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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Reading Assignment:

The reading for this week is an important work of satirical prose by the master ironist Jonathan Swift. We will be looking at what the piece says about human vice and human virtue (in the forms of Yahoos and Houyhnhnms), but I also want to investigate how the effects are achieved. Toward that end -- the analysis that follows observation -- we will discuss the form of satire and the methods involved.

I've entitled the section "Virtue and Knowledge -- Limits of Reason" and this is the first of a couple of works that will begin to investigate that great eighteenth-century ideal: reason. Begin to answer the questions: what are its benefits and what are its limitations? Furthermore, explore the website to glimpse some of the other fascinating information on Gulliver's Travels.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


Review the definition of satire offered in the notes for MacFlecknoe. We can understand satire as a mode of painting a distorted verbal picture of part of the world, blending censorious attitude with wit and humor, in order to improve some aspect of humanity. Some critics insist that satire includes historical particulars of or regarding the target of ridicule.

Swift's satire has several distinct features that we need to understand: fable or narrative, defamiliarization and persona.

The primary means of distortion is through Gulliver's narrative of an imaginative journey. In this story, we read about speaking horses and incoherent brutish humans. The fiction includes details that distort reality in a way that calls attention to their meaning. We ask, what is the significance of the race of virtuous Houyhnhnms and vicious Yahoos? What does it mean for Gulliver to be amazed at first by this world and then to gradually acclimate and internalize its values? What does it mean for Gulliver to have to leave, and to depart in a ship made of Yahoo skin? The story, though fabulous, conveys a series of meaningful points; however, we are also asked to interpret the satirical significance of the tale as a distortion of reality. What comment does this make about the normal course of events? How are we to understand the satiric vision it projects?

Gulliver's narrative relies a great deal on a technique known as defamiliarization. In this process, a writer draws attention to the signficance of everyday behaviors or attributes by presenting them as unfamiliar. In this case, human virtue -- here, reason -- is represented in the unfamiliar presence of talking, ruling, civilized horses, while human vice is represented in the form of disgusting, ignorant, criminal beasts shaped like humans. What aspects of reason are highlighted by this description? What aspects of vice? Another example of the way a satirist uses defamiliarization is seen in Gulliver's description of English practices to the Houyhnhnms. What happens to common notions of war or government when Gulliver explains them to an unknowing audience? What aspects are highlighted?

Finally, the persona of Gulliver is a significant medium for Swift's satire. By creating this fictional voice, Swift is removed from the voice of the work and adopts a persona through which he can criticize his world. Obviously this allows him freedom to impugn the guilty and pillory the foolish. But the persona can be difficult for the reader to interpret. At what points does Swift enter the voice and offer the reader direct insights? At what points does Gulliver's character mediate the "truth" being represented? Gulliver's character has limitations, and his perspective as the narrator (writer) of the Travels is similarly limited. It is our job to decide what character flaws or blindspots impede Gulliver's judgment. When do we believe Gulliver? When does Gulliver himself become the object of satire?

Questions on the text:


How does Gulliver describe the creatures that he encounters-- the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms? In what ways are his former conceptions of humans and horses challenged by what he sees? What is the significance of what Gulliver learns?

What is Gulliver's reaction to being considered a Yahoo? What are the implications of this reaction? Of the similarity?

"Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at that time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in that country" (Chapter 2). Gulliver's revulsion forms the basis of his intense misanthropy -- a charge levelled at Swift as well. To what extent is it normal for Gulliver to react to the Yahoos this way? To what extent is it problematic?

By chapter 3 Gulliver begins to accept the customs and beliefs of the Houyhnhnms. What evidence can you find for his steady acclimation?

Note how Gulliver's master interprets Gulliver's tale of England and its Yahoo rulers in Chapter Four. What is the point of this evaluation? What does the Houyhnhnm see that Gulliver cannot? What are the implications for the meaning of the text?

Evaluate the notion of "saying the thing that is not." What role does language play in the Houyhnhnm world? What are the benefits of such communication? What are the drawbacks?

Compare this view of the function of language with Gulliver's apology for rendering the Houyhnhnm's speech into "our Barbarous English" (Chapter 5).

Note how Gulliver's disscussion of war and law and the prime minister (Chapters 5 and 6) allow Swift to directly criticize the policies of his country. How does the fable, defamiliarization and persona contribute to this historically specific satire? In what ways does Swift's characterization apply to modern times? What is the point of this particular satire on the state of England?

Chapter Seven relates Gulliver's decision never to lie again and never to return to humankind. What are the implications of these conclusions? What do they indicate about Gulliver's education with the Houyhnhnms?

What are the implications of the Master's comparison between the Yahoos and Gulliver's society?

