Archive for September, 2009

I Beg your Pardon

September 30, 2009

I Beg Your Pardon

Bonehead, moron, dirty bird
Dimwit, nitwit, nasty word
Peon, cretin, philistine
Dufus, dork , phrase obscene
Peabrain, putz, pinhead, punk
Wierdo, whacko, weasel, skunk
Knucklehead, stupidhead, hockey puck
Lamebrain, birdbrain, wounded duck
Halfwit, numbskull, idiot, freak
Sclemeel, schlemazel nincompoop, geek
Jerk, clown, lout, stupidhead
Kook, dolt, dunce, dunderhead,
Imbecile, fool, ignoramus
Simpleton, oaf, just the same as
A blockhead, dullard, ninny or flake,
Get off my foot, for goodness sake

by Richard W. Bray

You got Problems

September 29, 2009

You got Problems

You know what your problem is?

You talk too much
You’re way too vain
Your socks don’t match
You’re not quite sane
You got too many hobbies
You don’t like sports
You can’t make an omlette
You need new shorts
You read too many books
Your breath smells bad
You chose the wrong religion
You don’t know my dad
You never stop to listen
You’re from the wrong town
You can’t hit a curveball
Your hair is brown
You’re not in my club
You can’t climb a tree
You don’t speak French
You sing off key

There I said it,
Why can’t you just be
Someone who is
More like me?

by Richard W. Bray

Poetic License: Seger, Gershwin, Dylan and Dickinson

September 28, 2009
Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Ira Gershwin

Ira Gershwin

Bob Seger

Bob Seger

Poetic License (Seger, Gershwin, Dylan and Dickinson)

So you’re a little bit older and a lot less bolder
Than you used to be

Bob Seger, Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Of course, it should read a lot less BOLD. But by assaulting our sense of grammar, the two-syllable rhyme sticks in our heads.

Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,
Fo he made his home in
Dat fish’s abDOUGHmen–
Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale.

Ira Gershwin, It Ain’t Necessarily So

By converting the word abdomen from a dactyl (three-syllable word, first syllable accented) to an amphibrach (three-syllable word, second syllable accented) and giving the second syllable a long “o” sound, Gershwin creates a clever, memorable and amusing two-syllable rhyme with the words home and in.

It ain’t no use in turning on your light babe
That light I never knowed
And it ain’t no use in turning on your light babe
I’m on the dark side of the road

Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan knows that knowed isn’t a word you will find in a dictionary. But the choice is a beautiful abomination.

If I should die,
And you should live,
And time should gurgle on,
And morn should beam,
And noon should burn,
As it has usual done;

Emily Dickinson, If I should Die

I could talk all day about the choice of the word gurgle in line three, but usual in line six is equally compelling. Adjectives aren’t supposed to modify verbs, that’s an adverb’s job. (Of course, this is putting it rather crudely. A word is not a part of speech, a word acts as a part of speech, and usual usually acts as an adjective.) Curiously, the poem would not have suffered metrically if she had used the word usually because both usual and usually can be pronounced as trochees (two-syllable words with an accented first syllable.) Usually can be enunciated as a two-, three- or four-syllable word. However, using the word usual suggests that beaming is the sun’s quotidian task whereas usually would have implied that beaming was the sun’s normal condition. Great art is the result of such apparently minor distinctions.

by Richard W. Bray

Sunshine and Happiness

September 25, 2009


Sunshine and Happiness

Melanie Margaret McClintock, The Third
Can’t stand to hear an encouraging word
So if you want to send her away
Here’s a list of words that you can say:

Sunshine and happiness, polka dots and pie
Puppy dogs and moonbeams, a clear blue sky
Friendship and families and root beer floats
Kindness and cleanliness and cozy woolen coats
Flowers and rainbows, warm winter gloves
Freedom and Motherhood, goodness and love
Birthdays and holidays, crunchy candy bars
Bubble baths and babies, twinkling little stars
Fairgrounds and Fridays, fun that’s always funny
Pinballs and pizza, a truck with loads of money
Grandpa and gumballs, a week at summer camp
Barbeques, fresh-cut lawns, a genie in a lamp
A night under the stars and a day at the beach
Everything that’s good and true, all within your reach

