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The Layers of Swift’s Alleged Misogyny in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: Analytical Essay

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Loaded with exceeding evident detestation of the female body and follies, Jonathan Swift’s most works serve largely to contributing towards tarnishing the Dean’s reputation as a misogynist male writer. However, before passing such a crude judgement upon the Dean, it is crucial to take into account some of his other writings; including those that he did not perhaps intend to publish throw accurate amount of light upon his latent reformative intention of the overwhelming vices of women in general.

The aim of this paper would be to examine few of his apparently ‘misogynist’ writings, along with parallel supporting references to the argument from some of his other renowned works. On the basis of these works, the paper then aims to alter the predominant notion of Swift as a ‘woman-hater’ to a proponent of women’s rights, who under the bitter layers of satire had the sole intention to reform and thus bring the Woman at par with Man.

Introduction

“Say, foolish females, bold and blind,

Say, by what fatal turn of mind,

Are you on vices most severe,

Wherein yourselves have greatest share?” (Swift and Scott 218) [footnoteRef:1] [1: So writes Swift in ‘The Journal of a Modern Lady’; 1728. The poem is a jest on the way a ‘modern lady’ of his day kills her time, and recounts in meticulous detail her daily routine, the greatest part of which is spend either at her toilette or playing quadrille with other ladies.]

To an amateurish reader of the Dean’s works, the above quoted lines may undoubtedly be suggestive of the idea that he is openly and blindly lashing out on the whole of female sex. Several of Swift’s verses about and to women seem to spawn in the mind of the reader a clearly misogynistic perception about him. It is unarguable that Swift’s works are replete with inconsolable satire on the womankind, attacking moth their unpolished intellect and polished skins. His prominent works do nothing of the sort to redeem or at least seem to better his reputation amongst his critics. As can be seen in his novel ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, in the section ‘A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’ he comments remarkably on the vain and lavish practices of the female Yahoos of his country, that become a source of leisure for her but a painful hardship to numerous other. He writes-

“I assured him, that this whole globe of earth must be at least three times gone round, before one of our better female Yahoos could get her breakfast, or a cup to put it in.” (J. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels 211)[footnoteRef:2] [2: The lines appear in ‘A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’, book 4 of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, as a part of the conversation between Lemuel Gulliver and his Houyhnhnm master, as the former elaborates the vanity of his fellow Yahoos. ]

His attack on the English women of his country and their rich breakfast practices is very visible. But what is also essential to be taken into account is the fact that in the closely following lines in the text, he critics his male counterparts too.

“But in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, from whence in return we brought the materials of diseases, folly, and vice, to spend among ourselves.”

Thus arises a need to analyse Swift’s writings from an unbiased viewpoint, so as to arrive at a better understanding regarding his perspective about women as well as men and the vices that abounded in both the genders equitably. [footnoteRef:3] [3: On p.211 itself, Gulliver vis-à-vis Swift criticizes the equal amount of “intemperance of the males”.]

Frown on Females’ education rather than their intellect:

Swift was a feminist visionary much before the birth of the term. Many feminist ideologists have talked about an egalitarian education which would aim at the equal amount of enlightenment for women and men. Education has long been considered as the armour to equip an individual against the unjustness of the existing society. Education for women has throughput been an inferior one, with its aims and objectives as being different than the one provided to men.

John Charvet expatiates the idea concerning a female and her education, as was asserted by the great feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft [footnoteRef:4] in her remarkable work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. He writes- [4: Mary Wollstonecraft was and English, regarded also as ‘Britain’s first feminist’ (Vickery) , was an 18th century feminist philosopher and an advocate of women’s rights. She is renowned for her work ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, published in 1792 as a response to Edmund Burke’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’. ]

“For Wollstonecraft, because woman is seen by existing society primarily as a sexual and not as a human being, she is educated to acquire qualities that fit her for a relation of dependence on man. She is brought up to learn how to please man, to charm him by her grace and beauty, and her virtues are those of gentleness, docility and a spaniel-like affection. Woman, as she actually is, is a weak, dependent and emotional creature, but as she is, she is an artificial product of these male ideas and arrangements.” (Charvet)

Swift, though not so directly, builds upon the same idea of Wollstonecraft, and urges the women of his age to not limit themselves and their capabilities to merely external adornments. He criticised the education imparted to women of his time and believed in the idea of an ideal education system that would furnish both men and women with the same principles and values. What he was critical of was the conditioning of the society of his day that emphasized on teaching only domestic chores to women and intellectual subjects reservedly for studying by men. This kind of education imparted to women was done so with the sole purpose to render them as suitable ‘commodities’ in the patriarchal marital market. Attaining any sort of intellectual knowledge was deemed as “unfashionable”(Hayden 15) both amongst the extravagant ladies as well as the educated menfolk. An educated woman in Swift’s times was seen as eccentric amidst her own sex as the fanciful ladies little understood her and viewed her with disdain. She was an equal outcast within the male intellectual sphere as an educated woman, even though was a marginalized entity among them, but was nevertheless a potential threat to their dominance over the fruit of knowledge.

