The Puritan origins of Gulliver’s conversion in Houyhnhnmland Essay Sample
- Pages: 25
- Word count: 6,609
- Rewriting Possibility: 99% (excellent)
- Category: book
Get Full Essay
Get access to this section to get all help you need with your essay and educational issues.Try it free!
In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift develops a complex satire of radical Protestantism. A careful examination of the language Gulliver uses to describe his experience in “The Voyage to Houyhnhmland” reveals his identification with the bestial Yahoos as an instance of what Puritan divines call a “True Sight of Sin.” Gulliver’s subsequent espousal of Houyhnhnm virtue and his efforts to reform humanity become an occasion for Swift
an occasion for Swift to parody the enthusiasm of the born-again believer and the paradoxical nature of radical Christianity’s desire to exhort to perfection that very human nature which it condemns.
Swift presents Houyhnhnmland not as a Stoic or Enlightenment utopia, but as an Edenic place; the reason with which he endows the Houyhnhnms is not a philosophical concept but an example of the “erect Reason” of Adam and Eve in Paradise. “The Voyage to Houyhnhnmland” exposes the paradox within Puritan thinking: that human beings are saved by grace alone, but that converted human beings must work hard to perfect themselves and must separate themselves from the mixed multitude. The representative of Enlightenment Man encounters a truly enlightened and reasonable, because unfallen, species and becomes convinced of his depravity. He then struggles to separate himself from sinful humanity, even as he urges it to reform without tarrying for any.
What Swift admires and what he satirizes in the fourth book have long occasioned controversy in Swift scholarship. In a recent essay, William Casement remarks of Houyhnhnmland that “[w]hile religion is not present there, its absence looms large”; he argues that Swift purposely leaves religion out of Houyhnhnm experience in order to force his readers “to ponder what is missing.”(1) He then surveys the controversy between the “‘hard’ school” of Swift criticism, which believes Houyhnhnm society to be Swift’s ideal and the Travels to be invective against human frailty, and the “‘soft’ school,” which sees the Travels as an instructive satire in which clergyman Swift exposes the Houyhnhnms as cold and incomplete creatures. This polarity of opinion suggests that if Swift adopted the strategy Casement proposes, he employed it far too subtly.
In “Adam in Houyhnhnmland: The Presence of Paradise Lost,” James Falzarano addresses the apparent absence of religion in the book far more successfully by identifying “a pattern of structural allusions, which in turn fosters a host of verbal and thematic echoes” of Paradise Lost. Exploring the resonant correspondences between Gulliver’s interactions with his Houyhnhnm Master and Adam’s interactions with God’s emissaries – the Son and the angel Michael – Falzarano finds a “repeated and varied presence of [John] Milton’s Paradise Lost, which fuses a Christian tone with a satiric purpose.”(2) I would argue that Swift also incorporates the language and morphology of Christian conversion, and alludes to ideas from the religious controversies of his day, so that Gulliver’s particular but veiled variety of Christian experience becomes the butt of Swifi’s satire.(3) To make Gulliver’s conversion explicitly Christian would indeed have laid Swift open to the charges of blasphemy that have been leveled against him.
By the middle of this century, it had become a critical commonplace to identify Gulliver’s psychological experience in Houyhnhnmland as a conversion, but critics used that word loosely. For example, in Jonathan Swift, J. Middleton Murry acknowledges Gulliver’s “spiritual purgation” as “his realization that he belongs to the species of the Yahoo” and refers to the Houyhnhnms as “regenerated humans,” but he uses this language in a non-Christian context: Murry argues that Swift uses Houyhnhnm reason to represent “a mere latent potentiality in humans, [that] only becomes operative when the mind is free from passion or interest, that is to say, when it is purged of what George Santayana calls ‘animal egotism.'”(4)
In other words, this “reason” is a natural faculty which humans can discipline themselves to release, and Murry assumes that Swift approves it. On the other hand, Calhoun Winton understands Gulliver’s Travels as “a satiric presentation of what Swift regarded as the new, ‘enlightened’ religion (often referred to loosely then and now as ‘deism’) and a defense, couched in Swiftian irony, of Augustinian Christianity.”(5) He argues that the Houyhnhnms represent proponents of “benevolism,” the belief that human nature is essentially good, and that they are the target of the satire. Although he connects Gulliver’s conversion to St. Paul’s through his allusive title, “Conversion on the Road to Houyhnhnmland,” he does not explore the explicit language of that conversion. To do so is to realize that Gulliver does experience a conversion, but not to Deism.
