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Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is without question the most famous literature to emerge from this 18th century Tory satiric tradition. It is the strongest, funniest, and yet in some ways most despairing cry for a halt to the trends initiated by seventeenth-century philosophy. In Book IV, we discover how Gulliver’s journey into a discovery of what man is becomes a journey into madness. We encounter, here, a cruel attack on man. This is an attack using two of the most striking literary metaphors for man: the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The first are beings in every way like horses except for their possession of absolute reason; the second are creatures bearing an uncanny resemblance to man except for their animalistic brutality. Swift’s use of these creatures, Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, as an approach to the problem of the nature of man, has attracted more critical attention than has any other part of his work.
Now, the first important question to ask of any satirist is how he or she achieves the necessary comic distortion, which transforms the familiar into the ridiculous. And Swift’s main technique for achieving this--and a wonderful technique for satire--is the basic plot of science fiction: the voyage by an average civilized human being into unknown territory and his return back home. This apparently simple plot immediately opens all sorts of satiric possibilities, because it enables the writer constantly to play off three different perspectives in order to give us the reader a comic sense of what is very familiar. It can do this in the following ways:
If the strange new country is recognizably similar to our culture, then comic distortions in the New World enable the writer to satirize the familiar in a host of different ways, providing, in effect, a cartoon style view of our world. If the strange new country is some sort of utopia--a perfectly realized vision of the ideals often proclaimed but generally violated in our world--then the satirist can manipulate the discrepancy between the ideal New World of the fiction and the corrupt world we live in to illustrate repeatedly just how empty the pretensions to goodness really are in our world.
However, the key to this technique is generally the use of the traveler, the figure who is, in effect, the reader’s contemporary and fellow countryman. How that figure reacts to the New World can be a constant source of amusement and pointed satiric comment, because, in effect, this figure represents the contact between the normal world and the strange New World of either caricatured ridiculousness or utopian perfection.
We can see Swift moving back and forth between the first two techniques, and this can create some confusion. For example, in much of Book I, Lilliput is clearly a comic distortion of life in Europe. The sections on the public rewards of leaping and creeping or the endless disputes about whether one should eat one’s eggs by breaking them at the bigger or the smaller end or the absurdity of the royal proclamations are obvious and funny distortions of the court life, the pompous pretentiousness of officials, and the religious disputes familiar to Swift’s readers.
At the same time, however, there are passages where he holds up the laws of Lilliput as some form of utopian ideal, in order to demonstrate just how much better they understand true reasonableness than do the Europeans. In book II, he does the same: for most of the time the people of Brobdingnag are again caricatured distorted Europeans, but clearly, the King of Brobdingnag is an ideal figure.
This shift in perspective on the New World is at times confusing. Swift is, in effect, manipulating the fictional world to suit his immediate satirical purposes. It is easy enough to see what he is doing, but it does, in some sense, violate our built-up expectations. Just how are we supposed to take Lilliput and Brobdingna--as a distorted Europe or as a utopia or what? This lack of a consistent independent reality to the fictional world which he has created is one of the main reasons why Gulliver’s Travels is not considered one of the first novels (since one of the requirements of a novel, it is maintained, is a consistent attitude towards the fictional reality one has created: one cannot simply manipulate it at will to prove a moral point).
We can see Gulliver slowly becoming accustomed to a new kind of life, the life of reason that he is forced to imitate from the model supplied by the horses. We can begin to see that Gulliver is impressed by the orderly and rational conduct of life he sees in the Houyhnhnms but, while the Houyhnhnms may provide Gulliver with a model manner of life, Swift is forcing the careful reader to judge whether the life
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