Monday, February 8, 2010

"Discomposed" OED Investigation

As I began reading Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, the word "discomposed" caught my attention. I had never encountered it before, and though it was fairly obvious what the word means, I still was curious enough to look it up on OED. Sure enough, to "discompose" means to disturb, ruffle, unsettle or disquiet and was first used in 1493. It doesn't seem that this word is frequently used these days, which is too bad because I find it to be perfect for situations such as Gulliver's hat being nuzzled by a horse.

Because the word contains "composed", there is a distinctly British air about it, suggesting that the situation is throwing off or threatening the composure of the victim. Traditionally, the British aren't known for their outdoor skills, but rather for their refinement and ability to keep their composure ( I'm reminded of the "Keep Calm and Carry On"World War I slogan), so this old word is perfectly used to describe an Englishman bumbling his way through the wild. Our narrator's composure is constantly challenged throughout his travels, but do these challenges bring about a change in his character? He does live as a Yahoo for a time, a people far less dignified than the English, but he is incapable of living that way forever. Is it even possible to extract the Englishman from within Gulliver, though he is far removed from England itself? It is my impression that Gulliver does not undergo any major changes in personality or philosophy, so though Gulliver loses his composure momentarily, he remains British through and through in the end.


1 comment:

  1. Well, I must say I think that Gulliver DOES change. After he leaves the Houyhnhnms, he can no longer stand the presence of Yahoos (whether they are the "civilized" type or not). Furthermore, the fact that he realizes that the Yahoos are an inferior race is testament to his fundamental change in character. All throughout the rest of the book, he continuously wrote with pride about the "superior" British culture. Although he conceded that some practices in Liliput and Brobdignang were superior to those in London, for the most part he mocks their practices, not realizing that they mirror his own (for example, the Big-Endian conflict mirroring the Catholic-Protestant conflict).

    In the final part of the book, however, Swift lays aside much of his satire and writes openly on the vices of mankind. He is able to get away with this, of course, because in this section he does not mock the British government directly, but instead criticizes generally all humans, stating that we are unable to help our own condition, as our little amount of reason is only used to breed more vice.

    So yes, he did change. He became more like the Houyhnhnms, so much so that he has almost forgotten that people often, "say the thing which is not."