Misanthropy in Gulliver’s Travels

April 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

Misanthropic undercurrents have often been detected in Gulliver’s Travels, usually unearthed and expounded in connection to the fourth book of the travelogue. Through Gulliver, the fourth book voices vehement misanthropy, with propounding the peaceful life of Houyhnhnms as an ideal model. Gulliver is the resident misanthrope, detesting corrupted human nature and desiring to live as a recluse. However, a close reading of the text provides us with a contradicting opinion, that of Swift’s. Though he seems to hate the follies and vices of mankind, he doesn’t abandon his fellow humans, rendering their cases hopeless. He denounces the incurable optimism of the Enlightenment and the overemphasis on Reason, but also attempts to regain the dignity and worth of humankind. Gulliver’s philosophical pessimism can perhaps be posited in contrast to Swift’s measured optimism, which however renders us at an ambiguous position. This essay will attempt to trace out the streak of misanthropy evolving out of this ambiguity while figuring out the wider implications of it. Moreover, it has to be discussed as to whether the misanthropic characteristics can be attributed to both Gulliver and Swift, or just to Gulliver, manically misanthropic at the end.

Misanthropy as a construct is the hatred of mankind, with a contempt for its corrupted nature and a complete distrust on anyone. There is voluntary and willing social alienation and a questioning of human existence since it reaps no voluble benefits than being detrimental to everyone. Contextually, it seems Gulliver is a misanthrope, living in Houyhnhnmland with the horses and the Yahoos and disgusted with corrupted human nature. It has degenerated beyond any recognition, in comparison with the Houyhnhnms’ ‘reasoned’ nature. Post his banishment from that land, he wishes to live as a recluse, away from the Yahoos and lead a blissful life similar to the Houyhnhnms. Even when he is saved by Don Pedro, who enables him to return to his family, Gulliver can think of everyone as only Yahoos, inherently evil and thus to be avoided. Years after his return to humanity, Gulliver still harbours vitriolic hatred for every Yahoo, quite evident from his letter to his publisher. He has willingly withdrawn from the human world, quite resolute never to mend the links severed.

On the other hand, accusations of Swift as a misanthrope are usually grounded on Gulliver’s apparent misanthropy. Any such claim which judges both Gulliver’s and Swift’s opinions on human nature as the same is perhaps missing the nuances of the text. True, Gulliver is a misanthrope, which is quite evident from the fourth book. Subsequently, Swift’s reflections on humankind evolve out of Gulliver’s misanthropic antics, which hold a cautious optimism regarding their future. His satirical handling of Gulliver’s misanthropy is quite curious to decipher since it destabilises the earlier suggestion solution of Houyhnhnms as the ideal model. However, it has to be hypothesised as to whether Swift is anti-humanist, descrying the excess of incurable optimism, the maniacal zeal to discover and the misuse of Reason. For such excess has brought a deluge of problems upon man, due to incessant wars, dangerous inventions and the degraded human nature, as Gulliver proudly narrates to the king of Brobdingnag. Swift’s discourse, neatly enmeshed along with Gulliver’s misanthropic tirades isn’t merely any rational diatribe on the degenerated position of man; it envisages the scope of humankind to regain its honour and glory. Moreover, to trace out Swift’s outlook on human nature, it would be necessary to carefully analyse the gradual structuring of Gulliver’s misanthropy and figure out the ambiguities within. Any such analysis has to begin with the letter from Gulliver to his publisher.

The letter, published along with the 1735 edition of Gulliver’s Travels, faithfully resonates Gulliver’s hatred for the Yahoos at the end of book four. There is a smooth generalisation of mankind, being disappointed with their endeavours and their very existence. Humans are always ruled by their vices and any ‘public good’ doesn’t even seem remotely possible. They can’t be corrected by any role models even if it be the glorious Houyhnhnms, or by worthwhile experiences. Gulliver seems to have willingly submitted to the horses and their supposedly superior ‘Reason’. Even his discourse is culturally alien, spoken in the language of Houyhnhnms. There is an indication of voluntary seclusion by the use of ‘your species’ to refer to humans. As the letter indicates, Gulliver seems to have given up any visionary scheme for correcting humankind’s follies and vices. Earlier, he had sought them to mend their natures by his travelogue’s voiced morals, if they were amenable to Reason.[1] He had graciously given them six months to reform but to no avail. Humankind seemed to be inherently corrupted, and his ambitious project of reforming Yahoos was perhaps absurd. Gulliver’s hatred for humans, even for his own family is quite evident by the letter’s tenor.[2] Moreover, such vehement misanthropy has to be traced out throughout the four books and how it culminates in the fourth book.

