On Gulliver, Swift, and Adam Smith

jonathan swift adam smith author gulliver's travels

Alice Temnick for AdamSmithWorks

By Sawrey Gilpin - Public Domain.

Part 3 of a #ReadWithMe Series
September 10, 2020
A lot has happened to Gulliver over the sixteen years and seven months of his travels. Part IV of the book, the concluding voyage, has fascinated, angered, and confused critics and readers for almost three centuries. Part 1 of this series highlighted Adam Smith’s praise of Johnathan Swift’s plain style of writing. Did Smith consider the ending to Gulliver’s Travels, this remarkable book he was so fond of, as an exception to this claim? Or did Smith (and other readers) consider this dark turn of Gulliver’s character and bleak outlook for humanity, consistent with Swift’s plain writing style? Perhaps this dramatic change in plot and character mirrored Swift’s own late life anguish. Alternatively, Swift’s crafty use of ridicule might have obscured the author’s intended message. If his writing is still “plainly” clear and consistent, it may be that the many possible meanings of Swift’s widely interpreted ending are another testament to his multifaceted genius. To consider aspects of the divisive ending, a brief description of significant events from Part IV follows.
Gulliver is awakened to a painful realization about himself and humanity by extension, when he compares himself and his fellow Englishmen to the HOUYHNHNM race. These HOUYHNHNMS are beautiful horses with powers of reason, who know and only speak truths in a tonal “whinnying” language. Evil is unknown to these communal beings who have limited feelings toward their children and exchange them with each other in order to have only one of each sex. 
Opposite to these stellar creatures are the odious and deformed YAHOOS of the same land, whom Gulliver despises while dismissing his physical similarities to this group. Through three years of discourse with his noble HOUYHNHNM master, Gulliver realizes that he is undeniably, a YAHOO - a human creature, whose human nature tends toward unavoidable and horrible vice. He wishes to live the rest of his life here so that he can contemplate and practice the virtues he admires in the wise HOUYHNHMNS he so dearly loves. He is hopeful, and quite desperately motivated to become an improved HOUYHNHMN-like YAHOO. 
It’s cold reasoning that leads his noble master and other HOUYHNHMNS to reject poor Gulliver out of fear of him causing a YAHOO uprising. They send a heart-broken Gulliver toward “home” in a canoe. In despair, he seeks to end his days on a deserted island, but instead is captured and taken to England by a good-hearted ship captain, who keeps Gulliver from jumping overboard in his effort to avoid his destiny of life among English YAHOOS. English YAHOOS are more polished and educated, but in Gulliver’s mind, they are just as depraved and despicable as those in HOUYHNHMN land. As anticipated, life in England is miserable for him. Even the smell of his YAHOO wife is unbearable. He prefers spending time in the stable with his horses, and lives out his days regretting the life he could not have, despising the one he has, and avoiding the prideful YAHOOS as best as he can. In the final chapter, Gulliver reminds us, “gentle readers ," that his book is written plainly and truthfully, unlike the many travel books that are not. (Scholars suggest Robinson Crusoe is the particular book Swift is indirectly attacking here).
The story of Gulliver in Part IV, the final phase of his journey, is indeed complex and convoluted. Until this final voyage, heroic Gulliver has persevered through odd and dangerous circumstances, has proudly portrayed and defended the merits of his country and fellow Englishmen to a variety of monarchs, and has optimistically approached every new adventure. Now, as he is booted out of this last nameless country, he rejects his own and others’ humanity entirely. What exactly broke poor Gulliver? 
Swift’s creation of HOUYHNHMN society is more peculiar than enticing, raising questions as to its appeal. Gulliver’s reverent embrace of this place is particularly striking as everyday living was far from luxurious. In fact his rich descriptions of accommodations were far superior in every other land. For clothing, Gulliver wears the awkward sun-cured skins of animals as well as those of the evil YAHOO “beasts of burden,” who were very much a constant presence in everyday HOUYHNHMN life. His bland diet was a variation of the oats that grew in the wild, his bed on a floor was made of wild beaten hemp, yet “I enjoyed perfect health of body, and tranquility of mind." Following this statement, Gulliver itemizes a long list of the many negative things omitted from his new life, including pickpockets, tedious talkers, “physician to destroy my body and lawyers to ruin my fortune." (One senses that Swift had fun with these intermittent jabs.) 
Swift’s concoction of this unsophisticated species of animals with human intellect, is curious. While the HOUYHNHMN’s prized friendship, empathy and Smithian sympathy were not exhibited toward their offspring nor toward Gulliver when he was expelled from their country. HOUYHNHMN stoic indifference toward death demonstrated their perceived place in their natural world. 
Also peculiar about HOUYHNHMN-land was the lack of markets for exchange of goods and services, the absence of trade, and a proud ignorance of innovation (captured YAHOOS, whom they loathed, dragged them around on sledges as there were no wheels). There was no agriculture, no use of money, no need for laws and no written language as knowledge was passed along through tradition. Yet Gulliver wants to shed his identity and become like his beloved HOUYHNHMN’s. He writes: “When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common YAHOO than of my person.” 
It’s inarguably a depressing ending. It’s possible that Gulliver, who begins trotting like a horse and is now an old man for his time, has gone a bit mad. Had Swift as well? This possibility is addressed in Leo Damrosch’s Jonathan Swift biography (2015). Swift was 59 when completing and submitting the manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels and soon after began exhibiting the signs of declining memory that we know today as dementia. In personal letters, Swift wrote of his increasingly negative outlook on society. His character Gulliver, upon finishing his travels, retired to a similar misery in Redcliff England, also at the age of 59. 
Adam Smith might have puzzled over Swift’s choice of animals whose indifferent nature lacked important benevolent affections. Perhaps as curious to the great philosopher and political thinker was Swift’s choice of the rudimentary HOUYHNHMN economic system.
Smith may have attributed this system to Swift’s hand at ridicule, a talent that Smith also deeply admired in Swift. 
“The foundation of Ridicule is either when what is in most respects Grand or pretends to be so or is expected to be so, has something mean or little in it or when we find something that is really mean with some pretensions and marks of grandeur.” (LRBL, L8, 108)
Smith goes on to explain that it is the different combination of ideas that allow each idea its manner of ridicule. It is the contradiction of a very tall man, Gulliver, among the miniature Lilliputians, followed by the description of Gulliver, still the same size, among the giants of Brobdingnag that “excites our laughter." Might this idea of juxtaposition also apply to the disjunction between this mean economic system and the other economic systems encountered in the travels or to the real economy of England? Perhaps the humor lies in Swift’s elaborate description of the grandness of this HOUYHNMN economic system whose citizens’, skilled with reasoning, produce only a mean, meager economic outcome. Gulliver’s praise and admiration for virtuous HOUYHNMNS is as extreme as his contempt, hatred and dread of odious YAHOO’s (who represent himself and English society).
Swift wrote this fantasy novel during real 18th century events of the changeover from Britain’s monarchy toward the modern political system heralded by Smith that led to Britain's dominance. Advancements in science, publishing, manufacturing and trade were rapidly changing life in Britain and Ireland (Swift lived in both countries). Swift, who notoriously remained elusive even to close friends, may never have considered a tidy ending for his masterpiece and might have intentionally led his readers toward unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, philosophical questions.. 

See also Part I and Part 2 of this 3 part #ReadWithMe series.
See Alice's AMA interview with Leo Damrosch.

Damrosch, Leo (2013). Jonathan Swift, His Life and His World. Yale University Press 
Smith, Adam. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. 
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels, The Franklin Library 1974 edition