In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, Swift successfully uses satire to portray man’s pride and folly. Gulliver’s pride is displayed when he enters the island of Lilliput and becomes the pocket-sized people’s savior. However, his folly is revealed when he gets a huge wakeup call after entering Brobdingnag. Through his use of satirical writing, Swift tells the story of how Gulliver reacts and responds to these completely opposite societies.
Through Gulliver, Jonathan Swift travels to four different foreign countries, each representing a corrupt part of England. Swift criticizes the corruption of these parts, and focuses on the government, society, science, religion, and man. Not only does swift criticize the customs of each country, he mocks the naive man who has the inability to figure out the double meaning of things. Gulliver, being gullible himself, believes everything he is told, which symbolizes the irony of the English system.
In Gulliver’s first travel, in which he visited Lilliput, Gulliver is faced with the minute people, called Lilliputians. Now while this is the premise for a fantasy story, Swift uses the events within to make severe criticisms of England between reigns of Queen Anne and George the first. The people of Lilliput are about six inches tall, and there size signifies that their motives, acts, and humanity are in the same, dwarfish (Long 276). In this section, the royal palace is accidentally set on fire, containing the empress inside. Instead of making his way across town, to the ocean, squashing the people of Lilliput as he goes, Gulliver makes use of his urine to save the palace. While this vulgar episode was a display of bravery, it infuriated the emperor, causing revenge to be vowed on Gulliver. Rather than be happy that both the emperor and the palace are not in ruin, the littleness of the government and the people in general is displayed in this act. Another display of this is the fact that Gulliver is used as the Emperor’s absolute weapon, but the emperor only uses him to conquer his world of two islands. This makes the emperor’s ambition seem extremely low (Bloom, Interpretations 84-5).
Swift also criticizes the religious beliefs of the Lilliputians and England in the first story. In Lilliput, Ministers were chosen strictly on agility, or their ability to walk a tightrope or stick jumping. They were able to maintain their rank of minister as long as they could keep these defeating these tasks (Swift, Writings 89).
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The political parties of the English government are represented by the conservative High Heels who depict the Tories, and the progressive Low Heels, or Whigs. As per their names, the distinguishing mark of the parties is the height of their heels. Within these two parties, Swift criticizes the English political parties, and the Prince of Wales (Brady 21). Swift also mocks the religion war that was going on in England, through the use of the war between Lilliput, and its nearest neighbor, Blefuscu. Swift’s use of the terms High Heels and Low Heels to compare the meaningless battles of the Whigs and Tories, such as the height of heels (Swift, Writings 81).
With Gulliver’s next travel, we find him in Brobdingnag. His voyage shows us the filthy mental and physical characteristics of man. Here, Gulliver is confronted with an adult nurse. The nurse’s repulsive action of revealing her breasts to Gulliver. This reminds him of how the Lilliputians found his skin full of crater like pores, and stumps of hair growing from them. The odor of the immense creatures is offending, and it caused Gulliver to recall the fact that the Lilliputians were also offended of his body odor (Bloom, Interpretations 27-8).
In Laputa, Gulliver is confronted with the old age Struldbuggs, which look utterly hideous resulting from old age, and the deterioration of their bodies. The Yahoos from the land of Houyhnhnms are filthy, uncivilized creatures, who use their own dung as a weapon. In these descriptions, Swift criticizes both the moral and physical corruption of man (Bloom, Critical Views 87).
Gulliver’s first owner in Brobdingnag represents the selfishness of man. Gulliver is constantly displayed in public, abused for the profit of the owner. When his owner finds out that Gulliver is weakening, he sells him immediately, at a high price in order to milk every last penny out of Gulliver.
Gulliver’s third voyage, to the floating island of Laputa is one of the most satirical of the whole book. In this voyage Swift criticizes the Royal Society of England, in which he says is composed of useless philosophers, inventors, and scientists. The floating island signifies that the inhabitants are composed of the same airy constitution as the environment (Long 276). Projects done by such people are summed up by “the Universal Artist,” who directs his followers to turn useful things into the exact opposite, which results in useless achievements. Some of the experiments held were to create tangible air, wool-less sheep, and horses with stone hooves. The flying island itself expresses not only the desertion on the common earth of reality but their conversion of the universe to a mechanism and of living to a mechanical process (Bloom, Interpretations 53).
Finally, Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. After he reaches land, Gulliver comes across a pack of Yahoos and is instantly appalled by them. There he quotes, “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable and animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy” (Swift, Text 215). This statement is at best ironic, because Gulliver never saw the resemblances between the Yahoos, and himself. Afterwards, he encounters the rational Houyhnhnms and he immediately realizes the common characteristics he has in common with the Yahoos. He states, “my horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abdominal animal, a perfect human figure” (Swift, Text 220).
