Saturday, February 6, 2010

Swift's Continuing Portrayal of Women

After reading the first two books of "Gulliver's Travels," I noticed a consistency in Swift's portrayal of women - especially in the second book. When Gulliver is in the land of the giants, he describes the odor and imperfections of the women's bodies, even going so far as to describe them in the most natural form - completely naked. This description of the women's bodies were strikingly similar to Swift's imagery in his poem of the "Lady's Dressing Room." In both works, Swift's descriptions of women are in direct contrast to the way in which they were viewed (or expected to look) in society. Therefore, we can safely assume that Swift's intentions through his female descriptions are the same in both works.
We know that Swift was a satirist - his works criticizes certain aspects in society with which he found fault. In "Gulliver's Travels," we discussed that Swift's criticism was on British society and the corruption of the British government. The idea of "society" encompasses a many aspects, however, Swift reoccuringly criticizes the way in which women were viewed in society. I argue that even though Swift uses gross language to describe the large women's bodies, he is not criticizes their own appearance, rather he is exploiting the materialistic way in which they were viewed in society.


I found Swift's focus on raising children throughout Books 1 & 2 particularly interesting. He explains the method of education for both the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians, and in each society, the sexes are separated from each other and from their parents and taught different things. The Lilliputians "will never allow that a Child is under any Obligation to his Father for begetting him, or to his mother for bringing him into the World" because their "Thoughts in their Love-encounters were otherwise employed" (54). Gulliver's observations in Lilliput remove the idea of succession and honoring one's lineage from the tiny society, but based on our discussion of indirect satire in this book and the idea that Swift is drawing an allegory between Lilliput and England, is he saying that one should be concerned with the family line? This seems odd given the recent formation of the Anglican Church and schism in religion, which was caused by the King's desire for a male heir in order to continue his reign. The Brobdingnagians focus on "Morality, History, Poetry and Mathematicks," and their young are trained for their station in society, which is determined by their parents. The Brobdingnagians focus on the concrete application of their learning to ensure their survival and that of their nation rather than aspiring to philosophical ideas. I think this provides a more accesibile criticism of England and both involve the relationship of parents and children. Both seem to argue that children's fate should be determined/affected by their parents, simultaneously removing social mobility from each society. What kind of parent-child relationship does Swift desire?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Human Beings versus Statistics

As I was reading Defoe's account of the plague, I noticed the seriousness of his writings but I also saw the dehumanization of the people around him. Like we discussed in class, he begins with the Bills of Mortality which outlines the importance of the situation but also reduces the people suffering around him to mere numbers and statistics. He then describes the reaction of the people as the counts increased or decreased. He does not mention any specific names because that would bring out the personal aspect. The situation of the man's family was sad but it was more sobering than really heartbreaking because it wasn't very personal. We mentioned on Tuesday that this story brought the empirical and sentimental together but it wasn't as effective if he had used actual names. I think Defoe did this intentionally and it I think it is successful on the reader.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taking to Sea--Escape or Discovery? Or Both?

Since this post has come after class, I'm just going to sum up a few points that I found interesting in Parts 1 & 2. First of all, if you haven't already noticed, whenever I read literature, I have a habit of comparing it to something else. I like to connect phrases from 2 sources and see how they relate.
For instance, at the beginning of part 1, Gulliver says that he begins to have an itch to go to sea. Again, at the end of part 1, before he voyage to Brodbingnag, he says "for my insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries would suffer me to continue no longer," and he has the urge to leave his family only after spending as much time as he can handle with them (71).
Gulliver's "itch" to go to sea reminds me of Ishmael at the very beginning of Moby Dick.

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

There is the same insatiable curiosity, the same desire to broaden his worldview. I find it fitting that Gulliver keeps his glasses in Lilliput, as if observing them under a sort of lens, as if looking down through a microscope. In contrast, in Brodbingnag he has to look upward at the giants, as if through a telescope, and his fear makes him narrow minded. I think my favorite quote from both of the parts is what we said was the "motto" for the first 2 parts, that "nothing is great or little otherwise by Comparison" (78). The curiousness of the different angles of perspective intrigues me and makes me wonder if this is a reflection of how humans tend to act in certain dire circumstances. When they feel they have the upper hand, do they act like giants? As Shakespeare said in footnote 78 "O, it is excellent / To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous/ To use it like a giant."
Lastly, with all of this reading of Gulliver's Travels I made a connection to my first impression of what this story was about, which, not surprisingly, was from Disney! Maybe somebody else remembers these as well.