But if you are with Melanie, try to be polite
Speak of dark and gloomy days and long, depressing nights
Mention graveyards and garbage and grungy old grime
And the two of you are sure to have such a lovely time

by Richard W. Bray

Excuses, Excuses

September 24, 2009

Excuses, Excuses

Wonderful to see you
Wish I had more time
But I’ve been called upon to solve
Some uncommitted crime

Yesterday my fish died
Hope you understand
The funeral arrangements
Turned out to be quite grand

Sensible precautions
Clearly do dictate
It’s time to walk my hamster
The hour is getting late

Sadly, duty beckons
It’s my privilege to attend
A gathering to honor
An unnamed future friend

Saturday my car broke
When I drove across the street
And I could walk to greet you
If I didn’t have two sore feet

Happily, I promise
(Assuming I’m around)
To make time to see you
The next time you’re in town

by Richard W. Bray

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part 2)

September 23, 2009

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous
Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

Somehow, E. M. Forster, who detested imperialism, falls into this trap. The Indian characters in A Passage to India are all exotic. They are constitutionally incapable of acting like mature, honest and rational creatures. Dr. Aziz, the most sympathetic and well-developed of Forster’s Indians, is unable to appreciate the value of honesty. On the day of the incident in the Marabar caves he tells “a great many lies.” (175) He does not lie with malicious intent, he simply comes from a culture which puts no premium on honesty. He is, therefore, someone who has “no sense of evidence.” (302) Deeds which would be described as evidence of hypocrisy when performed by an Englishman are written off as the result of a mysterious culture so foreign as to defy any type of human universalism. Without a hint of irony the narrator declares of the Indians: “What they said and what they felt were…seldom the same.” (120) Aziz is not being a snoop when he reads Fielding’s mail because “The sanctity of private correspondence had never been ratified in the East” (344) .

Yet there is no question that Forster personally preferred the company of Indians to Anglo-Indians. In fact, he could hardly contain his contempt for the latter. When accused of being unfair to the Anglo-Indians Forster responded, “how can I ever like them when I happen to like the Indians and they don’t” (Das 14). With the exception of Fielding, none of the British in the novel could be described as sympathetic characters, and Fielding utterly rejects the Anglo-Indian creed. Many of the Anglo-Indians in A Passage to India are well-rounded, but the colonists represent the most wretched traits of the English temperament. As Benita Parry observes, “by temperament and choice the Anglo-Indians are outsiders, hostile to India whether it be mosques, cave or temple, participating in none, understanding none, resenting all” (Parry, Delusions, 279).

In his efforts to portray the Indians as morally superior to their colonists, Forster unwittingly practices Orientalism by creating characters whose thinking and motivation are alien from the Anglo-Indians. By imagining India as a people and a nation which might represent the antithesis of the cold-hearted, hypocritical, rapacious Anglo-Indians Forster inadvertently creates natives who, at best, can only be seen as half human. Ironically, in this attempt to “humanize” the Indians vis-a-vis their conquerors, Forster has truncated their humanity. Forster’s tendency to oversimplify his Indian characters is also a function of the philosophical struggle which permeates all of his fiction–the quest to find transcendence without God (a monumentally frustrating aspiration). Abdul R. JanMohamed observes:

The metaphysical preoccupation of A Passage to India is a culmination of problems that Forster had been examining throughout his work, and his decision to cast his concerns in terms of Indian philosophy is innocent and logical. But the narrative decision to turn India into a metaphysical protagonist inherently antithetical to Western liberal humanism probably stems from larger cultural differences, the machinery of which is similar to that of the manichean allegory (JanMohamed 96).

As Forster, the renowned humanist, attempts to make his Indians more sympathetic than their evil colonizers, he diminishes them into hideous caricatures. There are instances when it would be difficult to discern his depictions of Indians from those of an overtly racist apologist for Imperialism such as Kipling. Forster’s Indians are not merely prone to mysticism, but incapable of rational thought. Even Aziz, a man of science educated in the Western tradition, is unable to judge his friend Fielding rationally. This is because “(S)uspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumor, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way that the Westerner cannot comprehend” (311). Why must suspicion, or, for that matter, any other normal human emotion, manifest itself differently in the person of an Indian than it would in an Englishman? The passage suggests that this difference in processing emotions is somehow racially based.

We would expect a westernized Indian like Aziz to be torn between two cultures. But he is not nearly so complex; he is western only in manner. His secularism is merely an affectation and therefore no match for an ancient instinctual mysticism. When his children exhibit idolatrous behavior we see how superficial his rationalism is: “He didn’t want them to grow up superstitious, so he rebuked them, and they answered yes, father, for they were well brought up, but, like himself, they were impervious to argument” (332).

