This paper seeks to take issue with discussing the relevance of eighteenth century literary texts in modern times. In the face of the curriculum committee’s decision to exclude eighteenth century literature from the curriculum altogether, it is imperative that an attempt be made to actuate a move in the reverse. This paper is aimed at just the endeavour and proposes to be successful in its undertaking vis-à-vis a convincing argument made in favour of the applicability of eighteenth century texts in the contemporary social milieu. The task at hand remains a gargantuan one and a herculean feat, to say the least. This is evinced by the sheer magnitude of the range of works and the subjects they sought to foreground- from Pope’s The Rape of the Lock to Dryden’s MacFlecknoe to even the lesser known obscure texts uncovered by critics as Laura Flyer and Julia Sheh. Whilst the former texts in the ‘mainstream’ canon of eighteenth century literature serve to posit a variety of themes such as an indictment of the vanity in the higher eschelons of society or ‘feminine frailty’ to the debate over what constitutes ‘good writing’, the latter texts serve to highlight subjects of a more controversial nature (lesbianism and gay relationships) that were brushed away under the carpet, considered taboo and ‘unnatural’ and were forbidden and even interpellated individuals to consider them so via use of concepts such as tribadism, written social conduct manuals for women and even periodical magazines as The Female Tatler. It is evidently clear that all of the aforementioned themes reverberate in the modern society, with as loud a pitch as would have been produced if the texts could speak for themselves, pertinent to the current fabric of the society, in equal and perhaps greater measure. It would then be appropriate to remark apropos of the initiative that the paper intends to stimulate and accomplish that “eighteenth century literature is integral to the study of literature as a whole and serves, like any work of literary merit/value, to illuminate and widen the mental horizons of its reader and bringto the fore ideas of great importance.” This paper, then seeks to validate the claim made herein, by attempting a detailed study of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and testifying to the applicability and relevance of eighteenth century texts, by approaching the specific work from a chosen critical vantage point.
Gulliver’s Travels poses a distinct problem to any critic who attempts to approach Swift’s text from the interrelated vantage points of race and gender. Whilst explicit misogyny is inherently embroidered and embossed onto the fabric of the work, too blatant to miss, the polemics of his stand on racism are more subtle and comparatively difficult to comprehend. A novice in the realm would immediately label the author as racist, not being able to understand the deeper interaction of race, colonialism and politics in Swift’s work. Thus, one finds Swift - both an unequivocal and absolute misogynist and an anti-colonialist in the same text, lending the work to two diametrically opposed, yet equally forceful and critically significant readings/assesments. This causes the work to lend itself to a working critical position that correlates the opposed vantage points of criticism and attempts to delineate the paradigm of the positive and negative hermeneutic, connate to the text. The aim of the paper is to argue the same, establish the presence of such a hermeneutic in Swift’s work and by extension, argue for the relevance of the same issues in modern, contemporary society by foregrounding relevant instances and events worldwide and the debates surrounding them.
As far as the misogyny inherent in Gulliver’s Travels is concerned, it is not difficult for a literary eye to discover the work’s prominent position in a legacy of misogynist work in the canon of Swift’s works- from poetry as “The Progress of Beauty,” “Strephon and Chloe,” “Cassinus and Peter” to his prose pieces. One can find similarities between Swift’s poetry and the Brobdingnagian descriptions of women, and decipher the misogynist coda in operation. The details of the Brobdingnagian gigantism evoke feelings of revulsion, nausea and repugnance and one can easily link all such hideous images to descriptions of women. Whether Swift’s protagonist talks of the nurse with her “monstrous breast” or “the offensive smell” from the skin of the maids of honor or even the image of disease in a woman “with a cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept, and covered my whole body,” the abhorrence at abnormality or aberration is limited to the male voyeur’s perspective of the anomaly/oddity in the female/other in the alien land. Such images abound in the text, so much so that the repellant and revolting corporeality specifically associated with the female figure in Book II of his Travels takes on an entirely new drift and significance in Book IV. The Yahoos, in sharing the consequential repulsive characteristics of the Brobdingnagian women, become the archetypal women of Swift’s works. However, it is not this similarity that seems to be the real purport of a gender-based reading of the work. The real import of the similarity takes on its most pressing signification when the seemingly unbridgeable distance between Gulliver and the Yahoos at the start of Book IV is dissolved when Gulliver is sexually implicated in the scene where he simultaneously becomes the object of desire for a female Yahoo, and as such one of the Yahoos himself, akin to the ‘Other,’ to say the least. As much as the instances in Book IV are read as the materialization of shifting dynamics of revulsion and recognition, as endeavours to displace the coordinates of anxiety of colonialist enterprise to a female locus, the panegyrics on women still remain a blazing nominal of extreme misogyny in the work.