Gulliver is amazed to see rational figures acting in such brutal figures, but he later realizes that they regarded him as the brutal beast. The Houyhnhnms compare Gulliver and the Yahoos and find many similarities between the two. The only difference was that Gulliver, and mankind, had learned the benefits of clothing, and he, at times could be a rational creature.
Swift portrays the Yahoos as savage animals with human characteristics, which is the biggest mockery of mankind in the whole book. The Yahoos were so greedy, that they would fight over enough food to feed an entire army of fifty soldiers, just to keep it to themselves. They would poison their own bodies, by sucking a root, similar to alcohol, to reach a high. The female populations of the Yahoos are also given characteristics of the ladies of the royal stature. Their gestures of hiding behind bushes and trees, looking at the passing by males, gives the impression of a woman hiding her face behind a fan, while looking flirtatiously over her shoulder. The smell associated with the female Yahoos, is similar to the perfume ladies wear to attract men (Brady 108). By the time Gulliver is returned to England, he becomes a complete antisocial, who is disgusted by the sight of his own wife and children. Gulliver’s desire to become a Houyhnhnm gives the reader the impression that he is a pathetic man, who strives to become someone he can never be.
After abandoning ship and swimming to an unknown shore, Gulliver hardly expected to find himself tied down by a society of people half a foot tall. The Lilliputians had seen nothing like Gulliver before. Appropriately, they give him the title of Man-Mountain and grant him is freedom in exchange for his loyalty. Gulliver began to feel a sort of self-importance, being much larger than everyone else in Lilliput. Swift creates Lilliput to mirror the English court. The Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians are enemies because one group wants to break the egg on the small end and the other wants to break it on the big end. Just like the English, the two miniscule societies are fighting over insignificant issues. When told to destroy the Blefuscudians fleet he instead picks up the men and brings them to the Lilliputians to form a peace treaty. After saving the Lilliputians from an attack, Gulliver’s confidence was at an all-time high. Needless to say, being a colossus gave him rank and importance very flattering to his pride. The Lilliputians consider Gulliver’s attempt of kindness as a form of treason and sentence him to have his eyes gouged out.
After nine months of living in Lilliput, Gulliver has had enough and leaves right as the Lilliputians are deciding how to execute him. Not long after getting home, Gulliver embarks on his next journey. He spends almost a year at sea before entering Brobdingnag, the land of the big people. The tables have turned, and Gulliver is scared out of his wits. To the Brobdingnagians, Gulliver is six inches tall and poses no threat. All though harmless, Gulliver is thought to be a freak of a creature. His glorious title of Man-Mountain has been denounced to an animal; his pride has turned into his foolishness.
While living with the Queen, Gulliver tries to explain to the King how wonderful his country is. He describes England’s ways of democracy and the inventions his country has created. However, the King is far from impressed about Gulliver’s society. He is disgusted with its corruption and lies and gunpowder. He is so appalled that he threatens Gulliver with death if he mentions gun powder another time. While Gulliver thinks he is the best thing to come into Brobdingnag, everyone else considers him rat like and completely unimportant.
Through Gulliver, swift explores human shortcomings through two different perspectives. He shows Gulliver’s over exceeding pride while on Lilliput and his humbleness in Brobdingnag as his pride and folly.
Jonathan Swift wrote about a traveler named Gulliver who visited a series of fantastic islands. Swift populated these islands with invented societies. His purpose was to teach us something about our own human nature. A century later a young naturalist named Charles Darwin visited a set of islands as remarkable in their own way as Swift’s fantasies. The ideas that emerged from his research shaped the trajectory of human self-understanding. It is difficult to read the tale of Gulliver’s last voyage today without thinking about Darwinian evolution. When we read about the Houyhnhnms, we are tempted to think of them as horses that have evolved intelligence. Conversely, when we read of the barbaric Yahoos, we imagine a Planet of the Apes regression to a pre-linguistic ancestor of modern humans.
Now let us take a closer look at those two strange creatures on Swift’s last island — the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. “Houyhnhnms” is clearly “humans” as a horse might pronounce the word. The meaning of the word in their language –“the perfection of nature” — plays off of the human idea that we occupy a favored place in the great chain of being (Swift, 255). Arthur Lovejoy wrote of this notion, “The ‘physico-theology’ so much beloved by the writers of works of edification, deistic as well as orthodox, was in intent a proof of the existence of God; but it was in effect a glorification of man. For it rested in a great part upon the supposition that all other created beings exist for man’s sake” (186).By putting this self-conception into the mouth of a different intelligent creature, Swift suggested that our species was excessively proud.
