Realism And Grotesque In Gullivers Travels English Literature Essay
Gulliver's Travels is a pivotal work in the history of the novel as it exhibits the ways the novel inherits and develops Menippean satire and grotesque aesthetics. Gulliver's Travels has rarely been regarded as a proper early novel like Robinson Crusoe or Pamela largely due to two conventional understandings of genre and aesthetics. The first common understanding is that the novel and Menippean satire are mutually exclusive genres. Critics have turned to Menippean satire as if to argue that the genre of Gulliver's Travels is kind of a prose fiction that is not the novel. Northrop Frye, for instance, begins his discussion of Gulliver's Travels by mentioning that "most people would call Gulliver's Travels fiction but not a novel. It must then be another form of fiction," i.e. Menippean satire (308). In turn, critics who claim Gulliver's Travels as a novel tend to ignore the Menippean tradition of the work; Maximillian Novak asserts that "once we consider Gulliver's Travels as a work of fiction, we cannot shunt it off into a meaningless category such as anatomy or Menippean satire," in his reading of the work as a picaresque novel(35). The second conventional idea is that "the grotesque" and "realism" are also two disparate aesthetic realms, and that grotesque aesthetics in Gulliver's Travels- from its use of the fantastic, metamorphosis, or the mad man theme to its "excremental vision"-does not fit into the "realistic" aesthetic of the novel. The seeming generic instability of Gulliver's Travels mostly derives from our preconceived notion of the novel as a genre of probable realism with verisimilar characters and plausible plots. In fact, even the most acute critics of Swift are not entirely free from this prevalent given notion of what the novel should be. Brean Hammond, who appropriates Bakhtin's conception of "novelization" to explain the cultural shifts of the long eighteenth century toward a "hybridization that breaks down traditionally observed generic boundaries," surprisingly turns to a conventional notion of the "novel" when he argues that Gulliver's Travels is not a novel like Robinson Crusoe partly because Gulliver is not a character like Crusoe, "a character who is a credible approximation of a human being,"-i.e. a verisimilar character-but "a device that can be exploited for satiric purposes"(250, 270). Hammond is right that "[Gulliver's Travels] is ideologically opposed to the set of attitudes and beliefs that was fuelling the development of the novel as a genre"; part of the intention of the work lies in the parody of Robinson Crusoe or "the stuff of 1720s romance...by Haywood," as he remarks(270). That does not mean, however, that Gulliver's Travels is not a novel. Swift might have intended his Menippean work partly as a Scriblerian satire that attacks modern hack writings. Paradoxically, or according to the process of "novelization," however, Gulliver's Travels turned out to be a significant addition to the novelistic tradition; the novelistic energies that Swift despised and denigrated boomeranged and informed his satire, and transformed it into a novel. Gulliver's Travels is not exhaustively explained by our conventional notion of the novel, but it does not mean that it is not a novel. Rather, Swift's work characteristically challenges our common notion of the novel, and reveals the rich tradition of Menippean satire that is absorbed in the novel.
In a similar vein, the grotesque aesthetics of Gulliver's Travels belies our confined notion of realism, or realistic aesthetics. It manifests that (novelistic) realism is not limited to "probable" realism, a mixture of empirical episteme and the modern transformation of classical mimetic aesthetics, but also involves "low" realism-crudely put, an antonym of idealism or classicism. At a superficial level, the grotesque and realism could look like two separate or almost opposite notions. Geoffrey Harpham and Mikhail Bakhtin, however, illustrate that the grotesque and realism are compatible notions at a fundamental level, and that the history of the grotesque is also the history of the recognition of that compatibility. Harpham provides a useful account of the shift of the notion of the relation between the grotesque and realism. According to him, while the Renaissance "regarded grottesche as pure fantasy," "in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries we find [the grotesque] associated with caricature in.. .Rowlandson, Hogarth, Goya..., most of whom we would not associate with fantastic art," and "by the beginning of the twentieth century.. .Thomas Mann commented.. .that the grotesque was 'properly something more than the truth, something real in the extreme.'" According to this narrative, the history of the grotesque is a gradual recognition of the fundamentally realistic characteristic of the Grotesque, which is distinct from the mimetic realism of the Classical (xviii-xix). Bakhtin offers another powerful narrative on the history of the grotesque, or the intricate relation of the grotesque and realism. The grotesque and realism are almost synonymous for Bakhtin, as is epitomized in his core term of "grotesque realism." "Grotesque realism," which "lower[s] all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract" and "is opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world," is culminated in the literature of the Renaissance after the medieval culture of folk humor(19-20, 32). As starkly opposed to "classical aesthetics," "grotesque realism" is closely linked to some other central concepts of Bakhtin, like "the carnival spirit," "the material bodily principle," "folk humor," or "the ambivalent and regenerating laughter of the people." Bakhtin also historicizes the concept of the grotesque, confining grotesque realism to "the Renaissance grotesque," although he underscores the living tradition of Renaissance grotesque realism in world literature. He explains that the Renaissance grotesque is reduced and transformed in later periods, and thus "the Romantic grotesque" (and "the modernist grotesque") is more like "an individual carnival, marked by a vivid sense of isolation, "losing laughter's regenerating power."(37).
