Literacy Studies; Discuss the exploration of Human Nature in Gulliver’s Travels
Gulliver’s travels was written by Swift in 1772 and it is one of the most famous and also controversial literature pieces to come out of the 18th century. The novel is regarded as one of the best written satires and his ideology of corruption of society and human kind is still relevant to society in the 21st century. In order to fully comprehend and uncover the satire which is present in Swift’s novel the plot, setting, language, conflict and characters have to be explored. In this essay I will discuss all 4 voyages in which Gulliver embarks on and how they represent aspects of human nature.
At first glance Gulliver’s travels appears to be a fantasy and adventure story, but in fact the book has a deeper meaning. The book is an attack on humanity on at least three different levels and a satirical commentary on society in the 18th century. Satire when used in prose form is a literacy device which uses humour, ridicule and irony to criticise mankind. Swift is ultimately criticising and mocking the English government, science, society, religion and academics. His sole intention was to criticise the factors just mentioned and can be read on two other levels; as an adventure and as a fairy tale.
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Gulliver’s travels was written during a period where Europe and England (in spite of its small size) had dominating power in comparison to other parts of the world. This is in terms of both economical and military power. The political events which happened in Ireland and England are satirized throughout the book. The original edition of Gulliver’s travels with published without Swift’s name on due to the fear of prosecution from the government. In the first narrative we see everything through Lemur Gulliver’s eyes; an English physician and a traveller.
We see Gulliver’s view of the world, but also realise that Lilliputians are a product of Swift imagination; with Swifts main purpose to produce a satirical critique of human kind and society. This allows us to read Gulliver’s travels on multiple levels. We trust his narrative due to the detailed descriptions he gives of his voyages and the biographical details. However, it is difficult to regard Gulliver as a ‘heroic character’ despite undergoing tremendous feats such as being shipwrecked (numerous times), attacked with arrows, taken captured by pirates etc.
Gulliver shows courage, but lacks passion, feelings and emotions this makes it hard to relate to him as ‘hero’. We get an impression that Gulliver is an ambitious man who wants to travel by giving up his career as a doctor. However, as Gulliver’s adventures continue we find he has no real goals as for example ‘to get home. ’ Therefore, we don’t see him as a man with aspirations, but rather a man who is passive and thinks realistically rather than with his imagination. Structurally the voyages are separated into 4 different adventures each with their own different setting, which is key to the novel.
The styles in which the travels are written resemble those of real life sea voyages in turn heightening the satire. Swift also exaggerates the places and people with whom he meets making it seem more preposterous. His first expedition lands him in the island of Lilliput after becoming shipwrecked. It is one of the more famous sections of the book. Initially, although startled Gulliver is not particularly shocked by the encounter with the Lilliputians. ‘I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: for as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground’. Jonathon Swift 1726 1:55) Gulliver accepts his capturing and this could be a representation of how Swift felt chained down in society in his time. He is impressed by the science and maths skills of the Lilliputians ‘These people are most excellent mathematics, and arrived to a great perfection in mechanicks’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 1:17). However, this is ironic because in real terms it does not allow them to do much due to their size and proportions. Lilliput is a representation of England at the time and an allegory of Queen Anne’s court.
Queen Anne did not like Swift’s writing and blocked him from any advancement in the Church of England due to the offensive nature of Swifts writing. This section introduces the reader to the conflicts within the book. Gulliver is yet to see how small-minded the Lilliputians really are due to being captivated by their advanced technology. The physical size of the Lilliputians is important in terms of cultural differences. It seems silly how one large man can be overpowered by the Lilliputians who are 6 inches tall.
This could relate to England who despite being a small nation overpowered many nations of the time in which Swift was writing Gulliver’s travels. Primarily, we see Gulliver as a normal person who we trust, but this quickly changes when we are presented with the smallness of the Lilliputians. As a reader we make the connection that they are simply a figure of Swift’s imagination. The readers now read the book with the intentions of discovering what Swift is trying to tell us. We question why Gulliver chooses to stay?