He even ended his book with a condemnation of pride (Swift, 319).It is difficult to imagine how the Houyhnhnms might have evolved. If a complex activity like accurate throwing advanced our neural evolution, a similarly complex activity would be necessary to encourage equivalent equestrian brain structures. Thus the Houyhnhnms might be impossible, but the Brobdingnagians were impossible as well. Swift did not try to portray a realistic natural history, but provided an illuminating contrast to our intelligent ape. The Houyhnhnms were the reasonable creature that rationalists wanted humans to be. Swift suggested that if intelligence were added to the intrinsic nobility of a horse, such a creature would be the result (288). The subtle implication of this contrast was that intelligence alone could not make a creature reasonable. Intelligence only allowed a creature to execute its nature more effectively. Swift used the Yahoos to make the same point with far less subtlety.
The Yahoos were a dirty, hairy, grunting mirror of the civilized Gulliver (Swift, 249).Despite their lack of intelligence, the Yahoos had the same tendencies toward avarice and warfare as advanced humans (Swift, 281). Or more to the point, despite our intelligence, advanced humans have the same tendencies toward avarice and warfare as the dirty, hairy, grunting Yahoos. Gulliver realized that human intelligence simply increased the scale at which we could pursue our prima passions (Swift, 267). Calne agreed with this, writing, “we remain tied to the motivation provided by our biological drives and cultural attitudes” (8). He elaborated, “Reason…is a biological product fashioned for us by the process of evolution, to help us survive in an inhospitable and unpredictable physical environment. It is also a tool to enable us to compete with other animals that are larger, faster, and stronger, with longer claws and more powerful jaws” (Calne, 12).This perspective can be disheartening. It was for Gulliver, who became enamored with the Houyhnhnms and grew to despise his own species (Swift, 305). Yet Gulliver was the final object of Swift’s satire. His disappointment prevented him from appreciating the better aspects of human nature, like the love of his family and the stubborn sympathy of the Portuguese ship captain (Swift, 310-12).
Humans are not Houyhnhnms. We are not perfectly reasonable creatures. Our lives are not unswervingly governed by logic and good sense. Nor can we think ourselves into being that other animal. This does not meant that we should reject reason, logic and good sense. Our opportunistically engineered brains have given us the ability to approach these faculties and to make them part of our cocktail. But the other things will always be there – the emotions, passions and instincts that are a deep part of our evolutionary heritage. To live well as humans we must understand what we are. By doing so, we might achieve a delicate balance. We can minimize the damage engendered by our primal instincts, but we can also learn how to make the best use of them. The paradox of declaring a complete allegiance to reason is that this requires the unreasonable denial of our authentic nature. Humanity is a thinking, feeling, and symbol-creating product of life’s evolution on this planet. There is danger in that combination, but also beauty. Perhaps greater self-understanding will help us bring out and appreciate the beauty of being human.
1. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift examines the essence of human nature, are human basically rational and good beings or impulsive and cruel beasts? What does Gulliver discover about human nature?
In Gulliver’s Travels swift expresses humans as basically being Impulsive cruel beasts, Gulliver discovers this himself after living with the “Houyhnhnms”, he learns their noble and honest ways then he is forced to live with humans again and he despises humans and views them as “Yahoos”. I believe humans are impulsive and cruel beast as well although I also believe there is some good in them as well. One might be quick to hate someone for being mean and then one might be considerate of what that someone might be going through at time being.
Various parts of Gulliver’s travels reveal the impulsive side of human beings, as well as their rational side although the author is trying to convey that humans act out of pure instinct most of the time due to their narrow minds. During his voyage to Laputa, he meets people with what he perceives as most strange customs. He finds that there are many boundaries limiting their way of thinking starting with the fact that their island is isolated from the rest of the world mainly because of fear. Their ruler, with his selfishness, oppresses the people and impedes them from leaving the island. The inhabitants in turn become violent and start to rebel. The overall effect of this is that they become so engulfed in their lifestyles that their actions, such as the so-called experiments in the Academy of Lagado, reflect the extraneous and pointless attitude they adopt when solving problems. They see no way out, so they stick to what they know, and use that to develop ‘innovative technology’, which is really nothing but odd thoughts born from little reasoning and based on extremely centered beliefs.
Gulliver discovers how “impulsive” people are and the lack of a logical foundation in their take on the different matters of life; nevertheless, he does not often emphasize the kindness and civilized attitudes of some of the people he meets. In real life, people will make seemingly stupid decisions whenever they can’t control the urge to act out of instinct, but they do have good intentions and do reason to some degree even if we don’t always see that.
Humans are in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are impulsive and assume the worse, such as the tiny people tying down Gulliver while he was asleep because they were unsure if he was good or bad.
