Critical Essays Gulliver as a Dramatis Persona


Jonathan Swift is not, of course, Lemuel Gulliver; nor does Swift seriously use Gulliver as either a mask or a mouthpiece. This truism, however, is not as obvious as one might think. For too many years, critics of Gulliver's Travels were infuriated with Swift. After they had finished the fourth book of the Travels, they believed that Swift had imbued Gulliver with his own mad and misanthropic traits. Thackeray, for instance, said that Swift should be "hooted" because he had written a book "filthy in word, filthy in thought . . . raging [and] obscene." Swift's early critics were quick to forget — or carelessly overlooked in their horror — that Gulliver's denunciation of the Yahoos and his veneration for the Houyhnhnms belonged to Gulliver — a character in an allegorical adventure tale. He was Swift's creation, but never the creator himself.

Gulliver is a simple, naive creature; Swift is one of the most complex personalities in English letters. Swift merely incensed his early critics, and they wanted a scapegoat on which to vent their ire. The same critics would not have dreamed of identifying Swift with Gulliver while Gulliver was amongst the Lilliputians, but when Swift placed Gulliver between the extremes of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, then the satire became less topical. Swift, in the fourth book, is assailing Man, not merely English, political men. But it is not Swift who is saying that all humankind is worthless; it is Gulliver who thought so. Swift set up the antithetical worlds of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms to shock, not to define. Gulliver, if properly viewed, is a fool when the Travels is finished. He prefers the company of horses to other men and even to his own family. Ironically, he worships reason but is almost wholly devoid of reason.

The kind of a man Swift was and the kind of a man Gulliver is are antithetical to one another. Gulliver is an "innocent-eyed" narrator; Swift was an ironist. Gulliver tells us what he believes is the truth; Swift reveals ambiguities. Gulliver reports to us as precisely as he can, often not realizing the implications of his observations. Swift, in contrast, lets us know the implications. Gulliver, for example, is impressed by the Lilliputians' grandeur; Swift lets us see beyond Gulliver's narrative line and realize the irony in the juxtaposition of the miniscule Lilliputians and their grandiose notions. Gulliver gives us his perspective of his adventures; then Swift pulls us farther back so that Gulliver himself is seen in perspective. Yet one thing that we can always count on, as far as Gulliver is concerned, is his honesty as a reporter. We can trust him because he is neither discreet nor imaginative enough to either withhold or insert inventive adventures on his own.

The tone that Swift has Gulliver use in reporting is one of the key factors separating author from hero. Gulliver reports to us as though we were as gullible as he is. Of course we are not. We can feel superior to Gulliver even though we like him. He has a fascinating curiosity and gets himself into many scrapes precisely because of his gullibility. Had he been as clever as Swift, there would have been no adventures. In fact, Swift would probably have so infuriated the Brobdingnagians that they would have snuffed out his life. They would not have tolerated the stinging-tongued little Dean.

One may argue that ultimately Gulliver is disillusioned about man, and so is Swift. But Swift was never so disillusioned about people that he boarded in a stable. Swift's disillusionment took an indignant turn. That's why he wrote his satires — to point out imperfections, to chasten, and to educate. Swift was his own judge. But Gulliver accepts the Houyhnhnms' judgment of himself. And he finally believes that he, though he hates to admit it, is terribly Yahoo-like. Gulliver worships the Houyhnhnm ideal; Swift subtly mocks it by letting Gulliver praise it; then he slowly reveals that it is an ideal devoid of any spark of life. In this way, Swift shows us that Gulliver is incapable of critically thinking and reasoning. Gulliver is worshipping something as lifeless as a mathematical equation. And, when we finish the book, the horses and their ideals are as uninteresting to us as they are captivating to Gulliver.

Gulliver is completely befuddled at the end of the Travels. He has reached for an unhuman ideal and has rejected the sub-human Yahoos as too thoroughly human. He believes that the Travels is a defense of himself, showing how morally he acted. In truth, the Travels is the best evidence one could have that Gulliver often acted very ridiculously. He imagines one type of audience; Swift created for another. Gulliver's gullibility and his simplicity are responsible for his downfall. He does not realize that human beings are infinitely more complex than the Yahoos or the Houyhnhnms. Being a simple man, he simplifies to disastrous extremes. He has come full turn — from being proud of being a European man to disgust for all people. Gulliver believes his distorted vision. Swift does not. He holds it up only as a disconcerting, shocking mirror image — the kind one finds at a carnival. This is the reason for his satire — to catch us off-guard, to magnify, to miniaturize, and to make us see anew.