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AccueilNuméros18.21. Letters to SwiftIV/ Critical EssayGulliver and the Gentle Reader


Dans cette anatomie de l’animal humain que constituent les Voyages de Gulliver, la satire est particulièrement radicale, générale et violente. Dans les trois premiers livres, elle attaque de manière conventionnelle les humains pour ce qu’ils font, mais à la fin du livre III et tout au long du livre IV, les humains sont attaqués pour ce qu’ils sont. Dès le début, le lecteur est pris à contrepied par l’intimité étonnamment querelleuse que manifeste le récit, et une instabilité dans le registre de l’ironie qui évolue en permanence. L’éloge de l’humanité énoncé par le naïf Gulliver, tout comme sa condamnation démente dans le dernier livre, sont tous deux distincts de la voix implicite du satiriste, qui se laisse constamment percevoir. Mais le lecteur est laissé dans l’incertitude quant au degré et au ton exacts de cette distinction. Tout en sachant que les détails des diatribes furieuses de Gulliver sont nourris par les éléments factuels du récit, la nature déséquilibrée de la voix du narrateur doit être écartée, dans la mesure où elle s’inscrit dans le style de Timon, que Swift a explicitement désavoué dans une lettre célèbre adressée à son ami Pope. Le lecteur se retrouve donc dépourvu du confort et de la position avantageuse d’une dénonciation extrême qui pourrait être rejetée en se désarmant elle-même, précisément parce que la voix du satiriste implicite est détachée du personnage. Ceci relève de ce que Swift voulait dire quand il a expliqué à Pope que l’histoire était destinée à tourmenter le monde plutôt qu’à le divertir.

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  • 1 This essay is a revised version of the title essay of a book of the same name first published by Ro (...)
  • 2 See also I.32.

1‘’Tis a great Ease to my Conscience that I have writ so elaborate and useful a Discourse without one grain of Satyr intermixt’ [Works I.29 ]2. This, from the Preface to A Tale of a Tub, outdoes even Gulliver’s claims to veracity in its cheeky outrageousness. That ‘provocative display of indirectness’ which Herbert Read (in a fine though somewhat unfriendly phrase) saw in Gulliver governs also the mad parodic world of the Tale [Read 127]. The seven prefatory items followed by an Introduction, the signposted chapters of digression (one of them in praise of digressions), the pseudo-scholarly annotation (with the ‘commentator’ sometimes at odds with the ‘author’), the triumphant assimilation into the notes of Wotton’s hostile exegesis, the asterisks and gaps in the MS., the promise of such forthcoming publications as A Panegyrick upon the World and A General History of Ears, have an exuberance which transcends mere parody and mere playfulness. In such a context, the posturing denial of satiric intention draws a provoking and almost unsettling attention to itself. We have not yet reached the sudden violences, and the more radical underminings, of the religious allegory or the Digression on Madness, but we are made curiously insecure as to how, exactly, to take the joke.

  • 3 Tristram Shandy, IV.x; IX.viii.

2Nor can we comfortably separate, in our minds, the silly geniality of the putative ‘author’ from Swift’s own more astringent presence. Typically, we become aware of a strange interplay of astringency and exuberance, in which it is not always easy to distinguish between narrator and real author. The narrator, or mock-author, is a creature of mad and monstrous egotism, who confides his private problems and draws garrulous attention to his literary techniques. But the Tale’s whole marathon of self-posturing cannot be entirely accounted for by its ostensible purpose, which is to mock those modern authors, ‘L’estrange, Dryden, and some others’ (Tale, 1) [Works 42n], who write this sort of book straight. For the Tale has at the same time a vitality of sheer performance which suggests that a strong self-conscious pressure of primary self-display on Swift’s own part is also at work; the almost ‘romantic’ assertion of an immense (though edgy, oblique, and aggressively self-concealing) egocentricity. Swift’s descendants in the old game of parodic self-consciousness are Romantics of a special sort, like Sterne and (after him) the Byron of Don Juan. If the Tale’s ‘Digression in Praise of Digressions’ looks back to, and mocks, things like L’Estrange’s ‘Preface upon a Preface’ [Rosenheim 62], it also looks forward to Sterne’s ‘chapter upon chapters’, and it is not for nothing that Tristram thinks his book will ‘swim down the gutter of Time’ in the company of Swift’s3.

  • 4 For a most useful survey of this ‘self-conscious’ mode of writing, see Wayne C. Booth, ‘The self-co (...)

3Whatever the ancestry of the technical devices as such, the parodic intrusions of Swift’s ‘authors’ have a centrality and importance, and are made by Swift to carry a strength of personal charge, which seem to be new4. In Sterne and Byron, and in the Norman Mailer of Advertisements for Myself (1959), self-conscious forms of parody and self-parody openly become a solipsistic exercise, an oblique mode of self-exploration and self-display much more radical and far-reaching than the playful posturings of Cervantes or Burton, or even Rabelais. Compare the fact that Swift’s Tale is a satire of advertisements for oneself not only with the title of Mailer’s book, but with the fact that Mailer’s ‘advertisements’ are exactly the kind of prefatory note and solipsistic digression which Swift parodies. Mailer’s coy description of his practice and motives might almost be taken from the Tale, with its ‘admirable desire to please his readers’, its typographic self-consciousness, its acknowledgement of the superior attraction of prefaces over the books themselves [Mailer 7]:

The author, taken with an admirable desire to please his readers, has also added a set of advertisements, printed in italics, which surround all of these writings with his present tastes, preferences, apologies, prides, and occasional confessions. Like many another literary fraud, the writer has been known on occasion to read the Preface of a book instead of a book, and bearing this vice in mind, he tried to make the advertisements more readable than the rest of his pages.

4It might be argued that Mailer has reached a point where irony, or at least any very fundamental degree of self-mockery, has largely disappeared, and that he provides an impure comparison. Perhaps this fact shows a fortiori the special potential of Swiftian parody for turning into a primary self-assertion. In Sterne, where the outward forms of mockery and self-mockery are still almost as prominent as in Swift, and where the style looks back to Swift most directly and avowedly, there is a more immediate guide to certain ‘unofficial’ aspects of Swift’s manner.

  • 5 It is noteworthy that in some of his private correspondence with Stella, Swift frequently used what (...)

5Swift has in common with Sterne, against most pre-Swiftian practitioners of ‘self-conscious narration’, the imposition of an exceptional immediacy of involvement with the reader. The narrators are not, of course, the equivalents of Swift or even Sterne: but each is an ‘I’ of whose existence and temperament we are kept unremittingly aware, who talks to the reader and seems to be writing the book, and through whom the real author projects a very distinctive presence of his own. Swift and Sterne also share a kind of intimate, inward-looking obliquity which sets them off, say, from their master Rabelais, who like them projects a formidable presence, but whose boozy companionable exhibitionism amounts to an altogether different (and more ‘open’) manner. This obliquity (more or less instinctive in Swift, more coyly self-aware in Sterne) perhaps takes the place of an overt self-expression which Augustan decorum, and whatever personal inhibitions, discouraged5.

  • 6 Here again Swift is prepared privately to practise the things whose public manifestation he reprove (...)
  • 7 Richardson, Preface to Sir Charles Grandison.
  • 8 Tristram Shandy,

6There are, however, important differences also. When Swift’s ‘author’ declares in his Dedication to Prince Posterity that ‘what I am going to say is literally true this Minute I am writing: What Revolutions may happen before it shall be ready for your Perusal, I can by no means warrant’ [Works I. 22]6, Swift is exposing the trivial ephemerality of modern writers. Similar remarks from Sterne (or, without any ironic admixture, from Richardson) proudly proclaim the immediacy of their method of writing ‘to the Moment7. Swift’s mimicry repudiates that intimacy between author and reader which Sterne and Richardson celebrate, but it does not cancel such intimacy, as I shall hope to show. Again, when Swift’s ‘author’ proclaims in the Preface his determination ‘to assist the diligent Reader’ in ‘putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen’, so that there may be ‘a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author’ [Works I.27], Swift is attacking modern garrulities of self-revelation which for him amount to indecent exposure. In Sterne such remarks, however fraught with all manner of Shandean indirection, are genially proffered tokens of relationship. Tristram wants to tell you everything about himself, because he and Sterne enjoy his character (including the irony injected into it by Sterne, and of which Sterne’s parodic performance is a part) as a rich fact of human nature. Both want to get the reader intimately involved:8

As you proceed farther with me, the slight acquaintance, which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.—O diem praeclarum!—then nothing which has touched me will be thought trifling in its nature or tedious in its telling.

7The difference is not simply a matter of parody, for that exists in Sterne too. Swift’s ‘author’, like Sterne’s, often addresses the reader and invokes ‘all the Friendship that hath passed between Us’. At the end of the Tale, he has no more to say but thinks of experimenting on how to go on writing ‘upon Nothing’, ‘to let’ (in a phrase Sterne might have used) ‘the Pen still move on’:

By the Time that an Author has writ out a Book, he and his Readers are become old Acquaintance, and grow very loth to part: So that I have sometimes known it to be in Writing, as in Visiting, where the Ceremony of taking Leave, has employ’d more Time than the whole Conversation before. [Works I.131, 133]

8Neither this, nor Sterne’s passage, is quite straight. That both are in some sense ironic need not be laboured. But Sterne’s irony is of that puppyish, clinging sort which prods, cajoles, sometimes irritates the reader into a participation which may be reluctant and grudging, but which is also primary, direct and real. Swift’s words assert the same intimacy, but the actual effect of the Swiftian acidity at the end of the ‘author’s’ innocent sentence would appear to be to sever the link, to achieve not intimacy but an alienation. Sterne’s irony is one of fond permissive indulgence; the egotism, though mocked, is freely played with, and the reader offered hospitality within it. In Swift’s characteristic sting, the friendly egotism freezes into a stark reminder of the fact of mockery or parody of egotism, and (more than parody though by way of it) the claim to friendship with the reader becomes a kind of insulting denial.

9But this denial is not an effacement of Swift, nor a suspension of the reader’s close sense of his presence. The parody is charged with a peculiarly personal quality of tart defiance (that ‘self-assertion’ of which Leavis speaks in his essay on Swift) [Leavis 80], which seems to differentiate it from more normal modes of parody, whose formal business it is to mock books. It is a truism that Swiftian parody, like that of many writers who choose to make their most serious statements about life through the medium of allusions to books, is usually more than parody in that, in various directions, it transcends parody’s limiting relation to the works parodied. A Modest Proposal is both more and other than a mockery of those economic proposals whose form it adopts. The real concern is with matters with which the parodic element as such has no necessary connection: the state of Ireland (rather than economic projectors) in the Modest Proposal, human pride (rather than popular travel-writing) in Gulliver. The problem sometimes arises of just where the dominant focus lies: a parodic energy may blur a more central intention, and there may be a hiatus between a local parodic effect and the main drift of the discourse. An aspect of this, to which I shall return briefly, is that teasing fluctuation, or bewildering uncertainty, of genre which critics have noted in some of Swift’s works, and which gives a curious precariousness to the reader’s grasp of what is going on. This has an undermining effect which is, in some ways, closely related to the more definite acts of authorial aggression. Beyond the truism that the satire’s principal concerns transcend parody stands a further, more disturbing truth: that the nonparodic concerns are themselves transcended by energies which are much less easy to pin down, because they are not ‘official’ or overt.