The point is well exemplified in his poem ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’; wherein the Goddess Venus creates a righteous, intellectually endowed as well as celestially charming woman names Vanessa, conjecturing that this woman would be a source of admiration and inspiration among both the sexes. But such a favourable outcome was not to follow.

“Too late with grief she understood,

Pallas had done more harm than good ;

For great examples are but vain,

Where ignorance begets disdain.

Both sexes, arm’d with guilt and spite,

Against Vanessa’s power unite :

To copy her few nymphs aspir’d ;

Her virtues fewer swains admir’d.

So stars, beyond a certain height,

Give mortals neither heat nor light.” (Swift and Scott 453)

Hence, by juxtaposing his exasperation with the vices women embraced by being a victim of this conditioning, with the hypocritical values the patriarchal society bestowed upon them, Swift in subtle layers of satire mocks the flamboyant practices and artifices of the ladies. He says-

“A set of phrases learn’d by rote;

A passion for a scarlet coat;

When at a play, to laugh, or cry,

Yet cannot tell the reason why; …

Knows to a great the lowest price ;

Can in her female clubs dispute,

What linen best the silk will suit,

What colours each complexion match,

And where with art to place a patch.” (Swift and Scott 199–200) [footnoteRef:5] [5: From ‘The Furniture of a Woman’s Mind’, published in 1727, the poem highlights the artifices that the women indulged in and the falsity of the knowledge that they flaunted. ]

Keeping in mind Swift’s prioritizing of the role of education in a woman’s life, it is not surprising to note that what Swift admired most highly in Esther Johnson (addressed as “Stella” in his works) was her sharp intellect. This, he believed was the most beautiful trait of hers, which would sustain the ravages of time, as opposed to transient external beauty. Bewitched by the charms of her knowledgeable mind, Swift immortalised the glories of this friend of his, in his verses to and about her, especially the poems written on the occasion of her birthdays, from the years 1718-27. In one such birthday poem to her, swift glorifies Stella’s unfading beauty that is embodies by her brilliant mind.

“When Stella’s locks must all be gray,

When age must print a furrow’d trace

On every feature of her face;

Though you, and all your senseless tribe,

Could art, or time, or nature bribe

To make you look like Beauty’s Queen,

And hold for ever at fifteen;

No bloom of youth can ever blind

The cracks and wrinkles of your mind:

All men of sense will pass your door,

And crowd to Stella’s at fourscore.” (Swift and Scott 471) [footnoteRef:6] [6: From ‘Stella’s Birthday’, 1719-20]

Swift’s ideal view about education is best seen in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, where in the section ‘A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’, Gulliver is in awe of the method of education of the Houyhnhnms’ children. Their children are raised with systems of impartiality rather than inequality, and an almost similar set of principles are taught to both the genders. So much so, that the Houyhnhnm master “thought it monstrous in us to give the females a different kind of education from the males, except in some articles of domestic management…” (J. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels 226)

Thus, it is not the blunt wit of female kind that is attacked by the Dean. What he actually chastises is the unequal education system, which systematically denies them the right to a respectable life as well as a reputable position in the society, of which they become inferior citizens as compared to men. He envisioned a world where men and women could live as equal, both in terms of their educational status and the privileges accorded to them. He believed in “a liberal education for women”, along with a proportionate “instruction in domestic matters”. (Hayden 16) .

