Both Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels are traveller’s accounts in which the encounters the respective protagonist has with the Other perform key narrative and thematic functions. Defoe uses his hero’s meetings with the natives to underscore the superiority of the European civilization and the values of the middleclass while Swift’s Gulliver’s encounters with the none-Europeans – who in fact are caricatures of individuals and groups in Swift’s contemporary British society – draw attention to some of the diseased aspects of the socioeconomic institutions of Britain.
The concept of the Other pertinent to the 18th century British society was shaped and sustained by its socio-political affiliations. On the one hand, there were a few liberals, like Swift, who in general did not consider themselves to be inherently superior to the Other by virtue of their European-ness; on the other hand, there were the imperialists and the capitalists who considered the Other as sub-human, thereby, an exploitable commodity in their respective enterprises. As products of the 18th century British society that fathered them, Gulliver’s Travels by Swift and Robinson Crusoe by Defoe mirror and champion these two lines of thoughts.
Initially the protagonists of the two works share many parallels as middleclass Englishmen. But as the narrative progresses Crusoe’s encounters with the Other reinforce his capitalist-middleclass socio-economic values; Gulliver, however, rejects not only the values imposed on him by his British upbringing but also his very humanity. He embraces the identity of the Other and attempts to go native as a consequence of his meetings with the Other.
Edward Said in his book Orientalism states that colonial writing habitually show ‘natives’ as “irrational, depraved, childlike, ‘different’; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal’” (880). Defoe, the middleclass Puritan, constructs his Other as inferior to his hero, thereby, making it ethically acceptable for Crusoe to name, convert, and exploit the ‘native’. Hence Robinson Crusoe is a classic example of the style of writing Said is referring to and Defoe is clearly performing the culture work of the British colonial enterprise through his novel.
Crusoe encounters the Other twice on his voyages. On the first occasion, he is captured by Moorish pirates and kept as a slave for two years. The ever-versatile Crusoe escapes with the help of a boy called Xury whom he sells into slavery after only a token show of reluctance. For Crusoe selling Xury into slavery is justifiable as it paves the way for the heathen boy to gain the Kingdom of Heaven and learn the European ways. The fact that he profits from the deal is portrayed as of secondary importance.
Years later Crusoe becomes shipwrecked again, this time on a voyage to obtain slaves from Africa. As the sole survivor of the wreck, Crusoe reaches an uninhabited island and lives there on his own for nearly three decades. This traumatic experience compels Crusoe to makes every effort to maintain his middleclass Englishness in his habits and attire even in isolation. Moreover, he learns to be enterprising and self-sufficient, too. The only grievance he has against his Eden-without-Eve on the island is the lack of human companionship. Crusoe’s second encounter with the Other is with two tribes of cannibalistic Caribs. One might find it ironic that Crusoe should shudder at the very thought of cannibalism while supporting slavery which is equally or more reprehensive. It is a point of interest that Gananath Obeysekere in his landmark work Cannibal Talk states that cannibalism “is a colonial projection justifying colonialism … and sometimes the very extermination of native peoples” (1).
His subsequent close encounter with the Caribs plants the idea of acquiring some servants in Crusoe’s mind. Later he rescues a native who incidentally “had all the sweetness and softness of an European in his countenance” from his cannibalistic brethren (Defoe 173). The success of Crusoe’s micro-colonization depended on how far the native was willing to be assimilated into the enlightened European culture. The native at once accepts Crusoe as his master and makes signs of “subjugation, servitude, and submission” (Defoe173); Crusoe confirms his status by telling the native to call him Master. As the second step the Carib is given a name – Friday – and claimed as the sovereign property of his Great White Father. Friday being the model colonized man does not show any resistance to this act of aggressive colonization. During their discussions, Crusoe learns that Friday worshipped a god called “Benamuckee, who liv’d beyond all” to “all things do say O” (182); once again this fact is brushed aside and Friday is made a Christian. Friday proves to be quite intelligent. At times the master is unable to provide answers to Friday’s queries such as why God does not destroy the devil. Despite this Friday never becomes anything other than a servant to his master. Moreover, Crusoe makes no effort to access the knowledge Friday possessed as a native. The reason for Crusoe’s conduct towards Friday lies in the fact that this encounter is meant to showcase the extent of the reformation of Defoe’s hero and his role as the torchbearer of the British culture and Protestant values to the benighted native. This aim necessarily precludes any exchange of knowledge. Hence, Friday is made to collaborate with Defoe’s by making him states that he wanted his people to receive Christianity. Thus, the relationship between Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday stands as a classic example of cultural imperialism practiced by the European colonial enterprises.