10The Tale differs in a formal sense from the Modest Proposal and Gulliver in that the ‘modernity’ which it attacks finds one of its main symptoms in the kind of book that is being parodied, so that the congruence between parody and the ‘real’ subject is particularly close. Even so, it would be wrong to suggest that this ‘real’ subject is merely a matter of silly or offensive stylistic habits, like garrulousness or digressiveness. The cumulative effect of the Tale’s formidable parodic array is to convey a sense of intellectual and cultural breakdown so massive and so compelling that the parodied objects, as such, come to seem a minor detail. This in no case makes the parody expendable. The manner of the hack-author, bland proposer, or truthful boneheaded traveller are essential to the effects Swift is creating, and not merely as means of highlighting satiric intensities through disarming naïveties of style. My last example from the Tale shows how parody of friendly gestures from author to reader not only mocks modern garrulousness and all the intellectual slovenliness that goes with it (as well as capturing incidentally a typical social absurdity), but puts the reader himself under attack. This ‘satire of the second person’, in H. W. Sams’s useful phrase [Sams 36-44], is not primarily a matter of satirizing the reader, but of making him uncomfortable in another sense, as a person we are rude to is made uncomfortable. Swift, as much as Sterne, is reaching out to the reader, and the alienation I spoke of does not in fact eliminate intimacy, though it destroys ‘friendship’. There is something in Swift’s relations with his reader that can be described approximately in terms of the edgy intimacy of a personal quarrel that does not quite come out into the open, with gratuitous-seeming sarcasms on one side and a defensive embarrassment on the other. Such a description can only be a half-truth. And, like many of the examples I shall be discussing, the passage is much lighter than any account of it can be. It is a joke (a good one), and playful. But it is attacking play, and its peculiar aggressiveness is a quality which I believe to be not merely incidental but pervasive in Swift’s major satires.

11This aggressiveness towards the reader is what chiefly distinguishes Swift from the later writers to whom he can be compared, and who imitate him or are prefigured in his work. It takes many forms, and is not confined to contexts of parody. In the Tale, however, parody cannot help being closely involved, and Swift’s determined and naked hostility to the targets of his parody has several immediate consequences which differentiate his effects from those of similar passages in Sterne or Mailer. The primacy of the parodic element diverts formal attention (as distinct from our informal sense of Swift’s teasing and often explosive presence) away from Swift to his satiric victims. The parody prevents by this means that unSwiftian note of self-cherishing which sometimes creeps into Sterne’s, or Mailer’s, use of ‘self-conscious’ mannerisms and other ‘modern’ postures, and correspondingly discourages easy complicities in the reader, without freeing the reader from an awkward sense of relationship. But whether parody is present or not, the aggression I speak of is usually quite inescapable in Swift’s satire. What is involved is not necessarily a ‘rhetoric’ or thought-out strategy, so much as an atmosphere or perhaps an instinctive tone. This is not to mistake Swift for his masks, but to say that behind the screen of indirections, ironies, and putative authors a central Swiftian personality is always actively present, and makes itself felt.


  • 9 Irvin Ehrenpreis, The Personality of Jonathan Swift, London, 1958, p. 39, on A Beautiful Young Nymp (...)
  • 10 For an amusing passage about indoor against outdoor defecation, see ‘A Panegyrick on the D—n’, line (...)

12Consider a scatological passage in Gulliver. I do not wish to add here to the available theories about scatology and body-disgust as such. Psychoanalysts have examined it; C. S. Lewis says, sturdily, that it is ‘much better understood by schoolboys than by psychoanalysts’ [Lewis 1]; another critic says the ‘simplest answer is that as a conscientious priest [Swift] wished to discourage fornication’9; others say that Swift was just advocating cleanliness, mocking the over-particularity of travel-writers, or doing no more any way than other writers in this or that literary tradition. But most people agree that there is a lot of it, and it has been a sore point from the start. Swift knew it, and knew that people knew, and early in book I he has a characteristic way of letting us know he knows we know (I.ii.29). Gulliver had not relieved himself for two days, and tells us how in his urgency he now did so inside his Lilliputian house. But he assures us that on future occasions he always did ‘that Business in open Air’, and that the ‘offensive Matter’ was disposed of ‘every Morning before Company came’ by two Lilliputian servants10. Gulliver thinks the ‘candid Reader’ needs an explanation, so he tells us why he tells us this:

I would not have dwelt so long upon a Circumstance, that perhaps at first Sight may appear not very momentous; if I had not thought it necessary to justify my Character in Point of Cleanliness to the World; which I am told, some of my Maligners have been pleased, upon this and other Occasions, to call in Question.

  • 11 William King, Some Remarks on the Tale of a Tub (1704) cited by Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art (...)
  • 12 The tartness of these jokes in Gulliver may be contrasted with the protracted and elaborate geniali (...)

13It is Gulliver and not Swift who is speaking, but it is Swift and not Gulliver who (in any sense that is active at this moment) has had maligners. Gulliver does have enemies in Lilliput, notably after urinating on the palace-fire, but the reader does not know this yet, and it is difficult not to sense behind Gulliver’s self-apology a small egocentric defiance from the real author. This would be true whether one knew him to be Swift or not: but it comes naturally from the Swift whose writings, and especially A Tale of a Tub, had been accused of ‘Filthiness’, ‘Lewdness’, ‘Immodesty’, and of using ‘the Language of the Stews’ (Swift called it being ‘battered with Dirt-Pellets’ from ‘envenomed … Mouths’)11. Swift’s trick consists of doing what he implies people accuse him of, and saying that this proves he isn’t like that really: the openly implausible denial becomes a cheeky flaunting of the thing denied, a tortuously barefaced challenge. This self-conscious sniping at the reader’s poise occurs more than once: a variant instance of mock-friendly rubbing-in, for the ‘gentle Reader’s’ benefit, occurs at the end of II.i, where the particularity of travel-writers is part of the joke12.

  • 13 For other satirical treatments of the papal ceremony, see Tale, IV (Works, I.71), and Rabelais I.ii (...)

14A related non-scatological passage, which Thackeray praised as ‘the best stroke of humour, if there be a best in that abounding book’ [Thackeray 32], is Gulliver’s final farewell to his Houyhnhnm master, whose hoof he offers to kiss, as in the papal ceremony13. (Gulliver seems to have leanings that way: he also wanted to kiss the Queen of Brobdingnag’s foot, but she just held out her little finger—II.iii.101.) ‘But as I was going to prostrate myself to kiss his Hoof, he did me the Honour to raise it gently to my Mouth. I am not ignorant how much I have been censured for mentioning this last Particular’ (IV.x.282). Since the passage occurs in the first edition, Gulliver or Swift could hardly have been censured for mentioning this before. ‘Detractors’ would be presumed by the reader to object that human dignity was being outraged, and Swift was of course right that many people would feel this about his book in general. But this is not Gulliver’s meaning at all, and the typical Swiftian betrayal that follows gains its real force less from mere surprise than from its cool poker-faced fanning of a reader’s hostility which Swift obviously anticipated and actually seemed on the point of trying to allay: ‘Detractors are pleased to think it improbable, that so illustrious a Person should descend to give so great a Mark of Distinction to a Creature so inferior as I. Neither have I forgot, how apt some Travellers are to boast of extraordinary Favours they have received. But …’. Thackeray’s praise (‘audacity’, ‘astounding gravity’, ‘truth topsy-turvy, entirely logical and absurd’) comes just before the famous ‘filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene’ passage [Thackeray 34-35]: it is perhaps appropriate that such coarse over-reaction should be the counterpart to a cheerful complacency in the face of the subtler energies of Swift’s style.

  • 14 Real concealment seemed a necessity, with such a subversive book, though Pope told Swift on 16 Nove (...)
  • 15 Horace Odes III xi 35.

15The mention of travellers in the hoof-kissing passage brings us back to parody, but emphasizes again how readily Swiftian parody serves attacking purposes which are themselves non-parodic. Edward Stone’s view that this reference is proof that Swift is merely joking at the expense of boastful travellers misses most of the flavour of the passage [Stone 374n]. (One might as easily say that the main or only point of the passage is to guy a papal rite. I do not, of course, deny these secondary jokes, or their piquancy.) But parody is important, almost as much in its way as in the Tale. Gulliver is an author, who announces forthcoming publications about Lilliput (I.iv.47-8; and Houyhnhnmland (IV.ix.275)—which is a common enough device—and whose putative authorship of the work we are actually reading, as well as being the source of many of its most central ironies, enables Swift to flaunt his own self-concealment in some amusing and disconcerting ways.14 A portrait of Gulliver was prefixed to the early editions, and in 1735 this acquired the teasing caption ‘Splendide Mendax’15. The elaborate claims to veracity in ‘The Publisher to the Reader’ and in the text itself gain an additional piquancy from this. The 1735 edition also prints for the first time Gulliver’s letter to Sympson, which, as prefatory epistles go, is a notably unbalanced document, providing advance notice of Gulliver’s later anti-social state and by the same token giving a disturbing or at least confusing dimension to the sober opening pages of the narrative. Gulliver’s announcement in the letter that Brobdingnag should have been spelt Brobdingrag (p. 8) belongs to a familiar kind of authenticating pretence in both fiction and prose satire, but in so far as we remember it later it does make it slightly unsettling to read Brobdingnag with an n every time it occurs in the book. It is clear that these devices, though not meant to be believed, are not bids for verisimilitude in the manner, say, of Richardson’s ‘editorial’ pretence or the countless other tricks of fiction-writers before and after Swift (the correcting footnote, the manuscript partly missing or lost, the discovered diary, the pseudo-biography). Nor are they quite a matter of pure hearty fun, as in Rabelais, meant to be enjoyed precisely as too outrageous to be believed. For one thing, Swift’s celebrated ‘conciseness’ is too astringent. It is also too close to the idiom of sober factuality, and some people were literally taken in.

  • 16 See also Mario M. Rossi and Joseph M. Hone, Swift or the Egotist, London, 1934, pp. 330, 411.
  • 17 See Ricardo Quintana, Swift: An Introduction, London, 1962, pp. 53 ff., 158 f.

