Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-Utopia? Gulliver's Travels and the Utopian Mode of Discourse
Houston, Chloe, Utopian Studies
Should his tall tales of marvellous voyages, newly discovered peoples, and fantastic societies be insufficient to call Thomas More's Utopia (1516), and utopian writings in general, to his reader's mind, "Lemuel Gulliver" refers to Utopia directly in a letter to his cousin printed with the second edition (1735) of his Travels into Several Remote Nations of the Worm (familiarly know as Gulliver's Travels):
If the Censure of the Yahoos could any Way affect me, I should have great Reason to complain, that some of them are so bold as to think my Book of Travels ameer Fiction out of mine own Brain, and have gone so far as to drop Hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more Existence than the Inhabitants of Utopia. (Swift 30)
The joke here is obviously on the naive reader, and underlines that the primary feature shared by the Houyhnhnms, Yahoos, and Utopians is their fictionality. If it is to be inferred from this feature that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos are similar to More's Utopians in any other way, then the comparison does little to help the reader (naive or otherwise) learn more about Swift's imagined peoples. More's Utopians, like the text which described them, are "shrouded in ambiguity," which nearly five hundred years of interpretation have yet to dispel (Manuel and Manuel 5). The reason for this is of course that ambiguity is integral to More's text, as recent criticism has recognised. (1) So, Swift's likening of his own invented people to those of Thomas More is more than a tongue-in-cheek aside; it serves to remind us that ambiguity and irony have always been a feature of the utopian mode of discourse.
The use of journeys, strange new societies and peoples, and a potentially mendacious narrator have made Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels an obvious subject for those interested in the development of the utopian mode of discourse in the eighteenth century. (2) Several modern interpretations of the text recognise its utopian nature or even understand it as consisting of a series Utopian Studies 18.3 (2007): 425-442 [C] Society for Utopian Studies 2007 of utopias. (3) Others have looked in detail at the relationship between Gulliver's Travels and Utopia, as the most obvious benchmark of utopianism during this period, to show that More's text is to some extent a model for Swift's. Such endeavours are predicated on an understanding that utopia, its features and its history, provides an important context for understanding Gulliver's fantastical journeys and his reporting of them. Brian Vickers, who has given a detailed reading of the relationship between the two texts by focusing on their satiric function, argues that, despite important differences--and in particular the divergent use of satire which involves Swift's satiric method of comparison becoming "almost an inversion of More's"--these two portrayals of other worlds share significant common ground (241). In Vickers' reading, Utopia, in its political and ethical attack on contemporary society through the juxtaposition of an imaginary equivalent, emerges as a source and model for Gulliver's Travels. (4) Even if Utopia's status as model is established, this relationship does not, of course, mean that Swift's novel is itself a utopia, or even utopian. Given the frequent critical arguments to which this text has been subjected, it is hardly surprising that there is no consensus on this issue. Those who reject its utopian nature may emphasise the wide range of genres with which Gulliver's Travels engages, or see it as "anti-utopian in outlook" (Donnelly 115). (5) Others, however, recognise a kind of fellowship between Swift's book and Utopia which rests on their shared utopianism, or mutual discovery of "the moral and spiritual reality of utopia in our everyday lives" (Traugott 145). (6) It soon becomes evident from the secondary literature on the utopianism of Gulliver's Travels that a uniform idea of what it means for a text to be "utopian" is lacking. Broadly speaking there is a distinction between those critics who take utopian to mean idealistic or perfectionist about human society and perfectibility, and those for whom the deciding factor is the nature of its engagement with the utopian tradition or with a particular utopian text, usually (indeed, almost exclusively) More's Utopia. (7)
This discussion highlights a wider issue in the study of utopianism and utopian literature in the early modern period: how should utopia be understood in generic terms? Whilst much work has been done on defining utopia, the question here is not a generic one of definition but a broader one of identification: how do we identify and describe the ways in which a text is part of or interacts with the utopian mode of discourse? In other words, what makes a text utopian? This article will examine this question with reference to Gulliver's Travels, arguing that the text is neither a utopia, nor a dystopia, nor even an anti-utopia (as it has variously been read); rather, it contains images of and interactions with ideas of utopia and dystopia which reflect its engagement with the utopian mode and qualify it as simultaneously utopian and dystopian. Gulliver's Travels thus provides a noteworthy case study for those interested in the development of the utopian mode during this period because it is an example of utopian writing which engages with the utopian mode whilst not being utopian in the sense of idealistic or optimistic; it is a utopian text which is also anti-utopian, or dystopian. This self-reflexive utopianism is a feature of the text's satirical nature; the utopian mode is satirised through use of the utopian form and by attacks upon features common to utopian fiction. (8)
Its employment of satire is the first significant way in which Gulliver's Travels engages with the utopian mode; the second is its rejection of the ideal earthly society, a rejection which, far from proclaiming the "anti-utopian" stance of Gulliver's Travels, signals the depth of its response to Utopia itself. Gulliver's Travels' utopianism can ultimately be identified in its denial of the possibility of an ideal state on earth; with this denial, it reaches the same conclusion as Utopia. (9) This article seeks to evaluate …
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Publication information: Article title: Utopia, Dystopia or Anti-Utopia? Gulliver's Travels and the Utopian Mode of Discourse. Contributors: Houston, Chloe - Author. Journal title: Utopian Studies. Volume: 18. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 2007. Page number: 425+. © 1998 Society for Utopian Studies. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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