Aaron R. Hanlon – Re-reading Gulliver as Quixote: Toward a Theory a Quixotic Exceptionalism

Re-reading Gulliver as Quixote: Toward a Theory a Quixotic Exceptionalism

Aaron R. Hanlon

Published in Connotations Vol. 21.2-3 (2011/12)

In 1726, the year in which Gulliver's Travels was published, Craftsman editor Nicholas Amhurst was among the first to compare Gulliver's Travels with Don Quixote. Amhurst hinted at the relationship between quixotic protagonist and object of critique in both texts when he commented on "the same Manner that Cervantes exposes Books of Chivalry, or Captain Gulliver the Writings of Travellers" (Amhurst 80; qtd. in Paulson 136). In more contemporary readings of Gulliver's Travels, however, such comparisons between Gulliver and Don Quixote are largely overshadowed by historicist preoccupations with Swift's political life, and by those instances in which one can assemble enough evidence to plausibly locate in Swift's writings certain direct analogues of historical figures and events in and around the life of Swift.1) Frequently lost amid this diligent historicizing are Swift's characters, who, it could be argued, often amount to more than mere stand−ins for the nonfictional victims of Swiftian political satire. This essay aims to recover Gulliver as a character who is novelistic enough in his development throughout the narrative to be considered a quixote, and thus a figure whose idealism and naïveté are as important to the political thrust of Swift's narrative as are the historical persons and circumstances to which Gulliver's surrounding cast of characters is so often compared.

The terms of this argument are fourfold: first, that a long tradition of rigorous historicism in Swift studies has directed us away from crucial novelistic elements of Gulliver's Travels; second, that Gulliver bears the [→page 279] characteristics of a quixote, and behaves like one; third, that, novelistically, Gulliver's quixotism evolves coherently throughout the narrative; and fourth, that Gulliver's quixotism functions as a kind of exceptionalism, whose import is central to the political tenor of Gulliver's Travels. Accordingly, this reading moves toward a theory of "quixotic exceptionalism," by which the bookish and fantastic worldview typical of the quixotic figure—a figure widely represented in eighteenth−century literatures in English—underwrite the quixote's ideological claims while shielding such claims from the scrutiny and reality of the wider world. In its rendering of this fuller account of the political implications of quixotism, Gulliver's Travels is an especially apposite text for examining the decoupling of the quixotic from the allusive. Gulliver's Travels anticipates the development of the quixotic as a political concept in eighteenth−century literatures in English that transcends directly or immediately allusive ties to Don Quixote. Gulliver is something of a prototype for this emergent, eighteenth−century notion of quixotism operating as exceptionalism: as with subsequent quixotes who have since been placed more firmly within the quixotic narrative tradition (Henry Fielding's Parson Adams, Charlotte Lennox's Arabella, Royall Tyler's Updike Underhill, and Tabitha Gilman Tenney's Dorcasina, among others), Gulliver's quixotism is marked not merely by immediate allusions to Cervantes or to Don Quixote, but by the use of exceptionalist arguments to justify fantastic ideological conclusions in the face of demonstrable counter−evidence.

Reading Gulliver's Travels "Novelistically"

If one could point to a dominant consideration in the study of Gulliver's Travels, it would be its relation to politics, of both Swift's era and Swift himself.2) The seminal source linking occurrences in Swift's writings with specific persons and political events of his day, Sir Charles Firth's 1919 British Academy lecture on "The Political Significance of Gulliver's Travels," has guided much of Swift studies to the present day, even where Firth's approach is treated critically. For [→page 280] example, Phillip Harth's critique of reading political allegory into Part I of Gulliver's Travels—based on the contention that "reading the voyage to Lilliput as a continued allegory or dark conceit […] is a recently acquired habit," as "readers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not read the story in this fashion"—disputed a particular political allegory, but not allegorical approaches to the text in general (Harth 40). F. P. Lock's inquiries into Swift's political life during the rise of party politics—his contention that Swift was "by temperament […] a Tory, inclined to pessimism, to a distrust of innovation, and to a nostalgic attachment to the values (including the political values) of the past" (Lock 127)—have been exceptionally influential in subsequent studies of Gulliver's Travels, prompting widely−cited reactions from the likes of Ian Higgins ("Swift's Politics: A Preface to Gulliver's Travels") and J. A. Downie (whose essay on the subject takes the same name as Firth's initial British Academy address, but challenges "political allegory" readings).3) Much of the work that Higgins and Downie address focuses on contexts and relationships between minute historical occurrences in the political and religious lives of Swift and his contemporaries, and fictional allusions or references in Swift's writings. This markedly (if not zealously) historicist tradition in Swift studies, frequently applied to sections of Gulliver's Travels (particularly Part I, what Downie calls the narrative's "traditional hunting ground for political allusions" 2), could be contrasted with more "thematic" readings by scholars like Michael McKeon ("Parables of the Younger Son: Swift and the Containment of Desire") and Claude Rawson (God, Gulliver, and Genocide: Barbarism and the European Imagination, 1492−1945); however, Swift's political intervention in Gulliver's Travels has not been considered in relation to quixotism, nor has Gulliver been read, in contemporary criticism, as a quixote. Why is this the case?4)