Gulliver throughout his stay in Lilliput is in his best manner, emphasising his Englishness and a suave nature. The incongruity of his physical monstrosity and the Lilliputians’ dwarfness is posited in contrast to their respective actions. The Lilliputians, despite their contemptible size, aren’t afraid of Gulliver, as they hope to control him and use him to their benefit. It is comical to note how they issue restrictive conditions in return for Gulliver’s liberty and later, issue articles of treason against him. Interestingly, despite his physical superiority and imposing presence, Gulliver chooses to appease the Lilliputians, respecting the code of hospitality and pleasantly responding to their antics. He is kind to his tormentors and abides by the commands issued, however strange they might seem.[3] A streak of Atelophobia can perhaps be detected in Gulliver’s insistence of narrating every such incident with the Lilliputians. He is anxious to assimilate by learning their language and yet, he is also interested in teaching Lilliputians a thing or two to improve their life since they have ever lead a restrictive life. Moreover, though he critiques his country’s laws and attacks the court politics, it is by and large a protective Gulliver projected in the first book.

The second book posits Gulliver as the victim, who is rational, yet incongruous to his size, according to the Brobdingnagians. They treat him as a puny toy, to be employed as a medium of entertainment, but nothing more. Gulliver is even dwarfish than the smallest dwarf, Splacknuck. Even good wit is surprising in such a diminutive animal as him. Gulliver is angry with the way he is being treated but gradually begins abdicating the responsibility of defending the disgrace to humans. The perspective on humans begins to degrade too, with animal imagery being introduced. At this juncture, Gulliver’s gaze is precise, reasoned and judgemental, forever looking at the monstrous natures of the Brobdingnagians. As a human, he is rendered inconsequential by the giants, but for him, it is a special position. He takes pride on his position and identity, for though the Brobdingnagians are good, that country isn’t as good as his home country is. Even here, Gulliver’s pride and nostalgia and Swift’s condescending attitude towards him is quite evident.

There is a gradual diminishing of Gulliver’s self-imposed importance, as the Brobdingnaggian women strip and examine him while the king laughs at his imagined heroic endeavours to protect himself against the monkeys. Even when faced by dangers physically monstrous for him, Gulliver seems to be living obliviously, in an illusory state. Though his minuscule state is made conspicuous, it seems as if Gulliver himself begins forgetting that, merely foregrounding his existence with much pride. His political conversations with the king end with a derogatory judgment on human nature. The king terms Gulliver and other humans as the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. According to the king, the puny humans were inventing things that destroy everything, being decidedly against nature and entertaining inhuman ideas.[4] Mankind is thus subjected to numerous diseases which have made them crooks, being selfish and cruel. Gulliver is blinded by the pride for his kinsmen and so, terms the king as naïve, for having not gone beyond this land and lacking experience. The king has a limited perspective, and can’t appreciate what humankind has achieved. Subsequently, Gulliver attempts to glibly preserve the dignity of humankind, by stating many political and legal reasons. Interestingly, as he returns home post the second voyage, Gulliver terms it an ‘unfortunate voyage’. I wonder whether the voyage is unfortunate because it acts as a mirror for him, forcing him to reflect on the detrimental effects of man’s supposedly progressive activities.

In the third book, Gulliver is reduced to an irrelevant entity, since almost everyone in Laputa and the other lands is engrossed in their own thoughts and inventions. The denizens are actively engaged with the abstract and the philosophical while Gulliver’s presence is hardly noticed. To engage more with the denizens, Gulliver has to explore the lands, looking at the academy of projectors with their absurd inventions and the magicians with access to ghosts. Gulliver gets to interact with ancient ghosts and ends up correcting certain historical facts and clarifying ancient philosophical ideas. Later, his interaction with the Struldbruggs is quite interesting, since it provides us with a discourse about man’s ambitions if he were immortal. It is curiously styled like a Renaissance discourse, with sky-high ambitions and faith in the competence of humankind. Of course, the response itself is satirical, denouncing man’s ambitions, terming them immature since they fail to take in any other consideration other than their own desire.

Any discourse regarding misanthropy in Gulliver’s Travels is centred on the fourth book, which focuses on Gulliver’s cathartic voyage to Houyhnhnmland. Gulliver is astounded on observing the horses behave rationally and be the masters of the land. He is also desperate to hear some human voice upon his arrival since humans are necessary to bridle animals and train them, as the horses had been amicable trained. This is the last instance when we see the pompous, proud human whose travels been described in the last three books. Later, Gulliver’s nature completely changes as to obscuring his original identity.