Swift presents Gulliver’s acceptance of Houyhnhnm reality as a parody of radical Protestant conversion experience. Gulliver expresses his change in terms of “seeing,” of having new eyes and a new understanding: he informs his reader that “the many Virtues of those excellent Quadrupeds placed in opposite View to human Corruptions, had so far opened my Eyes, and enlarged my Understanding, that I began to view the Actions and Passions of Man in a very different Light.”(6) Born-again Christians use the metaphor of blindness to express their fallen condition, while restored or clarified eyesight represents their new understanding.
In the preface to his Practical Exposition upon Psalm CXXX (1668), John Owen defines his task as influencing “perception,” to address “the understandings of men open and enlightened” by God, and to render the meaning of the psalm “more visible.”(7) Richard Baxter explains in his Treatise of Conversion (1657) that a convert feels “like a man that is brought out of a dungeon into the open light, or that hath his eyesight recovered.”(8) In his autobiography, Baxter records that “the being and attributes of God were so clear to me that he was to my intellect what the sun is to my eye, by which I see itself and all things.”(9) In Grace Abounding (1666), John Bunyan reports that “I began to look into the Bible with new eyes, and read as I never did before; especially the epistles of the apostle Paul were sweet and pleasant to me.”(10) These evangelists derive their metaphor from the experience of Paul in Acts: “immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.”(11) Bunyan remarks that the women of Bedford “were to me as if they had found a new world.”(12) Gulliver literally has.
Puritan theologians distinguish between saving faith and common belief, an intellectual awareness or assent to received doctrine. Owen warns that “the ways whereby we may come to the knowledge of any thing are, by the seeing of the eye or hearing of the ear, or the reasonings and meditations of the heart; but now none of these will reach to the matter in hand.”(13) The experience of saving faith is different in kind from an intellectual understanding of doctrine, “not seated only in the speculative part of the mind, hovering in general notions.”(14) It is also a sensuous experience: Baxter recalls in the preface to A Treatise of Conversion how “God first warmed my heart,” how religious writing suddenly tasted “wonderfully pleasant and savoury to my soul.”(15) He explains in the text itself that the Spirit “causes that to savour or relish as sweet to the will, which before was as bitter.”(16) Thomas Shepard reports that “though I could not read the Scripture without blasphemous thoughts before, now I saw a glory, a majesty, a mystery, a depth in it, which fully persuaded . . . the Lord opened mine eyes.”(17) In his personal narrative, Jonathan Edwards explains, “the delights which I now felt in things of religion were of an exceeding different kind from those forementioned, that I had when I was a boy.
They were totally of another kind; and what I then had no more notion or idea of, than one born blind has of pleasant and beautiful colors.”(18) Developing this experience in A Divine and Supernatural Light (1734), he locates true faith “in the sense of the heart: as when there is a sense of the beauty, amiableness, or sweetness of the thing,” arguing “this evidence that they that are spiritually enlightened have of the truth of the things of religion, is a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence.”(19) He describes his own acceptance of God’s sovereignty as “not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceedingly pleasant, bright, and sweet.”(20) Similarly, Bunyan reports in Grace Abounding that “now I saw clearly there was an exceeding difference betwixt the notions of flesh and blood, and the revelations of God in heaven.”(21) The truth revealed to him in the Bible evokes sudden and powerful sensations of “sweet satisfaction,” “comfort and hope.”(22) As Gulliver explains, Houyhnhnm reason is not “a point problematical as with us, where Men can argue with Plausibility on both Sides of a Question; but strikes you with immediate Conviction” (p. 233); he excuses his apparent betrayal of humanity’s interests by arguing that he did it because “Truth appeared so amiable to me, that I determined upon sacrificing every thing to it” (p. 224).