If political allegory, considered in the work of Charles Firth, J. A. Downie, and more recently Deborah Armintor, David Womersley, and others, has been the primary focus of scholars writing about Gulliver's Travels, considerations of genre have not been far behind in [→page 281] frequency or importance. The question of whether Swift's narrative can be called a satire, a fantastic voyage, a picaresque travelogue, a novel, or a proto−novel has preoccupied Swift scholars for decades. The reasons for the lack of critical responses to Gulliver's Travels as a quixotic narrative are at once historical and methodological. Swift gives no overt indication in Gulliver's Travels that Don Quixote was a literary source for his narrative, either by title (as in Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote), front matter (as in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews), or direct thematic allusion (as in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy). As Christine Rees suggests, however, Swift, a master of weaving together the comic and the ironic, was certainly an admirer of Cervantes, "whose genius was for comic irony" (123). While we do know that Swift was very familiar with Don Quixote, so much so that he began a translation of Don Quixote in the 1730s, the influence of that narrative would not seem to have found its way into Gulliver's Travels in any of these traditional signals of authorial influence.5) Additionally, no statements or correspondences of Swift's tie Gulliver's Travels directly to Don Quixote. This lack of overt contextual and paratextual evidence—"overt" in such a way as to historically link the two texts in a chain of authorial influence—has led critics away from prominent elements of Gulliver's Travels that, wittingly or not for Swift, are strikingly quixotic.

The lack of direct historical cues for placing Gulliver's Travels within the quixotic narrative tradition is compounded by the dominant methodological practices among both those who study quixotic narratives and those who study Swift. As with Sarah Wood's Quixotic Fictions of the USA, 1792−1815, perhaps the most telling example of the former, critics tend to identify the quixotic narrative as a genre, or something like a genre, defined by the proof or perception of the direct influence of Don Quixote (the influence of its formal characteristics) or Don Quixote (the inclusion of a Quixote−like character). "Quixotic" is, by this methodology, a relational term used to describe a certain kind of intertextual relationship largely dependent on the demonstrable historical circumstances of authorial influence, as well [→page 282] as direct textual allusions to Cervantes or Don Quixote. With its heavily historicist approach to classification, in other words, the study of the quixotic narrative is a species of the same methodological genus that predominately informs readings of Gulliver's Travels as political allegory. Beyond the prevalence of such an approach, the larger question of whether Gulliver's Travels is a novel, or is novelistic enough to present a character who resembles Don Quixote, has precluded considerations of both Gulliver's Travels as a quixotic narrative and Gulliver as a quixote.

The problem with such an approach, which not only classes Gulliver's Travels outside the realm of the quixotic narrative, but also threatens to reduce it to mere political allegory and to minimize its novelistic elements, is that it loses sight of important narrative themes and strategies that are not only expressly quixotic, but are in any case central to the development of Gulliver as a character and to the progression of the narrative itself. The primary impetus for a direct−allusion−based approach toward the quixotic narrative (or toward Gulliver's Travels as political allegory or satire) is taxonomic: to construct a list or a corpus of quixotic narratives (or to construct a list of correspondent points of political affiliation in the text of Gulliver's Travels). A divergent reading of Swift's narrative as a quixotic narrative picks up on its quixotic elements and on Gulliver's quixotism (naturally), but also calls attention to the process by which Gulliver's quixotic thinking becomes a key site of the narrative's political intervention, understanding quixotism as something more than a genre−signal.

It is curious that a writer as famously adept at satire and narrative misdirection as Swift has provoked such a large and rich body of scholarship focused on aligning his slippery fiction with allegedly corresponding historical figures and events, and, concomitantly, that this tendency has resulted in the minimizing of Gulliver's Travels's novelistic aspects. Though there exists, in the decades following Sheldon Sacks's discussion of Gulliver's Travels in Fiction and the Shape of Belief, a reasonable critical consensus that Gulliver's Travels is not [→page 283] a novel, its novelistic elements cannot be denied. Notably, arguments aimed at strict definitions of genre are bound to find Don Quixote a difficult text as well, which is why a quixotic narrative may be a novel in many cases, but need not necessarily be a novel in all of the strictest senses of what J. Paul Hunter calls "that slippery term" (23).

In Fiction and the Shape of Belief, Sacks painstakingly differentiates between apologue, satire, and novel (represented action), suggesting that "no literate man in the western world would hesitate for a moment if asked what sort of work Gulliver's Travels is: it is a satire" (5). Positing that "the variant principles of organization of coherent prose fictions limit the way in which a writer may embody his ethical beliefs, opinions, or prejudices in them" (7), Sacks considers ridicule of the world beyond fiction the driving purpose of satire, and the central organizing principle of Gulliver's Travels. A consequence of this, for Sacks, is that the "fictional creations"—including characters—of a satire like Gulliver's Travels "can never themselves be satirized," because, as components of a satire, they necessarily operate toward the ultimate end of ridiculing objects outside the text (7). "Only by considering [Gulliver's Travels] a satire," argues Sacks, "may we legitimately ask how Swift might have embodied his beliefs, opinions, prejudices in it" (11).