16We are hardly expected to take Gulliver’s Travels as a straight (even if possibly mendacious) travel story. But the sea captain who claimed to be ‘very well acquainted with Gulliver, but that the printer had Mistaken, that he livd in Wapping, & not in Rotherhith’, the old gentleman who searched for Lilliput on the map, the Irish Bishop who said the ‘Book was full of improbable lies, and for his part, he hardly believed a word of it’ [Correspondence III.180, 189]16 (though some of these readers may have been more ben trovati than real) do tell a kind of truth about the work. Swift’s whole ironic programme depends on our not being taken in by the travel-book element, but it does require us to be infected with a residual uncertainty about it; and these instances of an over-successful hoax fulfil, extremely, a potential in the work to which all readers must uneasily respond. This is not to accept the simpler accounts of Swiftian betrayal, which suggest that the plain traveller’s, or modest proposer’s, factuality lulls the reader into a false credulity, and then springs a trap. With Swift, we are always on our guard from the beginning (I believe this is true of sensitive first readings as well as later ones), and what surprises us is not the fact of betrayal but its particular form in each case. But if we are on our guard, we do not know what we are guarding against. The travel-book factuality, to which we return at least at the beginning and end of each book (even the end of book IV, in its strange way, sustains and elaborates the pretence), is so insistent, and at its purest so lacking in obvious pointers to a parodic intention, that we really do not know exactly how to take it. What saves the ordinary reader from being totally taken in is, obviously, the surrounding context. (The very opening of the narrative, from the 1735 edition onwards, is coloured by the letter to Sympson: but even before 1735 one would have needed to be exceptionally obtuse to think, by the end of the first chapter, that one was still reading a travel-book.) But not being taken in, and knowing the plain style to be parodic, do not save us from being unsure of what is being mocked: travel-books, fictions posing as travel-books, philosophic tales (like Gulliver itself) posing as fictions posing as travel-books17. Bewilderment is increased by the uncertainty of how much weight to give, moment by moment, to the fact of parody as such and to whatever the style may be mocking, since the parody as we have seen is continuously impregnated with satiric purposes which transcend or exist outside it, but which may still feed on it in subtle ways. And we cannot be sure that some of the plainness is not meant to be taken straight, not certainly as factual truth, but (in spite of everything) momentarily as realistic fictional trimmings: at least, the style helps to establish the ‘character’ of the narrator, though this ‘character’ in turn has more life as the basis of various ironies than as a vivid fictional personality. No accurate account can exhaust the matter, or escape an element of giddy circularity. The proper focus for Swift’s precise sober narrative links is paradoxically a blurred focus, because we do not know what to make of all the precision. The accumulation of unresolved doubt that we carry into our reading of more central parts of Gulliver’s Travels creates, then, not a credulity ripe for betrayal, but a more continuous defensive uneasiness. This undermining of our nervous poise makes us peculiarly vulnerable, in more than the obvious sense, to the more central satiric onslaughts.

  • 18 Rabelais, II.xxviii, et passim; Lucian, True Story, I.2 ff.; Butler, Erewhon, ch. ix ad fin.

17The parodic element, though not primary, is never abandoned. At the end of book IV, when any live interest in travel-writers may be thought to have totally receded in the face of more overwhelming concerns, Gulliver keeps the subject alive with some tart reminders of his truthfulness and the mendacity of other travellers. The practice is commonplace, but again there is nothing here either of Rabelais’s friendly outrageousness as he refers to his ‘histoire tant veridicque’, or his or Lucian’s correspondingly frank admission that they are telling monstrous lies, or the honest workmanlike concern with verisimilitude that we find in, say, Erewhon18. Gulliver says:

THUS, gentle Reader, I have given thee a faithful History of my Travels for Sixteen Years, and above Seven Months; wherein I have not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth. I could perhaps like others have astonished thee with strange improbable Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style; because my principal Design was to inform, and not to amuse thee. (IV.xii.291)

  • 19 ‘Democritus Junior to the Reader’, Anatomy of Melancholy, London and New York, Everyman’s Library, (...)
  • 20 Contrast Gulliver’s use of this convention: ‘I never suffer a Word to pass that may look like Refle (...)

18This passage, which belongs with the well-known (and perhaps somewhat more light-hearted) remark to Pope about vexing the world rather than diverting it, emphasizes Swift’s fundamental unfriendliness by a characteristic astringency (that tone is partly Swift’s though Gulliver may overdo it), and by a use of the second person singular which is aggressively contemptuous. This probably parodies or inverts the common use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in addresses to ‘gentle readers’, where, so far as the pronoun is not merely neutral, intimacy or familiarity is the point. But one can also compare places where an author treats his reader with mild aggressiveness, as when Burton opens his long preface to The Anatomy of Melancholy by proclaiming his freedom to tell or withhold information which the reader wants: in fact, the passage hardly has a Swiftian tang, and Burton ends the preface by earnestly requesting ‘every private man … not to take offence’ and by presuming ‘of thy good favour, and gracious acceptance (gentle reader)’19. Fielding’s usages range from warm friendliness (Tom Jones XVIII.i), through a more ruggedly admonishing but still friendly tone (IX.vii), to partial identification of the reader with ‘a little reptile of a critic’ (X.i): but even here there is an initial comic relaxation (the comparison with Shakespeare and his editors), and the later concession to the reader that perhaps ‘thy heart may be better than thy head’; and when Fielding takes stock of his relations with the reader in XVIII.i he warmly disclaims any intention to give offence20.

  • 21 For both uses, see Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Thou’, pers. Pron. Ib, and ‘Thou’, verb.

19But Swift’s use of ‘thee’ is the hostile one (‘thou’ and ‘thee’ were also addressed to inferiors)21, where familiarity, so to speak, has bred contempt. And what we sense in Swift’s attack is not the grand public voice of the Satirist, which is, for example, Pope’s voice. When Pope uses the hostile ‘thee’ in the Essay on Man (e.g. III.27 ff., ‘Has God, thou fool! work’d solely for thy good … Is it for thee the lark ascends and sings? …’), it is Man he is addressing, not the reader. Swift’s refusal of the ‘lofty Stile’ in the Epistle to a Lady rests on an old notion that ridicule is more effective than lambasting (‘Switches better guide than Cudgels’), but he has a significant way of describing what the raillery does: it ‘nettles’, ‘Sets the Spirits all a working’. ‘Alecto’s Whip’ makes the victims (here specifically ‘the Nation’s Representers’) ‘wriggle, howl, and skip’: the satirist makes clear that the whip is to be applied to ‘their Bums’, and that he will not be deterred by the smell [Poems II.634-7 lines139 ff]. Nothing could make clearer the note of quarrelsome intimacy that is the hallmark of Swift’s satire. It may not be very attractive, but it is not meant to be: and it has a unique disturbing effectiveness.

20Gulliver’s angers (whether nagging tartness, as in the passage under discussion, or ranting fury) reflect a cooler needling offensiveness from the Swift who manipulates the ‘switch’. The chapter, and the volume, end with Gulliver’s onslaught on Pride, and his petulant instruction to all English Yahoos ‘who have any Tincture of this absurd Vice, that they will not presume to appear in my Sight’. It is Gulliver and not Swift who is speaking (here it is important not to confuse the two: saying this has almost become a nervous tic among critics), but there is really no sufficiently vivid alternative point of view that we can hang on to at this final moment. I shall return to this, and to what Gulliver actually says, later. What I want to stress here is that the final chapter begins with a needling defiance and the openly unfriendly intimacy of a petty insult, and ends with quarrelsome hysteria. The hysteria is Gulliver’s and Swift seems in control. But the quarrel with the reader is one which Swift has been conducting through Gulliver, even though, when Gulliver becomes acutely unbalanced, there is an incomplete (at least a not quite literal) Swiftian commitment to what the quarrel has come to.


  • 22 The clinching joke, though not the passage as a whole, is Swift’s. See R. W. Frantz, ‘Gulliver’s “C (...)

21Gulliver is sometimes called a ‘merry’ book. Arbuthnot seems to have started this when he said, ‘Gulliver is a happy man that at his age can write such a merry work’ [Correspondence III.179]. His letter is joyful about the success of Gulliver, and tells of the Captain who claimed to know Gulliver, and the old man who looked up his map. Arbuthnot loved ‘mischief the best of any Good natured man in England’ [Correspondence III. 120], and is full of happy complicity in Swift’s success and the bonus of a hoax. Pope and Gay were also ‘diverted’ by the reception of the book [Correspondence III. 181-182]. Part of the ‘merry’ seems more Scriblerian in-joke than sober description. But the book really can be merry: one thinks of witty fantastications like the joke about the handwriting of ladies in England (, or the charming comedy of the Lilliputian speculations about Gulliver’s watch (I.ii.35), which Johnson praised [Boswell II 319]. Such things are very funny, with mild satiric overtones, but without being unduly charged with needling obliquities or any blistering intensity. This is true even in some cases where we should expect Swift to be very hostile. Much of the folly of scientists in book III is treated thus, the flappers, the substitution of things for words, the mathematical obsession which makes the Laputians describe ‘the Beauty of a Woman … by Rhombs, Circles, Parallelograms, Ellipses, and other Geometrical Terms’ (III.ii.163) (a joke which is not without bearing on the more recent habit of reducing women’s shapes to ‘vital statistics’). Gulliver has a notably unbuttoned way of giving itself over to local eruptions of mood, but it may be that the very fluctuations of tone invite us (though it will not do to be too solemn) to reconsider the whole nature of the ‘merriment’. Swift obviously enjoyed the comedy of incongruity that runs right through the work (the Lilliputian troop on Gulliver’s handkerchief, various Houyhnhnm postures, the She-Yahoo embracing Gulliver): this comes through plainly in his letter to Motte discussing illustrations to the book [Correspondence III.257-8]. But a good deal of this grotesque comedy, notably in Brobdingnag, is close to being rather painful. The hailstones as big as tennis-balls, the huge frog, the monkey which takes Gulliver for one of its own (II.v.116 ff.) have an undeniable science-fiction humour, but Gulliver is throughout in peril of his life. This is even truer of the slapstick comedy of the bowl of cream (II.iii.108): not only is it fraught with painful possibilities for Gulliver, but it reflects a crude and bitter malevolence in the court dwarf. J. M. Bullitt speaks well of Swift’s ‘seeming merriment’ as reflecting ‘an almost compulsive desire to separate himself from the intensity of his own feelings’ [Bullitt 7], and the margin between high-spirited fun and more disturbing purposes is sometimes a thin one. If notions of the jest as a breaker of tensions, a disguised means of attack, or a showy (vive la bagatelle!) shrugging-off of painful feeling seem too ponderous to impose on some (not all) of these passages, they are not foreign to Swift’s manner as a whole, and come into his thinking about satire:

All their Madness makes me merry:
Like the ever-laughing Sage,
In a Jest I spend my Rage:
(Tho’ it must be understood,
I would hang them if I cou’d). (
Epistle to a Lady, lines 164-70; Poems, II.635)

22And if the self-humour in these verses forbids us to take the passage at its literal intensity (as it forbids us to take at their literal intensity the ‘hate and detest’ and ‘Drown the World’ passages in the letters to Pope expressing the ‘misanthropy’ behind the Travels) [Correspondence III.103, 117], yet the self-humour is plainly not of the kind that cancels what it said. I imagine, indeed, that the self-humour may in some ways be more disturbing than the plain uncompromising statement would have been without it. In dissociating the thing said from the full violence of the saying, the ironist both unsettles the reader and covers himself. Since we have here no firm alternative viewpoint to give us our bearings, we can only know that the ironist means part of what he says, but not exactly how large, or quite what sort of, a part: and so do not know what defences are called for. More important, obviously half-meant self-undercutting statements of this kind (‘I would hang them if I cou’d’, ‘I hate and detest that animal called man’) are more uncomfortable than if they had been wholly meant, for then we might have the luxury of dismissing them as ranting folly. In just this way, our consciousness of Gulliver’s folly makes us paradoxically more, not less, vulnerable to the onslaughts on our self-esteem in book IV. Had Gulliver been presented as sane, we should (since again there is no real alternative voice, and no firm norm is indicated) have had to identify him with the satirist behind the mask, and so have been enabled to reject both as totally outrageous. As it is, we reject what comes from Gulliver, and are left with that disturbingly uncertain proportion of it which comes from Swift. It is precisely Gulliver’s distance from Swift that permits the Swiftian attack to look plausible. Much of the humour of Gulliver’s Travels has this effect, not really of attenuating (still less of belying) the Swiftian attack, as some critics hold, but of lending it that self-defensive distancing which makes it viable. Gulliver’s solemn habit of trotting and neighing, fully aware of and undeterred by people’s ridicule (IV.x.279), releases the whole situation from any possibility of Swift himself seeming solemn.