Both Gulliver and these Puritans present their conversion to truth as an experience that not only is different in kind from all other human experience, but also occurs without human agency. Baxter identifies God as the “principal cause” of conversion: “conversion actively taken, as it is the work of the Holy Ghost, is a work of the Spirit of Christ, by which he effectually changeth men’s minds, and heart, and life from the creatures to God in Christ.”(23) In his autobiography, Shepard testifies that “the Lord recovered me and poured out a spirit of prayer upon me for free mercy and pity.”(24) As Milton explains in De Doctrina Christiana, “Regeneration is that change operated by the Word and the Spirit, whereby the old man being destroyed, the inward man is regenerated by God after His own image, in all the faculties of his mind, insomuch that he becomes as it were a new creature.”(25) Even as Adam and Eve lie prostrate on the ground in Eden, he attributes their repentance to God’s agency, for from the mercy-seat above Prevenient grace descending had removed The stony from their hearts, and made new flesh Regenerate grow instead.(26)
Sharing this emphasis on God’s role in human redemption, Bunyan announces his project in Grace Abounding as recording “the merciful workings of God upon my soul.”(27) Bunyan, Shepard, and Edwards record examples from early in their lives of inefficacious, because self-righteous and self-initiated, religious activity. Shepard recalls that “I had many good affections (but blind and inconstant)”;(28) Edwards laments that “many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.”(29) They describe this early period as a struggle between the self’s assertion of its own value and Christianity’s insistence on the need for redemption. Then, suddenly and mysteriously, something happens. As Edwards writes, “I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it.”(30) Swift presents Gulliver’s conversion as just such a sudden apprehension: it seems to take place between chapters.
Hand in hand with this conviction of truth comes conviction of sin, or what the clergyman Thomas Hooker calls a “true sight of sin” because the truth about which these people become convinced is that humanity’s natural depravity requires but does not deserve the intervention of a redeemer.(31) In “Swift’s Yahoos and the Christian Symbols for Sin,” Roland M. Frye amply documents that Swift’s delineation of Yahoo nature conforms to traditional Christian symbolism of fallen human nature and the attendant insistence that human beings must recognize their condition. But while I agree with Frye “that Swift’s treatment is thoroughly consistent with certain normative positions of Protestantism in general and Anglicanism in particular,”(32) Gulliver’s response to this outward and visible sign of humanity’s inward and spiritual condition is not orthodox. It more nearly approximates the Puritan conversion to a conviction of human depravity and the need for grace.
At the beginning of his sojourn in Houyhnhnmland, Gulliver acknowledges a connection between Yahoos and humans, but that acknowledgment does not encompass identification: “My Horror and Astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable Animal, a perfect human Figure,” he recalls, but then confides that “I now apprehended, that I must absolutely starve, if I did not get to some of my own Species” (p. 199). He takes pains “to distinguish myself as much as possible, from that cursed Race of Yahoos” by concealing himself with clothing (p. 204). Even after the embarrassing incident in which he is forced to disrobe before his Houyhnhnm Master, Gulliver resists the identification: “I owned my Resemblance in every Part, but could not account for their degenerate and brutal Nature” (p. 206). He sees a connection, but he does not yet see it with conviction.
Emphasizing the “true sight of sin” as spiritual rather than notional knowledge, Hooker insists that sin be understood “convictingly, what it is in itself and what it is to us, not in the appearance and paint of it, but in the power of it; not to fadom it in the notion and conceit only, but to see it with Application.”(33) “It is one thing,” he warns, “to see a disease in the Book, or in a marts body, another thing to find and feel it in a mans self.”(34) Similarly, Owen identifies “a two-fold sense of sin.” He defines one as “general and notional; whereby a man knows what sin is, that himself is a sinner, – that he is guilty of this or that, these or those sins; only his heart is not affected proportionably to that discovery and knowledge which he hath of these things.”(35) The other is “efficacious,” characterized by “a deep and practical apprehension” of personal sinfulness.(36) The converted Christian experiences fully the metaphor in Psalm 38 of sins as “‘arrows that stick in the flesh,’ verse 2: they pain sorely and are always perplexing.”(37) Baxter concurs that the man “that thought sin so pleasant, would now fain spit it out,”(38) as if it were poison.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, Faithful explains that the experience of grace “gives him conviction of sin, especially of the defilement of his nature, and the sin of unbelief . . . This sight and sense of things worketh in him sorrow and shame for sin.”(39) The language that Puritans use illustrates this theory. Shepard laments his earlier obstinacy: “I did see my frame and my hypocrisy and self and secret sins, although I found a hard heart and could not be affected with them.”(40) But he records later that he “found the Lord helping me to see my unworthiness” so that “my heart was humbled . . . and the terrors of the Lord began to assuage sweetly.”(41) Jonathan Edwards reports that “I have had a vastly greater sense of my wickedness, and the badness of my heart, since my conversion, than ever I had before.