The issue of race, however, seems to work on a more complicated level in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The dialectic of race and colonialist enterprise does not follow a direct correlation in the text, as does the symmetrical association betwixt gender and colonialism. It is important to note that though most accounts of the ‘Other’ in the four books in Gulliver’s Travels (more significantly Books II & IV), on first glance, seem to iterate and reiterate the colonialist’s fear of, aversion to and heightened sense of diffrence from the ‘Other’, keeping in with a long venerable tradition of racist literature, such as Buffoon and Long’s accounts of the Negro, they are in fact a clever modus operandi for a systematised schema of “aversion and implication, difference and incorporation,” enacting the veritable truth of the fear of the colonialist. It is in Gulliver’s identification with the Yahoo in Book IV, and his difficulty in reaching a modus vivendi with this identity, not different from the ‘darker Other he abhors’ that the anti-racist and anti-colonialist stance of Swift, mentioned right at the outset of this section, is evinced. It is to the credo of Swift’s genius and the subtle intricacies of his craft, that such a play on the dynamics of race and the stance it signifies in the text is constituted, serving to dupe and delude the novice and appear to be in keeping with traditional accounts on the subject, but simultaneously destabilizing any such constitution by a clandestine underpinning of signification and plurality of meaning under the veneer of a deceptive endorsed ideology.
It is now imperative to the proposed trajectory of the paper to embark on the route to discussing how issues of race and gender are relevant in today’s society and largely so. In the light of such a study, it is mandatory that one looks around to note several instances that serve to highlight the misogynist and racist clouds that still hover over the mental landscape of innumerable citizens worldwide and prevent the sunlight of rationality to dispel them. Some of these instances include the crowning of Nina Davuluri as the 87th Miss America and the senseless avalanche of racial rants that followed it, The Oz racial attacks, an NYC principal’s racist remarks and worse, an NYPD cop’s orders to target black males aged 14 to 21. The misogyny-propelled incidents are no less rampant throughout the world. The almost inane and demgrading, derogatory and sometimes laughable remarks of the Indian politicians and police force following the chilling and horrific incidents of rape in the country, Rush Limbaugh’s “slutgate” scandal and the harsh new anti-abortion legislation are only some of the issues that have incurred the wrath of the ‘femme fatale.’ The uncomfortable and perenially shrouded-in-doubt questions about female identity and status in society seem to be brought to the fore with one or a number of such incidents and are shuffled around discussion forums, conventions and other non-action-oriented forums until the fire dies down and the issues can be safely relegated to an ignored realm, again. It is, therefore, important that one continues, through the works of art and otherwise, to question the nuances embedded in such issues of global importance, delve into their intricacies, survey the inconsistencies, probe the problems and posit solutions that can be implemented in the scenarios that are facing the challenge.
In the light of the above arguments, it is certain that it would be a mistake to exclude eighteenth century literature from the curriculum. The texts from the era certainly inform, develop and challenge human sensibility, pertaining to themes and issues that haven’t lost their relevance even in the current century.
Brown, Laura. Eighteenth-Century Studies. Vol.23, no. 4, Special Issue: The Politics of Difference (Summer). John Hopkins UP. 1990. pp. 425-443.
Buffon, George Louis Leclerc. Buffon’s Natural History: Containing a Theory of the Earth, a
General History of Man, of the Brute Creation, and of Vegatables, Minerals, etc. Vol. 9.
London. 1797. Lund, Roger D. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: A Routledge Study Guide. Madison Avenue, New York. 2006. Print.
Montaigne, Michel de. Complete Essays. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1965.
Rawson, Claude. Gulliver and the Gentle Reader: Studies in Swift and Our Time. London: Humanity Books, 1991.
The text: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Ed: Louis A. Landa. Bookland. 2006.
- Laura Brown’s cited essay coupled with “Reading Race and Gender in Gulliver’s Travels” helped shape up the entire rubric of the paper. Her detailed exegesis of the issue helped provide the working frame for my persuasive paper.
- On a juxtapositioned study of the details of the Savage Hottentot in George Louis Leclerc Buffon’s influential Natural History and Gulliver’s account of the Yahoo, numerous echoes between literature and anthropology would come to the fore.
The head covered with bristly hairs, or with curled wool; the face partly hid by a long beard, and still longer hairs in the front, which surround his eyes, and make them appear sunk in his head, like those of the brutes; the lips thick and projecting, the nose flat, the aspect wild and stupid; the ears, body, and limbs are covered with hair, the nails long, thick, and crooked . . . the breast of the female long and flabby, and the skin of her belly hanging down to her knees; the children wallowing in filth, and crawling on their hands and feet; and, in short, the adults sitting on their hams, forming an hideous appearance, rendered more so by being smeared all over with stinking grease. (136)
Thus, one finds the contemporary influence upon Swift’s depiction of the Yahoo and also notices the stirrings of a literary, ethico-moral and philosophical debate on racial categories and discrimination, as linked with colonialism, the coloniser and his innate fear of the ‘identifiable Other.’ These debates are pretty much relevant to the fabric of modern society too.
- The Routledge study guide and Montaigne’s Complete Essays helped to steer the paper in the right direction and maintain its focus throughout. Whilst many of the critical readings in these books served to provide exhaustive material on the subject and inform and shape my knowledge on the same, it also helped hone my selective capability of choosing specific material, over others and to incorporate them smartly into the paper to help strengthen the pursuit of the thesis.