One notable element in Bakhtin's historicization of the grotesque is, however, that the eighteenth-century grotesque is almost invisible between the Renaissance grotesque and the Romantic grotesque. One reason would be, as Bakhtin implies, that the eighteenth century directly inherited the Renaissance grotesque but also embedded "the elements of classicism" or "cold rationalism": a time that the positive bodily hyperbole of Rabelais and the bourgeois disciplined body were uncomfortably commingled and intensely struggled with each other. Thus the eighteenth-century grotesque was the space in which the Renaissance struggle between the Grotesque and the Classical was continued in a displaced form of the struggle between the lingering force of the Renaissance grotesque and now ascending bourgeois rationalism, "classical bourgeois reason." The Augustan formal verse satire of Dryden, Pope, or Swift played out the unprecedentedly intense contention between the classical-rational and the grotesque through an odd mixture of refined, sophisticated forms and disorderly, brimming-over contents. Swift also embodies the bitter conflict of the classical-rational and the grotesque through (the relation of) the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos in Gulliver's Travels, a Menippean satire and a novel, which remarkably displays the peculiar characteristic of the eighteenth-century grotesque.
Although critics have increasingly acknowledged that Gulliver's Travels is a Menippean satire, there are few detailed readings of the work in the Menippean tradition, particularly in relation to Bakhtin's concept of the genre as an authentic precursor of the novel. While scrutinizing the relation of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos as a privileged locus of the Swiftian grotesque, the political dimension of the grotesque will be revealed, which is embedded in the Yahoos as an allegory of the Irish, or colonial subjects, and then briefly examine the political dimension of (low) realism.
The Menippean fantastic usually generates three effects, which are fully used in Gulliver's Travels. First, the fantastic adventure provides a new, non-human perspective that defamiliarizes our accustomed world, or debunks our habitual, human-centered way of thinking. As Bakhtin describes, it "provoke[es] and test[s] a truth" by using the "observation from some unusual point of view, from on high, for example, which results in a radical change in the scale of the observed phenomena of life"(116). Secondly, the Menippean fantastic engages popular imagination or a comic, carnivalesque spirit; the popularity of Gulliver's Travels, particularly as a classic children's book, is considerably indebted to this folkloric imagination embedded in the fantastic. Thirdly, the fantastic offers an occasion to critique the author's (and the assumed reader's) contemporary reality, usually by imagining an upside-down world or a Utopian society. In the imagined spaces of Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, or Houyhnhnmland (or Yahooland), Swift cuttingly criticizes the domestic policies of England as well as the overall imperialism of Europe.
Gulliver's first meal at the Brobdingnagian farmer's house illustrates how the three levels of the fantastic-"ultimate questions," popular laughter, and a critique of contemporary reality-are simultaneously generated in Gulliver's Travels. When the farmer's wife gave him something to eat and drink, Gulliver says he:
made her a low bow, took out my knife and fork, and fell to eat, which gave them exceeding delight... .1 took up the vessel with much difficulty in both hands, and in a most respectful manner drank to her ladyship's health, expressing the words as loud as I could in English, which made the company laugh so heartily, that I was almost deafened with the noise." (85).