However, we assume this is because he is curious to find out about their language, culture and how they live. As well as enjoying the power that comes alongside being a giant, even as a prisoner. He is also respectful of the little people and respectful of their differences. When Gulliver’s pockets are searched his objects are alien to the little people of Lilliput. ‘He replied by, the laws of the kingdom, I must be searched by two of his officer’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 2:22) this emphasises the foreignness of Gulliver and represents Swifts alienation in his own country.
He gains his liberty by agreeing to 8 conditions in which some are sensible, some are odd and some are nasty. ‘Eighthly, that the said man mountain shall, that the said Man Mountain shall, in two moons time, deliver in an exact survey of the circumference of our dominoes, by a computation of his own paces round the coast’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 3:31) This is supposed to represent the court of George V1 which was operated cruelly. Swift has heightened the satire here by using the literacy technique malapropism where he has stuck in silly words with normal words to make the whole thing seem more ridiculous.
The Lilliputians are at war with the neighbouring island of Blefuscu who in fact represents in real terms England and France during Swift’s time. They have been fighting a war for “six and thirty moons past” (Jonathon Swift 1972 4: 34) Swift heightens the satire here by making a mockery of the ways in which wars start ‘whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account’. Jonathon Swift 1726 4: 34) This reflects the continual conflict between Protestants and Catholics in how to practice religion. The point that Swift is trying to make is that fighting over religion is just as pointless as fighting over which end of an egg to break. (Grade Saver) Swift is anti- war yet throughout the book we see no suggestions of alternatives or moral resolutions. The emperor is cruel like the King in England at the time for example, he wanted to kill all the Blufuscdians. The first paragraph of this chapter is very innocent but quickly turns in to a court satire.
This voyage particularly highlights the stupidity of how the Lilliputians chose their highest officials, for example they are chosen by seeing who can jump the highest on a tight-rope ‘five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the office’. (Jonathon Swift 1726 3: 26) Swift is mocking how politicians get their position and how they achieve status in the political world.
It is a parallel of the English system and how easy it is to full in and out of favour. The low heels represent the Wigs and the high heels represent the Tory’s; political parties that were around at the time Swift wrote the book. Swift is making a mockery of how the highest officials were chosen in England and the lengths they will go to in order to gain favour in the courts. This suggests that political arguments are as insignificant and unimportant as the height of one’s heels.
The quarrels between the high and the low ends originate from religious reasoning ‘Which end should the faithful break their eggs, at the big end or at the little end[a]? “. The Lilliputian had their army walk under Gulliver legs; this is ridiculing how the British army of the time seemed to be more consumed with looking impressive rather than being impressive. (Grade saver) Gulliver shows the ridiculous needs of the royals when putting out a fire by urinating on the palace. This infuriates the emperor resulting in the wish for revenge to be bestowed on Gulliver.
Although saving the palace he has done so in a blameworthy manner ‘it is capital in any person, of what quality so ever, to make water within the precincts of the palace’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 5: 40). (Grade saver) This represents the Church of England and the treaty of Utrecht whereby France had to demolish the fortifications of Dunkirk. Swift does not like religious enthusiasm. During the book when describing the details in each society’s way of living, he is criticising and satirizing the things wrong with English society.
This is mainly negative however attractive customs are presented in Lilliput; for example it is a capital offence to lie. Although lying is seen as terrible offence Flimnap gets away with lying that Gulliver slept with his wife. Besides the physical implications of this it is problematic to enforce its norms against lying for the law to matter. (Grade saver) This also could be a comment on how those in power seem to get away with breaking the law. After leaving Lilliput Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked on the shores of Brobdingnag; a land which is full of giants.
Gulliver is found by a farmer who is very much pleased by his discovery and takes him home to his wife. ‘At length he ventured to take me up behind by the middle between his fore-finger and thumb, and brought me within three metres of his eyes’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 1:64) The farmer represents the selfishness of mankind. He is used for profit and gain and then quickly tossed aside when appearing to be weakening and a high offer was quickly accepted. This voyage practically highlights the filthy mental and psychical characteristics of man.
