[Editor's note: the last article by Mr. Gardner was incorrectly titled as the 4th in his series-it was the 5th.]
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is our subject this time, specifically Gulliver's Travels, his masterpiece. Probably most of my readers, if they know the book at all, have read only the abridged and bowdlerized version of the voyage to Lilliput, intended for children. There are, however, four voyages, and we are going to look closely at three.
It may be remembered that in the first essay about Evelyn Waugh I discussed the innocence of Paul Pennyfeather, the hero of Decline and Fall, as a typical device of satire; it is his naivete that brings out and highlights the knavery and folly around him, and that serves, finally, as the norm, the moral center. Lemuel Gulliver, the narrator and protagonist of his Travels, is a similar figure, but Swift manipulates him in ways that become more and more complex as the book proceeds, implicating the reader in a web of understanding and misunderstanding that profoundly changes our initial view of the book--and Gulliver--as well as our perceptions as we read it. When one considers that Gulliver is the sole narrator of a book that can run, in a modern edition, to 225 pages, it is amazing that Swift created a character who is consistent throughout, who is the constant sport (and sometimes perpetrator) of irony, and who never puts a foot out of place. He is one of the great creations in English literature.
Listen to the first two sentences of the voyage to Lilliput:
My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge, at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies: but the charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty allowance) being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London, with whom I continued four years; and my father now and then sending me small sums of money, I laid them out in learning navigation, and other parts of mathematics, useful to those who intend to travel, as I always believed it would be some time or other my fortune to do.
We learn several material things about Gulliver, but in the course of their accumulation--and this is quite deliberate--we are given a distinct impression of him: an ordinary, middling sort of fellow, earnest and studious, thoroughly prosaic, with a good but not exalted opinion of himself. Swift has created a believable character, and what's more important, one whom we will believe.
There is some topical satire, notably in Chapter Three, caricaturing, via descriptions of Lilliputian customs, the scramble for royal and political favor at home, but Swift soon drops that, and it needn't concern us. What comes across most powerfully is the fascination we feel observing the actions of little people, especially as we identify with Gulliver, which induces a feeling of superiority. So we are amused by his appetite:
There were shoulders, legs and loins shaped like those of mutton, and very well dressed, but smaller than the wings of a lark. I eat them by two or three at a mouthful, and took three loaves at a time, about the bigness of musket bullets. They supplied me as fast as they could, showing a thousand marks of wonder and astonishment at my bulk and appetite.
And also we are amused, and complicit in his condescension to his hosts, by his urination and defecation. At a couple of points we note that the Lilliput experience has gone to Gulliver's head:
. . . I had the honour to be a Nardac, which the Treasurer himself is not; for all the world knows he is only a Clumglum, a title inferior by one degree, as that of a marquis is to a duke in England . . .
If we think about it, Gulliver is being vain and gullible, but there are only three small instances and we are on his side, so we smile and pass on. The first voyage seems quite simple, but when we get to Brobdignag on the second voyage, the location of the moral center will shift, and we will, looking back, notice things about Lilliput we did not see at the time.
In Lilliput Gulliver (and the reader) was twelve times the size of the natives; in Brobdignag the difference is reversed and Gulliver (and the reader) is twelve times smaller than the natives. Swift designedly introduces this condition to Gulliver in a way calculated to emphasize its frightening aspects, forcing us to recognize its full ramifications. So when Gulliver is abandoned on the strange shore by his shipmates, because a "monster" is trying to overtake the boat, and when he explores inland, the size of everything--trees, grass, crops-seems menacing. He spies a farmer and his laborers ("seven monsters") carrying reaping-hooks each "about the largeness of six scythes," from whom he hides, dolefully lamenting his situation, comparing it to his glory days in Lilliput, "whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest prodigy that ever appeared in the world," recognizing the strength of the contrast: ". . . what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us."
He is taken up by the farmer who soon sees Gulliver's commercial potential and takes him around the country, exhibiting him for money throughout his stay in Brobdignag, Gulliver is forced by his situation to behave like a little pet, a manikin, and he is further humiliated by frightening encounters with rats, flies, wasps, a dog, and a monkey. Eventually, the Queen buys Gulliver from the farmer, and he and his protector, Glumdalclitch, the farmer's daughter, are installed in the palace. Compare his description of the queen eating with the earlier quotation about eating in Lilliput. The shoe is on the other foot, and when our point of view shifts, things are not so amusing:
She would craunch the wing of a lark, bones and all, between her teeth, although it were nine times as large as that of a full-grown turkey; and put a bit of bread in her mouth, as big as two twelve-penny loaves. She drank out of a golden cup, above a hogshead at a draught.
Now the norm shifts to the king when he quizzes Gulliver about the laws and customs of Great Britain. Gulliver gives a ludicrously rosy account, funny in itself, but the King asks pointed questions that implicitly vitiate Gulliver's panegyric. Swift's great skill as a satirist is beautifully displayed in these colloquies, as this five part sequence shows. First Gulliver, to ingratiate himself with the King, tells him about gunpowder and its horrific effects ("divide hundreds of bodies in the middle," "dashing out the brains of all who came near") in warfare, and offers him the formula. The King is appalled ("how so impotent and groveling an insect . . . could entertain such inhuman ideas") which sinks him in Gulliver's estimation ("A strange effect of narrow principles and short views!" ". . . a nice unnecessary scruple, whereof in Europe we can have no conception") and leads him to the set-up ("I take this defect . . . to have arisen from their ignorance, by not having . . . reduced politics into a science, as the more acute wits of Europe have done") for the king's triumphant conclusion:
He confined the knowledge of governing within very narrow bounds; to common sense and reason, to justice and lenity, to the speedy determination of civil and criminal causes; with some other obvious topics which are not worth considering. And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.
