Is Gulliver's Travels then, a comedy or tragedy? With close reference to the above extract and all four books of Gulliver's Travels, discuss whether the text is a comedy or tragedy.
Gulliver's Travels(GT) is a complex and sometimes seemingly disjoint novel that is not easily classified into the genres of comedy or tragedy. Some prefer to analyse and classify it book by book, but I believe that both in its form and in its essence, it is a comedy. First, we would have to understand the key characteristics of both comedy and tragedy to understand this classification. The following are not complete definitions of the comic and tragic but rather the features I find essential in my analysis.
Comedy is a form of literature in which flaws of human nature, human society, and even the natural world we live in are exaggerated, blown out of proportion, and caricatured. In doing this, the comic artist has a larger-than-life depiction of imperfection that provides fodder for laughter. Comedy also necessarily distances the audience from the humans within the text through this exaggeration of their ugliness, in order for the humour to be effective on them. This is to ultimately serve a corrective purpose by pointing out to humans their own defects in a light-hearted manner.
Tragedy, however, often has a distinguished main character who is the tragic hero. Thus, instead of dealing with generalised behaviours and foibles of entire societies, tragedy instead zooms in on the individual. The tragic hero is usually noble, by birth or by character, and is usually virtuous and has a consistency with his own value system or moral compass. However, the tragic hero possesses a crucial flaw that leads to his downfall, thus creating the tragedy – the fall from grace of a respectable human being – and in turn the catharsis of the audience.
In this way, both comedy and tragedy has a corrective and didactic nature, and hopes for the audience to realise some flaw in human nature, but differs largely in their delivery and focus.
GT does not have a clear tragic hero that fits the above criteria. Gulliver himself possesses hardly any noble quality, and is often extremely flawed and unreliable. Even his name prompts a mental connection with the word “Gullible”, and he himself and the way he reacts to certain events within the book only serves to further illustrate the human defects Swift feels so strongly about. One of his major weaknesses is his pride and an innate sense of superiority. This can be seen in Book II, where Gulliver describes to the King of Brobdingnag the concept of gunpowder, and “humbly offered” to help the King build some. However, the King was “struck with Horror” by the “terrible Engines” and is amazed how humans are “wholly unmoved at all the Scenes of Blood and Desolation”. After this clear condemnation and indictment of the cruelty humans are capable of for material gain, Gulliver remains proud and indignant, complaining about the King's “narrow Principles and short Views” and referred to the King's value of life as a “nice unnecessary scruple”.
In Book IV, Gulliver's failings are once again shown. The Houyhnhnms, though rational, possess a certain degree of pride – despite Gulliver demonstrating “rudiments of reason”, they say that they “observed in [him] all Qualities of a Yahoo” and was “far inferior to the Houyhnhnm Race” simply because he resembles a yahoo in physical form. However, upon Gulliver's return to human society, he does not learn from the rationality of the Houyhnhnms but instead adopts their pride, identifying all humans as “offensive” and “brutish” Yahoos despite them possessing the same amount of reason as him. Furthermore, he descends into further misanthropy and madness when he tries to “converse” with Horses “four hours a day”, saying that the horses live in “great Amity” with him. Thus, the ending is no anagnorisis of Gulliver, but another opportunity for the reader to see how superficial humans can be. This inane behaviour Gulliver is absurd and once again emotionally remote from any reader. It can only be intended for a comic purpose.
Gulliver also does not seem to possess a true set of principles. He often contradicts himself – in Book IV, he is quick to point out the vices of his country and his countrymen like “Whoring, Canting, Libelling, Free-thinking” and often talks about how he despises English society and English people yet he later was offended and agitated “to hear our noble country, […]the seat of virtue, piety, honor, and truth, the pride and envy of the world, so contemptuously treated” by the Brobdingnagian Prince who ridicules Humans and Human society. Gulliver is often self-contradictory, and with no defining set of principles for readers to sympathise and identify with, it is hard to see how we can derive a tragic catharsis from his eventual ‘fall'. Instead, the audience are more likely to be expected to laugh at him and his flaws as he refuses to stay self-consistent, exposing within himself some of the most pertinent defects of humans.
Finally, Swift also often employs exaggeration and amplification to expose the problems that he sees in us. Lilliputians are diminutive in size such that we can see the triviality of politics when stripped of all its superficial grandeur. The sashes of the ministers are reduced to mere ‘threads', and exaggeration on another level draws a comparison between climbing up the political ladder and “a dance on the rope” – ministers gain their positions through competitions of “whoever jumps the highest, without falling”.
In Brobdingnag, humans are gigantic and this exposes the physical imperfections and ugliness that causes Gulliver to become “disgusted” and “nauseous”.
In Book III, exaggeration is used by Swift to attack what he perceived to be the overly logical Age of Reason, when Scientific pursuit was seen by him to be often impractical and thoroughly useless. Though Swift thought of certain Scientists and their work to be pointless, he has exaggerated the process of Science to a ridiculous extent, depicting people trying to “reduce Human Excrement to its original food” or how people should carry objects about to “abolish all Words”, even talking about someone postulating that a person's “Ordure(faeces) would have a Tincture of Green” if he was thinking of “the best way of murdering the King”, thereby allowing assassinations to be thwarted through examination of excrement.
These comically disproportionate events and people do not lend any plausibility to the plot, and cannot let the reader identify, sympathise, or feel for any part of the book. These huge emotional and intellectual detachment and even disbelief will only be channelled into amusement and humour, as the reader realises that these are caricatures of humans and their foolish, laughable ways.
