ENL 6236: Restoration and
Civility and the Public Sphere
Nov. 15: Swift and the Exposure of Civility
With these two prose works by Swift, we encounter the rage and misanthropy of the arch
ironist and Juvenalian satirist of the Augustan age. Holman and Harmon identify "Juvenalian"
satire as that "in which the speaker attacks vice and error with contempt and indignation" (282 7th
edition). The aim is to make the reader angry, as opposed to Horatian satire, which produce
a wry smile. (Much of Pope's satire is Horatian: the "voice is indulgent, tolerant,
amused, and witty" [253 7th edition]).
One question we might pose as we consider Swift's satire is "at what cost civility?"
Both A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels book four illustrate problems
of corrupt human nature and Britain's unique political and economic state while
acknowledging the "advancements" that culture has produced. Draw on your reading from
O'Gorman to fill out the picture and to understand the historical contexts (and audiences)
for these works.
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
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
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
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?
On one level, A Modest Proposal is a superb example of irony and
controlled rage. On another level, it documents the colonial history of
Ireland and the desperation of its inhabitants. On yet another level, it
sounds a chord of humanitarianism that continues to be significant in this
world of haves and have-nots. What is the impact of this piece for you as a reader?
As with Gulliver Travels, Swift adopts a persona in this essay with definite
limitations in judgment. You can address the same questions on persona here:
What character flaws or blindspots impede the projector’s judgment?
When do we believe the projector? When does the projector himself become the object
Swift lets the mask of the persona slip at several points in the essay:
where does Swift’s genuine sentiment emerge?
What are the assumptions behind the projector’s reckoning of so many human souls
in monetary terms, particularly within a context of slavery and colonialism.
In what ways does Swift suggest that the public sphere and life of civilization
is dependent upon a commerce in people?
As you read, gauge your sympathy for the projector’s cause (if not his solution)
throughout the piece, and spend time analyzing the list of actual expedients
that Swift ironically introduces at the end. What keeps Ireland from
adopting these more humane expedients?
In what sense does the essay make literal the metaphor that the English are
devouring the Irish? What is the relationship between the metaphoric devouring
and the literal starvation of the Irish people?
Discuss the brutality of the imagery (for example, “dressing them hot from the knife”).
To what extent is this effective? Why?
Why is the comparison between the economic state of Ireland and the
cannibalism of infants appropriate?
What is the moral purpose of Swift’s satire?
Who is Swift’s audience for the satire?
Are there modern parallels for which the satire would be applicable?
Based on these two writing, evaluate Swift's satire. What common themes do the
two works share? What does Swift suggest about human nature?
Compare Swift's view of human nature with that expressed by Addison in the essay on
the Scale of Being. How might you explain the differences?
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