It has often appeared to me, that if God should mark iniquity against me, I should appear the very worst of all mankind”;(42) even as Bunyan describes with admiration the women of Bedford, he reports that “they also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, of their unbelief; and did contemn, slight, and abhor their own righteousness, as filthy and insufficient to do them any good.”(43) Once convinced of his own Yahooness, Gulliver “turned away my Face in horror and detestation of my self; and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo, than of my own Person” (p. 243). He not only acknowledges a connection, but experiences the power of this conviction.
Puritans would consider such conviction evidence of appropriate and effective preaching, for the first responsibility of the minister is to encourage and enable this conviction of sin. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan dramatizes the conflict between complacency and Puritan preaching in Christian’s encounter with Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who criticizes Evangelist not only for setting Christian on such a “dangerous and troublesome way,” but also for encouraging his reading in the Bible, which Worldy Wiseman believes unsettles people’s wits and causes them to “run upon desperate ventures.”(44) Evangelist counters with a sermon that so vividly reinforces Christian’s sense of his perilous condition that it “made the hair of his flesh stand.”(45)
The Interpreter later defines the evangelist’s task as “to know, and unfold dark things to sinners even as also thou seest him stand as if he pleaded with men.”(46) Richard Sibbes opens The Soul’s Conflict by asserting that “the way for men to enjoy comfort, is to be soundly troubled.”(47) He explains that he has undertaken his work “not to take men off from all grief and mourning,” but to enable believers “to distinguish between grief and that sullenness and dejection of spirit, which is with a repining and taking off from duty.”(48) In Grace Abounding, Bunyan reports that from discussions with the women of Bedford and their minister, Mr. Gifford, he “received more conviction and from that time began to see something of the vanity and inward wretchedness of my wicked heart.”(49) Gulliver, too, has found in the Houyhnhnm Master a teacher “who daily convinced me of a Thousand Faults in my self, whereof I had not the least Perception before” (p. 224).
Swift, however, is not such a clergyman. The hermeneutic principle that operates throughout his sermons is Christian charity, “for, since our Saviour laid so much Weight upon his Disciples loving one another, that he gave it among his last instructions; and since the Primitive Christians are allowed to have chiefly propagated the Faith by their strict Observance of that Instruction, it must follow that in Proportion as Brotherly Love declineth, Christianity will do so too.”(50) Responsible, godly conduct and Christian compassion are the lessons he preaches. He writes sermons on “Mutual Subjection,” “Brotherly Love,” and “Doing Good.” He encourages his congregation to endeavor to behave righteously, for “God sent us into the world to obey his Commands, by doing as much Good as our Abilities will reach, and as little Evil as our many Infirmities will permit” (p. 149).
Swift does not consider forcing a conviction of sin and repentance as the main goal of preaching. In “A Letter to a Young Gentleman Lately Entered into Holy Orders,” Swift cautions against exploiting emotions: “I do not see how this Talent of moving the Passions, can be of any great Use towards directing Christian men in the Conduct of their Lives” (p. 69). He proposes instead a simple method: “first to tell the People what is their Duty, and then to convince them that it is so” (p. 70). While he encourages self-analysis because it “tendeth very much to mortify and humble a Man into a modest and low Opinion of himself” (p. 359), he also believes and approves that such self-awareness “maketh Men less severe upon other People’s Faults” (p. 361). That outcome is not the one desired by Puritan clergymen. Thomas Hooker expects quite the opposite result: “For in truth, the reason why men see not the loathsomeness of other men’s sins, or else have not courage to pass a righteous sentence upon them, it is because they were never convinced to see the plague sore of their own corruptions, never had their hearts affected with the evil of them in their own experience.”(51) Anyone who has read The Pilgrim’s Progress will concede that Christian’s conviction of sin has not made him tolerant of others; neither does Gulliver’s.
