Gulliver’s Lost Identity

January 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

J.R.R. Tolkein once said “not all who wander are lost.” It is to be assumed, then, he was not talking about Capt. Lemuel Gulliver. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a narrative of the identity crisis. Capt. Gulliver is indeed lost, both literally and metaphorically. He sets out on a voyage seeking a way to fulfill his identity as the financial supporter of his family. But once he leaves the structured society of England, his sense of identity is lost. At times, he does not even consider his family back home. He is misplaced in strange countries with strange inhabitants, “marooned” being an appropriate term considering his nautical adventures.In his misplacement, an interesting identity-void is created; Gulliver has no way to define himself as a foreigner in a new society. The need to belong overwhelms him and he accepts any identity that is thrown his way, no matter how debasing it is. Through this void, Swift explores how society and politics systematically function to disassemble and reinvent the individual.In each of the countries Gulliver traverses, he is isolated from a sense of kinship and alienated from acceptance, the degree of which increases with each voyage. This alienation and isolation is surprisingly first apparent in his home country, England. In an unemotional tone he describes his family: “My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons… my Father now and then sending me small Sums of Money…” (p. 1). Likewise, his attachment to his wife is just as dispassionately observed: “I married Mrs. Mary Burton, second daughter to Mr. Edmond Burton, Hosier, in Newgate-street…” (p. 2). Even in his professional life, Gulliver has no real connection. He comments, “But my good Master Bates dying in two Years after, and I having few Friends, my Business began to fail; for my Conscience would not suffer me to imitate the bad Practice of too many among my Brethren” (p. 2). Though he tries to connect to society by participating in a respectable profession, he remains alone.This alienation and isolation is a minor theme throughout his voyages; it is the first step in the systematic approach Swift takes towards dealing with the broader theme of identity. In each of the cultures Gulliver encounters, this sense of alone-ness increases. In Lilliput and Brobdingnag, for example, Gulliver is even more marginalized from society by their fear of his physical appearance – he is a giant compared to the six-inch Lilliputians and an insect to the sixty-foot tall Brobdingnags.He is constantly aware of his differences from his hosts, creating a conscious sense of alienation. In the articles of his freedom, the Lilliputians point out: “they concluded from the Similarity of their Bodies, that mine must contain at least 1728 of theirs, and consequently would require as much Food as was necessary to support that Number of Lilliputians” (p. 22). His differences isolate him from the Lilliputian society; he physically does not fit anywhere, viewing their country as a sort of “theatre” (p. 9). His senses are also different, for he can see much further away than the Lilliputians, and likewise they can see much nearer than he.In Brobdingnag, he has to convince his master that he is not a lowly animal. The Brobdingnagian reaction to him highlights their repulsion of his differences: “The Farmer by this time was convinced I must be a rational Creature… Then he called his Wife, and shewed me to her, but she screamed and ran back as Women in England do at the Sight of a Toad or a Spider” (p. 58). Gulliver is different from the native inhabitants of Lilliput and Brobdingnag and is alienated as such.In his voyages to Laputa and Houyhnhnm, Gulliver’s societal isolation drastically increases, apexing with the Houyhnhnms. In both countries he is openly condescended for both his physical and his intellectual “limitations,” and because of this condescension is isolated from the rest of the society. When he refused the flapper to converse, it “gave his Majesty and the whole court a very mean Opinion of my Understanding” (p.114). The king wants to learn nothing of England’s history, but rather asks Gulliver to focus on European mathematics and “received the Account… with great Contempt and Indifference” (p. 120). In Laputa, Gulliver and his native society are defects.The isolation in Houyhnhnm is the most acute, however. Gulliver cannot relate to them because they are not human – they are a superior species of horse. Nor can he relate to the odious and foul Yahoos who are human in an unrecognizable form. Spatially this isolation is manifested in the placement of his billeting: “the Master Horse ordered a Place for me to lodge in; it was but Six Yards from the House, and separated from the Stable of the Yahoos…” (p. 175). Although Gulliver takes up acquaintance with the Houyhnhnms it is always understood that he is associated with the Yahoos, for whom Gulliver has affected a deep hatred. They teach him the language, yet “…looked upon it as a Prodigy, that a brute Animal should discover such Marks of a rational Creature” (p. 175). Gulliver’s alienation here in the country of