To imagine Gulliver taking out his fork and knife from his "magic" pockets, in which he seems to have everything necessary wherever he is stranded, is certainly hilarious. Apart from that, why is this scene full of humor, and why does the reader participate in the Brobdingnagians' delight and laughter at Gulliver's actions? To use "knife and fork" in eating is a common custom in eighteenth-century Europe, and to "drink to her ladyship's health" "in a most respectful manner" is also a well-mannered behavior. Yet from the perspective of the Brobdingnagians, to whom Gulliver is like "a small dangerous animal" or "a strange animal" at first (83, 90), his socially tailored and overly polite behaviors could look affected or ridiculous mostly because of the incongruity between "a strange animal" and his pretense to be a perfectly civilized man. Their giant perspective makes us see Gulliver's pride in his being a gentleman who acts according to the social code, and by extension, the pride of all humankind in his or her exclusive claim to high civilization. Moreover, a non-human view renders the European manner of using knife and fork or making a gallant compliment on the hostess not so much absolute social etiquette but one cultural custom among many cultural possibilities. To Brobdingnagians, it makes little difference whether a small animal like Gulliver uses knife and fork (as in Europe) or his fingers (as in some other cultures), although using fingers for food is an unequivocal sign of barbarism from a European perspective. Likewise, a humble showing of gratitude for food would be as good as a showy display of a toast for the hostess in a Brobdingnagian's view.
The Olympian perspective of the Brobdingnagians, which almost innocently exposes the limited view of human beings, also serves as a device of a severe attack on human folly or pride. When Gulliver finished his "talking of[his] own beloved country," the Brobdingnagin king "could not forbear taking [Gulliver] up in his right hand, and stroking [him] gently with the other, after an hearty fit of laughing, asked [him] whether [he was] a Whig or a Tory. Then turning to his first ministerâ€¦ he observed how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as I" (100). What makes the king's rhetorical question incisive does not derive from any political considerations but from the sheer size difference between the king and Gulliver; the king's gesture of "stroking [Gulliver] gently" with his left hand nullifies a pressing problem in eighteenth-century England into a trivial or meaningless one. The exorbitant pride and atrociousness of humans, which the king points out repeatedly, looks more preposterous in the frame where giants are "human" and Gulliver is a "diminutive insect." We humans become "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin" or an "impotent and groveling an insect" (123, 125) from a Brobdingnagians's view. Laughter is reduced to the level of bitterness here.
The fantastic convention of Menippean satire is entangled with another main convention of the genre: metamorphosis. Gulliver's travels into fantastic lands are coextensive with his experiences of metamorphosis into a strange, monstrous, unnatural or grotesque being. Metamorphosis, like the fantastic, holds a formal generic significance as opposed to the classical aesthetics of high genres. It "destroy[s] the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibility of another person and another life are revealed in himâ€¦ he ceases to coincide with himself," as Bakhtin notes. To compare Gulliver's fantastic travels and Odysseus's epic journey around their encounter with a "monster" and its effect on their identities is illuminating. When Odysseus confronts a savage monster, Polyphemus, it is "his fate and his character" to defeat the Cyclops by using his wiles, as is evidenced in Polyphemus' later recall of the prophecy. Throughout his long journey, Odysseus's identity never changes, despite his varied disguises, with any encounters with monsters, like Charibdis, Scylla, or Circe. The boundary between a hero and a monster, or the self and the other, cannot be blurred in Odysseus. In contrast, Gulliver's encounters with giant Brobdingnagians, which he understandably regarded as monsters at first ("seven monsters like himself came toward him..." 82), shakes his identity to the core. While the Brobdignagians regard themselves as "humans," it is Gulliver who becomes a monster, or an unnatural anomaly among those "humans." The scholars of Brobdingnag unanimously conclude that Gulliver is "Lusus Naturae," or a freak of nature (98). Metamophorsis assumes a permeating line between a hero and a monster, and Gulliver's experience of being transformed into a monster among the pigmy Lilliputians or the giant Brobdingnagians (as far as to see himself as a freak) manifests a different concept of self and the other in Menippean satire from that in high genres like The Odyssey. While Odysseus unfailingly defeats various monsters in his way home to reestablish his (social) identity, Gulliver suffers being transformed into grotesque figures in his fantastic adventures only to be "mad" when he is back home.
Gulliver's experience as a grotesque being is not only significant in the frame of the fantastic but also holds a strong social resonance-to people in the margin or periphery, a metaphoric transformation into a grotesque being is neither rare nor bizarre, anyway. Gulliver's odd trials in Brobdingnag or Lilliput not only involve becoming a symbolic monster, like a "diminutive insect" or "Man-Mountain," but also signify being thrown into a socially abject, precarious position, like a slave or a highly vulnerable courtier. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver has to go through "the ignominy of being carried about for a monster," "till [he is] half dead with weariness and vexation" since now he is "[his] master's slave" (92, 93, 95). Likewise, despite the high title of Nardac in Lilliput, Gulliver is notified of his friend's "generous" proposal to get him blind and eventually starved to death as an alternative to capital punishment, on which Gulliver says "having never been designed for a courtier either by my birth or educationâ€¦ 1 could not discover the lenity and favor of this sentence" (69).
