Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
reviewed by Lindsey Hurd

After being cast upon an island in the dark of night, Lemuel Gulliver, awoke to find himself bound and surrounded by men no taller than six inches. Thus began the first of four strange adventures, in which Gulliver first encountered a race of people not even six inches tall, men nigh a hundred feet tall, a people curiously engrossed by geometry and scientific progress of questionable practicality and, finally, a country in which horses were rational beings and men irrational. Through Gulliver’s travels, satirist Jonathan Swift attacks human pride, the pride of the Rationalists of his time, and finally, the original sin from which all pride stems.

For his purpose of seducing men to betray their natural lust for pride, Swift first places Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, a minuscule people. In this land, Gulliver is a Man Mountain, as the people called him.  His enormous size gave him a sense of omnipotence and self-importance that he later recounted, “I confess I was often tempted, while they were passing back and forward on my body, to seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground.” (I, 1) He was also responsible for saving the Lilliputians from invasion and took great pride in becoming their savior. Being a colossus gave him rank and importance very flattering to his pride.

His pride was also heightened by the Lilliputians’ indulgence in miniature trivialities. Their Emperor found amusement in the tightrope dancing of his nobles, there are petty struggles between the high heeled and low-heeled political parties, as well as wars and insurrections between those who follow the doctrine of breaking their eggs at the small end and those who break their eggs at the big end. The Emperor is a very vain fellow, who imagines himself very great and famous on account of his unusual height of six inches.

Thus is Gulliver lured into a distorted vision of his own greatness and importance. This vision, however, is not adopted with surprise, but a natural acknowledgment of the greatness he had always seen in himself. In this, Swift plays a trick upon all his readers, for while they laugh condescendingly at the Lilliputians’ childish frivolities, they cozily entrench themselves in the satisfaction of their own pride just as Gulliver did in his. It is not until the next journey that both Gulliver and his readers begin to see their foolishness.

The new adventure lands Gulliver upon the shores of Brobdingnag, a land of giants. A laborer who found him hiding among the roots of the cornstalks “. . .considered a while with the caution of one who endeavours to lay hold on a small dangerous animal in such a manner that it shall not be able either to scratch or to bite him; as I myself have sometimes done with a Weasel in England.” (II, 1)  After the laborer musters courage enough to cautiously pick up and examine Gulliver, he presents him to his master. This master, finding Gulliver a great curiosity, takes him home to show his wife. However,  “. . .she screamed and ran back as Women in England do at the sight of a toad or spider.” (II, 1) It is common in Brobdingnag for the people to consider Gulliver an animal, or at worst, an insect.”  From the Great Man Mountain of Lilliput, Gulliver is cast very low.

Gulliver’s humiliations multiply, for he is forced to accept the role of animal and pet in Brobdingnag. After enduring weary hours of public exhibition, Gulliver is sold to the Queen who takes a great fancy for him as her newest pet. He takes up his abode in a little crate and a caretaker is appointed over him. Meanwhile, he is attacked and almost killed by rats the “size of a large mastiff,” carried away by a mischievous monkey, and attacked by a spaniel. One day he is caught in a storm raining hail upon him the size of tennis balls, another day he jumps into a cow patty. The tales of his escapades, tricks, and cute actions are spread throughout the Court for the amusement of all, just as one might recount the antics of one’s favorite pet. When, after an adventure, he passionately expresses his sense of wounded honor, drawing his little sword and waving it valiantly, with hopes of putting his courage again to the test, the King of that country only laughs.

So it is that the same readers who laughed at the trivial whims of the Lilliputians are now forced to laugh at Gulliver, the “Man Mountain,” and his ludicrousness escapades. But Swift has more than humor in mind. The king, with whom Gulliver had frequent discussions, once remarked concerning the things Gulliver told him of the character of England that “. . .I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives, to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” (II, 6) Swift wants us to see ourselves through the eyes of God, the “giant” of the universe, before whom we are as mere animals and insects. The Psalmist expresses this humiliation when he says, “But I am a worm and no man.” (Psalm 22) 

However, Gulliver refuses to accept his humiliation. Instead, he adopts his eyes to seeing the world through the eyes of the giant Brobdingnagiums. Thus, on his arrival home he recounts, “My wife ran out to embrace me, but I stooped lower than her knees, thinking that she could otherwise never be able to reach my mouth . . . I looked down upon the servants and one or two friends who were in the house, as if they had been pygmies, and I a giant.”  (II, 8) In his heart, he is still a Man Mountain.