A useful way to distinguish the tone of Swift’s preaching from that of the Puritans is to compare his sermon “Upon Sleeping in Church” with Increase Mather’s comments on sleeping at sermons in “Practical Truths Tending to Promote the Power of Godliness” (Boston, 1682). Swift mocks the slackers, opening his subject with the comment that he hopes “to disturb some Part of this Audience of half an Hour’s Sleep, for the Convenience and Exercise whereof this Place, at this Season of the Day, is very much celebrated” (p. 210). While he is serious about his message – that “the Sleeper shuts up all Avenues to his Soul” (p. 215) at his spiritual peril – his sermon is, for the most part, an apology for preaching, a thoughtful response to objections about clergymen’s lack of eloquence and wit. Mather, on the other hand, sees no humor in human frailty. Sleeping at church embodies “the woful corruption and desperate hardness of heart of the Children of men.”(52) He seeks to terrify his congregation into alert attention by listing Scriptural examples of people struck dead of “such miscarriages, as carnal reason will say are but little sins.”(53) He urges his listeners to “Behold! the severity of God, and let us tremble at it.”(54)
Such passionate outbursts do not characterize Swift’s preaching. Rather, in accordance with his privileging of Christian charity, he strenuously asserts the value of conformity, even outward conformity, in creating Christian community. When he does become impassioned in his sermons, the targets of his emotion and his contempt are the non-conformists, who disrupt civic and eccelesiastical order. His favorite term for them, “Fanaticks,” illustrates his lack of sympathy for their position. In “A Sermon upon the Martyrdom of King Charles I,” he describes the Puritans in Elizabeth’s time as “continually preaching and railing against ceremonies and distinct habits of the clergy, taxing whatever they disliked, as a remnant of Popery, and continued extremely troublesome to the church and state” (p. 221); the general public who supported their cause were “a packed rabble, poisoned with the same doctrines” (p. 222).
In “On the Testimony of Conscience,” he accuses contemporary “Fanaticks” of abusing Christian liberty by interpreting “Liberty of Conscience” not only “to be the Liberty of believing what Men please, but also of endeavoring to propagate the Belief as much as they can, and to overthrow the Faith which the Laws have already established, to be rewarded by the Publick for those wicked endeavors” (p. 151). He does not approve of disturbing church unity by controversy over “things indifferent,” a catchphrase of the Recreation Controversy of the early seventeenth century and one that he has Gulliver use in the fifth chapter of “The Voyage to Houyhnhnmland” when he describes the ferocity of religious conflict in Europe (p. 213). To contribute to civic and ecclesiastical harmony, Swift encourages his congregation instead to maintain outward conformity: “But, if he hath any new visions of his own, it is his duty to be quiet, and possess them in silence, without disturbing the community by a furious zeal for making proselytes” (p. 227).
Puritan culture, on the other hand, thrived on evangelism, on “soul-melting” sermons and charismatic preachers. In God’s Caress, Charles Cohen documents both Puritanism’s emphasis on evangelical preaching and the emotional dependence of the converted upon their ministers.(55) Puritan literature records an intense relationship between the newly converted, the minister, and the holy community. As Hooker writes, “they whose hearts are pierced by the Ministry of the word, they are carryed with love and respect to the Ministers of it.”(56) Baxter distinguishes the genuinely converted by “a strong inclination to have communion with [other saints].”(57) Early in his autobiography Bunyan exclaims, “How lovely now was everyone in my eyes that I thought to be converted men and women! They shone, they walked like a people that carried a broad seal of heaven about them.”(58)
He embodies his desperation to join this gracious community in a dream which he later allegorizes as the symbol of Christian’s rebirth in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “I saw, as it were, a narrow gap, like a little doorway in the wall, through which I attempted to pass; but the passage being very strait and narrow, I made many efforts to get in, but all in vain, even until I was well-nigh quite beat out, by striving to get in; at last, with great striving, methought I at first did get in my head, and after that, by a sidling striving, my shoulders, and my whole body; then was I exceedingly glad, and went and sat down in the midst of them, and so was comforted with the light and heat of their sun.”(59) Pilgrim’s Progress outlines this trajectory from isolation in a hostile world to communion in the Celestial City, from enslavement in worldy bonds to envelopment in the spiritual family of believers. Gulliver’s response to the Houyhnhnm community, and to his Houyhnhnm Master in particular, parallels this embracing of a new community: “I contracted such a Love and Veneration for the Inhabitants, that I entered on a firm Resolution never to return to human Kind, but to pass the rest of my Life among these admirable Houyhnhnms” (p. 224).
