There are, obviously, many different ways to analyze a particular text. Everyone close reads or sees something from their own perspective. Gulliver’s Travels has always been a boring read for me. Don’t get me wrong, the satire is pretty suggestive of mocking the enlightenment; but Gulliver is suggesting, clearly, that England should STOP CONQUERING OTHER LAND. Let’s pause for a moment and see why. Gulliver is traveling to the Houyhnhnm land — a land that’s separated from all other land and territories. They’re fighting among each other, conquering each other’s land. Gulliver is constantly watching these people, giving them a sense of “otherness” about him and vice versa.
“In the right coat-Pocket of the Great Man Mountain (for so I interpret the words Quinbus Flestrin), after the strictest search, we found only one great piece of coarse cloth, large enough to be a foot-cloth for your Majesty’s chief room of state. In the same left pocket, we saw a huge silver chest, with a cover of the same metal, which we, the searchers, were not able to lift. We desired it should be opened; and one of us stepping into it, found himself up to the mid leg in a sort of dust, some part whereof flying up to our faces, set us both a sneezing for several times together. (1.2.7)”
Part by part of the quote above do we see the “strangeness” of Gulliver’s devices to the people of Houyhnhnm and with that we see something that’s hardly ever done in literature (from what I’ve perceived): a reversal of the “otherness” we put on indigenous people. For once, Gulliver doesn’t seem to feel as if they are strange, going as far as to just start fighting them when he first lands right off the bat. Instead, he is the strange one, and the seemingly indigenous Houyhnhnm are the civilized people.
Now, if you already saw that, let’s take another look at why this reversal is important. If we analyze more of the text, there comes a moment where Gulliver’s presence changes a lot of things for the empires that exist on Houyhnhnm Land. The quote below is one example to show:
“But great allowances should be given to a king, who lives wholly secluded from the rest of the world, and must therefore be altogether unacquainted with the manners and customs that most prevail in other nations: the want of which knowledge will ever produce many prejudices, and a certain narrowness of thinking, from which we, and the politer countries of Europe, are wholly exempted. And it would be hard indeed, if so remote a prince’s notions of virtue and vice were to be offered as a standard for all mankind. (2.7.2)”
Gulliver is attempting to try and bestow his English virtues upon the kingdoms and goes as far as to assume that these two kingdoms would be better with the virtues of the English kingdom. Sound familiar? Sounds like Colonialism to me; but maybe that’s just me. Swift shows us a reversal of roles at first, and then shows us that the people of Houyhnhnm are more civilized than the English (in their own way, probably). At this point, I would say that Gulliver should just leave the Houyhnhnm alone and stay in England amongst his own people. We clearly understand what Colonialism can do to smaller countries and it’s obvious that the Houyhnhnm can handle themselves. Conquering them would just make the English more “strange” to the Houyhnhnm.
Should we live like them? I don’t know, it’s a hard question to answer considering we’re so far along into the future where “otherness” (should)not [read: does not] apply to our current society.
— Drew C. Guerrero