Gulliver is confronted by an adult nurse who reveals her breasts to him in which he can see every blemish and deformity. ‘Their skins appeared so coarse and uneaven, so variously coloured when I saw them near with a mole and there as broad as a trencher’. (Jonathon Swift 1726 5:88) He is repulsed by this and this provokes a realisation of how the Lilliputians must have felt towards him. From this he gains perspective in terms of size, the sense of feeling powerless and how intimidating he must have seemed to the minute people of Lilliput.
Another point that Swift could be trying to make is even the most flawless skin or most appealing political system has its imperfections and these imperfections can be exposed under close enough scrutiny. He finds the giants grotesque ‘they would often strip me naked from top to toe… wherewith I was much disgusted; because to say the truth, a very offensive smell came from their skin’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 5:87) His referencing to magnifying of flesh could also be linked to the recent discovery of the microscope. Due to his size he is seen as a hero in the lands of Lilliput.
However, this is no longer the case in Brobdingnag even his greatest feats such as battling rats in a heroic fashion are merely seen as ‘tricks’. Swift continually uses and plays on language to emphasize the main satirical points about politics, ethics and culture and language. For example, whilst Gulliver is out at sea, he describes the ways in which his ship deals with the oncoming storm in a complicated naval jargon fashion. (Spark notes) Swift was ridiculing the lexis and narrative of writers of travel books and sailing accounts that often used special words or expressions that made it difficult for others to understand.
Swift saw this as unnecessary and ridiculous and the use of complicated, long words was merely to show off their expertise. ‘During the storm, which was followed by a strong wind west-south west, we were carried by my computation about five hundred leagues to the east. ’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 1:62) This style is repeated throughout the book to criticize experts who were more interested in being impressive rather than helpful. Gulliver describes the cultures and politics to the King of Brobdingnag; these life and death issues in Europe are merely seen as insignificant to the King. He was perfectly astonished …protesting it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres…’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 6:98) He sees the physical size of the Europeans as being matched by their moral weakness and (Spark notes) the king describes the conflicts of the ‘little people’ as ‘odious. Gulliver ultimately feels humiliated from their discussions. (spark notes) Gulliver is unable to realise the imperfections of his own society very much like the Lilliputians. The giants have a well-organised, equal society which puts society before their own individual gain.
This leads them to be shocked and horrified by Gulliver’s tales of his country and how his society works. However, Brobdingnag are not without their imperfections and it is easy for society to become corrupt for instance, Gulliver is used for money and personal gain. The queen is deluded in thinking that everyone is happy and that they have a utopian/ideal society but it is not without its flaws. We see how violence is ingrained in Gulliver when he cannot understand the Kings objection to gunpowder. He can see the negatives which would outweigh the positives of gunpowder.
He describes the Europeans as “the most pernicious Race of Little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 6:99) reiterating how people from different backgrounds have different opinions on the same subject. The king is not corrupted by the power in which the gunpowder would bring. (Spark notes) This is not because they do not have superior technology but because of the physical implications and consequences that result from gunpowder. So alongside law and organisation, morals seem to be another huge flaw in the English society.
The brobdingnags are the most admirable people Gulliver comes across due to the minimising of their vices and the high morals that they hold. Unlike England these are not embedded in the structure of the government. (Spark notes) Gulliver ultimately gains a new found perspective from moving from the ‘small’ to the ‘big’ this is also intensified by the close proximity of the trip. In true dramatic style Gulliver’s new adventure lands him in the floating island of Laputa. After being captured by pirates he is left drifting to sea and left to his own devices.
