Gulliver’s Travels

24 Jul

“The … greatest victory is to conquer yourself; to be conquered by yourself is of all things most shameful and vile.” —Plato

Lemuel Gulliver undergoes a Platonic education – from being the uninformed, prejudiced observer to being to someone with tragic self-knowledge of what it is to be human. Swift uses the Platonic Form for his narrative structure, and shows us what proper human beings should be like.

Lemuel Gulliver is a perpetual traveller, he is trained as a ship’s surgeon and has taken the time to set down his tales in a book. Each of the four books contain a different voyage and different people.

Swift uses Lemuel Gulliver as a dialectic narrator to guide the reader through the separate chapters of the book. Each chapter contains a different criticism of human nature and often eighteenth century England. These criticisms are often executed through Swift’s satire. The first person narration is a useful device in lecturing and teaching the reader about human life. Gulliver’s narration seems very innocent and objective, thus lulling the reader into a false sense of security. It can be argued that through Gulliver’s Travels, Swift sets a precedent for the development of the novel as he “provides a fully realised premonition of the dialectic encounter.” It was not until about twenty years later that the dialectic became a recognised device.

Swift attempts to demonstrate, through travel and experience, a Utopian state. He shows us how he thinks humans should behave towards one another. And how society should be based on reasoning, logic and rational thought. Perhaps one of the dilemmas the reader faces is, “Which is the real Utopian state ?” It is important to note however that Jonathan Swift is not Lemuel Gulliver, as this is an easy mistake to make due to the first person narration.

Plato envisaged an ideal society based on rationality and reasoning. A society where goodness and beauty are not skin deep. His writings were concerned with more than just aesthetics, but with what lay under the surface.

On his first adventure Gulliver reaches a country called Lilliput and finds an island inhabited by miniature people. The people are so small that Gulliver appears to them as a giant, and to Gulliver the Lilliputians seem aesthetically perfect because his eye sight is not as precise as theirs. He finds that although they look perfect, in actual fact they are corrupt and devious. An example is when the secretaries of state sell licences to people to view the “Man Mountain”, and when he is accused of treason.

One of Swift’s Utopian touches is in the communal education system for children. Although it seems cold hearted to place children in a communal state education system, it is a process based on rationality and reasoning. Parents forego their right to educate their children and are only able to see them twice a year. Presumably this would be one step closer to creating a better society. This is a theme slightly reminiscent of Swift’s essay “A Modest proposal” where he suggests ways of controlling the amount of children born to poor people in society.

Gulliver sees the education system in Lilliput as two tiered. It creates a division within society. The ordinary labourers keep their children at home because “…their business being only to till and cultivate the earth; and therefore their education is of little consequence to the publick.” The division in society has been established – the rich and the poor, or the educated and the uneducated. Here we see Swift’s own values come through. For although he believed in a class based system, he reasoned that power should be equally distributed between the different tiers of society.

When Gulliver makes his second voyage he travels to Brobingnag and finds himself in the opposite scenario. He is tiny compared to everyone else, and thus because of his size and novelty he is exploited as a circus attraction. He is used for personal gain by a Brobingnagian, this is similar to the situation in Lilliput where he is used as a weapon of defence against a neighbouring island. It is possible to argue that Swift is making the point that human nature is the same the world over. Shape and size make no difference, people will always try to exploit anything new for personal gain.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between the inhabitants of the two countries. To Gulliver, the Lilliputians appear perfect to look at, their complexions are good and their limbs perfectly apportioned. However, when he looks at the Brobingnagians he can see the blemishes in their skin and they appear quite repulsive to him.

Although it is at times difficult to make a distinction between Gulliver’s thoughts and Swift’s beliefs, it is almost certainly Swift who is commenting on society when the King makes a fool of Gulliver over the gunpowder. Gulliver, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the king, offers to tell the him the exiting secret of gunpowder. The king is horrified by the thought of the destruction it can cause and he wonders how people can “entertain such human ideas.”

In Lilliput Gulliver realises his self importance as he is probably the single most important thing to happen to that country, conversely in Brobingnag he is made to feel his own pettiness and triviality. This is all to do with size and stature.