23The same may be said, the opposite way round, of those jokes at the expense of the Houyhnhnms, which are sometimes said to prove that Gulliver’s Travels has an anti-Houyhnhnm message: their perplexed ‘Gestures, not unlike those of a Philosopher’ (IV.i.226) when they try to understand Gulliver’s shoes and stockings, their language which sounds like High Dutch (IV.iii.234), their way of building houses, threading needles and milking cows (IV.ix.274). The first thing I would note is that humour about the Houyhnhnms is never of a destructive tartness: contrast some of the anti-Lilliputian jokes. It also makes the Houyhnhnms (otherwise somewhat stiffly remote, or so some readers feel) seem engagingly awkward and ‘human’, and Swift has a note of real tenderness in some of the passages, the description of the Houyhnhnm dinner-party for example (IV.ii.231-2). Irvin Ehrenpreis, in a fine account of this humour, says that Swift is smiling at his own ‘whole project of bestowing concrete life upon unattainable abstractions’ and ‘warning the sophisticated reader that [he], unlike Gulliver, appreciates the comical aspect of his own didacticism’ [‘The meaning of Gulliver’s last voyage’ 35]. The concession conforms to the normal method of the work: one of its effects is to make it more difficult for the reader to answer back.

24But the humour has other resonances too. One Houyhnhnm absurdity that some critics make much of is their complacent notion that man’s physical shape is preposterous and inefficient for the purposes of life. This is a nice joke when we think of a Houyhnhnm mare threading a needle. But it turns to a cruel irony not at the Houyhnhnms’, but at mankind’s, expense, when Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master assumes that men are anatomically incapable (despite their impulses) of fighting the destructive wars Gulliver tells him about. Gulliver replies with an exuberant assertion to the contrary that displays a moral fatuity which also has its comic side:

I could not forbear shaking my Head and smiling a little at his Ignorance. And, being no Stranger to the Art of War, I gave him a Description of Cannons, Culverins, Musket, Carabines, Pistols, Bullets, Powder, Swords, Bayonets, Sieges, Retreats, Attacks, Undermines, Countermines, Bombardments, Sea-fights; Ships sunk with a Thousand Men; twenty Thousand killed on each Side; dying Groans, Limbs flying in the Air: Smoak, Noise, Confusion, trampling to Death under Horses Feet: Flight, Pursuit, Victory; Fields strewed with Carcases left for Food to Dogs, and Wolves, and Birds of Prey; Plundering, Stripping, Ravishing, Burning and Destroying. And, to set forth the Valour of my own dear Countrymen, I assured him, that I had seen them blow up a Hundred Enemies at once in a Siege, and as many in a Ship; and beheld the dead Bodies drop down in Pieces from the Clouds, to the great Diversion of all the Spectators. (IV.v.247)

  • 23 The passage seems to some extent to conform to Erasmus’s prescription for amplifying a description (...)

25This enthusiastic fit is obviously funny. It is funny partly because of the concreteness with which Gulliver generalizes, the entranced particularity with which he evokes not a real battle which happened but some sort of common denominator of war23. The effect is instructively different from that of a scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four which seems to make some of the same points, and which (like other things in that novel) may have been distantly modelled on Swift [Orwell 10-11]. An entry in Winston Smith’s diary describes a war film with a ship full of refugees being bombed, and a ‘wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right into the air’, and a greatly diverted audience applauding and ‘shouting with laughter’. Smith says the film is very good, and talks of ‘wonderful’ scenes as Gulliver might. To this extent he is conditioned by the awful world of 1984, but he is struggling for his mental freedom (writing the diary is itself punishable by death), and he suddenly breaks off to think of his account as a ‘stream of rubbish’. The scene does not become funny, because Smith is, in a deeper and partly unconscious sense, disturbed and pained by it, instead of being in Gulliver’s fatuous trance of grotesque delight. Orwell drives the painfulness home by having Smith say that there was in the audience a prole woman who ‘suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt’. That there should be, within the situation itself, this glimpse of a hurt and protesting normality does not offer much reassurance: but it reaches out to the reader in a kind of complicity of despair. Neither Orwell nor the reader can stand apart from the narrator, or from the rest of the humanity described, and there can be no question of laughing anything off.

26The incident in Orwell, however representative (it is in its way as representative as Swift’s passage), is a vivid specific occurrence (though only a film), to which a pained immediacy of reaction on Smith’s and on the reader’s part is natural and appropriate. In Gulliver’s account, even when, as at the end, he seems to turn to specific occurrences, there is a comic lack of distinction between the general and the particular, and Gulliver’s all embracing celebration has a callous yet oddly innocent absurdity. The comic note, and the fact that the horror is so diffused, ensure that no immediacy of participation by the reader in the things described is possible, or expected. For obvious reasons there is no complicity between the reader and either Gulliver or any member of the applauding crowds. Nor is the grim high-spirited comedy a congenial idiom for any complicity between the reader and Swift: the reader has, rather uncomfortably, to laugh at Gulliver, without having anyone very much to laugh with. We may speculate whether the exuberance of Gulliver’s speech belongs to the moral folly of his original complacent acceptance of mankind; or is an ironic mimicry, after disenchantment, of this early complacent acceptance; or is an exuberant repudiation, proceeding either from righteous indignation or from what some critics might call the medical rather than the moral folly of Gulliver’s final state of misanthropy. But if we do wish to insist on Gulliver’s folly, in any sense, in this particular speech, it is clear that there can be no question of such folly, or of Swift’s comic sense, cancelling or seriously attenuating the point about war and attitudes to war which the passage makes: one of their effects, as with other examples of Swift’s humour, is to remove Swift’s angry attack from the plane of rant. Yet we are not, I think, very actively horrified at Gulliver’s feelings, as we should have been if they had been Winston Smith’s. In a novel, or in life, we should be revolted by his callousness. But we cannot, here or elsewhere, respond to him as a ‘character’. He is too absurd and two-dimensional. There is a detachment of the character from what he reveals to us which is part of the whole satiric formula of Gulliver’s Travels, and which the humour here reinforces. We think less about Gulliver than about war, and what Swift is telling us about our attitudes to it. The message is disturbing, and for all the fun, Swift is not, any more than elsewhere, being very friendly.


27The tense hovering between laughter and something else, the structural indefiniteness of genre and the incessantly shifting status and function of the parodic element, the ironic twists and countertwists, and the endless flickering uncertainties of local effect suggest that one of Swift’s most active satiric weapons is bewilderment. It is perhaps not surprising that this weapon should have backfired, and that there should have been so much doubt and disagreement both about the unity of the work, and the meaning of its final section. One of the risks, but also rewards, of the attacking self-concealments of irony is that they draw out their Irish bishops. But we are all, inevitably, Irish bishops in some degree: and the Swift who sought to vex the world may well be deriving a wry satisfaction from our failures to pin him down, although he might not consent to know us in Glubbdubdrib (III.viii.197). What one means by ‘unity’ is too often rather arbitrary, but there is perhaps a broad overall coherence in the consistency and progression of Gulliver’s onslaught on the reader’s bearings and self-esteem. But it is a tense and rugged coherence, and no neatly chartable matter, and any more ‘external’ unities of formal pattern or ideology seem ultimately inseparable from, and possibly secondary to, those satiric procedures and tones which create the commanding impact of the Swiftian voice. An attachment to schematic patterns per se, of the kind for which books I and II provide such a brilliant model, seems to have had two results. One has been a tendency to wish either or both the other books away. The other has been a quest to discover in the work as a whole something of the geometrical shapeliness that exists between the first two books. The exercise easily becomes disembodied even when its limitations are partially recognized: it hardly seems to matter much that books I and III deal with bad governments, while books II and IV, in alternating pattern, deal with good governments [Case 110].

  • 24 Joseph Horrell, ‘What Gulliver knew’, Sewanee Review, li (1943), 492-3; Case, Four Essays, p. 121; (...)

28There are of course some broad structural facts of considerable significance, such as that we are led through three books of allegorical societies which are in principle translatable into real life (with a mixture, as Thomas Sheridan put it, of good and bad qualities ‘as they are to be found in life’) [Sheridan 433], and which provide a solid background of ‘realistic’ evidence of human vice, into the stark world of moral absolutes of book IV; and that the Struldbrugs at the end of book III are a horrifying climax which prepares us for this. The specific fact that the Struldbrugs give a terrifying retrospective deepening to the Houyhnhnms’ fearlessness of death is only one aspect of their disturbing importance: their chief force, at first meeting, is to put the concerns of the narrative once and for all on an entirely new plane. Again, the fact, noted by Case and others24, that the incidental persons in the narrative links between the four main episodes tend to become nastier and nastier, provides an important progression, not perhaps because the reader senses it as a progression (unless it happens to be pointed out), but because the evil of sailors and others (the ‘real’ men) in books III and IV provides a relevantly documented and depressing background to the main preoccupations of those books. (The Portuguese Captain and his crew are an exception to which I shall come later.) The point about these patterns is not that they are neat and flawlessly progressive (they are not), and not merely that they fit in with the ‘themes’ (though they do): it is that they have an effect as we read, without our necessarily being aware of them as patterns. After all, the real point about even the special relationship between books I and II is not the series of arithmetical piquancies, but the unfolding irony about human self-importance.


  • 25 For an excellent discussion of More and Swift, see John Traugott, ‘A voyage to Nowhere with Thomas (...)
  • 26 Tom Jones, III.iii. I hasten to say that I do not believe that the Houyhnhnms are therefore a satir (...)

29This self-importance, or pride, is at the centre of the work’s concerns. A principle that is sometimes overlooked in discussions not only of structural shape but of ideological themes is that these things make themselves felt, if at all, through the reader’s continuous submission to local effects, which means in this case exposure to the Swiftian presence at close quarters. Ideologically, Gulliver’s Travels revolves round the familiar Augustan group of concepts, Nature, Reason and Pride. Its position is basically a commonplace one, but it bears some restating because some ironies of characteristic force and stinging elusiveness proceed from it. Nature and Reason ideally coalesce. Nature is ideal order, in all spheres of life: moral, social, political, aesthetic. Deviations from this are unnatural, as murder or any gross misdeed might, in our own idiom, be called an unnatural act. If one said that the deed came naturally to one, one would be using the term in a different sense. Such other meanings were also of course available to Swift, and I shall argue that the interplay between ideal and less ideal senses provides an important irony. Reason is the faculty which makes one behave naturally (in the high sense), makes one follow Nature and frame one’s judgement (and behaviour) by her just and unerring standard. So More’s Utopians (in some ways ancestors of the Houyhnhnms) ‘define virtue to be life ordered according to nature, and that we be hereunto ordained of God. And that he doth follow the course of nature, which in desiring and refusing things is ruled by reason’ [More 85]25, and the Houyhnhnms believe a somewhat secularized version of the same thing (IV.v.248). The terms Nature and Reason are often in fact interchangeable. Where this is not so, they may complete one another: Nature teaches the Houyhnhnms ‘to love the whole Species’, Reason to distinguish between persons on merit (IV.viii.268). The Houyhnhnms, etymologically ‘the Perfection of Nature’ (IV.iii.235), combine Nature and Reason in the highest sense. Their virtues are friendship, benevolence, decency, civility, but they have no ceremony or foolish fondness (IV.viii.268). This means that they have both emotions and propriety, but that neither is misdirected or excessive. They would have understood Pope’s phrase in The Temple of Fame (line 108) about ‘that useful Science, to be good’. Their morality is pervaded by an uncompromisingly high (and instinctive) common-sense and utilitarianism, and what might be called an absolute standard of congruity or fittingness. Thus they cannot understand lying, because speech was made to communicate (IV.iv.240), or opinion, because there is only one truth and speculation is idle (IV.viii.267). It follows that behaviour which offends against this unerring standard is readily seen as deviation or perversion. (This is a suggestion which Swift exploits very fully and painfully.) Even physically, the Houyhnhnms are rational–natural, for (thanks partly to their simple diet, Nature being, as Gulliver knows from some ‘insipid’ meals, ‘easily … satisfied’—IV.ii.232) they are never ill, illness being a deviation from the natural state of the body. For a comic boiling-down of this mind–body ideal, one might cite Fielding’s deist Square, who ‘held human nature to be the perfection of all virtue, and that vice was a deviation from our nature, in the same manner as deformity of body is’26. Swift has his tongue in his cheek about some Houyhnhnm notions of the ‘natural’ standard of mind–body integration, as when the Houyhnhnm master, in a passage of not very flattering but entirely delightful comedy, considers our physical shape unsuited for the employment of Reason in ‘the common Offices of Life’ (IV.iv.242): but Swift is seriously suggesting that luxurious eating habits are a cause of human physical degeneracy, so that morality and physical health are causally related and not only (as apparently for Square) by analogy. Nature ideally is one, and her laws pervasive.

