Swift’s Gulliver: The Puppeteer and His Marionette
by Levi Crews
It is not appropriate to name Gulliver among the likes of Pip and Gatsby and Madame Bovary; he is not a literary character by their definition. At the same time, it is not enough to limit Captain Gulliver to the role of bland, transparent satirist, interpreting him only as Swift’s inked emissary. He is something in between. And, in the scope of Gulliver’s Travels, this murky dualism is imperative, for it elucidates the manner in which Swift can express misanthropy without implicating himself among the “Yahoos” he is satirizing.
It is rather simple to prove that Gulliver is not Swift’s direct representative: for much of the narrative, he is too imbecilic and innocent of an observer to properly convey the Juvenalian satire of Swift. Consider Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput, the nation of diminutive humanoids, or his journey to the Houyhnhnms, the race of intelligent horses. While Swift compounds absurdity with absurdity in his fabrication of these worlds, Gulliver innocently takes these environs to their logical ends. For instance, the Lilliputians are credited with “bury[ing] their dead with their heads directly downwards,” under the presumption that the world will one day flip and the corpses will land on their feet (Swift and Seidel, 63). To this Gulliver makes no remark; Swift’s satire is palpable nevertheless. For another example, Gulliver claims that, “[t]he Houyhnhnms use the hollow part between the pastern and the hoof of their forefeet as we do our hands, and this with greater dexterity than I could at first imagine,” (273). He continues with descriptions of mares milking cows and stallions building huts. How outrageous an image does he have to describe before he abandons his mundane style and expresses the bewilderment of the reader? Apparently one more preposterous than a horse with “dexterity.”
It is not Gulliver’s simple narration alone that brands him naïve; rather, his eager claims of veracity implicate him. Gulliver may have been acquitted for his report of Swift’s environment if he had admitted its irrationality. Nevertheless, Gulliver repeatedly makes statements such as he did in Houyhnhnmland when he claimed: “I strictly adhere to truth,” (245). He even has the audacity to exclaim: “I should have great reason to complain, that some [readers] are so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain,” (8). To a sane narrator, it should appear “so bold” for a reader to accept his book of travels without doubts! The outrageous surroundings in which Gulliver finds himself are beyond disbelief, let alone skepticism. But, as Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh comments, “Gulliver is a fellow ‘of exceeding honesty,’ and he goes about his deadly work the better for his bluntness and scrupulous pretense of veracity,” (138). Gulliver’s innocent outlook supplies the reader with a clear view of Swift’s irony and satire, for Gulliver is too ignorant to evaluate his circumstances in the reader’s stead.
Then Swift has created a Gulliver that cannot evaluate, an “ingénu” that “roams the world uncritically recording or even embracing the folly which it is [Swift’s] business to undermine,” (Elliott, 96-7). But our Captain is prone to random bursts of enlightened criticism, such as his reflection on “how vain an attempt it is for man to endeavor doing himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him,” (128). And therein is rooted Gulliver’s second misnomer, that of a literary character. His development is too disjointed—if at all connected—for him to possess the traditional dynamism of a novel’s protagonist. Indeed, “Gulliver’s character can hardly be said to develop; it simply changes,” (97).
Consider, for example, Gulliver’s tendency to assimilate. As he grows accustomed to each new land, Gulliver begins to use the possessive “our”: “our district,” “our house, “our family,” (269-73). He seems to lose his identity in an effort to fit in, to weave himself into his incredible surroundings. We encounter here an insecure Gulliver, a traveler that wishes to dress as the Lilliputians dress, stride as the giants stride, think as the Laputans think. Most strikingly, this Gulliver wishes to abandon his humanity, accept the reason and ways of the Houyhnhnms, and never return to England. He chronically abandons his ego. And yet, barring his final return, each regression to Redriff provides the same, unmuted, British maritime physician that precariously set sail years before. His remarkable circumstances do little to develop his character; in fact, they do little to create a character at all.
One of the few developments of Gulliver is that he grows disillusioned. This is most glaring when juxtaposing the innocence of Gulliver in his first three voyages with his vitriol in the last. Our babbling buffoon—the man who considered peace a “narrow principle,” who criticized the king of Brobdingnag for rejecting armaments, who was confounded by Laputan meritocracy—began his travels blindly patriotic (139, 190). He admits that he has “always borne that laudable partiality to [England],” going so far as to apologize to his readers for any criticisms of his homeland that he was forced to record (137). The Gulliver of these voyages is “an absorber of [irony], a character who proceeds with the comic bewilderment of a quixote,” (Hanlon, 7). Compare that to the Gulliver of the horses’ stable in Houyhnhnmland: passionately reasonable, sharply misanthropic, fallibly truthful. Inspired by his equine companions, Gulliver not only considers, but also espouses the reproaches of his native land that reason ordains. He basks in the absence of all humans from “tedious talkers” to “strolling whores” (276). He is even openly satirical, chastising men for their misapplication of reason: “When I thought of . . . human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition, only a little more civilized . . . making no other use of reason than to improve and multiply those vices,” (277). To the new disillusioned Gulliver, England—and human nature—was nothing more than an embarrassing root.
It is pertinent here to explore the Gulliver that records the Travels, for he is not the same as the Gulliver that experiences them. As the prefatory letter indicates, the Captain who sat down at Redriff to record his journeys was crazed and misanthropic—manic, even. He chastises his editor for making him “say the thing that was not,” and rants about “some corruptions of [his] Yahoo nature” reviving in him (5, 8). This is a Gulliver that despises human kind, having lived with and learned from the reasoned horses of Houyhnhnmland. But it is this same Gulliver that wrote the first three voyages, plainly reconstructing his former self, withholding the criticisms of the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagans and Laputans that he certainly would make now. The “inversion of common sense” that this idea elucidates confirms Gulliver’s misnomer and, more extremely, suggests insanity (98).
This duality of Gulliver—character or satirist, ingénu or misanthrope—is exactly what Swift desired. By casting doubt upon the congruency and sanity of his narrator, Swift is able to dissociate himself from Gulliver. The captain can neither be Swift’s voice nor Swift’s independent character; he is at once tied to and torn from his manipulator—he is a puppet. And this is logically required, for the theme of misanthropy is rendered null and void if presented by Swift alone. Indeed, “if all men are Yahoos, the creator of Gulliver is a Yahoo among the rest, and Gulliver’s Travels . . . are no more than the noisome braying of an odious beast,” (99). But the total Yahoodom of man is not actually Swift’s idea; this gem belongs to Gulliver. It is the manic seaman that presents the reader with a diatribe on human pride at book’s end, and it is him in Houyhnhnmland and Redriff who stuffs his nose with tobacco leaves to avoid smelling human flesh (294). Swift strings Gulliver toward hyperbolic misanthropy in order to underscore his own: “I hate and detest the animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth,” (Swift, 103). Swift’s misanthropy is humanistic, for it accepts human folly, but not Gulliver’s assertion of human rottenness (99).
The opacity of authorial responsibility that often dominates the Travels is dissolved when viewed in this light. Although subtle, the fracture between Swift and Gulliver is illuminated by the seeming mistakes and inconsistencies of the latter. Indeed, Gulliver proves to be an “abstraction, manipulated in the service of satire,” (97). For Swift, this puppetry exonerates him of hypocrisy and frees him to express his peculiar brand of misanthropy, the “great foundation” of Gulliver’s Travels (103).