Academic | Essay Contest
In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, one may encounter some disturbing and vulgar depictions of women: in Lilliput, a kingdom inhabited by "human creatures not six inches high," there is the fastidious empress who treats Gulliver in a callous and unwelcoming manner; in Brobdingnag, the land of giants, Gulliver disgustedly observes the decrepit and discolored skin of a cancerous beggar woman; and then in Houyhnhnmland, an island of rational horses, he experiences equal horror when a desperate female Yahoo attacks him. On the basis of these appalling portrayals of females, many have impetuously accused the author of misogyny. However, upon a thorough examination of his work, readers may realize Swift to be a misanthrope rather than a misogynist. Not only does he make no distinction between genders in his criticism, but he also casts females in a positive light. Despite the occasionally derogatory portrayals of women in Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift is not a misogynist, as some might suggest, because he remains impartial between males and females, shows Gulliver's acceptance of women, and highlights laudable female characteristics.
Throughout his novel, Swift often makes offensive remarks, yet he does not intend to single women out for criticism. Instead, in his lampoon of humans, he attacks male and female alike. In Lilliput, for example, Gulliver characterizes the whole race collectively as provincial and petty, making no distinction between genders. This objectivity can also be found later, in Houyhnhnmland, when he describes all Yahoos, including both male and female, as an abominable and disagreeable race. Equally important, Swift criticizes qualities that are apparent in both male and female figures. During his stay in Lilliput, Gulliver shows women to be careless when he censures the Empress's maid for causing the palace fire. Nevertheless, the hasty and greedy farmer in Brobdingnag, who overworks and nearly kills Gulliver, exemplifies an equal inattentiveness. Moreover, Swift portrays women to be impulsive, yet no more so than men. For instance, the impetuous Lilliputian empress, without having listened to Gulliver's explanation, scolds him for urinating on the palace; however, the council of Lilliputian men show the same rash and callous behavior when they peremptorily decide to blind Gulliver for his refusal to enslave the Blefuscudians, the hated enemies of Lilliput. Not only does Swift show the negative qualities shared between the two genders, but he also, highlights the positive potential that both women and men possess. When Gulliver states that his "master thought it monstrous to give the Females a different kind of Education from the Males," the author skillfully illustrates his view that, regardless of a "smaller compass of learning [than men]," women have the same capacity to learn and rule as men do (227). Additionally, Gulliver deems both males and females as "[deserving] of our Imitation" when praising their ability to educate their youth and "to [look] upon [the process] as one of the necessary Actions of a Rational Being" (227). Because he makes no apparent targets of satire, Swift remains clear of the charge of misogyny.
More significant than the impartiality between genders is Gulliver's outlook on women, which in some ways, is one of admiration. Rather than hatred, Gulliver subtly shows an underlying respect and understanding of women. On occasion, he makes tender gestures towards the Queen of Lilliput and attempts to kiss her hand. Similarly, Gulliver continues to regard women highly when he shows a sense of reverence for the Queen of Brobdingnag who treats him with fondness and hospitality. He even identifies with females, as when he notes similarities between himself and them. In particular, after expressing his disgust at the flawed complexions of the Brobdingnagian women, Gulliver describes his own skin as full of "great holes" and "several colours altogether disagreeable" (77). Even when he complains about the unbearable human smells, Gulliver compares his reaction to that of the farmer's wife in Brobdingnag who screams at him in repulsion. Obviously, someone who feels such sparks of admiration and empathy toward women would only naturally feel the responsibility of protecting them. For instance, in Lilliput, when Treasurer Filmnap's wife is accused of frequenting Gulliver's room, he confirms her innocence and protects her reputation from being tarnished. Because Gulliver respects, understands, and cares for women, Jonathan Swift remains blameless of misogyny.
Above all, Swift portrays women throughout the novel as having special qualities. Because of their instinctive kindness and sentimentality, the females form strong, emotional connections with Gulliver. For example, Glumdalclitch, the farmer's daughter who acts as Gulliver's nurse, shows a maternal and hospitable nature by protecting Gulliver during his stay at Brobdingnag. In the same manner, the queen is so fond of him that she kindly invites him to her palace. Swift also positively portrays women for their rationality and prudence. In particular, the female Houyhnhnms, incessantly instructed to become rational and meticulous creatures, are characterized as "exactly careful [in their marriages]" to choose stalwart spouses in an effort to create strong offspring and strengthen the species (226). The women of this satiric novel are able to shine, thanks to Swift's emphasis on the female qualities of sentimentality and judiciousness.
Although Jonathan Swift's female characters are flawed, the males equally possess their own imperfections. Clearly, what some take as Swift's misogyny is, in actuality, misanthropy, or perhaps even a slight degree of respect for females. Through Gulliver's Travels, the author occasionally highlights women's laudable characteristics; however, being the master of satire he is, Swift cannot help but stress the apparent flaws and foibles of humanity.