Gulliver's Travels, An Introduction
Gulliver's Travels is a misanthropic anatomy of human nature; a sardonic looking-glass. It asks its readers to refute it, to deny that it has not adequately characterized human nature and society. Each of the four books has a different theme, but all are attempts to deflate human pride. Book I, written between 1721 and 1725, may reflect the concerns of Swift's own day, and of his own life--it may be a politico-sociological treatise in the form of a satire; a protest against Imperialism and Colonialism; an attack on the corrupt Whig oligarchy which had displaced the Swift's Tories in London--a defence of Tory policies, an attack on the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and on the expensive and bloody trade wars which had accompanied the twelve years of Whig government--but it is also, on a deeper level, a satire on the universal human tendency to abuse political power and authority, to manipulate others and deceive ourselves. It is at once a folk-myth, a children's story, and a misanthrope's gift to mankind: in Lilliput, which is, quite literally, a microcosm, the vices and follies not merely of England but of all mankind are epitomized. Swift points out that when men are six inches tall, their squabbles seem petty, and their pomp and ceremony ridiculous: he leaves it to us to take his point.
The satire in Book IV is darker and more savage: as an evaluation of the human condition, it frightened the wits out of most of the most eminent Victorians, and remains profoundly disturbing today. It suggests that the aspects of our lives of which we are most proud are merely slightly more complex versions of the activities which, when they are engaged in by Yahoos, we recognize as being foul, brutal, and disgusting. In contrasting the Houhbynhynms with the Yahoos, Swift concerns himself, too, with the dichotomy, inherent in all human beings, between reason and unreason; between sanity and madness. He implies that though Man is neither a rational intellect nor, wholly, a passionate beast, neither a Houhynhynm nor a Yahoo, he inclines to the bestial. In this final book Swift seems to despair: for Gulliver, overwhelmed, as perhaps Swift himself was, by a black, misanthropic, despairing vision of reality, the only middle ground left between the dreamy utopia, the ironically "ideal" society of the Houhynhynms, and the abyss of Yahooism seems to be a stable in England. We cannot identify with the Houhynhynms, but we can identify only too well with the Yahoos: the closer we look at them the more horrible, because more identifiably human, they become. Is there a moral to Book IV?
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000