The beings that Gulliver came across varied when it came to human nature. In his first journey the people he came across were smaller than he was. They were protective of their kingdom and didn’t want it to be harmed at first, but then they were kind to Gulliver and fed him even though they possibly could run out of food. Gulliver was also treated well in his fourth journey when he encountered these horse creators called the Houyhnhnms. But when they saw Gulliver’s body they thought he looked like a Yahoo (the Houyhnhnms enemy). Then Gulliver was banished. Then when Gulliver was on the island of giants and in England he viewed the people as impulsive and cruel beast because they treated him like a pet since he was so small compared to them.
Throughout the book Gulliver encounters different types of people, their habits are different, the ways they act are different, their size, and their physical personality are different. But “most” of the people he encountered were rational and good beings.”…much less that men are ennobled on account of their virtue, that priest are advanced for their piety or learning, soldiers for their conduct or valor, judges for their integrity, senators for the love of their country, or counselors for their wisdom.(Swift, pg.125)
2. Discuss what is accomplished in the story by changing the size of Gulliver and the people he interacts with. How does this change of scale affect’s Gulliver’s experiences and his relationships?
The changing of the size of Gulliver and the people with whom he interacts changes their attitudes. When Gulliver is bigger than the people they aren’t as mean to him, but when he’s smaller than the people they treat him like a pet or animal.
Gulliver views humans from a distant outlook point of view and as well an up close and personal point of view. This shows satire of society and as well as the human acts and nature. As well the point of view of power was expressed. When Gulliver was larger than everyone else he was looked at as more of a threat and large “matter’ (took care of him because they needed to use him for war) in the society compared to when he was smaller he was looked at as entertainment or as a pet. “…hate for doctrinal differences concerning the proper way to crack eggs.” (Swift) shows how society can be run in a ridiculous way and how a group can go to war for stupid reasons. “…which to me was for some time a very nauseous sight.” (Swift) describes how disgusting the human being is with their actions and improper nature.
It takes on a different perceptive of how people react to situations where they are the odd one of many people who is used to the same people and things happening all the time. In the land of Brobdingnagians, where Gulliver is small and the people around him are giants. By change in size of Gulliver, him being really small, he starts to notice the features of every person he is encountered with. For stance Swifts quotes”… Wherewith I was much disgusted; because, to say the truth, a very offensive smell came from their skins (Swift 110).”
He became less harmful to the humans because they were bigger than he was. He also became more like a pet and still was funny to look at. “…the farmer placed me at some distance from him on the table, which was thirty foot high from the floor. I was in a terrible fright, and kept as far as I could fall from the edge, for fear of falling. … Expressing the words as loud as I could in English; which made the company laugh so heartily, that I was almost deafened by the noise. (Swift, pg. 80)”
3. What do you believe Jonathan Swift was trying to say regarding society, politics, science and technology, and social institutions of his days? Do you think he would be more or less pleased with our modern institution?
Jonathan Swift doesn’t view science and technology as we might today. He thinks that science and technology can be used for good, useful things as well as bad things that can cause harm. Just like in The Flying Machine when the Emperor made his invention for good and killed the flier in fear of his invention being used for bad things. (Bradbury)
Johnathan Swift’s views on science and technology were that both science and technology can be put to evil uses as easily as to good. Science and technology are useful things but sometimes harmful. Science and technology as harmed or detracted people in numerous one way science has harmed people is by mankind making and developing nuclear weapons which can kill millions of people. One way technology has harmed people is by humans using computers and cell phones to say mean and hurtful things to others which is bullying. Which is a really big problem in today’s society technology has caused people to commit suicide and sometimes go into deep depression. As we can see science and technology can be useful but sometimes harmful.
I view science and technology as things that make life easier on us. For example, vehicles help us get to our destination faster than walking would.
Jonathan Swift believed that science and technology could be put to use for good but as well it could just as easily be put to use for evil. I believe technology and sciences are discovered toward good things and bad things. Swift and my views on technology and science are very similar because what both of us believe happens.
In Laputa, Gulliver was able to experience the different views on science in technology. For example the floating island that governed Balnibarbi, was full of different weapons and technologies that they use to keep power over the people. I think science can be very helpful, if the experiment has the right purpose, but if it is made to serve a bad purpose, then science could be very bad. He criticized everything he experienced and seen. And this all happens while traveling to different “tribes” in the world. He was able to view the big picture, from all different points of view.
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Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels and other Writings. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1962.
Harold, Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations of Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Long, William J. “Jonathan Swift,” English Literature. Boston, Mass.: Ginn and Company, 1964.
Swift, Jonathon. Gulliver’s Travels. Washington Square Press: Pocket Books, 1972.Text.
2 October 2011.