horses is vastly complete.Where then does this alienation and isolation leave Gulliver? He is in an identity-void, searching for any form of acceptance. Swift presents this as early as Gulliver’s life in England. He lists his self-worth by his education and professional training, name-dropping as often as possible to give himself affluence: “He sent me to Emanuel-College in Cambridge… I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London… Leyden: there I studied Physick two years and seven months…” (p. 1-2). Through this series of affluent names, Gulliver is seeking an identity through the acceptance of his audience.Lilliput is much different than England, however, in both its inhabitants and its culture. In this identity-void, Gulliver grasps at any straw of acceptance, no matter how debasing. He literally prostrates himself before the emperor and princes, offering complete servility; he is a mere servant, eager to please his new masters. Upon later duty against the Lilliputian’s sworn enemy, the Blefuscu, he exults that “This great Prince received at my Landing with all possible Encomiums, and created me a Nardac upon the Spot, which is the highest Title of Honour among them” (p. 29). He has achieved a place in the Lilliputian society and is elated. In his almost desperate attempt to gain favor with the emperor and princes, he proclaims:I desired the Secretary to present my humble Duty to the Emperor an to let him know, that I thought it would not become me, who was a Foreigner, to interfere with Parties; but I was ready, with the Hazard of my Life, to defend his Person and State against all Invaders. (p. 26)He has learned the language earnestly to build a bridge over his alienation (p. 12). He has allowed himself to be held captive, knowing full well that due to his sheer strength, he could squash whoever he chose (p. 9). But only on the Lilliputian’s terms does Gulliver receive acceptance, and as witnessed in the rapid recall of his title and honor, it is short-lived at best (p. 41).As Gulliver’s journeys progress, the occurrences of even temporary social identity and occasions of acceptance decrease rapidly, an inverse to the increase of his alienation. From Brobdingnag on, Gulliver never fully assimilates to their societies, although he does not stop trying to find his adopted identity. In Brobdingnag, he humors the Queen, entertaining her as a doll-like plaything, winning her favor. In an attempt to build his own identity as the Queen’s favorite, he deliberately undermines the Queen’s dwarf, sending him to live with another household as a punishment (p. 77), proving that there is nothing that Gulliver would not do to belong and form his own identity within the structures of social acceptance.In Laputa and Houyhnhnm, Gulliver experiences something altogether different than what he has encountered before. Laputa is a floating island of philosophy and higher thought, a would-be utopia if it were not for excess and the lack of reason. Gulliver makes an attempt to understand the Laputans by learning their language, visiting various places such as their court, universities and land below, but cannot reconcile himself with what he finds; it is too abstract and tedious. He grows increasingly “weary of Those people” (p. 127) and feels “neglected” (p.127) as the Laputans are lost in their reveries. For the first time in all his travels, he longs for England (p.150). In place of Gulliver’s drive for acceptance, the reader is introduced to Lord Munodi. He is an isolated character, and much like Gulliver he is seeking his identity in a society that does not accept him. In Munodi’s case, it is because he is too rational and looked upon with “Tenderness, as a well-meaning Man, but of a low contemptible Understanding” (p. 129).Having failed to achieve an enduring identity in the aforementioned societies, it is not without desperation that Gulliver next throws himself so fully in the pursuit of acceptance from the Houyhnhnms. Here it is either be a Houyhnhnms or a Yahoo. To physically set himself apart from the Yahoo-humans and be acceptable to the Houyhnhnms, he hides the appearance of his person with his clothes:I had hitherto concealed the Secret of my Dress, in order to distinguish myself as much as possible, from that cursed Race of Yahoos; but now I found it in vain to do so any longer. (p. 177)He swears his master to secrecy, so that the rest of the Houyhnhnms will not think less of him. He goes out of his way to impress them with his acquisition of language and would be very content to live the rest of his time with the reasonable creatures (p. 202-204). He is successful at creating a life among these whom he has grown to admire and love, and even eventually moves into his Master’s house (209). But other Houyhnhnms do not approve of a Yahoo staying in their own homes, and Gulliver is banished from Houyhnhnm (p. 212). His alienation had overcome his acceptance in a dramatic swoon.The question is again posed: where does this leave Gulliver? From his isolation to desperate attempts for acceptance comes a forlorn loss of basic human identity. In England, Gulliver does not have any emotional attachment to his family as befitting a man of the bourgeois