Academic | Essay Contest
Portrayal of Women in Gulliver's Travels
When Gulliver writes that "the Rudiments of Lewdness, Coquetry, Censure and Scandal, should have Place by Instinct in Womankind" this would seem to position Swift as a misogynist. I argue the contrary, that the statement is "swiftian", that is, ironic. It represents "the Thing that was not".
The author's true feelings about women are, I believe, found in the utopian Country of the Houyhnhnms. Clearly, this land and its customs are deemed the most favorable by Swift. It is a society we should emulate and strive to be. And much of it relates to its treatment of women and the sexes.
Females are obviously valued. Women stop bearing children when they have produced a child of each sex. Parents of two boys make an exchange with parents of two girls so that each couple has a boy and girl. The sexes are equal and treated so. Both are educated (as on Lilliput, as well). Gulliver is convinced by the Master that educating males and females differently, as in Gulliver's world, is "monstrous" and an "Instance of Brutality" resulting in half the population being "good for nothing but bringing children into the world" and then being useless to effectively rear them. Lessons in morality are the same for boys and girls as the Master explains, "Temperance, Industry, Exercise and Cleanliness, are the Lessons equally enjoyned to the young ones of both sexes". Comeliness is cherished in girls but not so much for vanity as 'to preserve the race from degenerating."
"Friendship and Benevolence" are the premiere virtues to Houyhnhnms and throughout Gulliver's Travels we find examples of this in the female characters. It is most evident in Brobdingnag. When Gulliver is presented to the farmer's wife, she is at first frightened as at a "toad or a spider" and screams, as would be natural, but she is " soon reconciled, and by Degrees grew extreamly tender". Even kinder is the young daughter, Glumdalclitch, who becomes Gulliver's caregiver, protector, teacher and constant companion. We compare these to the husband/father, who exploits Gulliver for money. The Queen, likewise, is warmly receptive to Gulliver and even graciously welcomes Glumdalclitch, too, as his nurse. Again, it is the man, the Queen's dwarf, who is jealous of Gulliver, tortures and tries to destroy him. On Lilliput, the women, along with the men, feed Gulliver, give him drink and salve for his wounds. And at the Lilliputian court, "Her Royal Majesty was pleased to smile very graciously upon me and gave me out of the Window Her Hand to kiss." The Royal Treasurer, on the other hand, falsely accuses his good wife of infidelity with Gulliver (absurd, in any case, considering the difference in size) and ruins her reputation. The females are naturally curious and inviting; the males are competitive and greedy.
"Decency & Civility", "Order & Economy" also rate highly with the Houyhnhnms and women display these traits, as well. Gulliver describes the "misery doubled by the load of a wife" but it is his wife who is so burdened. Mary Burton, whose name appears only once in the book, and for whom Gulliver received 400 pounds to marry, is left time after time to fend for herself and family while Gulliver travels - for his excitement, as much as for the pay, he admits. His statement, "I could never forget those domestick Pledges I had left behind me" is laughable. Between his 3rd and 4th voyage he is home only 5 months before again leaving his wife "big with child". At the Grand Academy of Lagado, the idiotic professors want to abolish words altogether and communicate only by things. It is the women who wisely "threatened to raise a Rebellion, unless they might be allowed the Liberty to speak with their tongues".
If "the Caprices of Womankind are not limited by any Climate or Nation; and that they are much more uniform than can be easily imagined", it is men who have made them so. In Laputa, women can only travel with a License from the King. The women are exceedingly flirtatious but then their husbands are completely indifferent and absurdly devoted to their musical and mathematical abstracts. We are, likewise, sympathetic to the coquettish behavior of the caged female Yahoos. On Balnibari, women are taxed on their beauty and fashion. And we learn from Gulliver that in England, a man becomes a Chief Minister when he can "dispose of a Wife, a Daughter or a Sister". Not surprising when we have already heard from him that a "wife should always be a reasonable and agreeable companion, because she cannot always be young". Furthermore, wives of diseased, worthless Noblemen are forced to "take Care to provide a healthy Father among her Neighbors or Domesticks, in order to improve and continue the Breed".
In the end, Gulliver, enlightened, dreams of "civilizing Europe" and instilling the "Principles of Honour, Justice, Truth, Temperance, publick Spirit, Fortitude, Chastity, Friendship, Benevolence and Fidelity". This would certainly benefit women, who would be freed and empowered to maximize their full potential. Gulliver could find himself eager to "permit my wife to sit at Dinner with me" and could say with true satisfaction, "My Country was governed by a Female Man".