Gulliver's Travels: Society First

In reading about some of the historical background or incentive for writing this book, I came upon something I found really interesting. Apparently (if my sources are accurate) this book was written at least partially in response to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a popular book that was published about 7 years prior to Gulliver's Travels. It seems as though Swift sort of mimicked the whole shipwreck/adventure novel popularized by Defoe while at the same time attempting to refute some of the principal notions behind Defoe's work. Whereas Robinson Crusoe placed emphasis on individuality above and before society as a whole, Gulliver's Travels sought to reaffirm the idea that a functioning society is always prioritized over the individual. Swift saw the ideas presented in Defoe's work as threatening to successful society. That is why, upon encountering misfortune at sea and ending up alone, Gulliver found himself in well regulated and ordered societies, instead of on lonely and desolate islands.

To be sure, the book is meant to serve as a commentary (and in many ways a negative one) on the ruling class/lower class relationship in England at the time, however, these contemporary problems Swift had with his government do not imply that Swift's rejected government itself as an institution for regulating society as a whole.

Arbitrary Authority

One theme I found both in Gulliver's Travels and also in Defoe's Plague novel is that of the government's use of arbitrary authority.

In the Plague journals, orders came for people to be shut up in their houses, and each figure of authority in turn answered to a higher authority. But from where does power originate? From a Parliament that has fled to the country? Foucault proposed the Panopticon idea to explain the plague as an "omniscient and omnipresent" force that can be used by the government to legitimize their own power. They are legitimized because, apparently, they know best. But even then, the idea that they "knew best" was also called into question at this time. The church was a central figure of authority, and yet people were directly challenging this power by seeking out witches and fortunetellers to help them survive the plague.

This is what reminded me very much of Swift, for he even has a quote about the government of the Lilliputions, stating that "the disbelief of a Divine Providence renders a man uncapable of holding any public station ; for, since kings avow themselves to be the deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he acts."

So for some it was fear of the Plague and for some it was Divine Providence that inspired people to believe in the power of authority figures. So now I'm actually a bit confused, because power still seems to work in weird ways. It's not exactly "might makes right," for if that were true, Gulliver could have been a God among the Lilliputians.

Not to jump around too much, but maybe it goes back to the Lilliputian idea that fraud is worse than theft because it is the cunning that can take advantage of the honest. Power is in the hands, then, not of the most strong, but the person willing to manipulate others through the control of ideas (and I guess this would apply to Satan in Paradise Lost as well). If this at all makes sense.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Curious, Isn't It?

Throughout his travels Gulliver speaks about “curiosities” numerous times. Although he does not use the word at the end of the first part, his actions could certainly be described as a “showing of curiosities” when he makes “a considerable Profit by shewing my Cattle to man Persons of Quality…” (71). He brings back tiny cattle and sheep from Lilliput as, what we would now call, souvenirs or artifacts. Gulliver would have taken some of the Lilliputian men and women as curiosities as well, but none desired to return with him (70). In the second part, the Voyage to Brobdingnag, Gulliver uses the word “curiosity”/”curiosities” to describe occurrences similar to the one from the Lilliput section. The role, of course, is reversed: the Brobdingnagian “began to look upon me as a Curiosity” (79) and his master travels around to show Gulliver off as a “publick Spectacle” (87).

Obviously, the ability of one human creature to make another human creature into a “curiosity” is size. In the first part, Gulliver holds power over the Lilliputians and in the second, the Brobdingnagians hold power over Gulliver. In both instances, however, the person is objectified. The human “curiosity” is not seen as a being with equal dignity or deserving equal respect, but as a thing to be shown off, a money generator or a pet. Indeed, the king of Brobdingnag says that Gulliver’s is “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (121). Gulliver is viewed as less than a person—he is vermin. He is a curiosity. I believe this ties into Swift’s satire of his society at large: British society was obsessed with “curiosities” from foreign lands and creating museums to house all of the funny objects.

In class, we have discussed how bodies, especially female bodies, were subject to much distortion through clothing, wigs, make-up, et cetera. As Sarah talks about in her post, Swift continues this discussion of distortion through the grotesque descriptions of the bodies of the people he encounters, especially the Brobdingnagians. I believe that Swift also means for the bodies of all of the characters in the book to be called “curiosities” in order to highlight their objectification. Just as the British body had been objectified—made to look strange and curious as an object on display—so too are the bodies in Gulliver’s Travels.

Kind of Obvious?