The problem with Sacks's exemplary definition of satire in Gulliver's Travels is that it borders on petitio: we cannot legitimately know Swift's "beliefs, opinions, and prejudices" in Gulliver's Travels—which, in any case, would be of and oriented toward the world of Swift, not merely the worlds of his fiction—unless we assume from the outset that character development and "represented action" in Gulliver's Travels are necessarily subordinated to external ridicule, or the aims of satire. In other words, we know the central purpose of a narrative through its form, yet its form is also what opens up for us its central purpose. Arguably, however, in addition to satirizing figures and institutions in the outside world, Gulliver's Travels contains internal satirical portrayals of Gulliver and Gulliver's interlocutors, which considerably complicate Sacks's absolute definition of Swift's narrative [→page 284] as a satire. Beyond Swift's portrayal of cultural conventions and political systems analogous to the the world of Swift, we can see plainly that Gulliver, perplexed, sycophantic, and all too beholden to human and bodily needs, is one of Swift's primary objects of ridicule. Swift's progressive characterization and satirization of Gulliver throughout the Travels runs counter to Sacks's definition of a satire as entirely outward−oriented in its ridicule and suggests that the line between satire and novel or novelistic narrative is not as absolute as Sacks claims.6)

Indeed, as Maximillian Novak reminds us in an essay on the picaresque elements of Gulliver's Travels, "we have to recognize that during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, works of fiction, particularly those written in the first person, tended to mix all kinds of elements that we might prefer to believe ought not to be there" (27). Thus, straitjacketing Gulliver's Travels with readings that overdetermine the protean rules of genre, just as critics have periodically done with Don Quixote, is not only historically untenable, as Novak points out, but can also cause us to misfile as "misreadings" those readings that consider Gulliver seriously as a novelistic character. Though Novak alleges that "the reader could hardly be involved with Gulliver as a character in the same way he or she becomes involved with a Pip or a Dorothea Brooke" (24), I will argue that Gulliver behaves more like a character than these critics have suggested. While Swift is the generator of irony in Gulliver's Travels, Gulliver is an absorber of it, a character who proceeds with the comic bewilderment of a quixote. Even if Gulliver's Travels is not a novel, it is, as Hunter suggests, "so conceptually dependent upon the novel that it is almost impossible to imagine the existence of the Travels outside the context of the developing novelistic tradition" (56).

More recently, David Fishelov compared Don Quixote and Gulliver's Travels, arguing that parody and satire are related to sympathy in these narratives. While Fishelov claims that the association between parody, satire, and sympathy in Gulliver's Travels is Cervantic (gesturing toward what could be understood, or misunderstood, as a quixotic [→page 285] element of the text), he does not go so far as to argue that Gulliver is a quixote. In fact, however, Gulliver exhibits a number of characteristics that place him squarely within the realm of the quixotic, and justify readings of Gulliver not just as a character (as opposed to a stand−in or an engine of satire), but as a quixote. As Novak claims, "Gulliver's Travels made possible a type of fiction based on artfully constructed systems of fantasy," though readers can certainly find in the quixotic narrative, including Cervantes's seventeenth−century original, a framework for "artfully constructed systems of fantasy" (35). This association of Swift's narrative with the construction of fantasy, along with Gulliver's participation in such a project, further opens up Gulliver's Travels to readings attentive to its quixotic elements. Crucially, then, Gulliver's Travels can be read "novelistically" because Gulliver is indeed a complex character, an object of satire, whose role within the narrative is not merely to further Swift's satirization of the external world, but also to develop directly the ethical and political messages of Gulliver's Travels.

Gulliver as Quixote

At the outset of Gulliver's Travels, we learn that Gulliver is a character of noble−class origins, having been raised on his father's "small estate in Nottinghamshire," and having also received an education at "Emanuel−College in Cambridge" (Gulliver's Travels 15).7) Like Don Quixote, who is an hidalgo rather than a picaro, Gulliver's nobility (his family estate) is not enough to provide for his needs, so he undergoes a practical education with a view to embark on an itinerant lifestyle. As Frank Boyle notes, "when his father's land cannot support him through his university studies, he turns or is directed to the New Philosophy's most practical discipline, medicine, and to sea as a ship's surgeon," a reflection of, for Boyle, "the cultural path by which the traditional aristocratic order is first altered and finally determined by a new and powerful commercial order" (29). Though not educated specifically in literature or in the Romance tradition, he does, after becoming an apprenticed surgeon, spend allowances sent from his [→page 286] father on "learning Navigation, and other Parts of the Mathematicks, useful to those who intend to travel, as [he] always believed it would be some time or another [his] Fortune to do" (15). Gulliver's quixotic idealism is best understood as a "quixotism of travel," and this quixotic affinity with travel is both reinforced and made literary by the fact that, in addition to writing a book of travel in Gulliver's Travels, he also delighted in reading them in his youth, before his traveling imbued him with a quixotic sense that his accounts of the lands he visits are the only true accounts, or that his vision is self−justifiably true:

I have perused several Books of Travel with great Delight in my younger Days; but, having since gone over most Parts of the Globe, and been able to contradict many fabulous Accounts from my own Observation; it hath given me great Disgust against this Part of Reading, and some Indignation to see the Credulity of Mankind so impudently abused (272).

In addition to his travel reading in youth, we learn that Gulliver is also a bookish type more generally, passing his "Hours of Leisure" amid his earlier travels (before landing in Lilliput) "in reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books" (16). Although Swift makes passing and comedic reference to the pitfalls of romance reading while describing the cause of the fire in the Lilliputian queen's apartment—"by the Carelessness of a Maid of Honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a Romance" (49)—we receive no indication that Gulliver, as a quixote is wont to do, reads romances himself. However, Gulliver's continual tendency toward "service" and courtly manners—as when the Brobdingnagian queen takes interest in him, and he vows that "if [he] were at [his] own Disposal, [he] should be proud to devote [his] Life to her Majesty's Service" (91)—is not unlike Don Quixote's imitation of chivalric code.