But more importantly, Gulliver harbours contempt and aversion for the Yahoos, who he would prefer to the natives. He treats Yahoos as cattle, and even focuses on a coherent description of their physical features. His interaction with the Houyhnhnms renders him contemptible about his own race, mostly propagated by his master’s reasoned discourses. Also, his hatred is closely linked to the presence of brutish Yahoos, who are near-men, with whom Gulliver is equated by the Houyhnhnms and by himself. The Houyhnhnms themselves are a perfected species, as their name suggests, since Houyhnhnm means ‘perfection of nature’. They are self-assured in most matters and live a perfect life, guided by supreme Reason. Why, for them, the faculty of Reason is absolute, for if it’s corrupted, as in humans, it isn’t Reason that the humans are endued with. Gulliver’s interaction with the Houyhnhnms highlights the excessively corrupted nature of humans. Plainly put, humans with their degenerated, irrational nature are incompetent of surviving in nature and they merely pretend to possess the faculty of Reason. It is of interest to note that Gulliver’s reservations of narrating every tale about his race vanishes in front of such firm condemnation by the Houyhnhnm master. He is quite eager to relate every event, every war and political problem with relish, and engage in discussions with his master.

These discourses enable Gulliver to foster an intense hatred towards humans or Yahoos as he calls them. At this juncture, it is interesting to note that the Houyhnhnms term the Yahoos a degenerated race, selfish, lascivious, and cunning evil nature, which Gulliver readily accepts, to much mystique. His interaction with them is limited, but he readily accepts the subverted position with negligible questions. Subsequently, he is all ready to adapt to the Houyhnhnm way of life, endued with Reason and live there quite contented. But, he is unceremoniously banished to return to his kind, to which effect, he builds a boat to leave. Before he leaves, Gulliver stoops to kiss his master’s hoof, sensing which the master raises his hoof, that being counted as a rare honour by Gulliver. This incident among others has been noted for deliberately debasing the position of humankind to that of below an animal. Subsequently, as Gulliver returns to the human fold, he encounters Don Pedro, a kind captain who helps him reach Redcliff. However, for Gulliver, though he thinks of Pedro as having some human understanding is quite certain that every Yahoo is evil. Even after reaching home, he stubbornly refuses to interact with humans, terming them bestial creatures, unworthy of being in connection with. His voyages had him explore the varied facets of human nature, but in terms of vices and follies, everyone was the same, a Yahoo. Influenced by the Houyhnhnms’ restrictive idea of supreme Reason, Gulliver had slowly become a misanthrope, with harbouring hatred for humankind, and not willing to trust them anymore. Even years after his return, Gulliver prefers to live as a recluse, away from such evil creatures, as he mentions in the letter.

However, Gulliver’s naïve misanthropy can hardly be understood as reflecting Swift’s perspective of human nature. It would be indeed comical if someone presumes the Houyhnhnms’ utopic world as the perfect solution to humankind’s debauched one. The Houyhnhnms are far from being perfect, being self-assured in most matters though it might be well outside their purview. The Houyhnhnm master isn’t experienced enough, having not visited any land other than his, but with just Gulliver’s narrative, he can surely discourse upon the defects. Even the sorrel-nag believes that there can’t be any island other than their own. The Houyhnhnms are quite assured of their own supremacy, for any defect in Gulliver would only ensure that the solution is to be found in the Houyhnhnm way of life.

Swift has often been accused of projecting a forceful pessimism through Gulliver at the end. Such a view might be restrictive since it fails to take into consideration how Gulliver’s position is itself undermined in the last few chapters. As noticed, Swift doesn’t equate Gulliver with the Yahoos, it is Gulliver himself who constantly cements his resemblance with the Yahoos, gently prompted by the Houyhnhnm master. Moreover, his decision to stay and assimilate to the lifestyle of Houyhnhnmland post the discourses with his master is at once negated by his unceremonious banishment from the land.

Swift portrays Houyhnhnmland as a rationalistic Utopia, with the horses living under the ambiguous umbrella of pure Reason. Their lifestyle is morbidly passive, being apparently governed by Reason and so, they live in a stoically calm environment.[5] However, it is remotely far from any rationalistic possibilities of life. Gulliver is deluded by their state and desires to rise above his human position and achieve such rational intelligence. However, Swift isn’t so emphatically raving about the perfect Houyhnhnm life. For him, it would be too simple a solution for too complex a problem. Reason, however efficient it might be, can’t solve every problem, nor can it sustain humankind forever.