But Aziz is not simply an irrational mystic–he is a childlike, fatuous creature who would certainly qualify for several of Benita Parry’s synonyms for exotic. By constantly fretting about whether his guests are well cared for he confirms the narrator’s conclusion that “(L)ike most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it was tainted with the sense of possession.” (157) So, despite substantial westernization, Aziz, as a representative of his race, is constitutionally incapable of understanding something that would be obvious to any mature Westerner. Further evidence of his puerility is demonstrated when, in response to the death of Mrs. Moore “he wept like a child and ordered his three children to weep also.” (290) Aziz is unable to handle his emotions in a manly way, the way Forster’s alter ego Fielding would. When Fielding tries to speak intimately with Aziz about the strain in their relationship, he terminates the conversation with the ludicrous declaration “I say, shall we go pour water on to Mohammed Latif’s face. He is so funny when this is done to him” (279).

Dr. Aziz, whose behavior hovers between immaturity foolishness, is someone an intelligent reader might imagine to exist. Godbole, on the other hand, is a crepuscular creation who personifies a contempt for Hinduism which Forster made no effort to conceal. Forster’s letters regarding the Gokul Ashtami Festival are “extremely condescending” (Crews 153).
I cannot see the point in this, or rather in what it differs from ordinary mundane intoxication. I suppose that if you believe your drunkenness proceeds from God it becomes more enjoyable….I don’t think I can describe it better than this, and it is difficult to make vivid what seems so fatuous. (Hill, 160-61).

If Forster means to present India as a “metaphysical protagonist,” as JanMohamed argues, then Dr. Aziz and Dr. Godbole obviously represent the relative regard Forster had for their respective faiths. In contrast to his disdainful reaction to Hinduism, Forster was “aesthetically gratified by a religion that is not grossly anthropomorphic” (Crews 152). Indeed, his frustration with the confusion and inconsistency of Hinduism heightened his appreciation for the moral absolutism of a monotheistic religion.

…just as I thought nothing could be more beautiful a muezzin with a most glorious voice gave the evening call of prayer from a mosque. “There is no God but God.” I do like Islam, though I have come through hinduism to discover it. After all the mess and profusion and confusion Gokul Ashtami, where nothing ever stopped or need ever have begun, it was like standing on a mountain. (Hill, 193)

As the living embodiment of this “mess and profusion and confusion,” Dr. Godbole at best can only be described as a hideous caricature of a Hindu. He is a rambling mass of riddles and non sequiturs who frustrates Fielding by arguing that all people are equally responsible for whatever took place at the Marabar Caves. In contrast to Aziz who has “no sense of evidence” Godbole has no conception of reality. Nothing Godbole says is of value to the Westerner because he “had never been known to tell anyone anything.” (342) His pointless verbosity which never “stopped or need have ever begun” ridicules the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism. Forster is not restrained in his mockery of Hinduism, as illustrated by the comment, “Godbole’s conversations frequently culminated in a cow.” (198)

While in India E. M. Forster continued to struggle to make meaning out of his life. This endeavor was complicated by a condition which is the antithesis of invincible ignorance. An inveterate secularist, Forster nonetheless yearned for some type of spiritual union. He was able to find some comfort in his personal relationships with individual Indians, but his personal Passage to India was frustrated by the unfortunate reality that England and India (and therefore, Englishmen and Indians) are not polar opposites.

By some strange alchemy of literature, Forester’s art is not damaged by this confusion. One might even argue that he achieves aesthetic harmony by oversimplifying his Indians. (A similar point can be made regarding his female creations.) However, that which is artistically appealing can be socially disastrous. By degrading a people who had been abused and exploited by his countrymen for centuries, Forster exposes another “peril of humanism.” Art cannot be justified merely for its own sake.

by Richard W. Bray

Works Cited

Crews, Frederick. The Perils of Humanism. Princeton: Princeton
U P, 1962.
Das, G.K. “`A Passage to India’: A Socio-historical Study,”
Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. John
Beer. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986. 1-15.
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. 1924. San Diego: Harcourt,
Brace, 1984.
_____. The Hill of Devi. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The
Function of Racial Difference in Colonial Literature,” Race,
Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Chicago: U of Chicago P. 78-106.
Parry, Benita. Delusions and Discoveries Studies on India in the
British Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.
_____. “The Politics of Representation in `A Passage to India'”, A Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. John
Beer. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986. 27-43.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part One)