Gulliver's "quixotism of travel" is also, beyond its literary manifestation in his travel narrations, highly romanticized. The belief that traveling is his "Fortune to do" is recapitulated each time he returns to England from a journey that, however fascinating and adventurous, proves also to be perilous and life−threatening. After voyaging to [→page 287] Lilliput, Part II of the narrative, which treats Gulliver's adventures in Brobdingnag, begins: "Having been condemned by Nature and Fortune to an active and restless Life; in two Months after my Return [to England], I again left my native Country" (75). Gulliver leaves for Brobdingnag on account of his "insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries" (71). After returning from Brobdingnag and before embarking on a trip to Laputa in Part III, Gulliver ends Part II with an admission that "my Wife protested I should never go to Sea any more; although my evil Destiny so ordered, that she had not Power to hinder me; as the Reader may know hereafter" (137). And, at last, after returning home for the third time after yet another long and dangerous journey, and finding his "Wife and Family in good health" (203), Gulliver remains home with his family "about five Months in a very happy Condition" before leaving a final time for his most fateful journey to the Country of the Houyhnhnms, his wife "big with Child," musing "if I could have learned the Lesson of knowing when I was well" (207). In each of these passages Gulliver behaves as if compelled by a force greater than his own will, such that travel becomes not just an itch in need of scratching, but a romantic call of duty. Against the rational understanding, at which Gulliver hints in the above passage before joining the Houyhnhnms and forever altering his orientation toward humankind, that his perpetual journeys could at some point estrange him from country and family, Gulliver proceeds quixotically, chasing a romantic ideal as if duty−bound to fate or destiny, travel being his "Fortune to do" (15). Just as Don Quixote's romantic idealization of knight−errantry renders him duty−bound to its conventions, Gulliver's romantic idealization of the traveling life causes him to understand his recurrent journeys as pre−ordained duty, to be carried out above the needs and desires of his wife and children, and those who would advise him to remain at home after testing his "Fortune" so many times, each time narrowly escaping an unfortunate end. Though Gulliver shares with Robinson Crusoe the need to travel despite the protests of his family, it is less his faith and industriousness than his romanticization of desire that propels his journeys.

[→page 288] Though travel is a quixotic ideal in itself for Gulliver, the broader ideal that Gulliver quixotically seeks is described concisely by Fishelov as a quest for utopia, one of the primary objects of Swift's satire, illustrated in Part IV in the Country of the Houyhnhnms. For Fishelov, Part IV "is mocking the genre of utopia, especially some of its underlying optimistic ideological assumptions concerning human nature" (130). Fishelov goes on to compare with "sympathetic satire" (131) in Don Quixote the dynamic in Gulliver's Travels that allows for a sympathetic portrayal of the Houyhnhnms' utopia alongside the satirical current running through this portrayal. This analysis stops short, however, of tracing the connection between the predispositions of mind and behavioral modes of the quixotic, illustrated in Don Quixote, and comparable qualities in Gulliver, which enable the same kind of quixotic duality in Swift's narrative that is present in Don Quixote: the quixote is at once a madman who does material wrong and a well−meaning, sympathetic character capable of drawing attention to the flaws of the people and societies around him. Gulliver's outward−oriented idealism, which precipitates his continual need to travel and to risk his life to explore the far ends of the globe, morphs gradually throughout the narrative into a full−on quixotic quest for a utopian ideal (which he eventually finds, though perhaps without the results he desires, in the land of the Houyhnhnms). As the narrative progresses, Gulliver develops a greater vocabulary (quite literally, as he learns the languages of foreign lands) and facility in his criticisms of the political systems and ways of life most familiar to him, this progression hitting its nationalist crescendo in Gulliver's conversation with the King of Brobdingnag, and its culmination in the outright rejection of his own nationality (less his own humanity, and his own wife and children) upon returning from the Country of the Houyhnhnms.

A case can thus be made for reading Gulliver as a quixote, and taking the quixotic as a framework for better understanding Gulliver's actions and Swift's satirical potency in Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver comes from a class background that allows for both education [→page 289] and quixotic idealism, and his education is inextricably connected with the obsession (or call to duty) that he develops (travel). As with Don Quixote, this obsession is both literary (insofar as it relates to the reading and writing of travel narratives) and romanticized (insofar as it is understood as a function of his destiny). The telos of this romanticized, outward−oriented obsession with travel is a utopian ideal, or the discovery of a land, culture, and political system capable of addressing the cumulative set of problems that Gulliver registers with the known world (Europe) throughout his journeys, and capable, perhaps, of materially enriching him in the process (notably, Don Quixote pursues fame and riches as well as justice). Finally, in quixotic fashion, Gulliver also continually constructs and deconstructs exceptionalist arguments and justifications throughout his travels, culminating in a "quixotic conversion" at the end of the narrative—what Michael McKeon calls "a decisive island conversion"—that further demonstrates his quixotism (199).8) As McKeon posits, Gulliver is "able to disown responsibility and project his desire for a fortune onto Fortune" (199). While Gulliver's Travels is certainly, as Fishelov notes, Cervantic in its slippery, satirical narrative style and approach, its protagonist is also quixotic in his brand of exceptionalism, his tendency to continually separate himself from the reality of his (nationalist) worldview, or to simultaneously defend and expose his national identity. Gulliver illuminates England's flaws even to himself as he defends them to foreign peoples.