The island is separated physically by the professors who live in Balnibarbi and those who work with their hands below; Swift has made this separation visually obvious. We find out that they punish the land below them by blocking out the sun and rain. ‘…he can deprive them of the benefit of the sun and the rain, and consequently afflict the inhabitants with dearth and disease’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 3:28) we therefore learn that the island is used as a weapon and is an allegorical image that represents the distance between the government and the people it governs. spark notes) Swifts indicates here that rebellions could be avoided if royals would treat their citizens properly. Gulliver’s third voyage always includes visits to Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan. This section of the book ridicules academics and how they appear impressive but are not helpful or useful. For example, although many people were starving outside the walls of Laputa they were producing projects which have no meaning. Projects included extracting sunbeams out of a cucumber not only is this impossible it has no real purpose.
There are also no benefits or gain for the Laputan citizens even if it was physically possible to do so. The inspiration behind this voyage came from the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. The experiments that were being produced were more successful at discovering natural phenomena rather than producing technologies of any use. (Spark notes) Swift attacks science, learning and abstract thinking directly in this section of the book. They are intelligent beings yet this achieves them very little and they lack common sense.
For example, ‘Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect ariseth from the contempt they bear for practical geometry’ (Jonathon Swift 1726 2:122) This is suggesting that a society needs many different types of people not just intellects, who do not do so well themselves. They are also unaware of what is going wrong in their lives i. e. their wives cheating on them because they are so consumed with ridiculous things ‘the husband is always wrapped in speculation, that the mistress and love may proceed to the greatest familiarities before his face’. Jonathon Swift 1726 2:124) They are absurd and have servants with flappers to regulate when they talk. (spark notes)’they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them, of which practice I could not then conceive the meaning’. (Jonathon Swift 2:119) Gulliver’s journey to Glubbdubdrip allows him to express his opinions on many historical figures.
He particularly favoured those of the Greek and Romans times ‘I had the honour to have much conversation with Brutus’. Jonathon Swift 7:148) rather than modern day Europeans ‘I was chiefly disgusted with modern history’ (Jonathon Swift 8:150) Gulliver learns that not everything in history can be trusted when bringing back the historical figures. He specifically learns that what he knows about history from books is not the same as what they tell him. ‘I found how the world had been misled by prostitute writers’ (Jonathon Swift 8:150) We are exposed again to the ridiculous rules of the Royals and the ways in which they abuse their power in Luggnagg. Gulliver must crawl on his hands and knees and lick the floor before approaching the King.
His Majesty would please to appoint a day and hour, when it would be his gracious pleasure that I might have the honour to the lick the dust before his footstool’. (Jonathon Swift 9:154) Gulliver is asked whether he ‘had seen any of their Struldbruggs, or immortals’. (Jonathon Swift 10:156) Gulliver was delighted at the thought of meeting those who have the chance to be immortal ‘those excellent Struldbruggs, who being born exempt from that universal calamity of human nature, have their minds free and disingaged without the weight and depression of spirits caused by the continual apprehension of death’. Jonathon Swift 10:156) Many people would strive for the opportunity to seek eternal life; however this is the interesting thing about the Strudburgs. The belief that wisdom comes with old age is particularly turned on its head. The Strudburgs in fact became more prejudiced, bitter and selfish with age rather than accumulating wisdom to help others. (spark notes)’they commonly acted like mortals, until about thirty years old, after which by degrees they grew melancholy and dejected. ’ (Jonathon Swift 9:160) It is also interesting to note that Swift has included Japan amongst the other adventures.
This is because Japan seemed as far off and mysterious in Swifts time as all the other places mentioned in the book. ‘My stay in Japan was short, and I was so entirely a stranger to the language, that I was not qualified to make any enquiries’. (Jonathon Swift 11:162) By his fourth voyage Gulliver’s has lost his enthusiasm and care for humankind. This country has two characters the humane Houyhnhnms and the unruly Yahoos in which Gulliver finds himself stuck between. We slowly discover that the Yahoos are human who are very despicable and corrupt.