  • 27 These wonderfully apt examples are adapted from Rabelais, v.xxii, as is noted in W. A. Eddy, Gulliv (...)
  • 28 Pope, Dunciad, III.6.

30In Gulliver’s Travels, however, there is a gap between Nature and ‘human nature’, in an actual sense, which would make Square’s complacency untenable, though his rationale is perfectly applicable to the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms are not complacent in Square’s sense because in them the ideal and the actuality are fully matched. Actually, Square’s remarks also concern an ideal and, like other forms of philosophical ‘optimism’, logically allow for an uglier reality: but, given the ugly facts, Swift (and Fielding) would see a monstrous impropriety in putting the matter that way at all. Mankind is guilty of a collective deviation from Nature and Reason at every level, and this Unreason, by the familiar buried pun, becomes in Gulliver (as in A Tale of a Tub or the Dunciad) a vast and wicked madness: the congruence between madness and moral turpitude is one of the most vivid and inventively resourceful themes of Augustan satire. Scientists, or those of a certain sort, are one of the traditional examples. They delve into what Nature keeps hidden, and they seek to pervert Nature (in such cases the word slides easily from an ideal sense to something approaching ‘things as they are’) into something other than it is, ‘condensing Air into a dry tangible Substance’, ‘softening Marble for Pillows and Pin-Cushions’, arresting the growth of wool on sheep (III.v.182)27. The phrase ‘natural philosophy’ provides an exploitable pun (Fielding said in Tom Jones, XIII.v, that natural philosophy knew ‘nothing of Nature, except her monsters and imperfections’), and when Gulliver explained to the Houyhnhnm master ‘our several Systems of Natural Philosophy, he would laugh that a Creature pretending to Reason, should value itself upon the Knowledge of other Peoples Conjectures, and in Things, where that Knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no Use’ (IV.viii.267-8). Science becomes divorced from usefulness and good sense. The Laputians are ‘dextrous’ mathematicians on paper but have no idea of ‘practical Geometry’ (III.ii.163). Natural philosophy is thus at least doubly unnatural, in that it variously violates Nature, and in that it is the irrational pastime of creatures who pretend to Reason. This is routine perversion, built-in to the situation. It exercised Swift, and Pope, as perversion. But there are further perversities. One is the encroachment of science on government. The Brobdingnagians stand out from the ‘Wits of Europe’ in not having ‘reduced Politicks into a Science’. Unlike us, they have no books on ‘the Art of Government’, and despise mystery, refinement (a term which, as in many other satires of Swift and Pope, has familiar suggestions of dishonesty and other vices, as well as folly: ‘heads refin’d from Reason’28 and intrigue (II.vii.135). The Laputians, on the other hand, like our Mathematicians, have a ‘strong Disposition’ to politics (III.ii.164), and the Academy of Lagado has a school of political projectors (though that, by some characteristic reversals, has crazed professors trying to do political good, as well as schemes which hover uncertainly between outright folly and a sort of mad good sense— ff.). What, Gulliver asks, is the connection between mathematics and politics? Perhaps it is that ‘the smallest Circle hath as many Degrees as the largest’, so that it might be thought that managing the world requires ‘no more Abilities than the handling and turning of a Globe’. But he thinks the real explanation is ‘a very common Infirmity of human Nature, inclining us to be more curious and conceited in Matters where we have least Concern, and for which we are least adapted either by Study or Nature’ (III.ii.164). This professional perversion or unnaturalness has connections with a whole series of ironies about perversity in the professions and occupations of men. The Yahoos are of a ‘perverse restive Disposition’ (IV.viii.266), and Swift seems to see human perversity as a thing of almost unending coils of self-complication. But before coming to this, the main outline may be summarized thus.

31In this Nature–Reason system at its simplest and purest, every vice is readily resolved into a violation of nature, and therefore into a particularly culpable form of unreason. The greed, quarrelsomeness, ambition, treachery, and lust of men, as we encounter them throughout the Travels, are in an elementary sense unnatural by definition. This unnaturalness is prone to almost infinite refinements, and therefore as we shall see open to a painful and varied series of ironic expositions. But the overriding unnaturalness, which becomes unbearable to Gulliver at the end, is that the ‘Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind’ called man, should be ‘smitten with Pride’: pride, in the assumption itself, in the face of so much folly, that man is a rational animal, the pride of having any self-esteem at all (as Gulliver, though perhaps not Swift, might more extremely put it), and (in the special case of scientists and their like) the pride of impiously tampering with God’s creation and the normal state of things. Pride, which governs the mad scientists of book III (and the philosopher experts in the earlier books, I.ii.37, II.ii.103-4); the puny self-importance of the Lilliputians in book I, who play at men; and that of men, which emerges by extension in book II, is the most deeply unnatural of all the vices because, as the other vices prove, there is nothing to be proud of.

32This diagnosis of mankind is an Augustan commonplace, and many important elements of it may be found not only in an earlier humanism but also in various old traditions of classical and Christian thought. But Swift refines on it by a number of characteristic ironies which serve to undermine any comfort we might derive from having to contend with a simple categorical indictment of mankind, however damaging. Whichever way we interpret book IV, man is placed, in it, somewhere between the rational Houyhnhnms and the bestial Yahoos. He has less reason than the former, more than the latter. The Houyhnhnms recognize this in Gulliver, though they think of him, and he eventually thinks of himself, as basically of the Yahoo kind. A Houyhnhnm state may be unattainable to man, but there are norms of acceptable, though flawed, humanity which do not seem, in the same way, beyond the realm of moral aspiration: one-time Lilliput ( ff.), modern Brobdingnag, the ‘English Yeomen of the old Stamp’ (III.viii.201), the Portuguese Captain. These positives must be taken gingerly. Ancient Lilliput and the old Yeomen are no more, Brobdingnag is hardly a European reality, there are not many like the Portuguese Captain and his crew, although some other decent people make fleeting unremarkable appearances. Still, they are there, and at worst, we reflect, we are still better than the Yahoos. But in conceding this assurance, Swift also takes it away. This is not just in the dramatic strength of the parallels between them and us, which culminate in the ‘objective’ test of the female Yahoo’s sexual craving for Gulliver (IV.viii.266-7). There are qualities in which Gulliver is actually inferior: ‘Strength, Speed and Activity, the Shortness of my Claws, and some other Particulars where Nature had no Part’ (IV.vii.260). Swift can be more or less playful with those ‘usual Topicks of European Moralists’ (II.vii.137) about man’s physical inferiority to animals, and an earlier speech of the Houyhnhnm master, already referred to, has its rich comic side (IV.iv.242-3). But it is a point meant to be taken note of, and recurs with some insistence. There is no mistaking the tartness with which we are told, in a further twist, that the Yahoos (to whom men are physically inferior!) are superior in agility to asses, though less comely and less useful in other respects (IV.ix.272-3). This is a Houyhnhnm view, but we need not suppose that Swift meant it literally in order to sense that he is having another snipe at the human form divine.

  • 29 See for example Roland M. Frye (above, n9), pp. 208-209.
  • 30 This is an illuminating parallel to Swift’s remark to Pope on 26 November 1725 about the kite (Corr (...)

33But more important is the assertion that man’s portion of Reason, which theoretically raises him above Yahoos in non-physical matters, is in fact something ‘whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our natural Corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us’ (IV.vii.259). The notion that men use their reason to make themselves worse rather than better was not invented by Swift29, but it disturbingly weakens the contrary assurance that it is after all by virtue of our reason that we are better than the Yahoos. It is a Houyhnhnm comment, but so are the contrary ones (IV.iii.234;; IV.ix.272). No one else tells us much either way. It recurs in various forms. Gulliver comes to realize that men use Reason ‘to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren in this Country had only the Share that Nature allotted them’ (IV.x.278). When men are under discussion, linguistic usage on the subject of Reason and Nature tends to change: Reason multiplies vices, Nature allots them. In an earlier passage there is even an unsettling doubt as to whether Reason in this case really is Reason. It occurs after the cruel irony in which the Houyhnhnm master supposes that, odious as men are, Nature has created their anatomy in such a way as to make them ‘utterly uncapable of doing much Mischief’ (IV.v.247), to which Gulliver replies with the account of war which I discussed earlier. The master then says he hates Yahoos but cannot blame them any more than he would blame ‘a Gnnayh (a Bird of Prey) for its Cruelty’30, but as to man,

when a Creature pretending to Reason, could be capable of such Enormities, he dreaded lest the Corruption of that Faculty might be worse than Brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that instead of Reason, we were only possessed of some Quality fitted to increase our natural Vices. (IV.v.248)

  • 31 There are certain analogies between this mode of attack, and those strategies of aggression either (...)

34This possibility, that man’s Reason is not Reason, is not entertained. It goes against the run of the book’s argument. But it is characteristic of Swift to place it before us, as an alternative (if only momentarily viable) affront. Either we have no Reason, or what we have is worse than not having it. The irresolution saps our defences, for we need to answer on two fronts31. At the same time, neither point is true to the book, which does concede (notably through several comments of the Houyhnhnm master himself) that Gulliver is both better and more rational than the Yahoos. Swift is needling us with offensive undermining possibilities even while a moderately comforting certainty is being grudgingly established. Of the two negative, undermining streams of argument, the dominant one is that which says we do have Reason, but that it makes us worse. Its most intense manifestation occurs with Gulliver’s description of the Yahoos’ horribly smelly sexuality. The passage incidentally shows how germane the term Reason is, in ways we might not automatically expect, not merely to the concept ‘good morals’ but also to the concept ‘virtuous passions’. It drives home how the most unlikely vices tend to equal unreason (or, in the perverted human sense, not unreason but Reason):

I expected every Moment, that my Master would accuse the Yahoos of those unnatural Appetites in both Sexes, so common among us. But Nature it seems hath not been so expert a Schoolmistress; and these politer Pleasures are entirely the Productions of Art and Reason, on our Side of the Globe. (IV.vii.264)

  • 32 The passage runs pointedly against the Lilliputian ( and English (III.vii.201-2) examples. (...)