Gulliver in Lilliput, or, The Anthropological Quixote

Having made a case for Gulliver's quixotism and its character, I will now trace this quixotism and its manifestations throughout the text, aiming to demonstrate how the quixotic idealism with which Gulliver begins his travels undergoes a number of important phase−changes. Gulliver travels with a removed, anthropological perspective on the world around him. He enters lands and engages with the foreign peoples who occupy them not with the imperialist air of Robinson Crusoe, but with a scholarly sense of wonder or bewilderment and a [→page 290] default sense of respect for the various creatures he apprehends. As many readers of Gulliver's Travels have observed, Gulliver frequently finds occasion to behave deferentially, to bow, or find means otherwise to indicate courtly respect and even admiration for his foreign hosts.9) Even among the Lilliputians over whom he towers in size, Gulliver expresses his gratitude for being released from his initial captivity in a graceful and deferential manner: "I made my Acknowledgements, by prostrating myself at his Majesty's Feet" (39). And as Neil Chudgar has recently pointed out, Gulliver proceeds mainly with gentleness, which is largely shared with, if not mimicked from, those around him. "Though the Lilliputians expect violence of Gulliver, and though he expects violence of himself," writes Chudgar, "both are mercifully disappointed" (139). His "gentleness and good Behaviour" gain him favor with the Lilliputian king and court (Gulliver's Travels 33). And later, while Gulliver is rendered small and fragile among the Brobdingnagians, he finds he is made immediately sympathetic to the conditions of handling upon which he agreed with the Lilliputians, to "Care not to trample upon the Bodies of any of our loving Subjects […] nor take any of our said Subjects into his Hands, without their own Consent" (38). Gulliver's gentle and respectful handling of situations large and small while abroad marks his anthropological way of relating to foreign peoples, which is, from the outset of the narrative, a primary feature of his understanding of the Other as a source of amusement, fascination, and sometimes terror.

Among the Lilliputians in Part I, England emerges as a reference point, rendered uncannily small by Swift's satirical approach. The Lilliputians build weapons of war (unlike the Houyhnhnms), are engaged in perpetual battles with a geopolitical rival, possess their share of conniving ministers, and are occasionally preoccupied with gossip and court scandals. As Rees notes, "the institutions of Lilliput represent [Gulliver's] own culture, shrunk in the negative mirror, but reproducing all the adverse effects of party politics and court life" (127), which Gulliver had not experienced first−hand in England. Having been raised in an England that would have looked much the [→page 290] same from Gulliver's removed, middle−class perspective—and this is no doubt why Part I of the Travels is so often fodder for political allegory readings—the enthralled Gulliver only realizes amid his travels in Lilliput "never more to put any Confidence in Princes or Ministers, where [he] could possibly avoid it," after finding himself in the middle of the latest squabble between the rulers of Lilliput and Blefuscu (69). Apart from this rare lesson learned, while in Lilliput, Gulliver tends to apprehend the political and foreign policy affairs of the locals as little more than a bizarre and unsettling version of what he might take to be common practice in England, distantly and anthropologically taking neither a strong position against Lilliputian society, nor an especially strong admiration for it. Part I of the Travels sets a descriptive tone for the narrative that will persist, though without the more salient tests of judgment that Gulliver later endures both in Brobdingnag and among the Houyhnhnms. The first phase of Gulliver's adventures could thus be described as the anthropological phase, a proto−quixotic introduction to his manner on the road. He is the pre−1745 image of the quixote, the naïve butt of the satirical joke.10) Swift demonstrates in Part I a mirror image of eighteenth−century England that is presented without strong value judgment from Gulliver, positioning Gulliver as a neutral figure who, in neutrality, is complicit with Swift's objects of satire.

In Lilliput, Gulliver is thrown into a strange world, pinned down, pricked with tiny arrows, freed, then roped into court scandal and geopolitical battle alike, all while remaining (despite his size advantages) deferential, respectful, and very much unaware that the joke is on him. Like Don Quixote before the innkeeper, preparing to stand night vigil over his shoddy arms, Gulliver's idealistic pursuit of travel and of foreign curiosities blind him to the absurdity of his newfound use in a strange land. It is this mode of rather innocent idealism in the absence of a credible threat to his person that renders Gulliver incapable of fully understanding in Part I what he does not fully acknowledge until terrified by his first sighting of the Brobdingnagians in Part II: [→page 292]

In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose Inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the World; where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my Hand, and perform those other Actions which will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire, while Posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by Millions. (78)

Gulliver is, in other words, a crucial participant in Swift's send−up of English society, despite his removed, anthropological description of what transpires in Lilliput. He is presented as a chivalric, idealistic, amiable quixote whose early−narrative temperament will become a referent for comparison with quixotic developments that intensify as the narrative progresses.

