Leading Questions about Eighteenth-Century Authors
Members of Ms. Watterson's section, English 32, Brown University, 1998
1. In Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, the author finds himself on an island dominated by horse-like creatures called Houyhnhnms and human-like creatures called Yahoos. The rational and orderly animals, however, are the Houyhnhms, while the Yahoos are the primal "beasts." In an effort to become acclimated with the native language of this island, and in an effort to teach the rational natives about his own culture, the author explains the causes of war and conflict among his own species.
"He was wholly at a loss to know what could be the use or necessity of practicing these vices. To clear up which I endeavored to give him some ideas of the desire of power and riches; of the terrible effects of lust, intemperance, malice, and envy...After which, like one whose imagination was struck with something never seen or heard before, he would lift up his eyes with amazement and indignation. Power, government, war, law, punishment, and a thousand other things had no terms, wherein that language could express them, which made the difficulty almost insuperable to give my master any conception of what I meant" (2149).
What is Swift trying to say about our own society, in this passage? Is there irony involved in how they're civilization functions based on the island's inhabitants? Based on also having read Part one, and "A modest proposal", what are Swifts opinion regarding how society operates or should operate? What is the satirical effect of this passage as it relates to Part four, and Part one? In consideration of Parts one and four, would it be safe to say that these separate societies, in spite of their obvious differences in appearance, also differ in behavior and custom to various human civilizations of past and present? Why or why not? Finally, what is the author's role in relation to these societies? Is Swift out to make him a saviour - a calming and rational presence, a voice of truth and reason - or is his presence detrimental to the existence of such civilizations? (John Rosenblatt)
2. In Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal", he pokes fun at the situation in his home country Ireland. He speaks of the crime, the poverty and the life conditions of his fellow Irish: "the present deploarable state of the kingdom a very additional grievance" (2181). Through his ironic prose, Swift speaks of an idea to kill the children of Ireland for food, and then sell the carcasses to England to improve the country's living conditions. Throughout the essay, Swift talks of England, Ireland and America. In Ireland he speaks of the oppressed, ignorant and hungry peasants that are desperate for any type of salvation, even though this might require the sacrificing of their young. Swift is also writing in response to the belief that the English are taking control and ruining the Irish. Finally, he mentions that his American friend is an expert at what time in a child's life makes them the most tasty for a feast.
In this essay, it portrays England as the villan : "the flesh being too tender a consistence to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it" (2186). Was this the actual situation in the 18th century between England and Ireland? What was America's place in this political situation? Although Swift is successful at writing playfully and ironically, the undertones of this essay are very serious and devastating. How would he, as an Irish writer, been affected by this situation? (Kate Edwards)
3. In the biographical summary on Alexander Pope on page 2212 of the Norton Anth., it says that "An Essay on Criticism" was Pope's first "striking success", but that it also angered a critic, John Dennis, to whom a casual reference was made in the poem. I am interested in this delicate relationship between the artist and the critic...What type of attitude does Pope seem to have towards this relationship in his poem, "An Essay on Criticism"? Keep in mind that Pope, at various points in the poem, takes it upon himself to give instruction to the critic:
But you who seek to give and merit fame, And justly bear a critic's noble name, Be sure yourself and your own reach to know, How far your genius, taste, and learning go; Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, And mark that point where sense and dullness meet. (lines 46-51)
At another point in the poem, Pope also compares "wit and judgement" to a man and his wife, implying that there is always some degree of tension between the two. What is Pope saying about the tension between artists and critics? Is he trying to alleviate it by telling the critics how to be better critics? Is it even his place to be telling the critics how to judge art? (Erin Emlock)
4. Although both Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal are, in simplistic terms, satires of the British Empire and it's attitudes and policies towards the people that were gathered under that umbrella, they both take very different standpoints. In A Modest Proposal, the speaker offers his solution to the ills of Ireland in a very economic, practical manner, appealing to the businessmen of the Empire, which appears to be everyone from the absent landlord to the idle rich. He lays out his plan with no problems of conscience, because the selling of children for food is apparently just as intelligent and pragmatic an idea as selling cattle.