35Though this has special resonances in the context of Gulliver’s Travels, and a true Swiftian tang, it is also the classic language of primitivism, which is in fact a minor theme of the work. The Houyhnhnms are in some respects prelapsarian innocents, ignorant of at least some forms of evil, and with no bodily shame or any idea of why Gulliver wears clothes. They also have no literature, but a high oral tradition in poetry and knowledge (IV.iii.235; IV.ix.273-4). Utopian Lilliput and the old English Yeomen are idealized pre-degenerate societies, and Swift’s concern with the idea of the degeneration of societies has often been noted. But there is the contrary example of Brobdingnag, an advanced and largely good society which, by a shaming and pointed contrast with Lilliput and England, has emerged from an earlier turpitude (II.vii.138)32. The Yahoos prove that there is no idealization of the noble savage: and though the Houyhnhnms do have a primitivist element, the ideal of Nature associated with them embodies some key values of civilized Augustan aspiration. This may partly proceed from a not fully resolved duality in the conception of Reason both as civilized achievement and as corrupting force, not to mention the sense, perhaps tending against both others, of spontaneous rightness which ‘strikes … with immediate Conviction’ (IV.viii.267).

  • 33 See Ehrenpreis, ‘The meaning of Gulliver’s last voyage’, Review of English Literature, iii (1962), (...)

36But, if so, the confusion is not really Swift’s. The fact is that both the language of ideas on these matters, and ordinary English idiom, make available these various senses. Nature and Reason were all-purpose terms, and Swift, who was not writing a logical treatise (although it has been shown that he was, in a manner, rebutting logical treatises) [Crane ‘The Houyhnhnms’ 231-253], was only too ready, as we have seen, to exploit the ironic possibilities offered him by the language. His whole style in this work thrives on what from a strictly logical point of view is a defiant (and transparent) linguistic sleight of hand. The textbook definition of man as animal rationale simply refers to that reasoning faculty which was supposed to distinguish men from beasts. Swift’s ‘disproof’ consists of tacitly translating a descriptive definition into a high ethical and intellectual ideal, and then saying that man’s claim to Reason is fatuously and insufferably arrogant33. The often-quoted formulation in the sermon ‘On the Trinity’ that ‘Reason itself is true and just, but the Reason of every particular Man is weak and wavering, perpetually swayed and turned by his Interests, his Passions, and his Vices’ [Works IX.166] shows that Swift is perfectly aware of semantic distinctions when he wants to be. It can also stand as an acceptable boiling-down of much that is said about human unreason in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s concern here, however, is not to boil the issue down to its commonplace propositional content, but to exploit the damaging ironies by all the verbal means which the language puts at his disposal.

37The double standard by which the words Nature and Reason tend to be used in a debased sense when they refer to men, and an ideal sense when they refer to Houyhnhnms, lies at the heart of this. The dreadful thing is that man is neither natural in the high sense, nor (like the Yahoos, as the quotation about ‘politer Pleasures’ showed) in the low. If we then grant that this double unnaturalness is itself natural to man, we find him becoming unnatural even to this nature. Suggestions of multiple self-complicating perversity exist in the accounts of all men’s occupations and professional activities. One might instance the Laputian reasoners, who are ‘vehemently given to Opposition, unless when they happen to be of the right Opinion, which is seldom their Case’ (III.ii.163); the Admiral who ‘for want of proper Intelligence … beat the Enemy to whom he intended to betray the Fleet’ (III.viii.199); the kings who protested to Gulliver in Glubbdubdrib

that in their whole Reigns they did never once prefer any Person of Merit, unless by Mistake or Treachery of some Minister in whom they confided: Neither would they do it if they were to live again; and they shewed with great Strength of Reason, that the Royal Throne could not be supported without Corruption (III.viii.199);

  • 34 Physicians provide a monstrously concrete example of Nature turned upside down. The basis of the re (...)

38the politician who ‘never tells a Truth, but with an Intent that you should take it for a Lye’, and vice versa ( Most elaborate is the chain of ironies about the unnaturalness of the law. It is unnatural that laws should exist at all, since Nature and Reason should be sufficient guides for a rational creature. Other related perversities are: that while meant for men’s protection, the law causes their ruin; that (for a variety of discreditably tortuous reasons) one is always at a disadvantage if one’s cause is just; that lawyers use irrelevant evidence, and a jargon which no one can understand (which among other things runs against the reiterated principle that speech is only for communication); that lawyers, who are expected to be wise and learned, are in reality ‘the most ignorant and stupid’ of men (IV.v.248-50). A major irony running through this is that man is unnatural even to his own natural unnaturalness. Assuming that moral perversion is natural to the species, it becomes, in this sense, natural for judges to accept bribes. But it is even more natural for judges to be unjust, so that ‘I have known some of them to have refused a large Bribe from the Side where Justice lay, rather than injure the Faculty, by doing any thing unbecoming their Nature or their Office’ (IV.v.249).

39One becomes unnatural to one’s lesser natural iniquities when a deeper iniquity competes with them. The concept of Nature is debased by an ever-declining spiral into whatever depths mankind might perversely sink to. Whatever these depths, Gulliver can follow the spiral downwards and (both in his naïve complacent phase and in his later disenchanted misanthropy) accept them as natural. The spiral has almost endless possibilities, and the reader for much of the time has not even the comfort of feeling that there is a rock-bottom. But there is, at the end, something like rock-bottom, a final insult to the nature of things which Gulliver finds completely unbearable:

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 Pick-pocket, a Colonel, a Fool, a Lord, a Gamester, a Politician, a Whoremunger, a Physician, an Evidence, a Suborner, an Attorney, a Traytor, 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; neither shall I be ever able to comprehend how such an Animal and such a Vice could tally together. The wise and virtuous Houyhnhnms, who abound in all Excellencies that can adorn a rational Creature, have no Name for this Vice in their Language, which hath no Terms to express any thing that is evil, except those whereby they describe the detestable Qualities of their Yahoos; among which they were not able to distinguish this of Pride, for want of thoroughly understanding Human Nature, as it sheweth it self in other Countries, where that Animal presides. But I, who had more Experience, could plainly observe some Rudiments of it among the wild Yahoos. (IV.xii.296)

40Pride, the complacency of thinking that man is a rational animal, now becomes the ‘absurd Vice’ which is the final aggravation of all our iniquities, the ultimate offence to Nature. Yet even Pride, the ultimate unnaturalness, is itself part of ‘Human Nature’ (‘for so they have still the Confidence to stile it,’ says Gulliver to Sympson, p. 7), so that we may wonder whether we really have after all reached rock-bottom, or whether there is yet another opening for still deeper unnaturalness to be revealed. The suspicion arises that if things do stop here, it is only because the book must close somewhere, rather than because the subject is exhausted. And in this final impasse the only possible response, dramatically, is Gulliver’s mixture of insane hatred and impotent petulance as he forbids any English Yahoo with ‘any Tincture of this absurd Vice’ even to appear in his sight.


  • 35 Lucian, Timon, or the Misanthrope; Plutarch, Life of Antony, LXX; Shakespeare, Timon of Athens. Or (...)

41The book ends here, with Gulliver a monomaniac and his last outburst a defiant, and silly, petulance. We are not, I am sure, invited to share his attitudes literally, to accept as valid his fainting at the touch of his wife (IV.xi.289) and his strange nostalgic preference for his horses. He has become insane or unbalanced, judged by standards of ordinary social living, and I have already suggested one reason why, in the whole design of the work, this is appropriate: it makes his rant viable by dissociating Swift from the taint of excess, without really undermining the attack from Swift that the rant stands for. It is Gulliver’s manner, not Swift’s, which is Timon’s manner, as critics are fond of noting, which means that he (like Lucian’s or Plutarch’s or Shakespeare’s Timon)35, and not Swift, is the raging recluse. But his are the final words, which produce the taste Swift chose to leave behind: it is no great comfort or compliment to the reader to be assaulted with a mean hysteria that cannot be shrugged off because, when all is said, it tells what the whole volume has insisted to be the truth.

42It is wrong, I think, to take Gulliver as a novel-character who suffers a tragic alienation, and for whom therefore we feel pity or some kind of contempt, largely because we do not, as I suggested, think of him as a ‘character’ at all in more than a very attenuated sense: the emphasis is so preponderantly on what can be shown through him (including what he says and thinks) than on his person in its own right, that we are never allowed to accustom ourselves to him as a real personality despite all the rudimentary local colour about his early career, family life and professional doings. An aspect of this are Swift’s ironic exploitations of the Gulliver-figure, which to the very end flout our most elementary expectations of character consistency: the praise of English colonialism in the last chapter, which startlingly returns to Gulliver’s earlier boneheaded manner, is an example. The treatment of Gulliver is essentially external, as, according to Wyndham Lewis, satire ought to be [Elliott 225-226]. Nor is Gulliver sufficiently independent from Swift: he is not identical with Swift, nor even similar to him, but Swift’s presence behind him is always too close to ignore. This is not because Swift approves or disapproves of what Gulliver says at any given time, but because Swift is always saying something through it.

  • 36 . See W. B. Carnochan, ‘The complexity of Swift: Gulliver’s fourth voyage’, Studies in Philology, l (...)

43Gulliver in his unbalanced state, then, seems less a character than (in a view which has much truth but needs qualifying) a protesting gesture of impotent rage, a satirist’s stance of ultimate exasperation. Through him, as through the modest proposer (who once offered sensible and decent suggestions which were ignored), Swift is pointing, in a favourite irony, to the lonely madness of trying to mend the world, a visionary absurdity which, in more than a shallow rhetorical sense, Swift saw as his own. At the time of finishing Gulliver, Swift told Pope, in a wry joke, that he wished there were a ‘Hospital’ for the world’s despisers [Correspondence III.117]36. (If Gulliver, incidentally, unlike the proposer, does not preach cannibalism, he does ask for clothes of Yahoo-skin—IV.iii.236—and uses this material for his boat and sails—IV.x.281). But Gulliver does not quite project the noble rage or righteous pride of the outraged satirist. The exasperated petulance of the last speech keeps the quarrel on an altogether less majestic and more intimate footing, where it has, in my view, been all along. Common sense tells us that Swift would not talk like that in his own voice, but we know disturbingly (and there has been no strong competing voice) that this is the voice he chose to leave in our ears.

  • 37 ‘O, if the World had but a dozen Arbuthnetts in it I would burn my Travells’ (Correspondence, III.1 (...)
  • 38 For another useful perspective, see R. S. Crane, ‘The rationale of the fourth voyage’, Gulliver’s T (...)

44Still, Gulliver’s view is out of touch with a mundane reality about which Swift also knew, and which includes the good Portuguese Captain. Gulliver’s response to the Captain is plainly unworthy, and we should note that he has not learnt such bad manners (or his later hysterical tone) from the Houyhnhnms’ example. But we should also remember that the Captain is a rarity37, who appears only briefly; that just before Gulliver meets him the horrible mutiny with which book IV began is twice remembered (IV.x.281; IV.xi.283); that the first men Gulliver meets after leaving Houyhnhnmland are hostile savages (IV.xi.284); and that just after the excellent Portuguese sailors there is a hint of the Portuguese Inquisition (IV.xi.288). The Captain does have a function. As John Traugott says, he emphasizes Gulliver’s alienation and ‘allows Gulliver to make Swift’s point that even good Yahoos are Yahoos’ [Traugott 562]38. But above all perhaps he serves as a reasonable concession to reality (as if Swift were saying there are some good men, but the case is unaltered), without which the onslaughts on mankind might be open to a too easy repudiation from the reader. In this respect, he complements the other disarming concessions, the humour and self-irony, the physical comicality of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver’s folly, and the rest.