In conclusion, Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a comedy. Its mechanism for achieving the purpose of Swift and for spreading his message to the reader is essentially exaggeration. Furthermore, Gulliver and all the other societies depicted are deeply flawed, and do not seem to possess any redeeming quality that ennobles them to allow the reader to identify with them. Thus, it can in no way provoke a cathartic response and its intended effect is definitely an emotional distance and a humorous reaction from the reader, classifying it as a comedy.
Is the human condition then, a comedy or a tragedy? Use Gulliver's Travels or The Importance of Being Earnest to answer this question.
The human condition is a multi-faceted idea and concept. As much as it is hard and perhaps even impossible for us to strictly classify it as a comedy or a tragedy, I believe that from the 2 texts, Gulliver's Travels(GT) and The Importance of Being Earnest(IBE), it can be said to be more a tragedy than a comedy. However, this stand is only limited to the depiction of the human condition in these 2 texts, and does not seek to classify the whole human condition independently.
In my opinion, the human condition can be defined as a shared spectrum of experiences, characteristics and even personality traits shared by all of humanity, including on a large part, our various instincts and capabilities for the comprehension of complex emotions and ideas. It also includes the features, like sentiency and self-awareness that separates or differentiates us from lower forms of beings. The human condition and its various traits have a distinct effect on the way we lead our lives and interact with other humans and with the environment. Thus, we can observe and learn about it through literary texts and the content of such texts which often depict humans and their lives.
The definitions of comedy and tragedy I have already stated earlier, but the useful elements of that definition will be limited to general characteristics of the two forms, not their intended effects on an audience or reader, as there is no such person for the human condition.
Firstly, we can see that pride is central theme brought out across both books. After Gulliver's return from Brobdingnag, even though the people in England were all of his size, he could not help but “[observe] the Littleness of the Houses, the Cattle and the People” and looked upon all the people “as if they had been Pygmies and I a Giant”. This shows how Gulliver has acquired the condescension of the Brobdingnagians. This pride in inherent in the human condition probably arises from the need felt by all individuals to conceive of themselves as praiseworthy within the general society of humans. Gulliver's superficiality in attempting to “imitate their gait and gesture” can be a clear example of how human pride drives us to desire to attain a higher status in the society they are in, even if through false and frivolous means. Pride is also the reason people in the Victorian society impose their strict and sometimes meaningless rules of class and etiquette like the emphasis of “money”, “land”, “investments”, and most importantly “birth” and lineage just to qualify for something wholly unrelated like marriage. The importance of “a recognized position in good society” is also repeatedly touched on. During the play, Wilde's clever inversion and mockery of many of these rules help the audience realize how trivial they were, rules invented simply to define and distinguish the aristocracy, elevating one's status to fulfill one's pride.
The human condition may be heavily flawed due to our pride and subsequent superficiality arising from the pride, but the real tragedy of the human condition lies in our blindness to our flaws, and even resistance to change to become a better people despite our capability to do so. We are not totally without merit, ability, or morality, yet choose not to use what we have to improve ourselves, instead sinking further into depravity and baseness – this lack of fulfillment gives the human condition a sense of futility and hopelessness, thus provoking in us a feeling of pity and fear, the necessary requirements of tragedy. This is seen most clearly in Book IV of Gulliver's Travels.
In Book IV, Swift shows us that the Yahoos are “deformed brutes” who were “cunning, malicious, treacherous and revengeful”. These creatures embody the worst side of human nature, our primordial and irrational animal instincts unrestrained by Reason. Humans like Gulliver possess “rudiments of reason” and are far superior to Yahoos in our capability for rational thought. However, Gulliver himself notes the problem with humans – the “human Race in general” were “Shape and Disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech; but making no other Use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren [the Yahoos] in this Country had only the Share that Nature allotted them”. This shocking statement shows us how humans are worst than the Yahoos in that we do have culture and are civil beings, yet do not try to improve ourselves and instead let Yahoo qualities like Greed and Selfishness guide us in our lives. However, the tragedy of the human condition fully hits us when Gulliver is resigned to this fate and accepts that hoping for humans to improve is too much. He mentions that he is “not the least provoked at the sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, [...]an Attorney, a Trayter, or the like: This is all according to the due course of Things”.
Gulliver himself, however, is part of this problem. He embodies the humanity as a whole, yet he does not truly learn from the Houyhnhnms to keep himself on the “Path of Virtue”, he instead again goes for the superficial by copying the “trot of a horse”. Eventually, when confronted with the embodiment of all human flaws in the Yahoo, he descends into insanity and misanthropy. His pride is no longer able to sustain the bleak image of human nature, and instead of seeking to correct himself as he proposed earlier, he only tries to stay as far away from humans as possible, having his "Nose well stopt with Rue, Lavender, or Tobacco-Leaves" to fend off the odious smell of humans. Ironically, Gulliver states that the one thing he despises the most is a "Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride". He asks for all those possess this "absurd Vice" to stay out of sight. However, Gulliver himself is full of pride and it is in part this pride that resulted in his eventual madness. In book IV, tragedy lies in humanity's inevitable choice not to move towards rationality, and Gulliver is an excellent example of human pride causing the eventual failure of the human condition.
In conclusion, the human condition is a tragedy as it is extremely flawed, yet humans are capable of changing for the better due to our capacity for reason. However, in the end these same flaws of pride keep us from actually attaining the ideal embodied in Houyhnhnm Reason and Brobdingnaggian Morality, causing the human condition to be a pitiful and fearful thing to behold, evoking a cathartic response to its Tragedy.