Swift, Hobbes, and Dickens

Upon beginning my reading of Gulliver’s Travels, I was absolutely miserable. I despised it for unknown reasons and was hardy able to get through one paragraph without reminding myself how much I disliked the material that laid in front of me. However, mush to my own surprise, I did a complete 180 sometime during my reading of Part I. I have since been enjoying reading this novel. But what’s more, I have formed a relationship with this novel by becoming engaged and intrigued (but more to come later on the reader-text relationship that comprises a novel).


I think it is essential refer to use the following wise words of Charles Dickens as a sort of guiding principle when considering human nature: “Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature” (p. 43).


Though I am not certain whether or not this novel was composed with the goal of providing exploration of/into human nature, it definitely serves to do so. I believe this because political and social structure, as well as culture, indirectly serves to reveal an exuberant amount about man, the nature of man, and the tendencies of man. That being said, I have come to greatly appreciate Gulliver’s Travels thus far (up to Part III). The themes include, but are not limited to: dishonesty, deceit, integrity (or lack thereof), the practice(s) of morality and ethics. Collaboratively, Swift uses these themes to construct a broad, yet very clear, look at human nature. Swift also makes use of political satire to further clarify his sentiments to the reader.


Jonathan Swift clearly had a bone to pick regarding the social structure of his day. Politics, education, social hierarchy, you name it! The following quote (regarding the Brobdingnagian queen and her relationship with her dwarf, from Gulliver’s point of view) stood out to me for a few reasons:


“Nothing angered and mortified me so much as the queen’s dwarf; who being of the lowest stature that was ever in that country (for I verily think he was not full thirty feet high), became so insolent at seeing a creature so much beneath him, that he would always affect to swagger and look big as he passed by me in the queen’s antechamber, while I was standing on some Table talking with the Lords or Ladies of the court, and he seldom failed of a smart word or two upon my Littleness; against which I could only revenge my self by calling him Brother, challenging him to wrestle, and such Repartees as are usual in the Mouths of Court Pages “ (p. 90).


So, a few things about this quote…


1. Through Gulliver, the reader is able to gain insight into the society presented in the novel, as well as into the real-life society    experienced by Swift. By “real-life society”, I simply mean the            unjust and corrupt social and political circumstances experiences   by people, such as Jonathan Swift, in England in the 1700’s.


2. Furthermore, Swift uses satire to reach the reader in this part of     the text (amongst others). Ironically, people are always picking on      physically smaller individuals, more than often only for the purpose   for the self-need of feeling bigger and better (even if they are       exactly the opposite). Apply this concept to social structure, culture,    politics, etc. and interpret as you wish. Also, consider what Charles             Dickens wrote The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: “It will        be very generally found that those who will sneer habitually at      human nature, and affect to despise it, are among its worst and           least pleasant samples” (p. 540).


3. The first thing that came comes to my mind when I consider this     quote is Tyrion Lannister from the TV series (and book series)            Game of Thrones. Tyrion is a dwarf, and serves as a scapegoat in his     family. Sadly, Tyrion is constantly overlooked (both literally and     figuratively), underestimated, and regarded as relatively          unimportant. Though he is very small, he proves himself to be             sharp, acute, and overall highly intelligent. In fact, I would argue          that he is far more intelligent astute than the average-sized person.      

4. Additionally, I feel the need to point out one last thing about this     quote. I think we can/should all appreciate Jonathan Swift’s use of the word “swagger” on page 90. Yes, I am aware that he’s not using    it in the current-day vernacular form. But I still find it amusing to consider the evolution of words, especially when they evolve from       their proper form to vernacular.


Upon doing further research, I discovered that Jonathan Swift was a political writer and political activist. He was a Tory and wrote pieces for Tory-based literature; he was what is known as a “political pamphleteer”.  I also discovered that Swift believed that man is naturally sinful. He also believed that structured institutions (government, or others) were incumbent in order to keep the naturally sinful man under control.


Swift’s views on government immediately lead me to recall the thought, theory, and conjecture of Thomas Hobbes. Though the two were not completely identical in their views regarding what type of institution would best serve society (government versus non-governmental institution), I believe that Jonathan Swift’s pre-enlightenment ideals bare much resemblance to the well-known works and thoughts of Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes once said the following: “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man”. Hobbes believed that man is corrupt in his natural state, and that a strong, powerful, authoritative government must exist in order to maintain the well being of society, as well as to protect man.


However, the aspect of Swift’s novel that I find to be most fascinating is how readily the social and political issues presented in the text resemble those present in modern life, especially modern America. The issues seem to innate elements of government, as they are easily applicable to our own US republic.


Though Jonathan Swift and Thomas Hobbes both present logical principles regarding human nature, I prefer to take a more creative approach when pondering the nature of man. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote, “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other” (p. 11).


That being said, the inner-workings, behavior, and tendencies of man will always be a mystery, and cannot simply be solved, nor understood, by structure and/or institution(s).




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