The technique which Swift has used is describing the familiar as unfamiliar which heightens the impact of the description. . (Spark notes) In order for Gulliver to stay away and distinguish himself from these characters he keeps his clothes on, uses knife and forks and in general speaks in a polite manner. ‘I had hitherto concealed the secret of my dress, in order to distinguish myself as much as possible, from the cursed race of Yahoos’ (Jonathon Swift 2:178) This could suggest that Swift wanted to get away from his own kind, even when the grey mare says to Gulliver that his people are worse than the Yahoo’s he does not disagree.
This is a strong contrast to when speaking to the King in Brobdingnag where he was quick to defend his own country when it came under fire. This is where we start to the see the beginnings of Gulliver’s transformation. The Yahoos particularly highlight the horrible aspects of human nature. Gulliver has had time to reflect on each journey and work out what political system works the best. The English system however does not appear to be one in which he would chose to favour. Swift is quick to criticise lawyers and doctors in this section surprisingly as Gulliver had spent many years working as a surgeon.
He saw lawyers as no better than politicians by going to court out and solving human’s petty squabbles ‘They were usually the most ignorant and stupid generation’ (Jonathon Swift 5:189) He also believed that doctors would kill as soon as they’d cure ‘For which the physicians have invented imaginary cures’ (Jonathon Swift 6:192). (Grade saver) As the Houyhnhnms are horses they are disgusted when Gulliver tells them how horses are treated in England. ‘My master, after some expression of great indignation, wondered how we dared to venture upon a Houyhnhnm’s back. (Jonathon Swift 4:182) The grey mare says that humans are only different to the Yahoos in appearance but not by their morality. Swift makes a parallel between the Houyhnhnm government and the English who both think they have grounds to rule on the basis of merit. (grade saver) When discussing whether to exterminate the yahoo they do not once stop to question whether they have the moral right to do so. Their decision to castrate the Male Yahoos to stop them reproducing and to slowly kill them off is an interesting one.
The idea comes from Gulliver who ultimately shows no remorse for suggesting killing off species of his own race ‘I mentioned a custom we had of castrating… would in age, put an end to the whole species, without destroying life. ’ (Jonathon Swift 9:206) As we followed Gulliver through his travels we have generally been on his side. However, we now begin to question whether he has gone too far by killing off his own race. We accept his criticisms of human kind and of a flawed society; but do not understand why he has chosen another species over his own.
Although the Yahoos have many flaws they have strong emotions can love and have fun, something in which the Houyhnhnms cannot. This is to the extent where they do no shed a tear if one of them dies. He returns to England but cannot return to a normal life due to his admiration and lifestyle he had amongst the Houyhnhnm. He spends his days speaking to the horses in his stables. Some critics suggested that although Swift was criticising mankind he did believe that people were capable of changing their ways.
His hope was that his novel would enable people to re-evaluate their behaviour. It was however said that especially towards the end of the book Swift was losing his mind. Merrel D Clubb was quoted as saying “the longer that one studies Swift, the more obvious it becomes that the interpretations and verdict to be placed on the ‘Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’ is, after all, the central problem of Swift criticism. ” The Houyhnhnms and Yahoos represent aspects of human nature. Early day critics would have believed Gulliver was used to voice Swifts opinions of humanity.
Morden critics would appreciate the subtleties presented through Gulliver. It is argued whether Gulliver has set character traits or goes through a transformation. I would believe with the latter as by the forth voyage we see Gulliver turn against his own species. Critics also have to be careful when assuming Gulliver’s opinions represent those of Swifts as this may not always be the case. The irony and satire is complex therefore we cannot settle on one single interpretation. The book examines human nature through every character Gulliver meets.
This first voyage is a critique of the political happenings of the early eighteenth century as well as a criticism of people’s desire for wealth and power. The voyages that Gulliver travels on represent aspects of corruption in England and mankind. Gulliver himself is presented as a naive and gullible character which in turn reflects the irony of the English system. It is believed Gulliver suggests gullible. Gulliver is not the same man by the end of the story in fact we see his perceptions of people changed through every adventure. Altogether, Swift has not painted a pretty picture of society and it’s morals.