Swift’s formulation of the human is as partly Houyhnhnm and partly Yahoo. The Yahoo is what man, in using excessive Reason could become once his nature has degraded and become the irrational creature. Houyhnhnms represent the rational, yet incomplete part of humans, who can lead better lives due to measured deployment of Reason. Having misused Reason, humans are edging nearer to the Yahoos. Human nature is volatile and so humans have to choose how to temper their nature. In the same way, Gulliver identifies men with Yahoos and so turns misanthropic. He doesn’t want to be a Yahoo, so he will attempt to become a Houyhnhnm. Gulliver’s evaluation of human nature post his numerous experiences is flawed, since he adopts the Houyhnhnm way of life as the solution, refusing to accept the nature of mankind and blindly equating Yahoos to men. He turns misanthropic, hating and suspecting anything human, be it the odour of his wife or the kindness of Don Pedro. His view resonates with that of his Houyhnhnm master, terming humans as lump(s) of deformity, with diseases both in mind and body (and) smitten with pride. As evident from the letter too, Gulliver has collapsed under the deluge of negativity, even refusing to recognise anything even remotely good. For him, even a good Yahoo like Don Pedro is a Yahoo and so inherently evil. Gulliver’s pride feeds on his misanthropy and he gradually alienates himself from every Yahoo. He has lost his sense of comprehension, with constricting both his mentality and his perspective.

Swift attacks the debauched nature of man and the resulting detrimental effects, but he isn’t being philosophically pessimistic. He refuses to be tempted to accept the simplified solution of a Utopic Houyhnhnmland. It is quite possible for man to descend to the bestial, but ascending to the position of Houyhnhnms would be detrimental as well since it is restrictive. Moreover, Swift construes of humans as not animal rational, rationis capax.[6] Humankind is capable of reason, not inherently endued with it and so, can attempt to transcend its current position and aspire to be Houyhnhnms, atleast in theory.

Swift’s satire is thus on the absurdity of human condition, which is often mistaken for a derogatory, misanthropic representation of human nature. He merely hates the vices and follies of human nature but doesn’t abandon them as Gulliver does. Throughout the text, he constantly undermines the humanist optimism of the Enlightenment, hugely governed by Reason and the idea of progress in relation to volatile human nature. Here, Gulliver is the resident misanthrope, overly atelophobic in the first two books and bordering on maniacal misanthropy by the time the fourth book ends. The narrative gradually moves on from mocking human grandeur and disillusionment with Science to an obscure disillusionment with humankind, beset with ambiguities. Gulliver, inspite of his experiences refuses to acknowledge the complexities of human nature, thus rendering his misanthropy ridiculously immature. It is for the reader to recognise the satirically delivered message, as to not be gullible Gulliver and give in to the temptation of not acknowledging the complexity of human nature, but accept and deal with it. Despite the deluge of philosophical pessimism, Swift perhaps desires us to attempt to look forward optimistically and to strengthen human nature from degenerating under its follies and vices and become the Yahoo in us. For both the Yahoo and the Houyhnhnm exist within us, but it depends on us what we choose. Human nature is debauched, but the cause is not lost, there is still time for remedy. Gulliver is the immature misanthrope, banking on the Houyhnhnms as the simple solution, but by undermining his position, Swift emerges as perhaps voicing measured but cautious optimism about the future of human nature.

(3260 Words)


·Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert DeMaria. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

·Horrell, Joseph. “What Gulliver Knew.” Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. By Ernest Lee Tuveson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964. 55-70. Print.

·Ross, John F. “The Final Comedy of Lemuel Gulliver.” Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. By Ernest Lee Tuveson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964. 71-90. Print.

·Monk, Samuel H. “The Pride of Lemuel Gulliver.” The Sewanee Review 63.1 (1955): 48-71. JSTOR. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.


[1] It is interesting to note that this attempt is itself a humanist endeavor, cohesively trying to reform humankind and correct its faulty nature.[2] He even blames humans like the publisher for having lured him to attempt reforming mankind, by publishing his travelogue.[3] This can even be likened to what the colonial master does, first befriending the natives and then later controlling them.[4] The king is aghast at Gulliver’s offer of teaching how to make and deploy gunpowder to his army.[5] Ross, John F. “The Final Comedy of Lemuel Gulliver.” Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays. By Ernest Lee Tuveson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964. 71-90. Print.[6] http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/swift/letters/chap2.htm

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