September 22, 2009

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous
Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

E. M. Forster, the product of a culture which sought to rule the world, depicted the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of the imperial mind-set harshly and cogently. His outspokenness in favor of Indian independence at a time when the “Jewel in the Crown” was perhaps the greatest symbol of English pride and prosperity was courageous and sincere. Forster rejected the racist, eurocentric doctrines of the “white man’s burden” despite the fact that they were a central tenet of the liberal humanistic tradition which created him. Forster had the unique ability to view his culture as an outsider, a perspective which is often illuminating. But when Forster tries to explain actions and phenomena of a people whose culture is radically different from his own, he inevitably retreats into a eurocentric perspective which betrays his own inability to depict the non-European as fully human.

By bravely voicing the conviction that India deserved full political independence at a time when Gandhi was still looking for ways to “transform British imperialism into a happier institution,” Forster exceeds even the most enlightened liberal thinking of his time. (Das 3) In A Passage to India he repeatedly points out that imperialism is an ugly, dehumanizing institution which is inherently unjust and morally debasing to both subjects and colonizers. Yet, despite his eloquent renunciations of the imperial enterprise, Forster is ultimately incapable of viewing Indians with the clarity which makes his Anglo-Indians such compelling specimens of depraved denial. In contrast, Forster’s Indians are merely caricatures; ironically, they possess many of the characteristics which British writers attributed to them in order to justify British rule in India: they are irrational, fatuous, lazy and dishonest.

By creating Indian characters who are too petulant and immature to deserve the political independence he champions, Forster is perpetuating an ancient European intellectual tradition which is deeply ingrained in the collective Western consciousness. Much of Europe was the “Orient’s” servant before it was its master. Several centuries before Europe colonized the Levant, the East invaded Europe in the name of Mohammed. The eight-hundred year struggle to reclaim Europe from Muslim infidels engendered a fear and revulsion towards the region. In many ways, our modern conception of a single European culture was born out the somewhat unified effort to repel these heretical invaders. The “Orientalist” school of interpretation represents an effort to examine how the historically static negative European impression of “Oriental” people influences literary and political discourse. A strong case has been made by these scholars that European imperialism has been promoted by literary and academic output which demeans and dehumanizes colonial subjects. Edward Said thus describes the cultural significance of this historical phenomenon:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilization and languages, its cultural contestant and one of the deepest and most recurring images of the Other. (Said 1)

When Forster, an artist lionized by eminent critics such as Lionel Trilling and Frederick Crews for his “humanism,” creates Indian characters which validate Europe’s “deepest and most recurring images of the Other,” it becomes clear how intricately racism has been woven into the fabric of western thought. The Enlightenment love of liberty and justice extends only to a man’s perceived peers. The inherent inferiority of people of color was rarely questioned by many of the most celebrated champions of democracy “…liberal cultural heroes like John Stuart Mill, Arnold Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, George Eliot and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism.” (Said 14)

Imperialism and liberalism coexisted because the plunder of men like Clive, Yale and Rhodes brought material wealth to Europe which few were willing to question. Eventually, apologists like Kipling would glorify imperialism as a gallant and noble institution which actually benefited its victims. This was done by intimating that “Orientals” were racially devoid of the moral and intellectual faculties which European males possessed in abundance. A series of binary oppositions was utilized to denigrate imperial subjects in comparison to their colonizers. If white males are brave, honorable, and masculine, then orientals are cowardly, immoral and effeminate, all qualities which imply an inferior status. Language, therefore, becomes a major element in the mass subjugation of peoples. No one understood this better than the British who

devised a way of dividing the world which made British rule in India appear a political imperative and a moral duty. The strategy of discrimination and exclusion can be deduced from the series of meanings produced by the word “exotic”: dissimilar, unrelated, extraneous, uncomfortable, untypical, incongruent, eccentric, anomalous, foreign, alien, abnormal, aberrant, deviant, outcast, monstrous, fantastic, barbarous, grotesque, bizarre, strange, mysterious, unimaginable, wondrous, outlandish (Parry, “Politics,” 28).