On his third voyage, he goes to the islands of Laputa, Blanibari, Luggnagg, and Glubbdubdrib; a place where thinking, building, and practical living are reduced to a mathematical science.  One inhabitant recounts, “That about Forty Years ago, certain Persons went up to Laputa, wither upon business or diversion; and after five Months continuance, came back with a very little Smattering in Mathematicks, but full of Volatile Spirits acquired in that Airy Region. That these person upon their Return, began to dislike the management of every Thinking below; and fell into Schemes of putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanics upon a new foot.”  (III, 4) This plan of action is strongly advised in Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, where he asserts “. .We must begin anew from the very foundations, unless we would revolve for ever in a circle with mean and contemptible progress.” (XXXI) Throw away the old and begin anew is the Blanibari standard. 

Though a true Rationalists of his era, Gulliver is not impressed by the things he sees on his travels across the islands. He is not received with appreciation because the people are too distracted thinking about geometry and finds the rulers disposed to cruelty towards their subjects. The peoples’ manner of living, guided by their glorious mathematics, produces a very inferior manner of making clothing and houses, while the experimentation of their academy has yet to produce anything useful for the universal needs of mankind. It should have been a cruel blow to the pride of a man of the Enlightenment. Yet Gulliver cannot see the inadequacy of his beloved Rationalistic doctrines, for he is still too blind to his own folly and pride to find anything amiss.

Gulliver’s fourth and last voyage casts him upon the island of the Houyhnhnms where he is almost slain by some vulgar and grotesque creatures, later identified as Yahoos, before two Houyhnhnms arrive to save him. The Houyhnhnms are horses and the rational rulers of the country. The Yahoos, on the other hand, are the Houyhnhnms’ slaves, being contemptible creatures of mean intelligence, full of gross meanness, lasciviousness, greediness, foulness, and other base passions of an irrational creature. Gulliver so much resembled the Yahoos in shape and appearance that the Houyhnhnms believed he was a Yahoo, only surprisingly clean and rational.

As Gulliver recounted the people and government of Europe, his Houyhnhnm master become more and more convinced that the people of England are Yahoos. After Gulliver’s account of the deeds and practices of the people in England, his master came to the conclusion that the necessity for their institutions of government and law was due to their “gross defect in reason, and by consequence, in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature…” (IV, 7)  Furthermore, Gulliver recounts his observation that “when a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, the horse dreaded lest the corruption of the faculty might be worse than brutality. Thus the horse seemed therefore confident, that instead of Reason, we were only possessed of some Quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill-shapen body, not only larger, but more distorted.” (IV, 7) Through the Yahoo, Swift presents a shocking picture of sin’s irrationality, utter degradation, deformity, and vileness. 

The Houyhnhnms, on the other hand, require neither government nor law. They scarcely know the meaning of sickness and have no concept of a lie or or wickedness. Unlike the Yahoos, who suffer from Original Sin, the Houyhnhnms represent man in a perfect state. Such is his admiration for them. Gulliver explains, “I had not been a year in this country, before I contracted such a love and veneration for the inhabitants, that I entered on a firm resolution never to return to human kind, but to pass the rest of my life among these admirable Houyhnhnms in the contemplation and practice of every virtue; where I could have no example or incitement to vice.” (IV, 7) Despite these wishes, after six years, the Houyhnhnms send him away because it is beneath their dignity to associate with a Yahoo as an equal, lest he taint them.

True to his irrational Yahoo nature, Gulliver ignores his identity with the Yahoo, pretending to be a Houyhnhnm. When he reaches home, he is so horrified by the sight and smell of the English Yahoos and at the vices of which he knows them capable, that he can scarcely bear to look at his wife and children, much less touch or associate with them. Thus, he reveals still more of his Yahoo nature, for as his Houyhnhnm master observed, “the Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned, was, the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves.” (IV, 7)  Because Gulliver is divided from his people, he takes comfort in buying two horses and spends as much time as he can talking and socializing with them.

When confronted with his frailty in Brobdingnag, and with his depravity in Houyhnhnm, Gulliver hides from the truth and learns instead to view himself as something he is not. Reminders of his Yahoo nature upset him terribly. Gulliver wants to perfectly enjoy the pleasure, comfort, and convenience of living in a perfect world, but he wants to do so without acknowledging his sinful nature. Instead of seeking humility and redemption, he escapes from himself and his fellow creatures into the absurdity of a false world.

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Patrick L. Hurd
Weatherford, Texas
PHurdWford@AOL.com

EST. 01/01/01