Gulliver in Brobdingnag: The Emergence of Quixotic Exceptionalism

As McKeon argues, "Gulliver's first travels are undertaken in default of a more settled and upward mobility at home. After the voyage to Lilliput, however, the idea of physical travel takes on more […] financial and moral ambiguity" (199). Gulliver makes way to Brobdingnag with hopes of material gain, but also with quixotic zeal, aiming to "improve [his] Fortunes," and succumbing to the "insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries" (Gulliver's Travels 71). Accompanying the continued emergence of Gulliver's quixotism of travel is the comparative emergence of his native England as a distinct referent for the new lands he occupies. By the time Gulliver makes it to Brobdingnag, a separate sense of England and English customs and politics begins to emerge more substantively in the narrative, forcing Gulliver to defend his Englishness while at the same time reckoning with its flaws. Part I is not without humorous comparisons to Gulliver's native land—the "peculiar" manner of Lilliputian writing is "aslant from one corner of the Paper to the other, like Ladies in England" (51)though Part II is the site of the much−discussed interactions with the Brobdingnagian king, in which Swift positions a fuller, comparative portrait of Gulliver's impression of England against Swift's rendering of [→page 293] Brobdingnagian ideals. Even before this exchange, however, Gulliver apprehends the Brobdingnagians with a heightened sense of otherness, compared to his early reactions to the Lilliputians. For example, upon first sighting, Gulliver describes the Lilliputian as "a human Creature not six Inches high," whereas the Brobdingnagian giant is a "Monster" (17, 77; emphasis added). Despite Swift's portrayal of the Lilliputians as sometimes threatening and conniving, the diminutive Lilliputians appear to Gulliver as nothing more than miniaturized humans, apprehended, after the initial moments of terror, captivity, and arrow−discharging, as sympathy−evoking creatures. On the other hand, the Brobdingnagians, on account of their size, appear foreign and distorted up−close, before Gulliver reflects on his experience with a Lilliputian gazing up−close at him. As Gulliver writes:

I remember when I was at Lilliput, the Complexions of those diminutive People appeared to me the fairest in the World: and talking upon this Subject with a Person of Learning there, who was an intimate Friend of mine; he said, that my Face appeared much fairer and smoother when he looked on me from the Ground, than it did upon a nearer View when I took him up in my Hand, and brought him close; which he confessed was at first a very shocking Sight. He said, he could discover great Holes in my Skin; that the Stumps of my Beard were ten Times stronger than the Bristles of a Boar; and my Complexion made up of several Colours altogether disagreeable […] I could not forbear, lest the Reader might think those vast Creatures were actually deformed: For I must do them Justice to say they are a comely Race of People. (83)

The shock of initial appearance and destructive potential that attends their relatively large size certainly contributes to the Brob−dingnagians's intensified otherness for Gulliver. At the same time, Gulliver also, finding himself in a more precarious situation in Brobdingnag than in Lilliput, expresses a heightened yearning to return home to safety, a yearning he does not express so urgently while in the company of the Lilliputians. Fearing his destruction upon his first encounter with the scythe−wielding Brobdingnagian reapers, Gulliver writes "I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second Voyage against the Advice of all my Friends and Relations" (78), [→page 294] seemingly aware of the idealistic impulse to travel that placed him in such life−threatening circumstances. "I slept about two Hours, and dreamed I was at home with my Wife and Children," Gulliver later tells us while in the possession of the Brobdingnagian farmer, "which aggravated my Sorrows when I awakened and found my self alone in a vast Room" (83). We still get superficial, comedic references (often at the expense of women) to Gulliver's native England in Part II in Brobdingnag—the farmer's wife "screamed and ran back as Women in England do at the Sight of a Toad or a Spider" (80) when she sees Gulliver—yet, in Part II, Gulliver's own growing sense of foreignness and disquietude appears alongside a starker recognition of the Brobdingnagians as pleasant, though dangerously different creatures from those of Gulliver's England. From their size and appearance to their politics, as we learn once the king engages Gulliver in conversation about the land from which he came, the Brobdingnagians magnify Gulliver's quixotism by rendering him defensive, just as Don Quixote's forthrightness becomes more pronounced when interlocutors question or challenge his worldview. The journey to Brobdingnag evinces Gulliver's early tendencies toward quixotic−exceptionalist justifications for imprudent travel, fortune−seeking, and the political practices of his native country.

As I have suggested, Gulliver's quixotism is best characterized by his wanderlust, which is not only a desire to travel for its own sake, but an understanding of travel as his pre−ordained means toward amassing personal fortune and worldly knowledge, and ultimately locating a foreign utopia. Though he returns to England from Lilliput with souvenirs, he returns from Brobdingnag with a size complex, mimetically looking "down upon the Servants, and one or two Friends who were in the House, as if they had been Pigmies, and [Gulliver] a Giant" (137). Gulliver's perspective undergoes significant change in Brobdingnag, not just in terms of his relation to his fellow English, but also in relation to the wider world of political possibility. Though early interactions with the Brobdingnagian king depict Gulliver as a patriot, gushing "a little too copious[ly] in talking of [his] [→page 295] own beloved Country; of [English] Trade, and Wars by Sea and Land, of [English] Schisms in Religion, and Parties in the State" (96), the king's counter−perspective leaves Gulliver at a loss, compelling him to defend England and broader Europe with exceptionalist arguments.

When prompted by the king to give an account of his native England, Gulliver provides a list of superlative descriptions: "the Fertility of our Soil"; "an illustrious Body called the House of Peers" (as well as "that extraordinary Care always taken of their Education," and their "Valour, Conduct, and Fidelity"); the House of Commons "freely picked […] by the People themselves, for their great Abilities, and Love of their Country, to represent the Wisdom of the whole Nation," among others, along with a summary of English history, military and otherwise. The king's series of questions and points of contention—asking about the qualifications of new Lords, the potential for political corruption and conflicts of interest, the existence of national credit and national debt, among others—lead him to conclude, famously, "the Bulk of [English] Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth" (116−21).