Marriage as a partnership rooted in mind rather than passion:

Swift had little faith in a marital relationship that hinged upon passion and love; both of which he regarded as exceedingly transient. What he favoured instead was the idea of a ‘companionate marriage’. [footnoteRef:7] He reiterated time and again the paramount significance of an intellectual parity midst the married couple. This, he believed would outlive ephemeral beauty and youthful passions, thus keeping the marriage sailing smoothly. [7: Lawrence Stone in his ground-breaking work ‘The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800’ talks of the concept of ‘affective individualism’; wherein he emphasizes on the growing significance of the individual partners in marriage among the upper class bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century. This furthered the idea of a companionate marriage, which became increasingly identifiable with “awareness and expression of individuality, rights of autonomy, and emotional and personal intimacy.” (Collection)]

His averseness to the abstract concept of ‘love’ is very evident in his these verses-

“The glass, by lovers’ nonsense blurr’d

Dims and obscures our sight;

So, when passions Love has stirr’d

It darkens Reason’s light.” (Swift and Scott 359) [footnoteRef:8] [8: From ‘Epigrams on windows’; ‘II. At an Inn in England’, 1726]

Swift, through such verses as these, wanted to point out to the fashionable ladies that the coquetry and physical beauty that they held so dear, and that which served to have captured the attention of men at first, shall sooner or later vanish into air. And if the woman be blest with “endowments of the mind”, she might be well equipped to make her person more agreeable to him and when she shall be alone, her “time will not lie heavy” upon her hands “for want of some trifling amusement”. (J. Swift, Satires and Personal Writings 59-72).

For a successful sustenance of a marital relationship, what was crucial according to Swift was the presence of an equality among them, which would maintain the status quo throughout the years of marriage. Marriage was increasingly becoming an institution identifiable with mere transactional worth. On one hand where it served as a source of financial benefit for the groom via the bride’s hereditary fortune, it also served as a means for absolution of the wife from any possible crimes she may commit or any bankruptcy she may fall prey to. But at the same time, it meant a clear loss of individuality and the freedom of the woman, with added dependence on her husband.

Swift essentially believed that there should be certain similarities between the partners, so as to prevent the bond from going haywire on account of the differences present. For this reason, he despises the senseless match between “a handsome, young, imperious girl” and a rich “swain” of fifty-two. He thus writes –

“And thus set out, this happy pair,

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The Swain is rich, the Nymph is fair;

But, which I gladly would forget,

The Swain is old, the Nymph coquette;

Both from the goal together start,

Scarce run a step before they part;

No common ligament that binds

The various textures of their minds,

Their thoughts and actions, hopes and fears,

Less corresponding than their years.

Her spouse desires his coffee soon,

She rises to her tea at noon.

While he goes out to cheapen books,

She at the glass consults her looks…” (Swift and Scott 233-36) [footnoteRef:9] [9: From ‘The Progress of Marriage’; herein swift shows his condemnatory attitude towards such a disparate match. The poem goes on to end on disastrous note, as was predestined by swift, with the old swain dead without an heir, but left the widowed nymph with “a rooted pox to last for ever”.]

Swift he focused on the companionship within a marriage, and that he believed to be the truest essence of the bond. His ideal version of a marriage is then much identical to that which was propounded by Congreve vis-à-vis the relationship of Mirabell and Millamant in his play ‘The Way of the World’ in the proviso scene. Millamant, who distances herself from the fopperies and fancies of her sex, embodies the qualities that Swift was most desirous of in a woman. She, just as Swift, adheres to the core values of a marital relationship- those whose foundation lies in a true companionship, equality and loyalty. She says –

“Ay, as wife, spouse, my dear, joy, jewel, love, sweet-heart, and the rest of that nauseous cant, in which men and their wives are so fulsomely familiar–I shall never bear that. Good Mirabell, don’t let us be familiar or fond, nor kiss before folks, like my Lady Fadler and Sir Francis; nor go to Hyde Park together the first Sunday in a new chariot, to provoke eyes and whispers, and then never be seen there together again, as if we were proud of one another the first week, and ashamed of one another ever after. Let us never visit together, nor go to a play together, but let us be very strange and well-bred. Let us be as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.” (Congreve 169-171)

He notes in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ how the Houyhnhnm couples lived in complete harmony and that, “violation of marriage, or any other unchastity, was never heard of: and the married pair pass their lives with the same friendship, and mutual benevolence that they bear to others of the same species who come in their way; without jealousy, fondness, quarrelling, or discontent.” (J. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels 225) [footnoteRef:10] That said it is also noteworthy to take into account Swift’s believed abstraction pertaining to the response of one spouse toward the demise of another. When the Houyhnhnm’s spouse passed away, she unlike the English ladies did not create wailings of pretended remorse; rather handled her partner’s death with a poised attitude and “behaved herself at our house as cheerfully as the rest: she died about three months after.” (J. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels 230) [10: Gulliver’s account about the Houyhnhnm married couples in the last book ‘A Voyage to the Houyhnhmns’ ]

Concluding Swift’s stance on marriage and a woman’s indisputable role in the companionship, the following lines from his poem ‘Strephon and Chole’ would be the most apt –

“Since beauty scarce endures a day,

And youth so swiftly glides away;

Why will you make yourself a bubble,

To build on sand with hay and stubble?

