Misredaing Gulliver Essay

2121 words - 9 pages

Misreading Gulliver's TravelsIs Jonathan Swift's famous satire a defence of humanity rather than a condemnation of it?There is a verbal problem which can be confusing for readers of Gulliver's Travels. They have ceaselessly been told, almost from the day on which Swift's novel first appeared, that it was consummately misanthropic; and this was quite true, upon the basis of a certain definition of misanthropy. Moreover, no one has explained this particular definition more clearly than Swift himself. In November 1725, on the eve of the publication of the Travels, he wrote, in a famous letter to Alexander Pope,"When you think of the world give it one lash the more at my request. I have ever ...view middle of the document...

Yet what readers tend also to be told is that the moral system of Houyhnhnms, according to which no value is to be attached to personal affections, and death, whether that of others or one's own, should not be the occasion of any emotion, represents Swift's notion of an ideal civilization. Gulliver's account is perfectly explicit."They [the Houyhnhnms] have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles; but the Care they take in educating them proceedeth entirely from the Dictates of Reason. And I observed my Master [a dapple-grey horse] to shew the same Affection to his Neighbour's issue that he had for his own. They will have it that Nature teaches them to love whole Species, and it is Reason only that maketh a Distinction of Persons, where there is a superior Degree of Virtue . . . . If they can avoid Casualties, they die only of old Age, and are buried in the obscurest Place that can be found, their Friends and Relations expressing neither Joy nor Grief at their Departure, nor does the dying Person discover the least Regret that he is leaving the World."That Swift means us to regard the Houyhnhnms as an ideal contrast to the wayward or sinful behavious of ordinary humanity is plainly false - indeed, frankly, rather absurd. The sooner a reader has cleared his (or her) mind of this idea the better; for it obscures the function that Swift has, in fact, and most ingeniously, assigned to the Houyhnhnms in his scheme. What he presents us with in his Houyhnhnms is an only slightly exaggerated version of the outlook of an early eighteenth-century Deist or devotee of Nature and Reason; and the point that his narrative is making, with steadily increasing force, is that, for a fallible and unwary mortal like Gulliver (or ourselves) an encounter with such rationalizing and Pharisaic doctrines could have a quite lethal effect on our character.There is no good reason to think that the appalling Yahoos are Swift's own nightmare vision of the human race: that they are the figment of an author far gone in sick misanthropy. The human race, or "human nature", as personified in Gulliver, is to be contemplated far more calmly, as up to this point in the novel it has been. The thought that Gulliver may be a Yahoo does not, at first, enter either his or the Houyhnhnms' mind, for the good reason that he wears clothes. But, his body having been seen in its naked state and found to be indistinguishable from a Yahoo's, the idea begins, though for different reasons, to take hold of the minds of both of them. It is a pleasant temptation for Gulliver's "master", the grey horse, to boast of his "wonderful" Yahoo, who really seems to have a spark (of course only a very tiny one) of rationality; and Gulliver, knowing that his master has decided that he is a Yahoo, and being abashed by the grave and dignified manner of the Houyhnhnms, does not have the strength of mind to reject the idea as absurd.It is over this question of Gulliver and Yahoodom that David Nokes in his biography of...

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