45Even if Swift is making a more moderate attack on mankind than Gulliver, Gulliver’s view hovers damagingly over it all; in the same way that, though the book says we are better than the Yahoos, it does not allow us to be too sure of the fact. (The bad smell of the Portuguese Captain, or of Gulliver’s wife, are presumably ‘objective’ tokens of physical identity, like the She-Yahoo’s sexual desire for Gulliver.) This indirection unsettles the reader, by denying him the solace of definite categories. It forbids the luxury of a well-defined stand, whether of resistance or assent, and offers none of the comforts of that author–reader complicity on which much satiric rhetoric depends. It is an ironic procedure, mocking, elusive, immensely resourceful and agile, which talks at the reader with a unique quarrelsome intimacy, but which is so hedged with aggressive defences that it is impossible for the reader to answer back.

To Conclude

46Finally, a word about the Houyhnhnms. It is sometimes said that Swift is satirizing them as absurd or nasty embodiments of extreme rationalism. Apart from the element of humour, discussed earlier, with which they are presented, they are, it is said, conceited and obtuse in disbelieving the existence or the physical viability of the human creature. But, within the logic of the fiction, this disbelief seems natural enough. The Lilliputians also doubted the existence of men of Gulliver’s size (, and Gulliver also needed explaining in Brobdingnag (II.iii.103-4). In both these cases the philosophers are characteristically silly, but everyone is intrigued, and we could hardly expect otherwise. Moreover, Gulliver tells Sympson that some human beings have doubted the existence of the Houyhnhnms (p. 8), which, within the terms of the story (if one is really going to take this sort of evidence solemnly), is just as arrogant. More important, the related Houyhnhnm doubt as to the anatomical viability or efficiency of the human shape (apart from being no more smug than some of Gulliver’s complacencies in favour of mankind) turns to a biting sarcasm at man’s, not at the Houyhnhnms’, expense when, as we have seen, the Houyhnhnm master supposes that man is not capable of making war (IV.v.247).

47The Houyhnhnms’ proposal to castrate some younger Yahoos (IV.ix.272-3) has also shocked critics. But again this follows the simple narrative logic: it is no more than humans do to horses. Our shock should be no more than the ‘noble Resentment’ of the Houyhnhnm master when he hears of the custom among us (IV.iv.242). To the extent that we are shocked, Swift seems to me to be meaning mildly to outrage our ‘healthy’ sensibilities, as he does in the hoof-kissing episode. But in any event, the Houyhnhnms get the idea from Gulliver’s account of what men do to horses, so that either way the force of the fable is not on man’s side. The fiction throughout reverses the man–horse relationship: horses are degenerate in England (p. 8 and IV.xii.295), as men are in Houyhnhnmland. Again, I think man comes out of it badly both ways: the Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland make their obvious point, but the suggestion in reverse seems to be that English horses are poor specimens (though to Gulliver better than men) because they live in a bad human world. At least, a kind of irrational sense of guilt by association is generated. We need not suppose that Swift is endorsing Gulliver’s preference of his horses to his family in order to feel offended about it. At many (sometimes indefinable) points on a complex scale of effects, Swift is getting at us.

48The Houyhnhnms’ expulsion of Gulliver belongs to the same group of objections. It seems to me that some of the sympathy showered on Gulliver by critics comes from a misfocused response to him as a full character in whom we are very involved as a person. The Houyhnhnm master and the sorrel nag are in fact very sorry to lose Gulliver, but the logic of the fable is inexorable: Gulliver is of the Yahoo kind, and his privileged position in Houyhnhnmland was offensive to some, while his rudiments of Reason threaten (not without plausibility, from all we learn of man’s use of that faculty) to make him a danger to the state as leader of the wild Yahoos (IV.x.279). The expulsion of Gulliver is like Gulliver’s treatment of Don Pedro: both episodes have been sentimentalized, but they are a harsh reminder that even good Yahoos are Yahoos.

49The main charge is that the Houyhnhnms are cold, passionless, inhuman, unattractive to us and therefore an inappropriate positive model. The fact that we may not like them does not mean that Swift is disowning them: it is consistent with his whole style to nettle us with a positive we might find insulting and rebarbative. The older critics who disliked the Houyhnhnms but felt that Swift meant them as a positive were surely nearer the mark than some recent ones who translate their own dislikes into the meaning of the book. But one must agree that the Houyhnhnms, though they are a positive, are not a model, there being no question of our being able to imitate them. So far as it has not been grossly exaggerated, their ‘inhumanity’ may well, like their literal non-humanity (which tells us that the only really rational animal is not man), be part of the satiric point: this is a matter of ‘passions’.

  • 39 See also George Sherburn, ‘Errors concerning the Houyhnhnms’, Modern Philology, lvi, 1958, pp. 94-9 (...)

50They are, of course, not totally passionless39. They treat Gulliver, in all personal contacts, with mildness, tenderness and friendly dignity (IV.i.224 ff.). Gulliver receives special gentleness and affection from his master, and still warmer tenderness from the sorrel nag (IV.xi.283). Their language, which has no term for lying or opinion, ‘expressed the Passions very well’, which may mean no more than ‘emotions’ but does mean that they have them (IV.i.226). In contrast to the Laputians, who have no ‘Imagination, Fancy and Invention’ (III.ii.163), but like the Brobdingnagians (II.vii.136), they excel in poetry (IV.ix.273-4), though their poems sound as if they might be rather unreadable and are certainly not of a very rapturous kind.

51But their personal lives differ from ours in a kind of lofty tranquillity, and an absence of personal intimacy and emotional entanglement. In some aspects of this, they parallel Utopian Lilliput ( ff.), and when Gulliver is describing such things as their conversational habits (‘Where there was no Interruption, Tediousness, Heat, or Difference of Sentiments’), a note of undisguised wishfulness comes into the writing (see the whole passage, IV.x.277). W. B. Carnochan has shown, in a well-taken point, that such freedom from the ‘tyrant-passions’ corresponds to a genuine longing of Swift himself [Carnochan 27]. I do not wish to pursue a psychoanalytical approach. But in a work which, in addition to much routine and sometimes rather self-conscious scatology (however ‘traditional’), contains the disturbing anatomy of Brobdingnagian ladies, the account of the Struldbrugs, the reeking sexuality of the Yahoos and the She-Yahoo’s attempt on Gulliver, the horrible three-year-old Yahoo brat (IV.viii.265-6), the smell of Don Pedro and of Gulliver’s family and Gulliver’s strange relations with his wife, one might well expect to find aspirations for a society which practised eugenics and had an educational system in which personal and family intimacies were reduced to a minimum. Gulliver may be mocked, but the cumulative effect of these things is inescapable, and within the atmosphere of the work itself the longing for a world uncontaminated as far as possible by the vagaries of emotion might seem to us an unattractive, but surely not a surprising, phenomenon.

  • 40 Samuel Butler, Hudibras, I.i.65, 71-2. See Ehrenpreis, op.cit, Review of English Literature, iii, 1 (...)

52But it is more important still to say that the Houyhnhnms are not a statement of what man ought to be so much as a statement of what he is not. Man thinks he is animal rationale, and the Houyhnhnms are a demonstration (which might, as we saw, be logically unacceptable, but is imaginatively powerful), for man to compare himself with, of what an animal rationale really is. R. S. Crane has shown that in the logic text-books which commonly purveyed the old definition of man as a rational animal, the beast traditionally and most frequently named as a specific example of the opposite, the non-rational, was the horse [Crane ‘The Houyhnhnms’ 247 ff.]. Thus Hudibras, who ‘was in Logick a great Critick’, would40

undertake to prove by force
Of Argument, a Man’s no Horse.

53The choice of horses thus becomes an insulting exercise in ‘logical’ refutation. The Yahoos are certainly an opposite extreme, and real man lies somewhere between them. But it is no simple comforting matter of a golden mean. Man is dramatically closer to the Yahoos in many ways, and with all manner of insistence. While the Houyhnhnms are an insulting impossibility, the Yahoos, though not a reality, are an equally insulting possibility. Swift’s strategy of the undermining doubt is nowhere more evident than here, for though we are made to fear the worst, we are not given the comfort of knowing the worst. ‘The chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it’: and whatever grains of salt we may choose for our comfort to see in these words, ‘the world’, gentle reader, includes thee.

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Wotton, William. A Defense of the Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning … With Observations upon The Tale of a Tub (1705) in A Tale of a Tub, edited by A . C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith, 2nd edition, Oxford UP, 1958.

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1 This essay is a revised version of the title essay of a book of the same name first published by Routledge in 1973 and most recently reprinted in 2017. Grateful acknowledgement is due to Routledge. All references to modern scholarship are those of 1973 and have not been updated to what would be customary today. The following abbreviations have been used for Swift’s writings: Correspondence: ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols, Oxford, 1963-5; Journal to Stella: ed. Harold Williams, 2 vols, Oxford, 1948; Poems: ed. Harold Williams, 2nd edn, 3 vols, Oxford, 1958); Works: The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis and others, 14 vols, Oxford, Blackwell, 1939-68. All quotations are from these editions unless otherwise stated. I normally give volume and page references in the notes, but chapter, section or line of individual works, where convenient, in brackets in the text. For Gulliver’s Travels I also include the page reference in Works, XI. All quotations from Pope’s poems use the Twickenham texts and lineation.

2 See also I.32.

3 Tristram Shandy, IV.x; IX.viii.

4 For a most useful survey of this ‘self-conscious’ mode of writing, see Wayne C. Booth, ‘The self-conscious narrator in comic fiction before Tristram Shandy’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, LXVII, 1952, pp. 163-185. There is a good deal of this kind of writing shortly before Sterne, not necessarily derived from Swift, and my point does not primarily concern an ‘influence’. See also Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago and London, 1965, p. 229.

5 It is noteworthy that in some of his private correspondence with Stella, Swift frequently used what we now recognize as Shandean mannerisms: coy spontaneities of self-reference, playfully affectionate bits of private nonsense and of intimate double-entendre, broken sentences and even the sort of non-verbal and sub-verbal communication (‘little language’, grunts and cries) which is part of the everyday world of Tristram and Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby, but which Swift was quick to satirize in its more public manifestations (e.g. the sub-verbal communion, through looks and sighs and belches, of the worshippers in the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit, Works, I.183, etc.). See the examples from the Journal to Stella cited in Herbert Davis, Jonathan Swift: Essays on his Satire, and other Studies, New York, 1964, pp. 82 ff., and Davis’s pertinent comment on p. 93 ‘that the letters of Swift from which I have been quoting, were first published at various times between 1745 and 1767, that the account of the life and character of Stella first appeared in 1765, and the Journal to Stella partly in 1766, and partly in 1768; they were all therefore first read by those who had delighted in the novels of Richardson and Sterne, and who were enjoying the sentimental comedies of Kelly and Cumberland.’