On Sense and Wit your Passion found,

By Decency cemented round;

Let Prudence with Good Nature strive,

To keep Esteem and Love alive. [310]

Then come old Age whene’er it will,

Your Friendship shall continue still:

And thus a mutual gentle Fire,

Shall never but with Life expire.” (Swift and Scott 264)

Scatological revulsion of the female body or more?

Swift’s overly exceeding disgust not merely with the female being, but also with the female body and its natural biological processes can be better understood when looked at from a varying angle. In doing so, his prime aim was not to ridicule the female body for what it is, but to foster a healthy acceptance of its functions and intricacies among both the sexes.

Keeping in mind the beginning verses of ‘Strephon and Chole’, a clear representation is put forth concerning the general perception about the ‘godliness’ of a female’s body –

“Of Chloe all the Town has rung;

By ev’ry size of Poets sung:

So beautiful a Nymph appears

But once in Twenty Thousand Years.

By Nature form’d with nicest Care…” (Swift and Scott 255)

Evidently, upper class ladies, over whom men fawned helplessly, were perceived as complete and perfect embodiment of angelic characteristics, to the extent that it was believed that “so divine a Creature/ Felt no Necessities of Nature”. Women were clearly eulogised and placed on a pedestal, thus elevating them to being something much more than a mere mortal being. Consequently, such an exaltation deluded one into believing a woman to be in superior position, vis-à-vis her capability to attract a man, but on the other hand, according such more-than-human traits to the female being and her body had its own problems.

Such unrealistic representation led one to exempt her from the performance of the very human bodily functions. Swift via the exposition in his own scatological way of the general biological functions of the female body attempts to bring an acceptance of the fact that females are as susceptible to the occurrences of normal bodily functions as is the other sex.

What swift aimed through such detailed and at times horrifying description of the female body was to normalise its existence. A woman was seen merely an entity whose sole purpose of existing was to satisfy the male desires. The whole idea of divine beauty encapsulating her was a societal attempt to render her as an object, too godly and extra-terrestrial to be polluted by rather filthy human needs. The bedrock of the poems ‘Cassinus and Peter’ and ‘Strephon and Chole’ is the hysteria and terror-strike of two men who are too timid and unaccepting of the dawning realisation of the deified female being as much a victim of nature’s needs as they are.

The complete horror Cassinus exhibits at the dismal discovery regarding Celia goes as follows –

“Oh! Caelia, Caelia Caelia sh——.”

Also, the nauseating image Swift vis-à-vis Strephon draws of the remnants of Celia’s dressing room after she departs from the scene, is not just a straightforward parody of the futile toils taken by the lady to adorn herself; but at the same time also sheds light on the almost sick as well as sickening mind-set of Strephon. Clearly, Swift aims the darts f his condemnation not only towards the haughty women in these poems, but also on the pharisaical minds of these men who draw shameful judgements upon the women on hideous grounds.

Ellen Pollak in her essay (Pollak) remarks; “Cassinus’s friend Peter and the Strephons of both ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room” and “Strephon and Chole” are fatuous idiots suffering from absurd romantic delusions about women. The disgust they experience for women’s bodies when they discover, to their amazement, that women actually evacuate is merely the product of despair created by a disappointed idealism – an idealism very similar to that which produces Gulliver’s disgust with the human race at the end of his travels.”

To all these male characters, it would rather have been a consolatory relief, had they been told that being exceptionally pure entities, the ladies that they revered were exempt from the ghastly bodily needs of common mortals. It is this rigid and unrealistically held perception of the males of the eighteenth century society that Swift attempts to attack and thereby reform, via such unconventionally bold descriptions of the female body. A more humanized as well as fallible representation of a woman and her body would perhaps be effective in bringing about a healthier social relation between the two sexes, in addition to fostering a sense of equality between both the genders.

Harry Mycroft very aptly captures in his essay (Mycroft); “When Strephon and Chole finally reveal themselves to each other it is almost celebratory.” What he essentially tries to say is that, Swift, by his scatological and almost disgust-fill imagery of the female body attempted to show that the female was only human in flesh, blood as well as the necessities of nature that all humankind shared alike. And a realisation of the simple fact of the female being as mortal in all aspects might prevent turning “poor Strephon’s bowels” (Swift and Scott 245) at the sight of Celia’s dirtied towels!