by Richard W. Bray

Unspeakable Things

September 21, 2009


Unspeakable Things

In the center of the town Lidane there stands a giant box
It’s tall and black with shiny sides. It takes up several blocks
It’s protected by a giant fence with razorwire and locks
And though it’s there for all to see, no one ever talks

About the cube in the square, near the old dog pound
And just two blocks from the stage where the King was crowned
What I’m about to say is rather odd and surely will astound
But instead of tearing down the box, they prefer to go around

The monstrous thing which scars the scene and obstructs the view
It can be seen for miles around, from downtown to the zoo
Blotting out the heavens with its blatant hue
But the weirdest thing about the box, yes, quite strange but true

Is that the people of Lidane pretend it isn’t there
They ignore it through their busy day and hardly give a care
As though the giant structure were just so much thin air
To ever question what it means. Oh no, they just don’t dare

by Richard W. Bray


September 18, 2009


Swift knew from his reading of history that “the same vices and the same follies” were a ubiquitous feature of human institutions and efforts to create any kind of utopia were destined to fail. As an avid reader of antiquarian texts, he “had a sense of belonging to a civilization with a tradition of inherited political wisdom that stretched back to fifth-century Athens” (Lock, 33). Therefore, he “did not look at the problems of his age as new or unique” (Lock, 34). As he did in The Battel of the Books, Swift employs actual historical figures in “A Voyage to Laputa” to illustrate the timelessness of human folly.

It was Swift’s religious background which instilled in him the sense of innate human fallibility which was only reinforced by his personal experiences. Jonathan Swift was an Anglican clergyman who devoted his life to the promotion of the precepts of Christianity as he understood them. This perspective predisposed Swift to view humanity as both unworthy and incapable of achieving anything remotely approaching worldly perfection:

A fundamental element of Swift’s pessimism was his religious conviction that political corruption and disorder were, in man’s fallen state, more natural than their opposites (Lock, 4).

Of course, there is no single valid biblical interpretation of human nature. Ironically, in many ways, Swift’s low regard for humanity was closer to Hobbes’ deistic “doctrine of humankind’s essential power hunger and egotism” than it was to his fellow theologian, the Third Earl of Shaftsbury, who portrayed humankind as altruistic and benevolent in his Characteristics (Knowles, 25). Though Swift was repulsed by Hobbes’ theology, Gulliver’s Travels presents a very Hobbesian portrait of humanity.

The pervasive picture of human depravity depicted in Gulliver’s Travels is aided by the satirical technique of reversing the reader’s perspective of Gulliver’s physical stature. By transforming Gulliver via his travels from behemoth to dwarf, Swift assaults his reader’s expectations and perceptions of the story’s protagonist. In Lilliput, Gulliver towers over his captors not only in physical stature, but also in his moral character. In refusing his Emperor’s order to destroy the Blefuscudian forces, Gulliver is displaying his superior ethics. When Gulliver travels to Brobdingnag, however, his situation is completely reversed. Not only has his physical stature suddenly diminished, but his moral standards vis-a-vis his new hosts are likewise reduced. As a result of this reversal Gulliver “becomes the object of satire, whereas on Lilliput he had largely been the vehicle for satire on what he observed” (Knowles, 82-3).

Gulliver’s moral stature, and, by inference, the ethical standing of the human race, shrinks along with Gulliver’s body because the residents of Brobdingnag have much higher standards than human beings. This becomes clear through Gulliver’s interactions with the King of Brobdingnag. Swift employs some of his most brilliant satire as all of Gulliver’s efforts to impress the King with examples of the achievements of European civilization simply confirm his suspicions about innate human depravity. After the King has meticulously questioned Gulliver on European culture, he offers this assessment of Western civilization:

He was perfectly astonished with the historical Account I gave him of our Affairs during the last Century; protesting it was only an Heap of Conspiracies, Murders, Massacres, Revolutions, Banishments; the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, and Ambition could produce (Gulliver, 107).

The King’s estimation of English political institutions is equally harsh. When Gulliver explains to him the qualities required to succeed in court, he observes wryly: “You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator” (Gulliver, 108). It cannot be denied that such pithy commentary by the King of Brobdingnag reflect Swift’s own political experiences. But the King’s final appraisal of human nature goes much farther than simply criticizing the excesses of a particular monarchy or the vulgarities of royal intrigue. The King is appalled when Gulliver, in an effort to gain his favor, offers to reveal the secret to the destructive power of gunpowder. He is “amazed how so impotent and groveling little Insect as I (these were his Expressions) could entertain such inhuman Ideas” (Gulliver, 110). The King eloquently articulates the deep-seated misanthropy which permeates much of Swift’s writing when he offers this harsh indictment of human nature:

But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pains wringed and extorted from you: I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of odious little Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth (Gulliver, 108).

