Monday, February 23, 2009

Human Pride in Gulliver's Travels

Well, my exam session is over, and seems like I passed everything, so here's my Restoration Literature term paper. I was fortunate enough to write on Gulliver and not some bobbery bullshit 17th century softporn soap comedy crap. Maybe someone will find it useful :)

A critical analysis of the Third Book of Gulliver’s Travels, paying special attention to the treatment of human pride. Why is pride the object of so much criticism?

Jonathan Swift’s “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships” or just “Gulliver’s Travels” as most of us know it was published in 1726 and since then it has never been out of print. John Gay said in a 1726 letter to Swift that the novel "is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery" and he was quite right. “Gulliver’s Travels” is largely regarded as a book for children or a parody of the "traveler’s tales" literary sub-genre, sometimes even viewed as a proto-science fiction, but it is also a strong satire on human nature. Swift uses the adventurous and fantastic story as a vehicle of ideas. He comments on complex topics such as politics, religion, universal morals, and the so called “civilization” - in particular European society during the Age of Reason (but I feel that the same context can be applied to present-day conditions).

Much of his criticism Swift aimed at pride. He had plenty of reasons to do so - Irishman by birth, Swift was a vocal critic of the cruelty his compatriots suffered under British rule. Swift was better able to cast a critical, cynical eye toward the monarchy and the bloody political changes which blossomed throughout the Age of Reason. But superiority executed with cruelty and arrogance was present not only in the British/Irish relations - more and more Europeans traveled to the New World and imperialism traveled with them. Colonial society was practically based on slavery and the conquest of native. The ever so proud Western civilization was resting on perceived superiority over the "dark" continents.

After being attacked by pirates in Part III Gulliver is marooned somewhere near India, but soon “taken aboard” the flying island of Laputa - a name that indicates Swift’s opinion of the Age of Reason. Gulliver explains to us what he believes Laputa to mean, but his speculations are wrong. The name Laputa comes from Spanish and means “the whore.” Swift makes a reference to Martin Luther’s famous description of reason: “That Great Whore, Reason!” Luther became infuriated with reason because some of his opponents were using it to deny the Lutheran emphasis on faith. Swift being a Protestant minister himself was sympathetic to the Lutheran adherence to faith and the system of morality built upon it. By naming the island Laputa, he warns his readers that he is deprecating those rationalists and abstract reasoners who are antagonists of faith.

The first thing Gulliver notices about the population of this astonishing place is that the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing. Soon he finds out that they are completely incompetent in practical affairs and don’t even notice that their wives are notoriously unfaithful – another reference to the name of the island. Swift warns the readers that immorality accompanies abstract, proud reason. The reasons for this can be found if we look closer to English politics from that time - this part of his book relates to Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, a Whig who was first elected in 1701 and served during the reigns of George I and George II. The woman who runs away to live with a slave in Chapter II has reference to the stories that circulated about Walpole’s wife – “a great court lady, who had several children, - is married to the prime minister, (and Walpole is regarded as having been the first Prime Minister of Great Britain) the richest subject in the kingdom, a very graceful person, extremely fond of her, and lives in the finest palace of the island, - went down to Lagado on the pretence of health, there hid herself for several months, till the king sent a warrant to search for her; and she was found in an obscure eating-house all in rags, having pawned her clothes to maintain an old deformed footman, who beat her every day, and in whose company she was taken, much against her will. And although her husband received her with all possible kindness, and without the least reproach, she soon after contrived to steal down again, with all her jewels, to the same gallant, and has not been heard of since.”
But Swift doesn’t stop with just the Prime Minister, he mocks George I himself. Laputan’s king’s hospitality to Gulliver is an allusion to George I who was notorious for filling his administration with illiterate Germans from Hanover. The tailor’s mistake in calculation applies to Isaac Newton, who suffered ridicule because a printer made a mistake in one of the figures Newton used in computing the distance of the earth from the sun. Swift, however, had yet another quarrel with Newton who recommended a scheme to debase Irish coinage that Swift believed was immoral and callous. Newton was a convenient model for Swift, who believed that he incorporated the essence of the immoral, abstract reasoning scientist. Swift also makes satirical use of the Laputan anxiety about the health of the sun and the comet theories. Many of his contemporaries were so interested in astrology, Swift believed, that they might worry over a comet and not notice their wives’ infidelity.

When Gulliver finds himself in Balnibarbi Swift discredits the kind of intelligence that is interested in the way things work without considering the ends to be attained. All the projects that Gulliver describes are parodies of undertakings seriously advanced by English scientists. Swift warns the reader of the results of the pride that comes with discovery and knowledge. Man feels superior, now that he has a better understanding of nature he can control it – but those who listen to the “projectors” and the scientific experimentalists cause their land to become barren and desolate.

One of the most obvious and harsh critics Swift makes is the use of science for the means of warfare. This part of the book questions progress and the way science is used. Pride of scientific achievements makes the people of Laputa feel superior and they don’t hesitate to use their knowledge to terrorize the world below. The flying island can be viewed as a metaphor for a closed snobbish society, out of touch with reality. They use their island to block the sun and the rain, to crash on towns and villages… And what’s more the method of throwing rocks at rebellious ground areas also seems the first time that aerial bombardment was conceived as a method of warfare.

As centuries later, when we have atomic bombs and biological weapons, another great writer, Michael Crichton would say: “Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should”.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for the quick and dirty version of the Martin Luther reference. You definently saved me quite a bit of time hunting down all that stuff from various sites.