Confronted with such judgments, Gulliver finds himself "forced to rest with Patience, while [his] noble and most beloved Country was so injuriously treated" (122). Ashamed to admit his inability to offer a substantive counter−argument to the king, Gulliver, "heartily sorry as any of [his] readers can possibly be, that such an Occasion was given," admits in this attempt to excuse himself, that he "artfully eluded" many of the king's questions, "and gave to every Point a more favourable turn by many Degrees than the strictness of Truth would allow" (122). Hence, Gulliver begins to construct an exceptionalist argument against the accusations of the Brobdingnagian king in the absence of a substantive one, alleging that Brobdingnag, unlike Europe, is too isolated to have knowledge of such things as cannons (widely known and understood in Europe) or to have "reduced Politicks into a Science, as the more acute Wits of Europe have done" (124). Gulliver laments the possibility that "a confined Education" and a [→page 296] "certain Narrowness of Thinking," such as those which he ascribes to the king in the absence of a solid counterargument to the king's critiques of English society, "be offered as a Standard for all Mankind" (122). The anthropological quixote of Part I becomes a quixotic exceptionalist in Part II, paradoxically defending his own nation as a utopia only after departing from it to seek knowledge and better opportunity abroad. In the same vein, Gulliver ironically extols that presumed characteristic of Europe—a broad range of knowledge, derived from intercultural experience and relations—that he seeks for himself through leaving Europe, indulging his quixotism of travel.

At the same time, Gulliver's admitted inability to defend his country before the king—his arguments in this endeavor "failed of Success"—renders him vulnerable to the kinds of utopian notions that he will eventually embrace wholeheartedly among the Houyhnhnms in Part IV. Even before the Brobdingnagian king successfully makes his arguments against Gulliver's account of Englishness, his first encounters with the king produce in Gulliver a critical outlook on his own country, along with significant doubt over his previously unquestioned patriotism and English identity:

But, as I was not in a Condition to resent Injuries, so, upon mature Thoughts, I began to doubt whether I were injured or no. For, after having been accustomed several Months to the Sight and Converse of this People, and observed every Object upon which I cast my Eyes, to be of proportionable Magnitude; the Horror I had first conceived from their Bulk and Aspect was so far worn off, that if I had then beheld a Company of English Lords and Ladies in their Finery and Birth−day Cloaths, acting their several Parts in the most courtly Manner of Strutting, and Bowing and Prating; to say the Truth, I should have been strongly tempted to laugh as much at them as the King and his Grandees did at me. (96−97)

Once thrust into the situation of having to think critically about both the practices of his native country and the ways in which his perspective, frequently changing amid his travels, can affect how he views England and his English identity, Gulliver doubles−down on the single−mindedness of English (and European) exceptionalism. [→page 297] Thereafter he is hurdled with fragile nationalist baggage and magnified force into his quixotism of travel, believing still that, despite his willingness to bend the truth and skirt the Brobdingnagian king's criticisms of England, his destiny is not an English utopia, but a utopia abroad. After his time in Brobdingnag, before setting sail yet again for Laputa, Gulliver writes: "I could not reject [Captain William Robinson's] Proposal; the Thirst I had of seeing the World, notwithstanding my past Misfortunes, continuing as violent as ever" (141).

The European exceptionalism that Gulliver puts forth to counter the Brobdingnagian king's critiques posits both the demonstrably false notion (falsified by the very presence and experience of Gulliver in a foreign land) that England "and the politer Countries of Europe are wholly exempted" (122) from the prejudices of limited knowledge, as well as the ideal of universal knowledge through travel. Gulliver avails himself thereby of quixotic exceptionalism to simultaneously construct an ideal (universal knowledge through travel), and to position himself (by and of his English heritage and his quixotism of travel) as an example of this ideal. This constitutes the second phase of Gulliver's quixotism of travel: the exceptionalist substitution of the European ideal of universal knowledge, counterintuitively, for the quixotic ideal of universal knowledge through travel. Gulliver's quixotism is thus characterized in Part II of the narrative by a more traditional Anglo−European idealism—for Gulliver, a form of quixotic exceptionalism stemming from his nationalism and naïveté—to which Gulliver holds fast, despite the skillful counterarguments of the Brobdingnagian king. By the end of Part II, we have witnessed Gulliver's transition from the first phase of his quixotism, a proto−quixotism marked by an aloof, anthropological approach to the foreign societies and peoples he apprehends, to the second phase, marked by his circuitous, nationalist defense of England and wider Europe as particularly enlightened nations. [→page 298]

Gulliver in the Land of the Houyhnhnms: Quixotic Exceptionalism, Full−Circle

After witnessing the Laputan dystopia in Part III and returning home to England once more as a quixote whose travel−idealism has not flagged, but become stronger, Gulliver sets out in Part IV and arrives in the Country of the Houyhnhnms, a utopian land that is ultimately responsible for Gulliver's final moments of quixotic conversion, not from mad quixote to rational English citizen, but from an apologist for England and Europe to an apologist for a foreign utopia. The merits or shortcomings of the Houyhnhnms aside, Gulliver is clearly impressed by the rational horses, their innovative child−distribution policies, their stoic attitude toward death, and the absence of words in their language to express "the Thing which [is] not," or "any thing that is evil, except what they borrow from the Deformities or ill Qualities of the Yahoos" (223, 257). Gulliver's utopian vision of the Houyhnhnms is further expressed in his description of his own life while among them: "I enjoyed perfect Health of Body, and Tranquility of Mind; I did not feel the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy" (258). While in the land of rational horses, Gulliver also begins to speak more critically of his native country, explaining wars resulting from "the Corruption of Ministers," and the soldier as "a Yahoo hired to kill in cold Blood as many of his own Species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can" (228−29). These impressions lead to Gulliver's final conversion in the land of the Houyhnhnms, at which point Gulliver admits that "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; and to think the Honour of my own Kind not worth managing," resolving then "never to return to human Kind" (240).

