Books

Gulliver’s Travels, A Satire: (5) A Voyage To Insanity

Captain_lemuel_gulliver
Does this look like the face of a crazy person to you?

No. Of course it isn’t. Not yet.

In my fifth and final post about Gulliver’s Travels, I wanted to talk about Gulliver himself. Gulliver is such a dynamic character, who descends into utter and complete madness by the end of the book, and tracking that madness if helpful in understanding the book.

The best way to do this is to consider the following quote by the author, Jonathan Swift, on satire:

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.

Basically, satire is a mirror that reveals the truth about the world, but the reason why we enjoy it so much is because we don’t see that truth in ourselves.

So in Part 1, Lilliput, Gulliver is (relatively) sane. He sees the Lilliputians, thinks they are cute and intelligent, and when they think he smells funny, he doesn’t believe them. This is Gulliver looking in the mirror of satire for the first time, and not seeing his reflection. He simply thinks they are a funny group of people.

In Part 2, Brobdingnag, Gulliver becomes a Lilliputian in term of relative size, and learns that what is considered big or small is all based on perspective. (If a Lilliputian found his way to Brobdingnag…well let’s just say he’d do a lot worse than what Gulliver did to the Empress’s palace.) Because of his perspective, he begins to understand what the Lilliputians saw in him, and thus he begins to see his outline in the mirror. When he gets back home, he’s lost all sense of proportion.

In Part 3, Gulliver is shown how dumb humanity is, pursuing and idolizing the wrong ideals. However, while he recognizes this and begins to discredit those of his race, he doesn’t seem to realize his own faults—the mirror fogs again.

In Part 4, Gulliver is forced to face a version of humanity that is despicable. And it is here that the mirror clears completely for him, when he can finally see himself in the mirror and realize all his faults as a Yahoo. And seeing it all drives him insane.

In the end, Gulliver hates all humanity and enjoys the company of his stallions, conversing with them.

So why doesn’t the reader go insane too?

For one thing, the reader isn’t Gulliver. We don’t experience everything he does, and he cuts several parts out for fear of boring the reader. He spends several years in these living satires–we read several pages.

For another, despite our view of the mirror (we know what is being satirized when), it isn’t being held in front of us–at least, not directly. The mirror is held up in front of Gulliver–he is directly interacting with the satire, and the reader merely watches for the effects on him.

But does that mean the reader doesn’t learn anything from it? No at all. Each voyage has taught me a lot about humanity and our faults, but I’m not planning to talking to horses any time soon.

I think Gulliver is an example of what happens when we are simply influenced by such teachings, and don’t apply them properly. For example, Brobdingnag explains that up close, we’re full of pockmarks and holes, and we smell. So if we all stink, should we hate each other for it?

No. Instead, I think it makes us equal to one another, and helps me realize that we are not perfect. And that’s what satire is: it shows us that we are not perfect, that we have faults, and we should accept those faults. Gulliver can’t accept those faults, and goes insane because of it.

I’m not saying that you’re insane if you want to better yourself, but you are insane if you think you can become some Houyhnhnm machine. Perfection isn’t what we are, we are human. We will always be human.

And if you can’t accept that, well, I hope you have some fun conversations with your horse.

“Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that so very few are offended with it.” -Jonathan Swift 

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