However brilliantly done, this is the standard stuff of satire. When we look at the voyage as a whole, what is really brilliant is the way Swift has used the size reversal to break down the smug complacency of Book 1 and to show the instability of Gulliver's point of view, which turns out to be dependent on circumstances. His gullibility is more apparent in Book 2 as he plays the part of a manikin, trying to fool the king with his absurd account. Now we know that Gulliver's world is more complex than we imagined, and the whole question of moral judgment is far weightier than we thought when we, along with Gulliver, were so sure of ourselves in Lilliput.
Since Book 3 is a grab-bag of visits to several fabulous places to score satiric points at various targets and is of slight interest, we shall skip it.
Book 4, the voyage to the Houyhnhnms (pronounced "whi-nim," to imitate a horse's neigh) the summit of Swift's achievement, has been badly misunderstood since the rise of Romanticism, with its sentimental strain. Then the genial but clear-eyed realism of the 18th century was disapproved, and by mid-century, when Thackeray wrote a famous diatribe against Book 4, the only satire permitted by the Victorians was vitiated by sentimentality. But with our knowledge of Gulliver, gained over the first two Books, we should be able to find our way.
Hitherto, Gulliver has always landed among recognizably human beings, whatever their size, but now he must find his bearings in a land ruled by horses with savage quasi-humans as their beasts of burden. No wonder, considering his gullibility, that he goes astray almost at once as he falls under the spell of the Houyhnhnms and adopts their view of the Yahoos. The theory advanced by Gulliver's "master" is that the Yahoos are descendants of people shipwrecked there who degenerated over time in a state of nature, a plausible notion in the context of the voyage. But they are not human beings as the horses and Gulliver mean, they are not commensurate with Englishmen in 1727. So far as we can tell, they are more savage than any "savages." Both the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are imaginary constructs, more fabulous than Lilliputians or Brobdignagians. So Gulliver, seeing the horses as superior beings, identifies with them and tries to imitate them. It is not surprising, then, that when he is called upon to give an account of affairs back home, he tells his "master" an exaggeratedly negative story, reversing his behavior with the King of Brobdignag because, he says, seeing the Houyhnhnms' virtues, the faults of mankind seem worse, and in any case he has decided not to return home, ". . . but to pass the rest of my life among the admirable Houyhnhnms in the contemplation and practice of every virtue." Consequently, he makes much of his simple way of life, eating oatcakes and sleeping on straw in a wattle and daub hut, listening avidly ("a humble auditor") to the improving conversation of the horses--in short, being thoroughly, obnoxiously smug.
The Houyhnhnms seem special, of course, because they are reasoning animals, and Swift carries that thought further to make them apostles of the life of reason. He was satirizing a contemporary school of thought, neo-Stoic and Deistic, whose faith in reason was virtually utopian. Gulliver is completely taken in. When he translates Houyhnhnms as "perfection of Nature" (overlooking pride); when he notes their dismissal of the idea that he sailed there (overlooking blind prejudice); when he says they revere nature (overlooking what it presumably did to the Yahoos); when he quotes their condemnation of the clothing of our private parts (overlooking the Eden story and its implications); when he shows how unemotional, how loveless they are as "purely" rational creatures (calling his own grief at the prospect of leaving them "imbecilities of nature") he means us to be favorably impressed.
Ordered to leave the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver builds a boat covered with the "skins of Yahoos," its sail made of "skins of the same animal; but I made use of the youngest I could get, the older being too tough and thick"; then he caulks it with "Yahoo's tallow." Blinded by the supposedly sinless Houyhnhnms in their rational utopia, Gulliver blithely, casually mentions details of his inhumanity. He displays his worst behavior when he reencounters his fellows, first in the person of a Portuguese ship captain who treats Gulliver with extraordinary kindness, generosity, and patience, to whom Gulliver is barely civil, stupidly equating the man with Yahoos. When he meets his family, "the sight of them filled me only with hatred, disgust, and contempt," fainting when his wife ("odious animal") kisses him. At the time of writing, after five years at home, he allows his wife to sit down at dinner with him "at the farthest end of a long table." He continues:
Yet the smell of a Yahoo continuing very offensive, I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves.
All this is bad enough, but the supreme moment of Gulliver's blindness comes just after that when, beginning with one of Swift's wonderful, funny catalogs, he chastises pride:
My reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult if they would be content with those vices and follies only which nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a lawyer, a pickpocket, a colonel, a fool, a lord, a gamester, a politician, a whoremonger, a physician, an evidence, a suborner, an attorney, a traitor, or the like; this is all according to the due course of things; but when I behold a lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.
Then he goes on to praise the Houyhnhnms for their humility, when they and he are positively stuffed with pride, its obvious sign the self-satisfaction that makes them (and Gulliver) so obnoxious. That anyone (including the current Oxford Companion to English Literature) could imagine that Gulliver was Swift's mouthpiece here is a staggering thought. But the Houyhnhnms--antireligious, submoral, believing in nature--could become fashionable nowadays. I recall a woman, besotted with Greenism, declaring vehemently, "Nature is never wrong!"
I have stressed the instability of our image of Gulliver from voyage to voyage, as circumstances push him this way and that, but of course Swift controls the action, and he does this to shake us up, to teach us the great lesson about shifting points of view: humility--as well as about pride, Gulliver's besetting sin, and its disguises. And yet, despite Gulliver's changes, he remains Lemuel Gulliver in our eyes: the misanthrope with tobacco stuffed in his nostrils is the same man who regarded his penis as a fire hose in Lilliput. Think of it: We have been through an amazing fictional experience because although we know very well that none of the voyages took place, that there is no Lilliput, no Brobdignag, no Houyhnhnmland, we believe in Gulliver. *
"Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intelligence." --Dr. Samuel Johnson