class. He is a cold automaton concerned more with financial and social status than with leaving his wife, five months pregnant, and the children he barely knows so he can travel again (p. 165); he shows more emotion towards the Houyhnhnms, fainting when told he had to leave (p. 212) than he does with his family. In his drive to succeed in English society, he has ceased being an emotional creature of humanity.In Lilliput, Gulliver’s loss of a human identity is much more literal when he allows himself to be chained up as a prisoner. The image of him with chains around him, and his observation that “being fixed within four Inches of the Gate, allowed me to creep in, and lie at my full Length in the Temple” (p. 9) brings to mind a dog in the doghouse. He allows the Lilliputians to strip him of his English identity by renaming him Man Mountain, and he further distances himself from England when he learns their language in an attempt to bridge his alienation. In his desperation for acceptance, he grasps at any chance, even allowing himself to become a tool of the state, taking on the Lilliputian sworn enemy Blefuscu (p. 29).In Brobdingnag, Gulliver likewise debases himself so far as to cease being a human being, but rather a play thing for their amusement, allowing himself to be dressed and cared for like a doll by his nurse, Glumdalclitch (p. 63). He is again stripped of his English identity by being dressed in Brobdingnagian styled attire and renamed Gildrig (p. 64). He grows so submersed in Brobdingnag culture that he has a very difficult time re-assimilating to his native culture in England, treating his family as though they were Lilliputians and he was a Brobdingnag (p. 106-107).The example of Laputa is set apart because unlike Gulliver, Munodi refuses to prostrate himself in order to fit it. He sees no reason to abandon logic, though it is highly looked upon as being too practical. He instead chooses his alienation rather than acceptance and lives a lonely life of isolation (p. 130). Due to this, Munodi becomes one of the most realistic creatures in the entire novel.In Houyhnhnm the reader sees the most drastic change in Gulliver’s identity as a human as he becomes a misanthrope. It is here that he loses all sense of his former humanity. He is appalled by the idea of going to live among the Yahoos, and he has so fully adopted the Houyhnhnm society that he cannot help but see his family as ugly, beastlike creatures (p. 220). In the end, he is forced to return to the world from which he came, but quite changed. Having seen the things he has, the world of Yahoos is contemptible and disgusting to him. When rescued by Don Pedro De Mendez, Gulliver’s complete submersion in Houyhnhnm culture is at once apparent in his accent, his clothing and his deep antipathy for the sailors who just rescued him. Once home, he is barely able to tolerate the presence of his family. He retreats into a kind of madness, spending his days talking to the horses in his stable as if to recreate Houyhnhnm.It is when he is alienated from social acceptance that his identity as we, the audience, accept it starts diluting and becomes something of a blank canvas to be painted according to the fashion of his adopted culture. Gulliver doesn’t just try to gain a new identity, one is forced upon him; he is a monster: a repulsive Yahoo in Houyhnhnm, a disfigured inferior in Laputa, a doll named Gildrig in Brobdingnag, and of course a Man Mountain tool in Lilliput. In his displacement, he latches on to any acceptance he can get, even if it means losing his basic identity as a human. We see this figuratively as he loses his name, physically as he loses his apparel and linguistically as he acquires new languages as he tries to find a place among his new adopted cultures, even if losing his identity as a human makes him become a monster.This brings about the question, if society does indeed de- and re-construct the individual, how then are deviants explained? One possible resolution by Swift is the introduction of the character Lord Munodi. He is a minor character, but he plays the important role of showing the possibility of individual dissent within a brainwashed community such as Laputa. While the Lagados try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and or to discover anarchy in feces, Munodi is a breath of the fresh air of logical intelligence (p. 132). Having tried unsuccessfully to convince his fellows of their misguided public policies, he has given up and is content to manage his own estates in his own way (p. 130).Perhaps, then, we are to determine our own conclusions as to our individual identity and rise above the social constructs that narrowly define our values and our lives. The individual is a product of societal constructs; identity is diluted until it is no longer recognized as part of human kind. Each society that Gulliver visits is a degree of conformity; Gulliver simply went over the top in assimilating to the Houyhnhnms. The moral to this fantastical fairy tale? Swift is illustrating the danger of our drive for acceptance; if we are too eager to blend in, we run the risk of losing ourselves completely.

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