I'm sure he could have said it quicker! perhaps C.J. Rawson makes this point more eloquently when he rightly points out points in Gulliver and the Gentle Reader, that the difficulty for the reader to know how to take Swift, he points out the: "curious precariousness of the reader's grasp of what is going on... [and the] continuous defensive uneasiness... [and] an undermining of our nervous poise" only then do we experience "something of the quicksilver quality of Swift's satire" (Rawson, 1973) Swift as they say, has the last laugh: "the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it" JS letter to Alexander Pope, 29 Sept.