Swift’s Attitude to Mankind as Portrayed in Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift had a mysterious character. He was a disappointed, frustrated and embittered man. Cursed with excessive pride and arrogance, he became like a suppressed volcano. So, various interpretations of his life and work have been offered. Critics differ widely on his attitude towards mankind and his society. Macaulay, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey produced unsympathetic studies on Swift. But a good deal of writing has been devoted to defending him from the charge of being a hater of mankind or misanthrope.Yet the mystery surrounding him has not been unveiled. Actually, it is not easy to reconcile his attack on the woman with his love for Stella and the love which two other women felt for him. Therefore, it is still a stigma whether he hated man really or tried to satirize him in order to cure him of the frivolities, follies, and vices that were prevalent during his lifetime.
Gulliver’s travels are four in number. In the first two travels, i.e. to Lilliput and Brobdingnag, his attacks are not so turbulent and he simply attacked the envy and other negative qualities of man. In his journey to Laputa, he expressed his deep mistrust in the future and workings of science. But in the last book in which he narrated his journey to the land of philosophical horses, he made the bitterest satire against mankind. He reduces and lowers the position of man by describing them yahoos, the brutal beasts responsible for all sorts of indiscipline and troubles in that country of heavenly peace and happiness. He had a lot of difficulties to convince his master that he was not a yahoo. Gulliver’s description of wars among human beings produced only disgust in the master Houyhnhnms. The satire on law and lawyers and on the lust for gold is emphasized by the praise of the virtues of the Houyhnhnms and of their learning. These intelligent animals are governed only by love and courtship is unknown to them. Gulliver does not want to leave this country because of his profound respect for its ruler and inhabitants. But when he actually returns home, he is filled with disgust against the members of his own family and he practically swoons when his wife embraces and kisses him. What annoys him most is to see the human being filled with pride, a vice totally unknown to the Houyhnhnms.
In spite of these bitterest remarks against man in part IV, we cannot call him a misanthrope summarily. In the first two parts, his attitude to man is mild and less aggressive. In these parts, he pointed out the variety of human achievements of which mankind feels proud. Here he laughs at the man only to show the weaknesses of his character so that man can take the right view of his position in the world and accordingly correct himself. In the country of Lilliput, he is a ‘man-mountain’ at the inhabitants of this country are not taller than six inches. The satire in this book obviously consists in showing human motives at work on a small scale. The littleness of human affairs and the pettiness of political intrigues are the targets of his attack. The dispute over which end an egg should properly be broken, which plunged Lilliput into civil war, is a comment on the seriousness of party divisions in the greater world. Swift wants to show the meanness of man. Again, when he visits Brobdingnag, he finds its people to be as tall as sixty feet. The ‘man-mountain’ himself becomes a Lilliputian in that country. This country of giants shatters the pride of Gulliver as a ‘man-mountain.’ The king of this country expresses his amazement at the affairs of the ‘little men’ of which Gulliver is the representative. He is struck by surprise when he hears that these little people have discovered gun-powder for their own killing.
These two pictures of two countries have been presented only to make us humble, not haughty and insolent like the yahoos. It is intended that man should learn his own limitations. Swift deplores the proud sense of human beauty. He makes us naked only to teach that man should not boast of his power and vainglory. One example will suffice it to prove the point that we have certainly a high admiration for physical beauty. It is nothing but an attitude of our mind. The queen of the Lilliputians had a beauty which Gulliver failed to notice. On the other hand, the women of Brobdingnag certainly being looked at as beautiful but to Gulliver, there is no beauty in such a giantess. The size and shape of the breast of a nurse of this country cannot add to her beauty. Rather such a big breast makes her ‘ugly’ to Gulliver.
Gulliver’s Travels has been described to be one of the supreme masterpieces of the world equal to the best work of Chaucer, Dickens, Rabelais, Moliere, and Cervantes. As a comedy, it aims at correcting the weaknesses of the contemporary society. Therefore, Swift can never be a misanthrope at least in the first two books, although for his anti-human stand in book IV, many critics accuse him of being one.