By the third part of the book Swift’s use of the Platonic Form more apparent. The island of Laputa is a satire of eighteenth century science and reasoning. Swift creates a flying, science obsessed island which hovers above everywhere else – demonstrating moral superiority. “Swift is hitting at what he considered to be abuses of reason.” He meets scientists who are incredibly intelligent but have no common sense. The inhabitants of Laputa are concerned with music and science, they have no powers of reasoning and whenever they describe things it is in a scientific way, “Their ideas are perpetually conversant in lines and figures.”

Swift considers the use of science without an application to human betterment futile. To the modern reader this may seem obvious, but to the eighteenth century reader it may not have been apparent. It is in chapter five that Swift addresses the point directly where he visits the academy of Lagado and meets a scientist trying to reduce human waste to its original food. In what way can this be used to improve human life?

In a voyage to Glubbdubdrib (also in the third book) Swift deals with corruption in office. “Here I discovered the true causes of many great events that have suprized the world; how a whore can govern the back-stairs, the back stairs a council, and the council a senate.”

It is the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels that is perhaps the most important in Swift’s demonstration of how humans should behave. The country of the Houyhnhnms can be seen as a Utopia of logic and reasoning The land is inhabited by horses and other creatures who bare an uncanny resemblance to humans. The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are the two classes in their society. The Houyhnhnms are intelligent and articulate creatures, who regard the Yahoos with contempt and disgust, often referring to them as thugs. Gulliver automatically identifies with the superior breed and comments upon his feelings for the Yahoos, “I have never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy.” When he first meets inhabitants of the island he is perceived to be a Yahoo, but it later evolves that Gulliver is neither. Gulliver is ashamed that he looks like a Yahoo and he often tries to defend himself. This is demonstrated in Gulliver’s letter at the beginning of the book. “Yahoo as I am, it is well known through all Houyhnhnmland, that by the instructions and example of my illustrious master, I was able in the compass of two years (although I confess with the utmost difficulty) to remove that infernal habit of lying, shuffling, deceiving, and equivocating, so deeply rooted in the very souls of all my species, especially the Europeans.”

Basically he looks like a Yahoo but thinks like a Houyhnhnm. This becomes apparent when he returns to England and spends most of his time talking to his horse. “My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day.” Gulliver is strongly influenced by the Houyhnhnms. They teach him that because of the devious nature of the human mind, reason and intelligence are not sufficient for the conduct of human life. While he is spell bound with the virtues of these great creatures, Gulliver cannot help realising the vices of human beings. It is easy to think that in this chapter Swift places all his criticisms of the human race into one creature – the Yahoos, and all his thoughts for a supreme race – the Houyhnhnms to highlight the short comings of mankind. What we probably see is Gulliver’s views of a supreme race through his obsession with the Houyhnhnms. and his behaviour on returning to England. It is unlikely that Swift would have advocated such a state. “Because they are guided by reason rather than by appetites their life is without conflict.” A world devoid of enthusiasm or passion. Life would be too boring and plain. In fact the Houyhnhnms have virtually a self governing state where parliament only meets for five or six days in every four years to settle outstanding business. Interestingly Swift does not remain consistent to the Platonic form in this book. Gulliver mentions poetry recitals in his accounts of Houyhnhnmland, and although Swift might not be particularly inspired by them, it is known that Plato had little use for poets and he excluded them from his republic.

It is right at the end of the fourth book that Swift seeks to distance himself from Gulliver, he does this by satirising Gulliver. This is executed in his behaviour when he returns to England.

Swift does not necessarily set out to show us how humans should behave, but he does highlight many of the vices of Eighteenth century society. In Lilliput Gulliver experiences malice at the hands of miniature people. In Brobdingnag he is seen to take a offence at the strong criticisms of the human race. The third chapter is really an attack upon science and Swift’s questioning of its importance. In the fourth chapter Gulliver finds his ideal nation among the Houyhnhnms and discovers all the vices of humanity. Thus each chapter highlights an aspect of the human race. However, it is worth remembering that, “His work is not an attack upon the common man, but on those who, corrupt by their passions or self-interest, misuse their reason to deceive and enslave.”

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature


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