Gulliver's denial of his own identity, or the denial of his monstrosity among the "normal" inhabitants of Brobdignag, certainly anticipates his total "conversion" in Houyhnhnmland, his ardent wish to be like the Houyhnhnms and the insistent denial of his Yahooness. And as much as the fantastic lands are overlapped with the real world, Gulliver's denial of his abject, grotesque identity so as to be like his dominant "masters" comes to signify the split identity of a colonial subject. In fact, Gulliver's shifting and conflicting subject positions (as a colonized and a colonizer) throughout the whole narrative prepares him for his ultimate "madness," a total split identity between his Yahooness and his desire to be a Houyhnhnm.
The eventual madness of Gulliver, who "always keep[s his] nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves" to avoid "the [offensive] smell of a Yahoo" (271), or "converse[s] with [his horses] at least four hours every day" to improve his virtue (266), reflects not so much Swift's stark misanthropy but a common Menippean experiment with a split self. As is typical of Menippean satire, Gulliver's madness contains a comic element. Even the most serious reader would smile at the moments like "as soon as I entered the house, my wife took me in her arms, and kissed me, at which having not been used to the touch of that odious animal for so many years, I fell in a swoon for almost an hour" (265), or "I feel my spirits revived by the smell [the groom] contracts in the stable" (266).
Scattered throughout Bakhtin's works, we can find references to Swift as a central author in the eighteenth century, who inherited and developed the Renaissance grotesque and Menippean imagination: "the contents of the carnival-grotesque elementâ€¦ were preservedâ€¦ in the work of Swift..."; "this line of experimental fantasicality continuesâ€¦ in Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire and others." Yet there seem to be some notable differences between the Renaissance or Rabelaisian grotesque (that Bakhtin stresses) and the Swiftian grotesque. A conspicuous example of this difference is the peculiar image of the body in Swift, his "excremental vision," or the hallmark of his scatological imagery. Bakhtin explains that in Rabelais's grotesque realism, "the bodily element is deeply positive... it is opposed to severance from the material and bodily roots of the world" (19). As any reader would remark, however, the body image in Gulliver's Travels is hard to be described as "deeply positive." Swift's body is rather full of filthy, despicable, ugly, burdensome, obscene, or scatological images. Gulliver's description of the "monstrous breast" of a nurse in Brobdingnag ("... the hue both of [the nipple] and the dug so varified with spots, pimples and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous" 87), or of a woman beggar in the country "with a cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes" (105), is only a couple of memorable examples that display negative images of the body in Gulliver's Travels. Swift's body also does not involve the image of "brimming-over," "ambivalence," or "regeneration," which Bakhtin asserts are the core principles of "the material bodily lower stratum" in the Renaissance grotesque. In Gulliver's Travels the exaggerated bodily image becomes deplorable "repletion," from which "all diseases arise" (233), or the ultimate culprit of bodily diseases. Human beings are sick because "we eat when we were not hungry, and drank without the provocation of thirst" (233), as Gulliver mentions to his master Houhynhnm.
Gulliver's Travels embodies the intimate relation of the grotesque-allegorical and realism in its own peculiar manner.
Gulliver's Travels is a crucial work in the discussion of realism in the novel partly because it illustrates how grotesque aesthetics, a crucial part of low realism, positively invokes the author's "bad" contemporary reality. If realism still matters, one reason lies in that it evokes the embroiled relation between text and world, the real world in which all kinds of oppression, constraints, or injustice-i. e. the objects of Swift's satire-are still happening. It is not surprising that the definition of realism is so various as to seem nearly meaningless, for the definition of reality is so much different as that of realism, depending on each individual or each period; terms like psychological realism, fantastic realism, or historical realism, already imply what the user of the term thinks is the fundamental reality-psychology, fantasy, or history. The political dimension of realism constitutes an integral part of it since realism involves an inevitable question of whose reality is at stake. Houyhnhnmland is also Yahooland, according to whose reality is dominant. The Houyhnhnms have had debates for ages about the "extermination" of the Yahoos, but the Yahoos in turn seem to be ready to have rebellion or mutiny, given a provocation, like the inhabitants of Lindalino. Swift gives a most horrible form to the Yahoos, and even does not give a voice to them: they only "howl." However, he makes the reader see that Houyhnhnmland is also Yahooland, not explicitly nevertheless, but still powerfully and disturbingly.
If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please click on the link below to request removal: