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Human Nature in Gulliver's Travels

Categories: Human Nature

James Beattie wrote of Gulliver’s Travels in 1778 that Swift’s ‘tale represents human nature itself as the object of contempt and abhorrence’. To what extent do you agree with the above statement? Answer with close reference to the text, using material from ALL four books. Gulliver’s Travels (GT) may seem to be a somewhat dispersed satire, with Swift attacking various unrelated objects specific to his time, especially across the first three parts of the travelogue.

However, a distinction must be made that, although many of the references that Swift make are contextual and unconnected, the very aspect of those targets that he wishes to correct is certainly not specific itself.

Instead, it is so fundamental to humans that it transcends all societies, past or present, near or distant. Hence, it is almost absolute that Swift’s tale “represents human nature itself as the object of contempt and abhorrence” as noted by James Beattie.

Perhaps one of the most obvious parallels to the people of his world that Swift tries to make is when the politics of Lilliput is being described to Gulliver.

With the descriptions of Lilliput and Blefuscu as being “the two great Empires” who have “been engaged in a most obstinate War for six and thirty Moons past” because of disagreement over which end of the egg to break, it is certainly obvious that Swift is allegorising England and France. Yet, the allegory is satirical, with Swift trying to point out how human disputes can be so groundless and trivial.

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He mocks the countries by saying that “eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End” and that “we [Lilliput] have lost forty Capital Ships… together with thirty thousand of our best Seamen and Soldiers” because of the disagreement. So ridiculous it is to make such a fuss about which end of the egg to break! Indeed, Swift is attacking the England and France of his time for their tendencies to be uncompromising over small matters and to start a fight over them, which are so fundamental to humans at all levels and spheres in all societies.

Similarly, when Gulliver is being questioned about the state and affairs of his country by the Brobdingnagian king, the immediate target of the invectives and sarcasms is the England of Swift’s time. Yet, the exact thing that Swift is unhappy about them is something that transcends all groups of people. For example, when the king says he “professed both to abominate and despise all Mystery, Refinement, and Intrigue” or “could not tell what I [Gulliver] meant by Secrets of State” – all habits of the government of England – it is undoubtedly clear that he is criticising it for its tendency to abuse its power.

This critical remark is heightened when he says “he knew no Reason, why those who entertain Opinions prejudicial to the Publick, should be obliged to change”, pointing out that this abuse of power leads to more follies such as oppression and tyranny. Such abuse can also lead to the point of illogic, as when the king says “he was still at a Loss how a Kingdom could run out of its Estate like a private Person”. Hence, it can be seen that Swift abhors the basic human tendency to be corrupt and complacent – sometimes even to the point of irrationality – the moment he receives power.

And, of course, even when it is so evident that Swift is mirroring the Royal Society through the Academy of Lagado in Balnibarbi, the purpose of the mirror is also to expose their fundamental human flaws. Swift reduces the experiments of the Royal Society to a point of absurdity, as when Gulliver sees a projector “with sooty Hands and Face, his Hair and Beard long, ragged and singed in several places” just because “he had been eight Years upon a [pretty ridiculous] Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers”.

This ludicrousness reaches a climax when it is mentioned that the professors of the School of Languages are seeking to “shorten Discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one, and leaving out Verbs and Participles” or “entirely abolishing all Words whatsoever” – attempts that are so crazily absurd because they defeat the purpose of language in the first place. Thus, it can be seen that Swift is not only satirizing the human inclination to support advancement and development to the point of senselessness, but also the more fundamental impulse to stubbornly pursue desires to the point of being outrageous.

This is reflected so clearly by Swift when he describes a scientist as willing to stay for long hours in a chamber “being almost overcome with a horrible Stink”, up to the point of his “Face and Beard [being] a pale Yellow” and “Hands and Clothes daubed over with Filth” – all this so in order to be able to engage in his experiment of “reducing human Excrement to its original Food”. Even Gulliver himself is being laughed at for his natural human follies! Firstly, Swift attempts to emphasise the magnanimousness of Gulliver in Lilliput.

This is shown when Gulliver knows very well that he has the amount of “Rage and Strength, as to have enabled me to break the Strings wherewith I was tyed” and yet is so kind to “[give] Tokens to let them know that they [the Lilliputians] might do with me what they pleased”. Swift then shows a stark contrast between Gulliver’s character in Lilliput and that in Brobdingnag, who is now so insecure by his size that he becomes cynical, violent and many times disgusted.

He has to “[draw] out my Hanger to defend myself” when two rats decide to attack him in Glumdalclitch’s home, and be so violent as to “rip up his [one of the rat’s] Belly” and “[make] the Blood run trickling from him”. When he still “observed it had yet some Life”, he has to be so sure that he is safe by giving it “a strong Slash cross the Neck” so in order to “thoroughly [dispatch] it”.

Swift, is therefore, not exactly satirising Gulliver for his violence in the event of insecurity – that is a natural animal instinct that should not be corrected, but really for his relaxed and somewhat complacent attitude the moment he is assured that no one can harm him. Such an inclination is so true of humans in all generations and in all lands. This ridicule on Gulliver is further sustained when he arrives in Luggnagg and learns about the Struldbruggs.