While conversing with the ghosts of the ancients in Laputa Gulliver continues to be confronted with the specter of inborn human degeneracy. It is here that Swift is asserting most cogently that human depravity is universal and timeless, and, therefore, not simply a product of a particular age or a single political institution. After speaking with an assortment of philosophers and kings, Gulliver is overwhelmed by the ubiquity of political corruption. Swift makes the amusing observation that personal integrity, rather than being the stuff of great leaders, is actually anathema to the machinery of government:

Three Kings protested to me, that in their whole Reigns they did never once prefer any Person of Merit, unless by Mistake or Treachery of some Minister in whom they confided: Neither would they do it if they were to live again; and they shewed with great Strength of Reason, that the Royal Throne could not be supported without Corruption; because, that positive, confident, restive Temper, which Virtue infused into Man, was a perpetual Clog to publick Business (Gulliver, 171).

This is a vituperative assault upon the humanistic view of human nature. Yet things continue to go from bad to worse as Swift saves his most potent salvos against humanity for Gulliver’s final journey, the “Voyage to the Huoyhnhnms.” Just as Swift, a great lover of hoaxes, must have enjoyed shrinking Gulliver in order to demonstrates humanity’s minuscule moral stature, he surely delighted in creating a breed of humanity subservient to its favorite beast of burden–the horse: “As Gulliver experienced a huge reversal from giant to pygmy, now the world is turned upside down as he recounts the relationship between human and horse in England” (Knowles, 121). This forces the reader to reevaluate many of his/her basic assumptions about human nature.

By creating a world where humanity is represented by the Yahoos, Swift personifies humanity’s most wretched feral tendencies. By forcing the reader to observe the Yahoos from the perspective of a wholly rational creature the novel demonstrates how indistinguishable Western man is from his animal nature. Gulliver is driven mad by the realization that an animal which appears to be a common horse is his moral superior in every way. Swift catalogues various vices and shortcomings in order to demonstrate how a race of truly rational beings might compare to humanity.

In the land of the Houyhnhnms there were no Gibers, Censurers, Backbiters, Pick-pockets, Highwaymen, House-breakers, Attorneys, Bawds, Buffoons, Gamesters, Politicians, Wits, Splenetics, tedious Talkers, Controvertists, Ravishers, Murderers, Robbers, Virtuosos; no Leaders or Followers of Party and Faction; No Encouragers to Vice, by Seducements or Examples (Gulliver, 242).

Even more damning of humanity than its status and ethically inferior to the Houyhnhnms is the inability of Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm Master to distinguish him from the Yahoos. He is never willing to concede that Gulliver represents a race which might differ significantly from the Yahoos in moral stature despite the fact that Gulliver speaks, reasons and wears clothes. Gulliver’s descriptions of human exploits confirm his master’s worst suspicions about humanity, just as Gulliver’s braggadocio had appalled the King of Brobdingnag. The master actually comes to regard Gulliver as representative of a life form even lower than the detested Yahoos who have no excuse for their lewd behavior. Humans, on the other hand, have intellectual gifts which logically should prevent them from committing the type of atrocities Gulliver has described to his master who concludes that

although he hated the Yahoos of this country he no more blamed them for their odious qualities, than he did a Gnnayh (a Bird of Prey) for its Cruelty, or a sharp Stone for cutting his Hoof. But, when a Creature pretending to Reason, could be capable of such Enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that Faculty might be worse than brutality itself (Gulliver, 215).

When Gulliver finally accepts his master’s appraisal that all the people he has ever known are, in essence, “Yahoos in Shape and disposition, perhaps a little more civilized”, he is echoing Swift’s gloomy assessment of human nature (Gulliver, 243). As the reader follows Gulliver through his descent into madness, it is difficult to remain optimistic about human nature. Gulliver begins his journeys as a proud man who is happy to brag about human exploits; he ends up revolted by the mere presence of people, preferring the company of horses.