In chapter 8 we get a closer glimpse of the Yahoos. How are they depicted? What are their characteristics? In contrast, what does Gulliver relate about the society of the Houyhnhnms? What are their virtues?

What does reason dictate regarding reproduction? What does reason dictate regarding education of the species? By the end of this chapter, what evidence do you find of the Houyhnhnm's limitations?

Chapter 9 covers the grand debate at the General Assembly. What is their primary question? How does reason respond? To what extent is this a valid response? What weaknesses do you see?

Reason is rarely the foremost quality in art, and it is frequently at odds with the mysteries of religion. How does Gulliver describe their poetry? their burial rites?

In Chapter ten, note the use of cataloguing here and with the earlier list of criminals. What is the effect of listing all the types of people he does not miss? Why is the list so long? Who does he include? What do they have in common? What does this reveal about Gulliver?

"When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition" (Chapter 10). To what extent is Gulliver correct in his assessment? What does this indicate about his state of mind?

To what extent does the form of the being equate with the character of the being? What are Gulliver's limitations as a narrator? What has he really learned from the virtues of the Houyhnhnms?

Examine the following details to suggest their significance in the satire:

the Yahoo skins Gulliver uses to build his canoe;

the character and reaction of the ship captain, Pedro de Mendez;

his reaction to his family upon returning home;

his preference for communion with his horses-- after five years;

his closing note that he writes for the edification of his audience.


Gulliver's Travels became Jonathan Swift's most well-known work, and it was generally received well by those contemporaries who agreed with its politics and treated negatively by those who were in opposition. However, the fourth book was by far the most controversial, and many early readers were deeply offended by the "debasement of human nature" in the depiction of the Yahoos. Observe some of these eighteenth-century reactions:

Warburton: "Seriously, let it be as they say, that Ridicule and Satire are the Supplement of publick Laws; should not then, the Ends of both be the same: the Benefit of Mankind? But where is the sense of a general Satire, if the whole Species be degenerated? And where is the Justice of it, if it be not? The Punishment of Lunaticks is as wise as the one; and a general Execution as honest as the other. In short, a general Satire, the work only of ill Men or little Genius's, was proscrib'd of Old, both by the Critic and the Magistrate, as an offence equally against the Justice and Common Sense" (Williams, Swift: The Critical Heritage 72).

Another anonymous writer says of Book Four: "In this long tedious Part the Reader loses all that might have been engaging to him in the three former; the Capacity and Character given there of Brutes are so unnatural; and especially the great Preheminence asserted of them, to the most virtuous and noble of Humane Nature, is so monstrously absurd and unjust, that 'tis with the utmost Pain a generous Mind must endure the Recital; a man grows sick at the shocking things inserted there; his Gorge rises; he is not able to conceal his Resentment; and closes the Book with Detestation and Disappointment" (Williams 67).

Lord Orrery, Swift's biographer, writes in 1752: "It is with great reluctance, I shall make some remarks on Gulliver's voyage to the Houyhnhnms. In this last part of his imaginary travels Swift has indulged a misanthropy that is intolerable. The representation which he has given us of human nature, must terrify, and even debase the mind of the reader who views it. His allies of wit and humour lose all their force, nothing remaining but a melancholy, and disagreeable impression: and, as I have said to you, on other parts of his works, we are disgusted, not entertained; we are shocked, not instructed by the fable. I should therefore chuse to take no notice of his YAHOOS, did I not think it necessary to assert the vindication of human nature, and thereby, in some measure, to pay my duty to the great author of our species, who has created us in a very fearful, and a very wonderful manner" (Williams 126)

Why are these reviewers so shocked by Swift's portrayal of human viciousness? Might he have nicked the pride that he so wanted to humble? Or are these complaints legitimate, and Swift's satire completely overdone and contemptible?

A later critic of Gulliver's Travels, Thomas Sheridan, points to Swift's depiction of the debased creature, the Yahoo, as the primary cause of Swift's being labeled a misanthropist. He, however, is the first to understand the artistic and moral design of the last book, which emphasizes "the dignity and perfection of man's nature" and points "out the way by which it may be attained" (Williams 18).

Sheridan argues that in the first three books Swift shows mankind in its actual mixture of 'vices, follies, and absurdities' but not without some mixture of virtue.

In the fourth book Swift wholly separates virtue from vice -- putting virtue with the rational soul of humanity into the body of a horse, while he retains unadulterated vice in the figure of the human, albeit debased. Swift always distinguishes Yahoos from humans, just as he distinguishes the Houyhnhnms from horses. "The fourth voyage is not a degrading of man, but a lesson to him. The Yahoo is no more a man than a Houyhnhnm is a horse" (19).

What, then, is the point of Swift's satire?

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