Alas, Gulliver is forced by the Houyhnhnms, by edict, to return home anyway. When he does, he is repulsed by his wife and children and the rest of his own species; and he is, despite his conversion, still [→page 299] quixotically mad. Whereas Don Quixote begins as a madman and returns to sanity upon his deathbed, Gulliver's madness progresses in the opposite direction. He purchases two horses upon return, whose smells he finds comforting, and with whom he "converse[s] at least four Hours every Day," never rides, and considers partners "in great Amity" with himself and each other (271). When he launches what appears to be a final exceptionalist apologia for England, its government and its occupants—a seemingly out−of−place hangover from his pre−conversion sentiments in Part II—we can comfortably read these notes with irony (275). In the elusive, mocking tone of Morus's final comments at the end of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, Gulliver writes of his previous denouncements of European colonialism: "this Description, I confess, doth by no means affect the British nation, who may be an Example to the whole World for their Wisdom, Care, and Justice in planting Colonies" (275). After this passage he goes on to affirm the psychological conditions of his utopian conversion, attempting to "apply those excellent Lessons of Virtue which [he] learned among the Houyhnhnms" in slowly conditioning himself to tolerate his family and, perhaps, "a Neighbor Yahoo" (276).

In Gulliver's relation of his travels we can see, then, a progression of his quixotism and the ways in which this alters his quixotic exceptionalism. Gulliver embarks on his travels under the inspiration of a romanticized, quixotic ideal—the ideal of the life of travel, understood as his absolute destiny—which is derived from a childhood fascination with books of travel, and the pursuit of a travel−oriented education. Despite early encounters with the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians—including an ability to appreciate some of the foreign things he witnesses—his quixotism of travel carries with it an idealistic belief in the supremacy and utopian potential of his native English culture: Gulliver encounters difference and is fascinated by it, yet his quixotism prevents him from dwelling on the wonders of Lilliput or Brobdingnag, or developing a critical outlook on his own country. After passing through Laputa and its neighboring lands intrigued but still unmoored from his default nationalism, he [→page 300] undergoes a form of quixotic conversion in the Country of the Houyhnhnms, through which his quixotism remains, but its focus shifts. After living among the rational horses, Gulliver holds quixotically fast to the cultural model of the Houyhnhnms, despite the fact that they evict him from their society, and despite the fact that his own family, still healthy and loyal, have long since awaited his return.

This progression of quixotism not only illuminates aspects of Gulliver's character—his anthropological aloofness, his failure to compromise grand ideologies for smaller bits and pieces of useful knowledge he picks up amid his travels, and his stubborn inability to learn the flaws in his worldview through experience—but also directs our attention to one of the most critically underdeveloped yet important implications of Swift's narrative. In Gulliver's meandering and sometimes self−contradictory quixotism, Swift illustrates the dual ways in which exceptionalism operates as apologia for both nationalist (Gulliver in Brobdingnag) and utopian (Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms) ideologies. This mode of exceptionalism—the shielding of one's idealistic worldview from the scrutiny and harsh reality of the surrounding world—is expressly linked with quixotic qualities and characters in eighteenth−century prose fiction, from Gulliver's contorted argument with the King of Brobdingnag, to Parson Adams's shock and dismay at England's treatment of the poor, to Arabella's insistence that her gardener is really a gentleman suitor in disguise. The fictive and fantastic elements of quixotism make possible each quixote's denial of surrounding realities, and are as such the sine qua non of quixotic exceptionalism.

Though quixotes were increasingly understood, through the middle of the eighteenth century, as heroic visionaries rather than foolish objects of satire, Gulliver's character progression preempts this shift in its foregrounding of Gulliver's exceptionalism, inviting our consideration of a third possibility for understanding quixotism. Whether Gulliver's quixotic naïveté, idealism, and stubbornness frame him as an admirably determined dreamer—a gentle and well−meaning hero—or, perhaps more likely, the misguided butt of the joke who continually [→page 301] fails to learn his lesson, Gulliver's quixotic characteristics underlie his exceptionalism, which is in either case central to the politics of Gulliver's Travels. For it is not only the allusions to persons and policy issues that Swift pillories that define his political intervention in Gulliver's Travels, but also the manner in which Gulliver−as−character frames these issues. Gulliver's quixotic exceptionalism leads him, most notably, to willfully ignore arguments that he acknowledges to be superior to his own, to prioritize tribalism over reason (whether identifying with the English or the Houyhnhnms), to estrange his family, and to repeatedly jeopardize his life. Gulliver's exceptionalist justifications for each of these decisions undoubtedly say as much about fractious, vitriolic party politics, political corruption, militant nationalism, utopian beliefs, and misplaced social and domestic priorities as do Swift's more minute political allusions.

University of Oxford

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