Reflections on the occasion of the 300th birthday anniversary of an expert in exaggeration

Gulliver’s Travels is today probably the most widely read literary work of the eighteenth century. Usurping the prominence that Pilgrim’s Progress shared with Paradise Lost in the nineteenth century, it has become a staple ingredient of college literature courses.

Its currency is not difficult to explain. The book is mainly satire, and our age is sophisticated and disillusioned enough to like satire better than simple biblical allegory or epic elegance. Although Gulliver’s Travels is but one of several satirical or disillusioned works that contend for a place in college courses, nothing else quite matches it in charm and challenge. Once merely a children’s story, it has now become a required intellectual experience for college students. For the most part, this timely book—whose author was born November 30, 1667—is a subtle, richly diversified, ostensibly comic study of human depravity and its various alternatives.

The last and most imaginative section of this four-part work is more often admired than understood. It is about the Houyhnhnms, who are a society of horses, and a depraved race of men called Yahoos. In the first part of the work, the traveler Gulliver, in Lilliput, becomes mildly disillusioned by human vices. In Part II the king of Brobdingnag calls Gulliver’s fellow human beings “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Part III castigates the human race for an assortment of academic, scientific, and political absurdities. Then in Part IV Swift portrays the Houyhnhnms and the loathe-some, much belabored Yahoos, and here he seems to exceed all bounds of truth and decency.

For literary study, however, there was no way to sidestep Part IV. This last part is the climax, and in it the accumulated meaning of the previous episodes comes to a jarring and well-sustained finale. In the candid twentieth century the Yahoos are still revolting, but they seem too real to be dismissed as malicious libels on the human race.

Swift’s protean talents were all too adequate for the overwhelming effects he sought. Gulliver in Part IV, now captain of his ship, is the quasi-capitalistic victim of a mutinous crew who put him ashore on an unknown island in order to seize the ship and become pirates. Once ashore, he encounters the Yahoos. After his first disgusting misadventure with them, he eagerly welcomes the kindly Houyhnhnms as paragons of sweetness and light; he is overjoyed by their benevolent mildness, their grave reasonableness, and their plain “horse” sense about death, sex, and other highly affective realities. The Houyhnhnms are superior to human beings, he decides.

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For generations most readers have shared his admiration of the Houyhnhnms, and quite an embarrassing proportion of literary scholars have incautiously joined in the extravagant applause. Today, however, a number of the most competent Swift specialists, after thoroughly investigating their author’s unusual life and complex psyche as well as Gulliver’s Travels, have converged in a relatively new interpretation, growing out of what A. E. Dyson calls “Swift’s ironic trap.”

Gulliver, like millions of readers who identify with him, is surprisingly uncritical; several scholars have suspected that his name derives from “gullible.” He swoons and sinks to the depths of despair when the Houyhnhnms reject him as a Yahoo, unfit for their society. Morosely he returns to England, but he finds reconcilement with his fellow Yahoos (as he styles them) impossible. Unable to endure his wife and children because of their odor, he comforts himself by sitting in the stable, conversing with the two horses he bought as solace.

The average reader sadly shares Gulliver’s despair. Thus he falls into the ironic trap, not realizing that Swift was fonder of literary pranks than any other English writer. What Gulliver and the naïve reader fail to see is that the Houyhnhnms, whatever their charms, are actually subhuman. They get along with each other well, as human beings ought to do, and they have superhuman sense; but they have no crafts, no books, no culture, no arts except poetry. Their political system works well enough for horses, but they are appallingly uncreative, and their society could hardly make a human being envious.

The Houyhnhnms have little to offer human beings because they lack imagination. This is the gift that raises man above the animal level and enables him to know good and evil. Human beings alone can conceive of “the thing which is not” and then create it, for good or for bad. The Houyhnhnms who have no knowledge of evil and not even a word for it, are in fact subhuman.

Gulliver never suspects this, however. He is well educated, well traveled, well balanced, and in a sense quite intelligent. Unfortunately, like the Houyhnhnms he lacks imagination, and thus he is unable to picture a fully realized human utopia. Instead of collapsing in despair when the Houyhnhnms dismiss him, he should thank God that he is a man and not a horse.

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How can Gulliver be so gullible? And how can most readers identify with him so readily? They follow him home and share with him the solace of his two horses. It does not occur to them that the stable must smell considerably worse than his wife and children, or that there is something wrong with a man who has so little affection for his family.

Another important recognition most readers never achieve is that Gulliver is not really a Yahoo with clothes on, as the Houyhnhnms conclude after examining him with ludicrous scientific solemnity. Here Swift is making a point that is especially relevant today. The truth is that Gulliver is a gentleman who at no time behaves like a Yahoo, though, as several Swiftian scholars have pointed out, he does turn out to be a pride-powered stoic or deist. In Lilliput he remains loftily superior to the petty jealousies and animosities of the Lilliputians, disdaining to punish their treachery. He distinguishes himself in Brobdingnag by his judicious moderation and objectivity, thus making himself an impressive contrast to the conniving Englishmen as he described them to the King. He does nothing discreditable in Laputa or among the Houyhnhnms. Surely he deserves to be accepted by the Houyhnhnms for what he is.

The Houyhnhnms, however, never show their lack of perceptivity more clearly than by rejecting Gulliver, simply on the basis of physical appearance. Yet, because they cannot make subtle distinctions between appearance and behavior, the comedy accumulates, and their failure suggests the very tragic way in which modern Houyhnhnms fail or refuse to see that man is more than an animal with clothes on.

Excerpts From Jonathan Swift’S Observations

We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.

Positiveness is a good Quality for Preachers and Orators, because he that would obtrude his Thoughts and Reasons upon a Multitude, will convince others the more, as he appears convinced himself.

