Thursday, September 23, 2010

Essay on Is Lemuel Gulliver Mad?

Essay: Is Lemuel Gulliver Mad?

In a very broad sense, Gulliver’s Travels bears a close resemblance to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Lemuel Gulliver is the man who somehow managed to free himself from the shackles. He steps out of the cave and, having seen the sun, he cannot pretend that looking at shadows on the wall is the only possible way of life. What happens at the end of Gulliver’s Travels is just what Plato says will happen to the man who returns into the cave to free the others. He is treated as insane because the others are not able to understand what he now knows, or thinks he knows.

At the end of Gulliver’s Travels the main character, once a typical representative of his culture, has gone through a transformation which leads him to reject that culture in a way that his contemporaries fail to understand. They consider his unaccountable behaviour highly suggestive of mental derangement. From the point of view of his contemporaries, Gulliver really shows some clear signs of melancholia, in the 18th century sense of the term.

In the case of melancholia “external objects do not produce the same impression on the sufferer’s mind as on that of a healthy man” (Foucault, p.92). The melancholic’s impressions are “weak and he rarely pays attention to them; his mind is almost totally absorbed with the vivacity of certain ideas” (Foucault, p.92). Gulliver is so obsessed with the narrow concepts of the Houyhnhnms that he is blind to any facts from the reality which contradict them. His treatment of the Portuguese captain Don Pedro and of his own family is clear indication for his proclivity to ignore even the evidence of his own eyes in cases when it runs counter to the Houyhnhnms’ ideas. As a melancholic Gulliver loves solitude and shuns company when it is possible. His nostalgia for Houyhnhnmland is an occasion for constantly renewed sadness.


The Houyhnhnms are not ordinary horses. They are talking thinkers. At least Gulliver imagines that they talk to him. It is not very clear how the two English stallions he buys learn the language of the Houyhnhnms and how they manage to understand him “tolerably well” (Gulliver’s Travels, p.339). Perhaps he just hears voices in his head. This is often considered to be a sign of psychosis but, actually, there is nothing unusual about this phenomenon. We usually call it our conscience. The belief that others can hear the voices in one’s head is psychosis, as is the belief that they belong to another person or animal. This might as well be a hallucination on Gulliver’s part.

The unity of body and soul is not necessarily dissolved in madness. However, in Gulliver’s case it is. He abhors his Yahoo body and regards it as a limit imposed upon his soul. He is not able to accept this limitation and to give up his illusions because he cannot find a substitute for them. As a human being, Gulliver is not a Houyhnhnm or Yahoo but a complex and inseparable mixture of passions and reason. He claims that he has control over his passions and, in fact, he usually does. But not always. The desire to become a horse and the hatred towards the Yahoos are the only passions that he cannot cope with. “The distraction of our mind is the result of our blind surrender to our desires, our incapacity to control or moderate our passions” (Foucault, p.85). In this sense, madness is nothing but absence of reason. It is sometimes defined as lack of cognitive ability. Since Gulliver is convinced that he is not a rational creature and does not possess the faculty of reason, he should as well believe that he is mad. The Houyhnhnms have no idea of mental diseases but Gulliver has – he discovers “the true seeds of spleen” (Gulliver’s Travels, p.311) among the Yahoos. Madness is an inevitable consequence of the process of civilization. It is unfamiliar to the Houyhnhnms. Yet the very enumeration of some of the inventions of human civilization is enough to give the noble horse “a disturbance in his mind, to which he was wholly a stranger before” (Gulliver’s Travels, p.294).

Throughout his visit to Houyhnhnmland Gulliver does his best to become one of the Houyhnhnms by learning their language, listening to their conversations and by implicit obedience to their orders. The result of his eagerness is that even the horses acknowledge his superiority over the rest of the Yahoos. It turns out that a mental shift from Yahoo to Houyhnhnm is not impossible. But he finds it impossible to change the shape of his body, much as he should like to. Gulliver’s desire to become a horse is the visible manifestation of his madness. Its cause is his abhorrence of the Yahoos. Since Gulliver believes that there is no other alternative for him except a Houyhnhnm or a Yahoo, he makes his choice in the Houyhnhnm’s favour. In the pursuit of the horse-shape he goes to extremes such as neighing and trotting like a horse. This is a perfect opportunity for some critics to make him out a lycanthrope.

A lycanthrope is a human being believed capable of transforming himself or herself – or of being transformed – into an animal. A sub-category of lycanthropy is the so called “hippocantropic melancholia, the delusion of being a horse” (Fox, Ch., Literature and Medicine During the 18th Century, p.111). According to Christopher Fox Gulliver is a lycanthrope simply because he imitates the “gait and gesture” of the horses. Gulliver really wants and even attempts to metamorphose himself into a horse, but imitation of the animal is not necessarily an indication of lycanthropy. Moreover, he is well aware of the fact that he is not and cannot be a horse. He might be mad, but he is not a lycanthrope.

Another widespread delusion is the one that Lemuel Gulliver has been mad all the time, from the very beginning of his travels, and that the travels themselves are the product of his madness. Michael Seidel, for example, argues that Gulliver’s Travels are “the fancy of homebound lunacy” (Seidel, M., The Cambridge Companion to 18th Century Novel, p.80). He suggests that Gulliver “never leaves England” (ibid, p.80). He is not the only one who formulates this hypothesis. Christopher Fox’s opinion is quite similar: Gulliver’s deranged mind has made him imagine all that he experienced. He “mistakes his dreams for true histories and real transactions”, and “seems to be confused over whether he is remembering or imagining” (Fox, Ch., Literature and Medicine During the 18th Century, p.112). These two authors are tempted to account for Gulliver’s madness by means of his hallucinations and, vice versa, to present his hallucinations (i.e. the Travels) as a consequence of his madness. There is no enough evidence for this hypothesis in Gulliver’s Travels. It is a matter of fact that Gulliver is mad, or more precisely, a melancholic, but he goes mad after his voyage to the Houyhnhnms. He is a rather sane person before that. At the very beginning of Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift intentionally devotes a few pages to convince the audience that Gulliver is a typical representative of the European civilization. He is naпve and his knowledge is limited but he is far from being an eccentric, extraordinary or imaginative person. It is impossible to ascribe the transformation that takes place in his mind to any peculiarities of his character.

Lemuel Gulliver’s obsession with the virtues of the noble horses is not an acute case of melancholia. In fact, his madness is a quite relative notion and in no way unquestionable. Merely having beliefs in strange things, or even firmly believing that you have experienced incidents that science says cannot be true is not, by itself, a mental derangement. There are many people in the world who believe in impossible things, such as Christians and many other religious groups. If that was all that is required to declare someone insane, then we should have to say that the majority of the world’s population, for the most of the years of the existence of the human species, has been insane.

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