Gulliver’s decision mirrors a Puritan impulse to withdraw, or separate, into “pure” communities that they hoped would more closely approximate the invisible church than the mixed multitudes attending Anglican services. Such an effort, however, raises the problem of visible sanctity: how do you determine whether the members of the community that you have joined are truly saved? If you cannot determine their spiritual condition, then how can you be secure in what you learn from them? Most Puritans determined that outward reformation would offer good evidence of inward renovation, although, as John Cotton warns in The New Covenant (London, 1654), “it is not an easie matter to make such use of Sanctification, as by it to beare witness to Justification.”(60)
Baxter suggests that in conversion a person’s “very talk” is changed, that a new “complacency and bent of mind, is the very spring of almost all his conversation.”(61) Confronted with Talkative, whose sincerity he suspects, Christian encourages Faithful to begin “some serious discourse about the power of religion; and ask him plainly (when he has approved of it, for he will) whether this thing be set up in his heart, house, or conversation.”(62) Faithful then explains that others can discern the work of grace in a soul by listening to “an experimental confession of his faith” and observing “a life answerable to that confession, to wit, a life of holiness: heart-holiness, family-holiness (if he hath a family) and by conversation-holiness in the world.”(63) Thomas Hooker suggests evaluating the behavior of converted sinners to see whether they “be wholly altered, their judgments altered and their carriage also.”(64)
In their discussions, Baxter, Christian, and Faithful use “conversation” in the old-fashioned sense to cover a person’s general conduct or manner of interaction with others. Hooker uses the word “carriage” to mean the same thing. The critical tradition that believes Gulliver has converted to Deism misses a great joke, for Swift has Gulliver demonstrate his conviction of his Yahooness and his determination to reform by altering, literally, both his conversation and carriage: “I fell to imitate their Gait and Gesture, which is now grown into a Habit; and my Friends often tell me in a blunt Way, that I trot like a Horse, which, however, I take for a great Compliment: Neither shall I disown, that in speaking I am apt to fall into the Voice and manner of the Houyhnhnms, and hear myself ridiculed on that account without the least Mortification” (pp. 243-4). Swift plays with the multiple but related meanings for these words, which cover both general and verbal interaction in the case of “conversation” and both social and physical deportment in the case of “carriage,” to expose the Puritan origins of Gulliver’s efforts at self-perfection. Swift’s choice of horses as the members of this unfallen community allows him to mock the unattainable nature of Gulliver’s ideal: it is not possible for Gulliver to be sanctified, to become a horse; the Houyhnhnms eject him, as decisively as any Separating Puritan congregation would reject a confirmed sinner.
Many readers have responded to the Houyhnhnms’ decision to eject Gulliver from their Eden as evidence of their fallibility, although that is what Milton’s God has Michael do to the fallen Adam and Eve, and presumably what they ought to have done to Satan. Recently, Falzarano has compared the Houyhnhnm Master unfavorably to Adam’s teachers in Paradise Lost, arguing that “the Master’s persistent reminders of human weakness are a great part of the reason why Gulliver despairs of man in general.”(65) But what he presents as a failing in the Master’s teaching supports the parallel that I have been developing, for the Houyhnhnm Master, like a good Puritan divine, pushes Gulliver to a conviction of his own sinful, or Yahoo, nature. He even calls the Yahoos Gulliver’s “brethren” (p. 225). But he does not consider Gulliver his brother.