All Fits of Pleasure are balanced by an equal Degree of Pain or Languor; ’tis like spending this Year, part of the next Year’s Revenue.

The latter Part of a wise Man’s Life is taken up in curing the Follies, Prejudices, and false Opinions he had contracted in the former.

No Preacher is listened to but Time, which gives us the same Train and Turn of Thought that elder People have tried in vain to put into our Heads before.

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When a true Genius appears in the World, you may know him by his Sign, that the Dunces are all in confederacy against him.

One of the ironic facts about the ironic trap is that Swift made his intentions reasonably clear. In a letter to Alexander Pope dated September 29, 1725, he stated that his purpose in writing Gulliver’s Travels was “to vex the world rather than divert it.” And in a letter two months later he said, “I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animale rationale [the rational animal] and to show that it could be only rationis capax [capable of reason].” The treatise is Gulliver’s Travels, and the letters indicate that for Swift true man is a via media between the Yahoo and the Houyhnhnm.

It is not surprising that Swift admired the Houyhnhnms in an ambivalent way. He realized how naïve persons like Shaftesbury were in believing that men could live by reason alone or by a natural religion that assumed the innate goodness of men. But he also knew, as he said in his letter to Pope, that the Houyhnhnm kind of life was unattainable. He found too much of the Yahoo in man, even in himself. He could not forget, for example, that one young lady half his age and more than half Yahoo whom he had befriended in London became so aggressive in her passion for him that she followed him to Ireland, hounded him for years, and finally blamed him for the misery that later led to her unhappy death. Swift knew the Yahoo side of humanity as well as its Houyhnhnm-like distortions.

The startling thing about Part IV today is its “prophetic” dimension. This is not to say that Swift felt any desire or competence to predict the future, but only that the world does not change as much as most apostles of progress would like to believe. Swift’s Houyhnhnms may be a caricature of the eighteenth-century deists. Yet they persist today and proliferate in numerous varieties of vaguely theistic humanism, a humanism that would have men live, like the Houyhnhnms, by reason alone in self-generated good will founded on enlightened selfishness. Such thinking is inevitably confused. It accepts human limitations in a realistic and often unimaginative way while it theoretically and idealistically denies them. And it reduces God, by whose grace man can transcend these limitations, to an impersonal abstraction or at best an absentee landlord.

At the same time the Yahoo element in man also continues to be conspicuous. It flourishes in gruesome crimes almost without precedent. Science, in one of its most familiar stances, acknowledges man as merely a beast and labels his most shocking deviations as illness that psychiatry can cure and environmental manipulation will in time be able to prevent. Yahoo behavior is the shameless and often blatant material of much of the most publicized twentieth-century fiction. Yahooism has also invaded art to a degree that is disturbing if not degrading; and the Yahoo spirit is more conspicuous in social behavior than it was in Swift’s day, more overt and less restrained. It takes prettified Playboy forms that lure many a hypnotized pilgrim into its polite perversions of lust and regression.

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The result is ever the same for cultivated Gullivers. Horrified by the Yahoo aspect of man, they eagerly embrace the Houyhnhnm antithesis in all its meretricious simplicity, only to learn (perhaps too late) that the concept of man as animale rationale is a mirage. In fact, unless Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” at length subdues a man, he is bound to sink in mortal despair, just as Gulliver did. This despair is the inevitable and eternal result of meeting the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms without Christian insight. Its victims go to their graves unsalvaged, never imagining what the Creator can make of man’s Yahoo impulses and Houyhnhnm dreams.

Swift did not explain this via media. It must have seemed obvious to him, and perhaps it was obvious in a day when all schoolboys learned the catechism and the basic theology of the Christian faith. Anyway, a writer of Swift’s genius respects his readers too much to be unduly explicit.

Was Swift a misanthrope? He is often summarily convicted by his own words, when he says, for example, in the same letter that clarifies his view of man as merely capax rationis: “I hate and detest that animal called man.…” It is easy to overlook the other half of his statement here: “… although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth”—a sentiment to which Gulliver could hardly have subscribed.

It is not generally known that the Irish people came to revere Swift as their beloved dean (he was for a few years dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin), partly because his self-advertised saeva indignatio is the kind of righteous indignation a preacher should display at times and because he wielded it for many years on their behalf in writings such as “A Modest Proposal.” Few of his critics were aware that during the latter part of his life he was giving a third of his income to charitable causes. Indeed, they use this last part of his life to discredit him. The insanity into which he lapsed has been represented as a case of poetic justice or well-merited retribution. Actually it was not violent insanity but rather the senility into which many elderly persons drift.

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Swift lived too long. He was a man of scintillating wit and unusual physical vigor who found emotional outlet chiefly in his friends and in his writing. When these failed him (after 1730, when he was sixty-three), loneliness became the painful accompaniment of longevity, and he found an outlet only in letters and in bitter, cynical, or misanthropic outbursts.

“Life is a comedy to him who thinks, a tragedy to him who feels.” This familiar aphorism of the eighteenth century helps one understand Gulliver’s Travels. Swift saw clearly the absurdity of man’s animalistic behavior in the light of his proud pretensions. He saw no less clearly the more subtle absurdity of man’s frantic, futile, misguided efforts to make himself a rational being. This contrast heightens the comic “vision” that dominates his best literary work.

At the same time, as a dedicated clergyman he sincerely loved individual men and felt the tragedy of their condition and his own disappointments deeply. Thus, his gullible Gulliver becomes a tragic figure for those who feel as well as a comic figure for those who think. In this strange paradox is a key to the enduring power of Swift’s most influential work.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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