Conclusion:

To conclude the argument, it can be deducted that Swift was a women’s ally, who wrote with the sole aim of not only liberating them from their vices that served to deteriorate their own image; but also ridiculed the hypocritical male practices and thinking within the patriarchal framework of the society.

In “The Journal of a Modern Lady”, [footnoteRef:11] Swift remarks – [11: (Swift and Scott 213); “The Journal of a Modern Lady”, 1728.]

“How could it come into your mind

To pitch on me, of all mankind,

Against the sex to write a satire,

And brand me for a woman-hater?” (Swift and Scott 213)

It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that he was a woman’s supporter, and achieved his means by at times somewhat crooked ways. He was an extremist, who aspired to establish an air that favoured both men and women alike. His extremism in his ideals often resulted in blurring his vision to the complex reality of the age that he lived in.

He used bitter satire to mock the vanities of the females and the idle pass times women engaged in. By satirizing the poor intellect of ladies, what he did was not to make fun of them; but to straightaway attack the sorry state of affairs of the society that stood as a hindrance in women’s education.

John O’Connor in his essay ‘Swift’s Attitude toward Women’ (O’Connor) elucidates the nature of equality that the Dean envisioned amongst both the sexes. He writes; “Swift’s equality was not only an equality of mind and capability, but a complete and thoroughgoing equality that encroaches the physical. Women were no better and no worse than men.

Swift, by the means of his bitter satire of the female follies wished for the sex to get rid of them, and thus enable themselves to step up in the ladder of the society. At the same time, Swift ridiculed the superficiality of deifying them as something surpassing the mortal boundaries. Therefore, the Dean strategically aimed to uplift the women from the petty fopperies they indulged in; at the same time bringing them down from the romanticised podium they were set up on. O’Connor further talks about this point, highlighting the fact that women should neither be treated as “light-hearted imbeciles incapable of worthwhile conversation or true friendship”, and neither should they be “placed on a pedestal for their grace and beauty”. And for the purport of achieving this equality of both the genders, he saw polishing of women’s intellect as the best possible means. His alleged misogyny could be countered with ease by a close reading of the verses he attributes to Esther or ‘Stella’ f his poems. He, throughout his life reverently admired Esther for her detachment with the follies and fopperies usually associated with her sex, and her devotion and excellence in subjects that were predominantly associated with men. in the birthday poem he dedicated to her on her birthday in the year 1721-22, he writes in the praise of her intellectual beauty –

“In you each virtue brighter shines,

But my poetick vein declines;

My harp will soon in vain be strung,

And all your virtues left unsung.” (Swift and Scott 432)

Also, one of his most famous poems “A Beautiful Nymph going to Bed” could be read in a whole different like, than the usual misogynist notion attached to it, when we shift our focus on the subtitle of the poem that reads “Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex”. Then the whole idea of Swift behind the cruel satire he pens could be understood as his solemn intention to secure a just place for females in the society. Though his words appear harsh, but to him it mattered little the sting of his blows, until they served to attain the noble aimed that he most ardently desired.

Finally, the Dean’s intent behind the garb of his words could be clarified by his lines from the ‘Gulliver’s Travels’-

“I write from the noblest end, to inform and instruct mankind.” (J. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels 244)

Bibliography

  1. Charvet, John. Feminism. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1982.
  2. Collection, UC Press E-Books. Best Friends and Marriage. n.d. 11 March 2019 .
  3. Congreve, William. The Way of the World. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan Orivate Limited, 2007.
  4. Mycroft, Harry. ‘An essay on scatology and Swift.’ Innervate, Vol.2 (2009-10): 339-344.
  5. O’Connor, John. ‘Swift’s Attitude toward Women.’ Notre Dame English Journal, Vol.2, no.2 (1967): 13-22.
  6. Pollak, Ellen. ‘Swift among the Feminists: An Approach to Teaching.’ College Literature, Vol 19, No.1 (February 1992): 114-120.
  7. Swift and Scott. The works of Jonathan Swift: Miscellaneous Poems. A. Constable, 1814.
  8. Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 2002.
  9. Gulliver’s Travels. Book Land, 2002.
  10. Satires and Personal Writings. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.
  11. Vickery, Amanda. BBC – iWonder – Mary Wollstonecraft: ‘Britain’s first feminist’. 09 02 2015. 11 March 2019 .

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