I don't know if it was just me, but a lot of the representative satire Swift uses in Gulliver's Travels, especially in Part 1, seems fairly obvious. I mean, he gets lost in a fog. Obviously, when he comes out of it it represents a realization. He gets tied down and captured. Obviously, he means that the constraints of his society are extremely limiting. An emperor figure pities him but at the same time keeps him tied up. Obviously, he feels that the ruling class has no real sense of what trials and tribulations the people of his society are actually undergoing. And the people keeping him restrained speak an entirely different language. Obviously, he means that the ruling class can't even relate to anyone else.

I mean, there's an underlying layer and it's obviously a satire. But compared to works over the past couple hundred of years (e.g. Spenser's The Fairie Queene) it just seemed to be very shallow allegory. I suppose I could be missing another layer altogether, and if so I apologize to extinct body of Swift, but I really don't see it.

Health Care and the Economics of Illness

Reading about the initial escalation of the plague I could not help but connect this to the contemporary plight of many without viable health care options. For the masses in the story there were pressures both personal and governmental that suppressed accurate reporting in the death records of the rise and spread of the Plague. This came from the institutional side because those in government positions had a vested interest in either denying the rise of the Plague or claiming it's spread was limited to a particular area or people. Admitting that the Plague was returning would cause economic losses in the nation and potentially destabilize the power of the government by putting people in a panic. Similarly, individuals and families were pressed to hide possible cases in fear that it would cause them to be shut in to their homes, preventing them from making a living. We even see in our protagonist HF once the Plague is confirmed and spreading a reluctance to leave for fear of the loss of his livelihood. The economic implications of the Plague can not be overstated and in some ways this is further highlighted by the way the deaths are presented numerically and in a very organized, almost financial manner.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Swift's Science of Distortion

The issue of bodies in Gulliver's Travels is one that Swift confronts in a way different from what we've seen in other works. Particularly when read after the grotesque distortions of the body in "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed" and "The Lady's Dressing Room," the mere size distortion with which Swift plays in the citizens of Lillliput and Brobdingnag seems, at first anyway, tame. The features and actions of these diminished or gigantic figures are essentially identical to Gulliver's, merely on a different scale. While certainly qualifying as "impossible," it seems a stretch (pun sort of intended) to classify these distortions in the same way. The fact that this almost fairy-tale like representation of the body, however, seems more real and less grotesque than those literary representations of the "true" (however artificial) body that we've seen speaks then to how we perceieve "natural" and "unnatural" as relating to the body.

Swift's distortion of size also serves to create an interesting resonance between Journal of the Plague Year and Gulliver's Travels. Both narrators are able to take an almost anthroloplogical view of the societies that they describe, and the mechanism for this detachment stems directly from the distinction between their bodily state and the state of those around them. The health and size, respectively, of the narrators in these novels grants them an initial distinguishment from their subjects, allowing them scientific authority in their detachment. Both tales weaving into something of ethnographies, complete with both numeric precision in recording as well as personal anecdotes and interactions place the authors on something of a knife's edge, both living in the societies, but above them, claiming authority.


Defoe's description of the plague is fantastic. I was highly engaged by the anecdotes and details, which painted a lucid image of the experience. A couple lines caught my attention:

First, I was surprised when the speaker says "so the appearance pass'd for real, as the Blazing star itself." The speaker had made his Christian bias very clear, so it was interesting that he would compare an apparition to the star of Bethlehem. It surprised me, but I haven't tried to make any conclusions from it. (24)

Second, I really enjoyed how Defoe phrases things. For example, when describing the various elixirs he says that people "prepar'd their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it" (29). The alliteration and reversal stood out to me in this line as capturing Defoe's rather quick style. I also loved the conversation of the old woman, "You advise them gratis, to buy your Physick for their money" like any shop-keeper. This type of keen wit seems to characterize Defoe's writing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Poor Creatures

The piece from Defoe's novel Journal of the Plague Year was an incredibly detailed description of the horrors that people witnessed during the Plague. It was incredibly disturbing trying to imagine living during this time. Defoe was only 5 years old, and I read somewhere that this novel was written from the experiences of his uncle, but it shows how big of an impact these experiences had on even the youngest children. Throughout the novel I was struck by the repeated descriptions of the infected and hopeless as the "poor people" and the "poor creatures." How else can you describe the way people must have felt at the time? No matter how hard you try there are very few words that can represent the horrors these people were experiencing. I now realize that our country and the world could have much bigger problems than just a recession.