In the satire on radical Protestants, the Houyhnhnms occupy a complex ground. Falzarano faults the Houyhnhnm Master for having “neither knowledge of original sin nor compassion for the human postlapsarian problem . . . His perception reflects not that of the omniscient Christian God but rather that of the prelapsarian Adam.”(66) Indeed, Swift has been careful to insert into the fourth voyage a myth of Yahoo origins that separates them from the other creatures in Houyhnhnmland: “many Ages ago, two of these brutes appeared together upon a Mountain” (p. 236).
Like Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden, they descend into the innocent world, bringing evil with them. This myth casts the Houyhnhnms as prelapsarian beings, and the circumstances of their lives bear out this identification. Like Milton’s good angels, and the prelapsarian Adam and Eve, the Houyhnhnms are perfectly comfortable in their environment and their bodies. They do not require clothes for warmth; they do not become ill, although they “by some accident might hurt a limb” (p. 220); they do not understand the meaning of shame. They participate in an Adamic language, asserting that “the Use of Speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive Information of Facts” (p. 207). Most importantly, they possess still the original erect Reason of Adam and Eve and the good angels. As Murry describes it, such reason “is the gift of discerning and doing what is good.”(67) The Houyhnhnm Master argues that “Nature and Reason were sufficient Guides for a reasonable Animal, as we pretended to be, in shewing us what we ought to do, and what to avoid” (p. 215).
But that human beings do not behave in accordance with the dictates of reason is precisely the evidence that St. Paul uses to prove human depravity and the necessity for redemption: “For I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”(68) As R. S. Crane argues, Swift combines the inversion of the truism of logic textbooks – that man is a rational animal, but the horse is not a rational animal – with a delineation of those horses as “‘unhuman'” in order to underscore “the unbridgeable gap between what is involved in being a truly ‘rational creature’ and what not only the worse but also the better sort of men actually are.”(69) Qualities for which the Houyhnhnms have come under attack, such as their lack of fondness for their colts, seem perfectly appropriate to creatures who are governed by reason, rather than by the instinctive and excessive emotion embodied in an eighteenth-century understanding of “fondness.” Criticisms of their inability to comprehend falsehood and deception can best be silenced by the narrator of Paradise Lost.
For neither man nor angel can discern Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone.(70)
The Houyhnhnms may be more reasonable and less compassionate than suits the taste of modem readers, but, given that they are not human – neither postlapsarian nor regenerate – they do embody an ideal society. To Gulliver they represent the invisible church, the ideal community that he longs to emulate and to enter.
Through Gulliver’s expulsion, Swift may also be satirizing the dissenters’ extreme emphasis on group purity. Edmund Morgan documents accusations that Separatist communities ministered only to their own members and failed in their responsibility to convert sinners.(71) Bunyan’s allegorical representation of Christian conversion dramatizes what Puritans considered a necessary conflict between compassion and self-preservation: Christian must stop his ears against the entreaties of his unregenerate family; at the Palace Beautiful Charity acquits him of blood-guiltiness in his conduct toward them; at Vanity Fair the narrator includes “wives, husbands, children” among the seductive worldly merchandise.(72)
The company of the saved repeatedly shakes off the dust of their feet at the ungodly or uncommitted whom they encounter. Such episodes jar with more moderate Christian groups’ emphasis on compassion and evangelism, but fostered powerful identification with the group and of group membership with salvation. Baxter asserts that saints value the believing community so highly that “if they had fallen into any sin that deserved excommunication, they would have stood with tears at the church doors, month after month, entreating the prayers of the church that they might be pardoned, and be fit to be taken in again.”(73) When Gulliver learns of his exile, he reports being “struck with the utmost Grief and Despair . . . and being unable to support the Agonies I was under, I fell into a Swoon at his Feet” (p. 245). But Gulliver can never be made “fit.” The Houyhnhnms neither feel nor offer compassion; their world does not encompass either salvation or savior.
