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Misanthropic Viewpoints in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

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Gulliver’s Travels examines human nature through a misanthropic lens and through satire examines the changes English society was undergoing. The tale depicts the journey of Lemuel Gulliver, an Englishman, and his peculiar encounters. This critical work has caused a lot of discord as a satirical commentary on the political and social issues of England in the eighteenth century. Gulliver’s trips lead him to places of opposite societies causing an examination of human nature itself. While the character of Gulliver eventually reveals himself as a misanthrope, the author Jonathan Swift does not. Actually there is very little in Gulliver’s Travels, including in the fourth part, to signify that he shares Gulliver’s outlook on the hopelessness of humanity.

The fourth voyage of Gulliver’s Travels is easily read as an attack on the human species because of the clear satire regarding the Yahoos. However, a careful reading suggests that the author is just as satirical toward Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms as he is toward the Yahoos, but it is surely more subtle, therefore misconceptions arise on the meaning of Gulliver’s encounter with the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver remains true to his gullible nature as he seems unable to see the negative aspects of the Houyhnhnms rational philosophy to life, therefore a reader must be more conscientious to see that Gulliver’s idealized view of the Houyhnhnms logical approach to life is not shared by Swift. Up to this point in the story, it has been effortless and easy to see Gulliver’s point of view as being always consistent with Swift’s but this is not the case.

The primary purpose of the fourth voyage is to reveal the crude barbarian traits of humanity. Swift divides man into his animal side, in the Yahoos, and into his logical side, in the Houyhnhnms. By showing how each acts when separated, the hidden attributes are highlighted. The animal, instinctual, and primitive components of human nature that we generally prefer to ignore are called concentrated on. This distasteful manifestation is further more described with deliberately offensive language used. Gulliver says after first describing the Yahoos that “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy” (Swift 2429.) Not only are humans reduced to their primitive parts as Yahoos but also are not given any intelligence to suggest it would be possible for them evolve as were told when it is said that Yahoos “…were observed to be the most unteachable of all brutes” (Swift 2456.) Then to offset the perverse version of mankind, Swift personifies, in the form of horses, the possible achievements of a dignified state reached through reasoning. Gulliver has a rare and deliberate place in this world.

He is a creature somewhere in between or a combination of the others. His discovery of this comes about a bit slowly where at first he defies being identified with the Yahoos and adheres to his ability to think and reason. This confounds the Houyhnhnms as a distinctive mannerism, and from here both Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms start to grasp the concept of one another through chapters five, six, and seven. After some time and personal growth with the logical, supreme beings, Gulliver can no longer deny that he is essentially a Yahoo and therefore view Europeans as Yahoos. This is how the misanthropic outlook of Swift’s main character comes about. Just as the Houyhnhnms have no acceptance or patience for the Yahoos, Gulliver no longer has any for his society that now seems so foul. As he becomes aware of the animal elements in man, he is increasingly overcome by shame and loathing.

The reader can identify with Gulliver perhaps will be led into similar disgust. At the same time Gulliver shows the human capacity for rational communication and understanding. He is a Yahoo who thinks, and as long as a Yahoo can think, there is at least some hope for him. The story continues to evolve in a perplexing way. The Houyhnhnms, though apparently perfect beings, are actually so dedicated to truth and reason that everything must be based on a scientific process. In their marriages they are careful to choose such colors as will not make any unpleasant fusion in the breed and precisely join two together by the prominence of what is valued in each gender. There is no room for love, affection, or intellectual compatibility.

The society of the Houyhnhnms lacks passion, pleasure, and original thought so even though there is no real vice in this, there is are no real rewards either. To eradicate all chance and emotion means losing important parts of life for mankind. Gulliver only sees this slightly when he is exiled by the Houyhnhnms and he grandly remarks “I thought it might consist with reason to have been less rigorous” (Swift 2464.)Swift gives nothing away and conclusive answers may not be attainable. It is true that Jonathan Swift had seen a lot of suffering in his time and had been the victim of political deception and turmoil which indicates why he had good reason for distrusting institutions. This does not mean he is misanthrope. Swift has not so much condemned humanity in his work as he has demonstrated two of its characteristics. If one is to understand human beings one must be willing to understand all traits, both good and bad.

Works Cited

Harold, Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Views, Jonathan Swift. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Brady, Frank, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretation of Gulliver’s Travels. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels, and other Writings. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1962.

Harold, Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations of Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

Long, William J. “Jonathan Swift,” English Literature. Boston, Mass.: Ginn and Company, 1964.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels, An Annotated Text with Critical Essays. United States: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1961.

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