Instead of being a charge upon thier parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall on the contrary contribute to the feeding and partly to the clothing of many thousands." (2182)
In Gulliver's Travels, however, the British are represented as the good global samaritans. They express outrage at the controlled breeding of horses,
"But it is impossible to express his noble resentment at out savage treatment of the Houyhnhnm race; particularly after I had explained the manner and use of castrating horses among us, to hinder then from propagating their kind, and to render them more servile." (2148)
Swift switches points of view of hypocrisy between these two works, and while A Modest Proposal is much more poignant, is it more effective? Or is the subtleties of Gulliver's Travels, which has even been used as a children's story, a better medium to use his Satire? (Melissa Rodriguez)
5. Alexander Pope asks:
Heaven from all men hides the book of Fate,
All but the page prescribed, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
or who could suffer being here below?
in his "An Essay on Man," while Samuel Johnson poses a similar question in "The Vanity of Human Wishes:"
Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find? Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
What do these questions say about the neoclassical concern with the preordained? How do they reflect the different perspectives that Pope and Johnson have on the subject of destiny? (Megan Lynch)
6. In part four of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the Houyhnhnmoffers his outsider's assessment of the human race:
he looked upon us as a sort of animals to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen, whereof we made no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which nature had not given us. (4.7, p.2158)
Given what Gulliver tells the Houyhnhnm about human existence, is this an accurate evaluation? Have the Houyhnhnms, through their emphasis on reason, achieved a higher state than the humans? Would a larger "pittance" of reason alleviate the human condition? (Lily Huang)
7. Pope's essays on criticism and man reveal truths felt by Pope. He warns the reader in his "Essay on Criticism" to "...regard the writers end, since none can compass more than they intend." Modern criticism asserts that the artistís intentions are difficult to gauge. Authors and artists may state something that exists in their subconscious thoughts alone. Is it the purpose of the critic to point out these things? Is Freud merely a modern Rosicrucian? Consider the following from Epistle IV, in the "Essay on Man":
Tell (for you can) what is it to be wise?
'T is but to know how little can be known,
To see all otherís faults, and feel our own:
Without a second, or without a judge.
Truths would you teach, or save a sinking land? In reconsidering Waterland, with the wisdom of Pope, can one have a better grasp of what is almost a hopelessly ambiguous text? Could Graham Swift have influenced Popeís text? Can Tom Crick and Pope be considered as teachers of truth? Were Jonathan Swift and Dick Crick occupied with saving sinking lands? (Kirk Fanelly)
8. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift causes readers to examine the relativity of measurements. Readers are forced to reassess their own supremacy and importance of their notions of time, size, and length, as well as what constitutes a great act or person. The Lilliputs, like the readers of Gulliver's Travels, regard their wars and governments as primary, refusing to entertain thoughts of other civilizations more powerful than themselves. In a very interesting passage, the Lilliputs describe the watch found on Gulliver: "And we conjecture it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships: but we are more inclined to the latter opinion, because he assured us... that he seldom did any thing without consulting it. He called it his oracle, and said it pointed out the time for every action of his life" (2055). Are we, in a sense, worshiping our measurements? And if measurement is relative, what are we really worshiping? (Maura McKee)
9. With the passage of time it seems suggested by both Pope and Johnson that both ambition and pride are revealed as illusionary and dissappointments; consider: "In life's last scene what prodigies surprise/Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise?" ("The Vanity of Human Wishes," the second to last couplet in the third to last paragraph, I'm using a different addition and that's the easiest way to identify it); and "We think our fathers fools, so wise we grow; Our wiser sons, no doubt, will think us so."(ll. 438-39). With that in mind, what is man to strive for? Is he merely out to discover his own limitations? (Ryan Martin)
10. The Houyhnhnms feel they are so perfect that their language leaves no room for the notion of a falsehood and their way of life does not allow for the telling of lies. When Gulliver attempts to tell the horses of his land beyond the sea, they of course believe he is lying — or as they state it, "saying the thing which could not be." As the reader however, we know that Gulliver's homeland exists and therefore that the Houyhnhnm reason is not without flaw. Later on in the chapter, the differing reason between the Houyhnhnms and Gulliver is brought up once again as he begins to abhor his own body and hides it from his master. "My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure"(p. 2141). What then, is Swift saying about differing perceptions between the human, the yahoos, and the Houyhnhnms on an allegorical level? Is he merely attempting to account for the believability of Gulliver's tale by creating a species doubtful of the reader's existence or is there more to this aspect? (Dan Shindell)
11. In "An Essay on Criticism", Alexander Pope forwards a classical approach to the ideas of both writing and criticism. This approach involves a dispassionate, critical, but ungrudging commentary by the critic upon the author's works; Pope advocates balance, moderation, and the wisdom to know one's limits and partialities for both the critic and the "wit." As a part of this dictum, he does not approve of those who "foreign writers, some our own despise/ The ancients only, or the moderns prize./ Thus wit, like faith, by each man is applied/ To one small sect, and all are damned beside." (lines 394-397).