6 Here again Swift is prepared privately to practise the things whose public manifestation he reproves. A. B. England has shown how in the private Journal to Stella Swift is concerned that his writing should suggest ‘that nothing which comes into his consciousness is irrelevant’, and that the moment by moment reporting of facts and feelings, even if they turn out to be erroneous, must stand as the true record of ‘the incoherent, discontinuous movement of his experience and his thoughts’, citing comments like ‘I must say every sorry thing that comes into my head’, ‘Mr. Lewis’s man came in before I could finish that word beginning with a W …’, etc. (‘Private and public rhetoric in the Journal to Stella’, Essays in Criticism, XXII, 1972), 133; Journal to Stella, II.568, 371). Like other critics, Mr England rightly argues that the spontaneities and discontinuities are themselves part of a deliberate rhetoric. So, of course, were Sterne’s. The points of interest in the present context are that Swift was both drawn to a proto-Shandean style and at the same time reserved his non-satiric uses of it for his private writings.

Compare Swift’s narrator’s claim that his statements are ‘literally true this Minute I am writing’, whatever the next moment may bring, with the Mailerian hipster’s doctrine that ‘there are no truths other than the isolated truths of what each observer feels at each instant of his existence … the truth is not what one has felt yesterday or what one expects to feel tomorrow but rather truth is no more nor less than what one feels at each instant in the perpetual climax of the present’ (Advertisements for Myself, pp. 285-286).

7 Richardson, Preface to Sir Charles Grandison.

8 Tristram Shandy,

9 Irvin Ehrenpreis, The Personality of Jonathan Swift, London, 1958, p. 39, on A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed. Ehrenpreis also lists parallels from other writers. See also Roland M. Frye, ‘Swift’s Yahoo and the Christian symbols for sin’, Journal of the History of Ideas, xv, 1954, pp. 201-217, and Deane Swift’s Essay, 1755, pp. 221 ff.

10 For an amusing passage about indoor against outdoor defecation, see ‘A Panegyrick on the D—n’, lines 229 ff. (Poems, III.894 ff.).

11 William King, Some Remarks on the Tale of a Tub (1704) cited by Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift, New York and London, 1936, p. 75; William Wotton, A Defense of the Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning … With Observations upon The Tale of a Tub (1705) in A Tale of a Tub, ed. A . C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith, 2nd edn, Oxford, 1958, pp. 322, 323, 326; Works, I.5. Swift was not at first known to be the author.

12 The tartness of these jokes in Gulliver may be contrasted with the protracted and elaborate geniality with which Norman Mailer describes ‘an overwhelming urge to micturate’ in Armies of the Night (New York, 1968), pp. 42-4, with its vacuous mock-concern about what people would think of his ‘pissing on the floor’ if the attendant reported it to the police or the press got hold of the news (p. 43), and with its fussily self-delighting returns to the episode, and to Mailer’s coy feelings of guilt, later in the book (pp. 63, 71).

13 For other satirical treatments of the papal ceremony, see Tale, IV (Works, I.71), and Rabelais I.ii; I.xxxiii;

14 Real concealment seemed a necessity, with such a subversive book, though Pope told Swift on 16 November 1726 that people were not worried by ‘particular reflections’, so that he ‘needed not to have been so secret upon this head’ (Correspondence, III.181). In any case, simple anonymity or pseudonymity would have served the practical purposes. Swift’s authorship soon became fairly well known anyway.

15 Horace Odes III xi 35.

16 See also Mario M. Rossi and Joseph M. Hone, Swift or the Egotist, London, 1934, pp. 330, 411.

17 See Ricardo Quintana, Swift: An Introduction, London, 1962, pp. 53 ff., 158 f.

18 Rabelais, II.xxviii, et passim; Lucian, True Story, I.2 ff.; Butler, Erewhon, ch. ix ad fin.

19 ‘Democritus Junior to the Reader’, Anatomy of Melancholy, London and New York, Everyman’s Library, 1932, I.15, 123.

20 Contrast Gulliver’s use of this convention: ‘I never suffer a Word to pass that may look like Reflection, or possibly give the least Offence even to those who are most ready to take it. So that, I hope, I may with Justice pronounce myself an Author perfectly blameless; against whom the Tribes of Answerers, Considerers, Observers, Reflecters, Detecters, Remarkers, will never be able to find Matter for exercising their Talents’ (IV.xii.293). This hardly pretends to be a friendly, or even a plausible, gesture from Swift, though it is, of course, amusing.

21 For both uses, see Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Thou’, pers. Pron. Ib, and ‘Thou’, verb.

22 The clinching joke, though not the passage as a whole, is Swift’s. See R. W. Frantz, ‘Gulliver’s “Cousin Sympson’, Huntington Library Quarterly, i, 1938, pp. 331-333.

23 The passage seems to some extent to conform to Erasmus’s prescription for amplifying a description with appropriate graphic detail: see De Copia, Book II, Fifth Method, especially the examples from Quintilian, VIII.iii.67-69, and Lucan, III (On Copia of Words and Ideas, trs. and ed. Donald B. King and H. David Rix (Milwaukee, 1963), pp. 47-50). Quintilian is describing how to make vivid the capture of a city, Lucan is describing a particular battle. Neither passage has nor seeks the crazy and generalized exuberance of Gulliver’s headlong list.

24 Joseph Horrell, ‘What Gulliver knew’, Sewanee Review, li (1943), 492-3; Case, Four Essays, p. 121; Samuel H. Monk, ‘The pride of Lemuel Gulliver’, Sewanee Review, lxiii (1955), 56.

25 For an excellent discussion of More and Swift, see John Traugott, ‘A voyage to Nowhere with Thomas More and Jonathan Swift: Utopia and The Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’, Sewanee Review, lxix (1961), 534-65. A somewhat different comparison is made by Brian Vickers, ‘The satiric structure of Gulliver’s Travels and More’s Utopia’, The World of Jonathan Swift, ed. Brian Vickers, Oxford, 1968, pp. 233-257.

26 Tom Jones, III.iii. I hasten to say that I do not believe that the Houyhnhnms are therefore a satirical skit on the deists (or that Square, as one might just as easily ‘prove’, was a skit on the Houyhnhnms), though the rationalisms have points in common. A. O. Lovejoy’s ‘The parallel of Deism and Classicism’, Essays in the History of Ideas, New York, 1960, pp. 78-98, makes abundantly clear that many basic assumptions about Nature and Reason were the common property of deists and non-deists alike. (My discussion here is indebted to this and other essays in Lovejoy’s book.) This may be the place to say categorically that in my view Swift treats the Houyhnhnms mainly seriously and not mockingly, and that the recent arguments to this effect by Sherburn, Crane, Rosenheim, W. B. Carnochan, and others have put criticism of Gulliver’s Travels back on the right lines.

27 These wonderfully apt examples are adapted from Rabelais, v.xxii, as is noted in W. A. Eddy, Gulliver’s Travels: A Critical Study (New York, 1963), pp. 161-162. Jean Plattard’s notes to the Cinquiesme Livre, Paris, 1948, pp. 324-325, show that Rabelais was literalizing a series of adages of Erasmus. See also the account of Lucian’s True Story in Eddy, p. 16.

28 Pope, Dunciad, III.6.

29 See for example Roland M. Frye (above, n9), pp. 208-209.

30 This is an illuminating parallel to Swift’s remark to Pope on 26 November 1725 about the kite (Correspondence, III.118). I have briefly discussed interpretations of this controversial letter in a review in Notes and Queries, ccix, 1964, pp. 316-317.

31 There are certain analogies between this mode of attack, and those strategies of aggression either way, of putting one’s victim in an ‘untenable position’ or ‘double bind’, some of whose manifestations in the domain of psychopathology are described in R. D Laing, Self and Others, Harmondsworth, 1971, ch. ix, esp. pp. 141 ff., 147. And see Peter Sedgwick in Laing and Anti-Psychiatry, ed. Robert Boyers and Robert Orrill, Harmondsworth, 1972, pp. 22-24.

32 The passage runs pointedly against the Lilliputian ( and English (III.vii.201-2) examples. All rather strikingly have grandfather–grandchildren references. The contrast may reflect Swift’s interest, noted by some critics, in a cyclical theory of history (e.g. III.x.210), but such force as it has on the reader as a contrast is simply to the discredit of England.

33 See Ehrenpreis, ‘The meaning of Gulliver’s last voyage’, Review of English Literature, iii (1962), 34. In some ways, animal rationis capax is not really very different from animal rationale in the low-pitched textbook sense. Bolingbroke may have this partly in mind when he says the distinction ‘will not bear examination’ (Correspondence, III.121).

34 Physicians provide a monstrously concrete example of Nature turned upside down. The basis of the reversal is the perfectly fair notion, discussed earlier, that health is the ‘natural’ state of the body: ‘these Artists ingeniously considering that in all Diseases Nature is forced out of her Seat; therefore to replace her in it, the Body must be treated in a Manner directly contrary, by interchanging the Use of each Orifice; forcing Solids and Liquids in at the Anus, and making Evacuations at the Mouth’ (

35 Lucian, Timon, or the Misanthrope; Plutarch, Life of Antony, LXX; Shakespeare, Timon of Athens. Or it may be that when Swift professed his misanthropy in Gulliver’s Travels to be ‘not [in] Timons manner’ (Correspondence, III.103) he was merely saying that he was just as misanthropic, but would avoid Timon’s ‘manner’ only, i.e. his style of ranting grandiloquence, a version of that ‘lofty Stile’ (Epistle to a Lady, lines 140, 218, Poems, II.634, 637), which Swift almost invariably refused to use.

36 . See W. B. Carnochan, ‘The complexity of Swift: Gulliver’s fourth voyage’, Studies in Philology, lx, 1963, 32 ff.

37 ‘O, if the World had but a dozen Arbuthnetts in it I would burn my Travells’ (Correspondence, III.104). Don Pedro may, in this sense, be an Arbuthnot.

38 For another useful perspective, see R. S. Crane, ‘The rationale of the fourth voyage’, Gulliver’s Travels. An Annotated Text with Critical Essays, ed. Robert A. Greenberg, New York, 1961, pp. 305-306.

39 See also George Sherburn, ‘Errors concerning the Houyhnhnms’, Modern Philology, lvi, 1958, pp. 94-95, and Carnochan, ‘The complexity of Swift: Gulliver’s fourth voyage’, Studies in Philology, lx, 1963, pp. 25-26.

40 Samuel Butler, Hudibras, I.i.65, 71-2. See Ehrenpreis, op.cit, Review of English Literature, iii, 1962, 23 ff., for further illustration of the relevance of logic books. Another specified example of the non-rational animal was the ape. That Gulliver should have been taken by a Brobdingnagian monkey for one of its kind (II.v.122) gains an additional piquancy from this. Swift uses the horse, unlike the monkey, as an opposite, not as a parallel, but man is the loser both ways.

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Claude RAWSON, « Gulliver and the Gentle Reader »E-rea [En ligne], 18.2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2021, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Maynard Mack Professor Emeritus, Yale University, United States
Claude Rawson is the author of numerous books on Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and other eighteenth-century authors, and of a great number of articles and reviews both in specialist journals and in the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review and London Review of Books. Claude Rawson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Educational Advisory Board of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a former President of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. He is General Editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift. Among his latest books are Swift’s Angers (2014) and Swift and Others (2015), both published by CUP. In 2012, he was named “Docteur Honoris Causa” of Aix-Marseille Université.

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