Samuel Johnson famously said of Gulliver’s Travels: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest.” It is a flippant verdict, yet it’s true that most people lose interest in Swift’s tale after the first and second voyages (to Lilliput, land of small people, and Brobdingnag, land of giants, respectively). That said, I have always been most intrigued by the later journeys.
According to literary critics, the trip to Laputa and other imaginary Pacific islands was originally a separate work. It was written earlier and subsequently stitched into the main narrative. That helps explain why the action and idiom employed by Swift differs from the rest of the tale. This part is concerned less with the grotesqueness of human vanity than it is with intellectual pride. Swift’s skepticism is directed at the grand promises held out by the rationalists of his day—the Laputans are devoted to mathematics but in an entirely impractical manner. One passage recounts how a man had “been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.”
After leaving the flying island of Laputa and its incompetent scientists, Gulliver encounters the immortal Struldbrugs of Luggnagg. The Englishman at first feels “inexpressible delight” when hearing of this long-lived race. Gulliver’s host must disillusion him. The Struldbrugs “had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.” Over time they lose their hair, teeth, eyesight and even their sense of taste, while the pleasures of social intercourse eventually become impossible to them. They are outcasts. The birth of a Struldbrug is treated as an ominous event. This prompts Gulliver to ask his hosts if he might send some of the hideous immortals to England “to arm our people against the fear of death.”
Often overlooked is the scene near the end of the third voyage where Gulliver is dealing with some Dutch traders in Japan. In general Swift didn’t think much of the “Hollanders.” At one point the English captain insists on forgoing the practice of “trampling upon the crucifix” to prove to the Dutch that he isn’t a “papist.” Swift was high Anglican. He was as critical of Catholicism as he was of low church Dissenters. Yet this passage is significant, as is the fact that the author was outspoken about the British treatment of the Irish.
If Gulliver’s third journey strikes me as the most entertaining, the fourth and last voyage (Country of the Houyhnhnms) is the most perplexing. This part of Gulliver’s Travels earned Swift no end of disapproval in the years following his death. Apparently the violent contrast of degraded humanity (the ape-like Yahoos) with the noble, intelligent horses (the Houyhnhnms—pronounced “whinny-ms”) was intolerable. The misanthropic parable was made all the worse, it seems, by the fact that Gulliver returned home and for years shunned the company of other humans, including his own family.
Undoubtedly there is a strong element of cynicism. While Swift sought amelioration of many evils, he intensely distrusted ambitious political schemes. It is an animosity that seems partly warranted as we look back upon the mixed legacy of the Enlightenment. After all, real progress depends on man’s moral intentions, and people have not always made the best use of new inventions and developments. Still there is a point at which social criticism becomes excessive. Whether Swift went that far is a point that readers will continue to debate. There are many people who share Gulliver’s overweening pessimism. By the last voyage, the English captain espouses an eighteenth century version of the moral equivalency argument which places all human societies on the same miserable level. The problem with such perfectionism is that it is destructive of practical ethics. It fails to make important distinctions, or acknowledge that virtue is something we progress towards by degrees rather than at all once. As such it is not only conceited, it is hypocritical, as we see in Gulliver’s increasing hubris. His conceit is even more repulsive than the Yahoos’ brutality. But one can argue that that was exactly the point Swift sought to make.
Literary critic W.A. Speck, in his 1970 study of Swift, provides one interpretation. He sees the comparison of the Yahoos and Houyhnhms as a subtle commentary on Calvinist and deist beliefs, representing two extremes opposed to Swift’s Anglican “middle ground.” For the one, man is an incorrigibly depraved sinner whose reasoning only leads him more deeply into vice. For the other, rationalism, unaided by divine revelation, is capable of lifting man above all errors and vicissitudes. While the Yahoos are repugnant, the Houyhnhnms are unappealing, emotionless creatures whose intellectual hauteur conceals some glaring ignorance about the world. “To Swift…men were not like the Houyhnhnms, rational creatures; they were only capable of reason.” If so, then Swift is not so much a cynic as he is a champion of common sense.