Banished from this perfect community, Gulliver behaves like a Separatist. He had hoped to remain among the Houyhnhnms, “where I could have no Example or Incitement to Vice” (p. 225); he fears returning to the mixed multitude of England and “relapsing into my old Corruptions, for want of Examples to lead and keep me within the Paths of Virtue” (p. 245). Although he avers in the next sentence that “if ever I returned to England, [I] was not without Hopes of being useful to my own Species, by celebrating the Praises of the renowned Houyhnhnms, and proposing their Virtues to the Imitation of Mankind” (p. 245), Gulliver still struggles to remain cloistered, to discover some uninhabited island where “I could at least enjoy my own Thoughts, and reflect with delight on the Virtues of those inimitable Houyhnhnms, without any Opportunity of degenerating into the Vices and Corruptions of my own Species” (p. 248). Discovered by Portuguese sailors, he tries desperately to evade them, even attempting to jump overboard to escape.
Critics too numerous to acknowledge here have drawn attention to the Portuguese captain Don Pedro’s forbearance in the face of Gulliver’s repulsion. He clearly treats Gulliver with the Christian charity that Swift the preacher encourages his congregation to exercise; his compassion underscores Gulliver’s intolerance even as it calls into question his pessimism about humanity. But Gulliver seems to have taken to heart the exhortation of Robert Browne in A True and Short Declaration “‘to forsake and denie all ungodliness and wicked fellowship and to refuse all ungodlie communion with wicked persons.'”(74) During the voyage to Lisbon, he reports, “I confined myself to my Cabbin, to avoid seeing any of the Crew” (p. 252). He is finally persuaded to return to England because “I might command in my own House, and pass my time in a Manner as recluse as I pleased” (p. 253). Once home, he sequesters himself even from his wife and children, reporting that “to this Hour they dare not presume to touch my Bread, or drink out of the same Cup” (p. 254). Even among Separating Puritans, Gulliver represents an extreme position, but he is not an anomaly. Although other Puritans might accuse him of “overcarriage,” a term Morgan identifies as indicating “excessive zeal,” Gulliver has company.(75) John Winthrop reports that Roger Williams found the problem of identifying other members of the invisible church so difficult that he would take communion only with his wife.(76)
Swift allows Gulliver temporarily to overcome this impulse to radical Separatism in order to expose its absurdities more fully in Gulliver’s decision to retreat again from the world. Gulliver publishes his story “for the noblest End, to inform and instruct Mankind, over whom I may, without Breach of Modesty, pretend to some Superiority, from the Advantages I received by conversing so long among the most accomplished Houyhnhnms” (p. 257). He offers his conversion experience and efforts at sanctification as a model for other Yahoos, and then expresses shock that they do not immediately become perfect. His final writing becomes a jeremiad against a community which refuses to reform. In “A letter from Capt. Gulliver, to his Cousin Sympson,” Gulliver abuses Sympson for having convinced him to publish his travels: “pray bring to your Mind how often I desired you to consider, when you insisted on the motive of publick Good; that the Yahoos were a species of Animals utterly incapable of Amendment by Precepts or Examples: And so it hath proved” (p. v). Having waited half a year to see improvements, he rejects “so absurd a Project as that of reforming the Yahoo Race in this Kingdom,” declaring “I have now done with all such visionary Schemes forever” (p. vii). He shakes off the dust of his feet at the whole world.
In “On the Difficulty of Knowing Oneself,” Swift outlines the fourfold result of introspection: humility, self-knowledge, patience, and compassion. In one sentence alone, Gulliver appears to fail on all four counts: “when I behold a lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience” (p. 260). He does not see the beam in his own eye and cannot accept that, even though human beings are not perfectible, Christianity requires compassion toward, not condemnation of, their frailty. Through Gulliver’s ridiculous attempts at self-perfection and proselytizing, through his inability either to achieve the Houyhnhnm ideal or to recognize the Christian wisdom embodied in Don Pedro’s charity, Swift can mock both the Enlightenment idea of humanity’s innate goodness and radical Christianity’s desire for sanctification. His jeremiad, unlike Gulliver’s, hopes to provoke reformation, but assumes that his audience will be guilty of false starts and backsliding. Judging from his sermons, Swift would give humanity more than six months.
Sorry, but A and B essays are only available for premium usersChoose a Membership Plan