This leaves us with the question of why Swift would write a book which paints such a dismal portrait of human nature. Is Gulliver’s Travels, as has been suggested, simply the misanthropic ravings of bitter, frustrated man who was himself headed into the throes of insanity? Or did Swift write, as he insisted, for the “Universal Improvement of Mankind”? It is notable, however, that Swift never proposes any strategy for such a daunting task. When one considers that Swift’s theological predisposition was based upon the innate corruption of humanity such protestations ring hollow. It seems likely that this was simply another one of Swift’s jokes.

by Richard W. Bray

Case, Arthur E. Four Essays on Gulliver’s Travels. Gloucester: Princeton UP, 1958
Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. London: Prentice Hall, 1996
Lock, F.P. The Politics of Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990
Swift, Jonathan. The Writings of Jonathan Swift. New York:Norton, 1973
Varey, Simon “Exemplary History and the Political Satire of Gulliver’s Travels,” The Genres of Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Frederik N. Smith. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990 (39-54)


September 17, 2009



Winter 1998

Gulliver’s Travels is a testament to the ubiquity of corruption in human institutions. In all of Gulliver’s adventures the reader is confronted by examples of greed and vice which render humankind and its political institutions degenerate. This is not surprising when one considers that Swift was an Anglican clergyman who sincerely believed that postlapsarian humanity was inherently depraved. Yet Swift was also a diligent political operative and erstwhile pamphleteer with a considerable appetite for the adversity and acrimony of party politics. Swift’s political activity remained consistent with his Christianity–he fought for the establishment of peace, justice and political stability within the framework of his conception of the ideal political arrangement, a benevolent monarchy balanced by a diligent nobility. Despite some notable victories, Swift and his Tory allies were effectively exiled from the halls of power after the Death of Queen Anne and the ascension of the Whigs under King William I. This left Swift dispirited, and his natural tendency to cynicism was heightened by the aftermath of this brief period of political triumph:

his brilliant pamphleteering in 1711-13 on behalf of the Tory government’s peace policy was successful in its immediate aims. But the death of Queen Anne and the triumph of the Whigs blasted Swift’s hopes that the peace would inaugurate a new era of prosperity and stability under tory auspices (Lock, 1).

In many ways Gulliver’s Travels was an attempt to vindicate the reputations of Swift and his Tory compatriots, particularly, Oxford and Bolingbroke. Swift was proud of the role Tory ministers had played in the negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended hostilities with France in 1713. Swift believed that the charges of appeasement and even treason leveled against the Tories were motivated by Whig blood lust and war profiteering. As a condemnation of such horrific human behavior, Gulliver’s Travels is far more effective than Swift’s nonfiction account of his involvement in party politics, History of the Last Four Years of the Queen.

Gulliver’s Travels abounds with allusions to the type of political machinations which led to his retirement from politics and his eventual self-imposed exile back to Ireland. This has led many critics to assume that the book, particularly the first two sections, is an allegory for Swift’s personal trials and travails in service of Queen Anne. Throughout the past two and a half centuries, numerous reviewers have tried to find historical counterparts in even the most minute occurrences from Gulliver’s Travels in their efforts to prove the book was really intended merely to lampoon Swift’s particular political rivals. This absurd reading of Gulliver’s Travels is, thankfully, no longer as prevalent as it once was.

Those who would argue that the scope of the intended meaning of Gulliver’s Travels is limited to a parody of contemporary English politics ignore not only Swift’s protestations to the contrary, but common sense as well. Swift’s personal experiences had a profound affect on his satire, as did his cynical reading of history and his basic theological predisposition. Swift “believed in the general conformity of human nature” and this nature was inherently corrupt (Lock, 33).

The central theme of Gulliver’s Travels is the imperfectabilityofhumanity and the universality of political corruption. Although the book contains many allusions to specific people and events from the period of the queen’s last ministry and other periods, it is not a political allegory in which every character, action, and motive contributes to a portrait of a single period (Varey, 41).