Yet Pope himself calls the premier intellectuals of the Middle Ages "holy Vandals" and feels that during that period literature and the Muses were withered, dusty, full of superstition, etc. Clearly, he is violating his own tenets by looking at the Middle Ages with a skewed eye toward modern and classical poetry. What function might this prejudice have served for the author and the reader of this poem? (Kate Williamson)
12. One of Swift's main satirical devices is irony created by the use of a naive narrator. Swift uses this innocent voice to indirectly attack English society:
He said, "That must be a miserable country which cannot furnish food for its own inhabitants." But what he chiefly wondered at, was how such vast tracts of ground as I described, should be wholly without fresh water, and the people put to the necessity of sending over the sea for drink. I replied that England (dear place of my nativity) was computed to produce three times the quantity of food, more than its inhabitants are able to consume, as well as liquors extracted from grain, or pressed out of the fruit of certain trees, which made excellent drink; and the same proportion in every other convenience of life. But, in order to feed the luxury the intemperence of the males, and the vanity of the 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. (2154)
Swift is so extremely bitter and seems to have such hatred and contempt for mankind, I am forced to question if he is entirely serious in Gulliver's Travels. Could Swift really be so disgusted with society that he would devote so much time to attack it, or is his target man's pride? Is Swift willing to forgive man's inherently lousy nature? Is his main source of anger rather the pride man has, and man's ignorance of his natural baseness? (Devin McIntyre)
13. Well, this weeks reading is devourou0-sp[ — 55(the house cat's contribution-paw-tapping). My question for Swift is, what is your obsession about eating people? I find it slightly disconcerting, satire, or not.
On a more academic note, is Swift criticizing the learned/refined society, or the foreign/primitive society? In Gulliver's Travels, swift presents to us a character, Gulliver, who encounters the strange customs of the little people. Being learned people ourselves (We are reading at an academic institution), like Gulliver, we are indirectly encouraged to judge these people as being foreigners (obviously). But are we asked to judge them as being primitives? Perhaps the bow and arrows would lead our assumptions in that directions. However, It seems that Swift is craftily rearranging the importance of Gulliver as a civilized man to present us with a humourously large (It's all relative), tempted to "seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground" Man-Mountain. As the story progresses, we are skeptical, in short, of Gulliver's superiority. His cultural refinements, such as being able to speak several languages, are useless to him. In fact, his refinements have bound him to the little people's desires. He feels that he is "bound by the laws of hospitality" — a notion that can only be derived from a "cultured" upbringing, and takes on ridiculous meaning in light of his circumstance. As the little people gain the upper hand over G. we begin to adopt their perspective. In other words, we are sometimes set up to gawk at G., to crowd with the little spectators at garret windows. Thus, G. is becoming foreign to us. And in the process, he seems to become as peculiar as the little people. Which party,the little people or the Mountain-Man, seems more bizarre to us by the end of part 1 in Gulliver's Travels? And how does this role-blurring relate to the piece as a satire?
Still wondering about the people-eating...esp. in a modest proposal... (Kristen Dodge)
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000/div>