The Deconstruction of the Idea of Paradise
It is human nature to strive for paradise, but is it actually attainable? There have been countless attempts to establish utopian societies, yet ultimately, all have failed. In his work, Gulliver’s Travels, Swift recounts the journeys of Gulliver to various fantastical lands. Each land is vastly different from our own but also more similar than would ostensibly appear. In all the lands but the last, Gulliver finds that the other societies also experience much the same problems that plague human society. In the final land, however, that of the Houyhnhnms, human problems do not exist; instead, there is a much deeper, more profound problem – a complete lack of the very emotion which defines us as human. By placing Gulliver in various environments in which his perspective and relation to his surroundings change drastically, Swift is able to delineate, through the use of satire, the shortcomings of each society, as well as those extant in ours – shortcomings that cause us to fall short of a utopian ideal.
On his first journey, Gulliver travels to the land of Lilliput, where the inhabitants are a fraction of the size of humans. Despite this obvious difference in size, however, the society of the Lilliputians shares many attributes with that of humans. For instance, their politics are very similar to that of the Europeans. In their society, the nobles are advanced based on favor earned with the king by performing inane tasks, rather than ability in a specific area. Gulliver describes this practice, saying, “When a great office is vacant…those [rope dancers]…petition the Emperor…and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds the office” (28). Swift uses this custom to satirize the manner in which European nobles advance themselves based on favor with royalty rather than ability. Because advancement is not based on merit, problems in the government ensue, thereby precluding a utopian society. Swift further ridicules European practices by citing the bitter war being fought between the Lilliputians and their kinsmen, the Blefuscans. This war is being fought because of disagreement as to the proper end on which to crack an egg. Gulliver says, “[Lilliput and Blefuscu] have…been engaged in a most obstinate war… It began…[when] the Emperor published an edict, commanding all subjects…to break the smaller end of their eggs” (40). This asinine reason for so much savagery and bloodshed is used to satirize the incessant European warfare. Swift feels that the constant wars between European powers are also being fought for equally asinine reasons. Violence due to such absurdity is yet another reason Utopia has not been achieved. By bringing Gulliver to Lilliput, Swift is able to expose various flaws in European and human society based on human pettiness.
On his next outing, Gulliver travels to Brobdingnag. Here he is a fraction of the size of the inhabitants, rather than the other way around. Due to this abrupt reversal, he undergoes a complete change in perspective. Despite this change though, he continues to observe many similarities between this new society and that of the Europeans. The inhabitants of Brobdingnag, like humans, have a very high opinion of themselves. Gulliver, however, exposes this opinion to be in error. He relates their numerous physical blemishes saying, “Their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads, to say nothing further concerning the rest of their persons” (117). He continues, saying, “…[A] very offensive smell came from their skins…” (117). Disparaging their education, Gulliver says, “The learning of this people is very defective…” (136). There are clearly many things wrong with their society, yet they, like humans, refuse to admit to and address them. Also like humans, the inhabitants of Brobdingnag deplore practices which differ from their own. When Gulliver tells the King of various human practices, the King responds, saying, “…I cannot but conclude that the bulk of your natives are the most pernicious race of odious little vermin ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth” (133). As humans often do, the King of Brobdingnag immediately dismisses and deprecates that which is different and that which he does not understand. Through Gulliver’s journey to this land of giants, Swift reveals faults that stem from the over-inflated sense of self prevalent in human society.
Gulliver’s next excursion takes him to Laputa, a floating island where the inhabitants are fanatical believers in scientific reasoning and technology. The Laputians, however, are utterly misguided in their attempt to harness the power science can provide. They conduct ludicrous experiments such as constructing buildings from the roof down and attempting to extract sunlight from vegetables. Their clothing is also adorned with scientific symbols, and their eyes pointed toward astrological signs. They literally cannot see straight. The pursuit of knowledge through science has completely overtaken their lives. Common sense has been abandoned, leaving the Laputians to pursue enlightenment blindly and stupidly. They’ve sacrificed sense for reason and lost both. Here Swift is pointing out the folly in relying solely on scientific reasoning and its inability to provide the solution for the puzzle of Utopia . Also in this land, Gulliver meets the Immortals. These Immortals do not live blessed, envied lives though. Instead, their immortality is viewed as an eternal curse, in which they are destined to live horrible, pathetic lives, utterly lacking in relief. Swift uses this example to show the foolishness in desiring eternal life. The journey to Laputa works to refute human aspirations concerning immortality and other impossibilities. Through Gulliver’s ascent to this land in the sky, Swift tells the reader to get his head out of the clouds.
Gulliver’s final and most significant journey takes him to the land of the Houynhnhnms. In this exotic locale, he discovers two societies that exist side-by-side but are completely different. One society is that of the Yahoos. The Yahoos have a bestial society, ravaged by rampant problems such as cupidity, lust, and vulgarity. They are described as “odious” (246), “degenerate and brutal” (248). They are driven by uninhibited emotion and live only to fulfill their primal desires. This society illustrates one extreme of humanity. If humans were to follow their passions without regard for the consequences and morality of their actions, this is what human society would regress to. In stark contrast to the Yahoos are the Houynhnhnms. They exist in a utopian paradise free of the problems that plague man. There are no problems which cannot be peaceably and easily solved, and there is no disease. They have achieved perfection. They are, however, fundamentally different from humans; they lack passion and emotion. It is because of this lack of any intense sensation, though, that they are able to achieve perfection. Humanity is, by definition, flawed, for that which makes us human, makes us inherently imperfect. By juxtaposing these two societies, Swift is able to illustrate the extremes of society – a society in which the pursuit of paradise has been completely abandoned and one in which it has been inhumanly achieved.
Each trip Gulliver takes provides the reader with further insight into the flaws of human society and the reasons for human failure to achieve a utopian ideal. Though the inhabitants of each land seem very different from humans physically, observation of their societies provides the opportunity to grasp more profound insights concerning our own. In Lilliput, the size of the inhabitants represent human pettiness; in Brobdingnag, the size of the inhabitants represent the human ego; in Laputa, the location of the island reveals our impractical aspirations; and in the land of the Houynhnhnms, the contrast between the Yahoos and the Houynhnhnms reveals the fact that perfection is the antithesis of humanity. Man possesses an ideal of perfection without realizing that that very image of paradise is simultaneously an image of the most torturous of hells. The only manner in which humanity could exist in perpetual bliss, is if humanity had no concept whatsoever of bliss. As Gulliver travels from land to land, the reasons for human failure to achieve Utopia are presented again and again, but at the end of his journeys, Swift provides the reader with the reason as to why this is so, or perhaps comes to the realization himself. Faced with a state of passionless existence as the only alternative to our flawed society, he stops criticizing that which cannot be changed and instead accepts it.
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