He replied that I needs must be mistaken, or that I "said the thing that was not." (For they have no words in their language to express lying or falsehood.) He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon the water. (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Book 4 Ch. 3, 1735)
With regards to the works in question — that passage drawn from the third chapter of the fourth book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1735), as well as that most excellent work of the respectable and prominent Jane Austen — one may observe several fundamental similarities. The ironically depicted prejudice of the Houyhnhnm, which prevents him from receiving with greater credulity those fantastic tales of Mr. Lemuel Gulliver, represents an oft treated and far-reaching theme of both authors. Additionally, such an exposition of misleading pride as that to be found in both the quoted passage and the novel serves to discover a complaint regarding individuals and nations alike as they exist within the vast framework of European culture. Indeed, that the criticism of these egocentric tendencies is both well delivered and well deserved is hardly to be denied by any sensible persons. But because the reader may perhaps be curious to have some idea of the style and manner of expression peculiar to these authors, as well as to know their common motives more thoroughly and, moreover, the general application of their arguments to society, I shall therefore humbly propose my thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
First, as I have already observed, Swift imbues the passage quoted from Gulliver's Travels with a notable dramatic irony. Additionally, I find that this irony is very much directed at the European readers, so disposed to believe themselves the sole masters of the earth, and who furthermore consider the inhabitants of such distant lands as Africa or America in much the same manner that the Houyhnhnms consider all those members of Gulliver's race. This assertion may perhaps appear very bold, but an honest and careful examination of the text will reveal the Houyhnhnms disbelief to be a parody of those over-sure notions which have long prevailed in English culture. In fact, such subtle expressions as žknew" and žbrutes" in the final sentence of the passage serve only to lay emphasis on that which the Europeans truly did not know, as well as the absurdity and arrogance of their attitude towards the "savages' their explorers describe. I can think of no other target of this satire more likely to have been in the mind of the author than that loathsome arrogance of opinion, fixed in the cultures and the minds of men, which accounts for so much poor judgement and self-centered philosophy as is here even displayed by the enlightened race of Houyhnhnms.
Secondly, an equal skill at dramatic irony and a purpose much akin to Swift's of exposing the foolishness of false pride, a most detestable vice among men, figures prominently throughout Pride and Prejudice. Though I am not so violently bent on my opinion as to reject any offer proposed by wise men, I believe Mrs. Bennet to be the most deserving and most frequent object of Austen's ironic portrayals, being constantly the puppet of some self-serving view of reality. Her reception of the intelligence of Mr. Collins's proposal to Miss Lucas, for instance, most effectively exposes her ridiculous character. In order that the reader may conceive an idea of the ingenuity of the author, as well as the exact economy and wit of such depictions as Austen creates, I have excised several lines of particular wit pertaining to this incident and set them down, word for word, as follows:
In the first place, she persisted in disbelieving the whole of the matter; secondly, she was very sure that Mr. Collins had been taken in; thirdly, she trusted they would never be happy together; and fourthly, that the match might be broken off. Two inferences, however, were plainly deduced from the whole: one, that Elizabeth was the real cause of all the mischief; and the other, that she herself had been barbarously used by them all; and on these two points she principally dwelt during the rest of the day. (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I. Ch.23 p.85)
As a careful reader may observe, the root of Mrs. Bennet's skewed perception of the world can only lie in the fallacious assumption the she herself is at its very center. She immediately insists on denying any fact that gives disturbance to the notion that the universe was perhaps not designed in accordance with her opinions, especially in the case where such dire intelligence suggests that reality is in direct conflict with her wishes - such an attack to her pride being outrageous and utterly inconceivable. Following this initial denial she adds to it all possible situations, no matter how absurd, that might best mend her tattered ego. For instance, she concludes that the marriage in question, having made her unhappy, must have the same effect on the participating couple. Lastly, she finds an adequate means of comprehending the information in the decision that she žhad been barbarously used by them all"ůa belief by which she is enabled to maintain herself as the central figure in her world.
I can think of no one objection that will probably be raised against this argument, unless it be that Swift's wise Houyhnhnms are not, in general, ridiculous creatures. This I freely own, and I shall dwell a moment upon the distinction between these idealized equines and the culture at which the jibe is directed. Whereas the Houyhnhnms are less ridiculous in their disbelief than Mrs. Bennet in hers, the Europeans whom they parody are surely not, and both instances may be seen to attend to the same general prejudices and tendencies of European culture. Both as well are presented with a strong dramatic irony, the objects of which remain unaware of the humor of their conclusions, much as the fine-sighted Lilliputians in Gulliver's first voyage overlook the comedy of their competitive antics and inconsequential power.
Thus, gentle reader, I have given thee a faithful effort at delivering a common theme and method of those authors mentioned, as each confronts that wicked pride which clouds reason and honest judgement, and resides in the minds of the multitude of men. That Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen alike have characterized this flaw as that which makes a mockery of those who would be most solemn, and as indicting, in each case, those enlightened Yahoo cultures from which Gulliver sets out, is a claim that I can only hope needs no further justification. I here conclude my endeavors, and leave the judicious reader to his own remarks and applications..
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000