Once we accept the universality of Swift’s basic message it is possible to separate particular references to his personal history without falling into the trap of looking for a grand design of allegory in Gulliver’s Travels because “if there is no allegory, there still may be covert allusions to actual persons and events (Lock, 111). Such allusions are most prevalent in Gulliver’s “Voyage to Lilliput.” Arthur E. Case, an advocate of a highly allegorical reading of Gulliver’s Travels, does expose some interesting parallels between the book and Swift’s personal political history. He is convincing, for example, when he points out, as others have, that the “High Heels” and “Low-Heels” of Lilliput are clearly references to the Whigs and Tories, just as Big-Endians and Small-Endians represent the absurdity of the theological dispute between contemporary Catholics and Protestants (Case, 73). Moreover, Swift is obviously recounting the difficulty the Tories faced in negotiating the “Treaty of Utrecht” when the Emperor of Lilliput warns him that “we labor under two mighty Evils; a violent Faction at home, and the Danger of an Invasion by a most potent enemy abroad” (Gulliver, 29-30). But this is surely a timeless phenomenon which, for example, afflicted both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The shabby, ungrateful treatment Gulliver receives from the Emperor and his backbiting ministers in Lilliput after he has saved their kingdom in wartime and helped negotiate a just peace is analogous to the way Swift and his Tory compatriots were dealt with by the Whigs who replaced them. Upon defeating the Blefuscudian navy, Gulliver refuses on moral grounds the Lilliputian King’s request that Gulliver should obliterate “the Big-Endian Exiles, and compelling that people break the smaller End of their Egg; by which he would remain the sole Monarch of the whole World” (Gulliver, 34). Gulliver quite properly maintains that he is unwilling to follow the King’s demand because he “would never be an Instrument of bringing a free and brave People into Slavery” (Gulliver, 35). Here there is an obvious parallel between the Lilliputians and the “Whig desire for a crushing defeat of France (which) is pictured as a malicious and despotic wish of the Emperor to humiliate and tyrannize” a vanquished foe (Case, 75).

Case makes a cogent case that Gulliver’s experiences in Lilliput serve as an allegory for the diplomatic exploits of the Tory ministers Oxford and Bolingbroke during the last four years of Anne’s reign. Gulliver appears to relive this decisive period in Swift’s life. According to Case, the strongest arguments in favor of this interpretation of the “Voyage to Lilliput” are “its consistency and the exactness with which it follows the chronology of the events which it symbolizes” (Case, 79). Unfortunately, just three lines after making this assertion Case is forced to concede that “there are, of course, a few cases in which Swift takes slight and unimportant liberties with chronology for the sake of simplicity” (Case, 79). However, Case bolsters his argument by demonstrating how the four charges made against Gulliver are similar to the actual charges brought against Oxford and Bolingbroke (Case, 77-8). And there can be little doubt that the accusations of the treason faced by Gulliver for his role in negotiating a humane peace treaty with the Blefuscudians echo Whig declarations “that the Tories were robbing England of the fruits of victory by granting the enemy (France) easy terms” in the Treaty of Utrecht (Case, 75). The official charges against Gulliver, that he “did, like a false Traitor, aid, abet, comfort, and divert the said Ambassadors” mirror the attempts by Whigs to prosecute Oxford and Bolingbroke for their loyal diplomatic service to the crown (Gulliver, 49). It was horrific for Swift to see his personal heroes betrayed and humiliated as the result of fratricidal political intrigue which certainly exacerbated his natural proclivity for political pessimism. Gulliver is obviously referring to Oxford and Bolingbroke when he observes, in a rare moment of intellectual clarity that: “Of so little Weight are the greatest Services to Princes, when put into the Balance with a refusal to gratify their passions” (Gulliver,35).

If Swift merely intended to vindicate his allies and attack his adversaries when writing Gulliver’s Travels, the work would not have survived the scrutiny of time. Rather than simply exposing the moral depravity of those who had done him wrong, Swift was writing for the ages. His goal, then, was “to attack not particular Whigs or Whig policy, nor even Whiggism, but the perennial political disease of which Whiggery wash only a contemporary manifestation” (Lock, 2). Gulliver’s Travels is much more than the embodiment of Swift’s personal political frustrations; it is an attempt to chronicle the universality of political degeneracy and the frailty of humanity and its institutions. Swift himself articulates this fact in his angry reaction to a French translator of Gulliver’s Travels who has the temerity to suggest the book “was not written for France, but for England, and that what it contains of direct and particular satire does not touch us” (Knowles, 30). Swift’s response to this is direct and explicit:

If then, the works of Mr. Gulliver are calculated only for the British Isles, that traveller must pass for a very wretched writer. The same vices and the same follies reign everywhere, at least in the civilised countries of Europe, and the author who writes only for a town, a province, a Kingdom, or even a country, so far from being deserving to be translated, does not even deserve to be read (Knowles, 30-1).

by Richard W. Bray