Not only does he get “struck with inexpressible Delight” and “[break] out into Expressions perhaps a little too extravagant”, he becomes unexceptionally uncritical and full of flaws in his reasoning the moment he realises the human desire of living an immortal life has been fulfilled. He makes the unsound assumption by calling the Struldbruggs “Reverend Sages” and commenting them to be “too strict for the corrupt and libertine Manners of a Court” when the only difference about them from a normal human being is that they can live forever.

Similarly, he uses phrases like “I might reasonably expect… “, “I should arrive… “, “I should be… ” or “would probably” that all signify assumptions that may not be true, basing all his excitement on such hypotheses. Hence, it can be seen that Swift is not only attacking Gulliver for his human desire of living forever and trying to make the point that that is quite a senseless ideal, but he is also attacking him for his human tendency to sustain reason and logic the moment he notices that there is chance for his ideal to be fulfilled – even if ultimately it is not true.

This satire is exceptionally clear when Swift himself says explicitly through the Struldbruggs to Gulliver that “the System of Living contrived by me was unreasonable and unjust, because it supposed a Perpetuity of Youth, Health, and Vigour, which no Man could be so foolish to hope”. All the human flaws that Swift has pointed out, ridiculed and criticised in the first three books are being brought up for attack once more – this time harsher and more focused – when Gulliver arrives in the country of the Houyhnhnms.

With two antithetic sets of characters, one stripped of human nature and thus folly and the other stripped of reason, Swift cleverly uses the reason and observations of the Houyhnhnms to criticise the human vices of the Yahoos. Apt illustrations include the time when Gulliver’s master observes that the Yahoos fight amongst themselves “without any visible Cause” and always “engage in what I [Gulliver] call a Civil War” because of their natural “want of Enemies”. He says that “the Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different Species of Animals”.

All these tendencies of the Yahoos of wanting to start a fight rather than make peace, already attacked in Lilliput, are so true of human nature. Similarly, Gulliver’s master also observes “that in most Herds there was a sort of ruling Yahoo” and tries to make a satiric point when he says that the ruler “was always more deformed in Body and mischievous in Disposition, than any of the rest”. He is, of course, alluding to the human tendency to be corrupt when power is in their hands, already attacked in Brobdingnag.

Then there is the time when the master comments of Gulliver’s species as using reason to “aggravate our natural Corruptions” and notes that we “[have] been very successful in multiplying our original Wants, and seemed to spend our whole Lives in vain Endeavours to supply them by our own Inventions”. Here, the human’s senseless pursuit of desire is being echoed and satirised once more. Lastly, there is the moment when the same thing that Gulliver has been attacked for in his previous voyages is being criticised again. This is done through another disapproving description of the workings of the Yahoos.

It is said that if he “[misses] his Treasure” which he has buried so as to keep it to himself, he would “miserably [howl], then [fall] to biting and tearing the rest, [begin] to pine away” and “would neither eat, nor sleep, nor work”. This is contrasted largely if he finds back the treasure, from which time he would “[recover] his Spirits and good Humour” and “ever since [become] a very serviceable Brute”. Isn’t it also the nature of humans to turn into beasts when things are beyond their control, so different from the angels we are when things are going right?

It is precisely this about us that Swift is attacking. It is already established that constantly throughout GT, humans are being abhorred at as mentioned by James Beattie. But are there instances when we are portrayed in slightly better light? Absolutely. First of all, there is the “considerable Person at Court” who risked his life to “[come] to my [Gulliver] House very privately at Night in a close Chair” so in order to let Gulliver know of the Lilliputian government’s intrigue to murder him. This act eventually allowed Gulliver to achieve his liberty and save his life.

Then there is Glumdalclitch who cares for Gulliver so much that when he met with an accident in the palace garden, she “severely reprimanded the Gardener on Account of his Dog” and “determined [herself] never to trust me abroad for the future out of her Sight”. Next we have the two gentlemen who, after graciously accompanying Gulliver to Glubbdubbdrib, “were so generous and Kind as to furnish me with Provisions, and see me on board” to Luggnagg. Lastly, there is, Pedro de Mendez, the captain of the ship who found Gulliver after he was abandoned by the Houyhnhnms.

As described by Gulliver, “he was a very courteous and generous Person” and despite being treated by Gulliver with ceaseless criticisms and expressions of disgust, “assured me he only meant to do me all the Service he was able, and spoke so very movingly”. He likewise does all he can to sustain Gulliver while he was with him, and submits as much as possible to his crazy desire of not wanting to be in the company of humans. It must not be forgotten, however, that all the good aspects of humans shown are more of exceptions rather than anything significant.

Moreover, they serve the bigger function of keeping the travelogue accessible and believable so that Swift’s hidden satire can work its way into the reader. In conclusion, the first three books satirise specific targets, as well as Gulliver himself, for their human follies, while the last consolidates all the criticisms and make them resurface as a harsher and more venomous satire. Therefore, it can be concluded that James Beattie’s comment on GT as “[representing] human nature itself as the object of contempt and abhorrence” is true to almost full extent.

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Human Nature in Gulliver's Travels. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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