It is noteworthy that Crusoe’s two encounters with the Other do not include the female of the species. As a narrative device, it is not realistic to make Crusoe come across females in the first encounter as the natives being Moors would have kept their women out of sight. On the second occasion, thematically as well as plot-wise, the presence of a native Eve in Crusoe’s garden would have presented an impossible situation. On the one hand, had Crusoe ignored the woman or decided to have a platonic relationship with her that would have cast aspirations on Crusoe’s masculinity; on the other hand, a sexual relationship with a native woman would clearly be an acknowledgement of her humanity. Such an acknowledgement of the possibility of anatomical compatibility between an Englishman and a native woman would not only have challenged everything Crusoe stood for but also defeated a key aim of the text - justification of the colonial enterprise which is based on the idea of the superiority of the European in every possible way in comparison to the beast-like native.
The voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, in comparison, are indisputably unconscious quests for a utopia. Like Crusoe, Gulliver, too, embarks on his voyages secure in his Englishness. However, he, unlike Crusoe, encounters highly institutionalized societies which have much in common with those in Europe. According to Ricardo Quintana Gulliver is depicted as “stationed on the isthmus of his middle state but permitted to catch a glimpse …of the created forms that filled the universe” (161). Gulliver’s studies of the Other reveal an incongruity between appearance and reality leading to a comedy of discontinuity. The nations he visits on the three initial voyages appear on the onset as potential utopias, but upon a closer inspection they eventually reveal something wanting in their socio-political institutions, viz. lack of integrity and justice in Lilliput. Gulliver finds his ideal state in the land of the Houyhnhnms. And in the end, it is Gulliver, not the Other, who becomes ‘colonized’. Hence, Gulliver’s Travels uses the meetings with the Other to reveal the fallacy of the concept of English/European supremacy.
Gulliver’s first encounter with the Other is with the Lilliputians. It offers a telescopic view of the British society. The Kingdom of Lilliput used to have a tradition of egalitarian institutions which have become crooked by the time of Gulliver’s arrival. The existing institutions demand their officials to partake in stick jumping and rope dancing in order to maintain/promote their positions. Gulliver’s studies of Lilliput reveal the danger of excessive pride and partisan politics. Most of their flaws, Gulliver says, must have been invisible to him due to their minuteness. Quintana states that Gulliver’s “acquaintance with the Lilliputians revealed themselves to be… thoroughly contemptible;” thus, his self-esteem remains intact (160).
The ensuing meeting with Brobdingnagians is an unsettling microscopic examination of the mankind. In Brobdingnag, everything is enlarged twelve times, thereby made nobler or fouler. Gulliver notes that both sexes have equal access to a system of education that is practical. The Brobdingnagians also prefer their language and the legal system to be simple in order to prevent any misconception. Thematically speaking, one might say that the writer approves of similar practices associated with English socio-political institutions.
However, these all-too-human giants have had civil wars and they too exploit the weak. The roads of Brobdingnag are littered with the poor and the diseased implying improper division of wealth. Throughout his stay in Brobdingnag Gulliver is treated as a pet, an oddity, or a morsel of food – in a nutshell, he is the quintessential Other. At times he becomes invisible to the women who strip naked, urinate, and defecate in front of him with little regard for his feelings. According to Quintana, “The sense of security which [Gulliver] has in the presence of this admirable race is mixed with a feeling of nausea caused by the sights and smells which he must endure” (164). Gulliver’s revulsion is expressly pointed at women with their body odours, moles, and cancerous udders.
With nobleness and sordidness existing side by side in his own kingdom, it is fitting that the King of Brobdingnag should be the first to detect the chinks in Gulliver’s vaunted Englishness. However, it would take three more voyages for Gulliver himself to realize that. Hence, when the King, after listening to a description of the European socio-political institutions and the use of gunpowder, concludes that the bulk of the English race consisted of “little odious vermin,” Gulliver decides that his noble host is suffering from “narrowness” of thought due to lack of exposure (Swift 2403).
However, Swift takes the choice of staying on in or leaving the land of giants off his hero’s hands by making a giant bird pick Gulliver up and dropping him in the ocean to be rescued by a passing ship. The reason for this unsolicited rescue could be that the purpose of placing Gulliver in Brobdingnag has by then been served; he has experienced what it is to be the powerless and he has seen both the nobleness and the grossness of the powerful from the point of view of the powerless. All the subsequent meetings Gulliver has with the Other continue to teach him valuable lessons which broadened his horizons.
On his third voyage Gulliver encounters the Laputans who represent abstract knowledge and tyranny. These scientists of the flying island endeavour to extract sunbeams from cucumber; however, they are unable to build proper houses or maintain an unaided conversation. Meanwhile, the neglected wives of the absentminded Laputians are routinely unfaithful to them with other men. The tyrannical tendencies of the Laputan king emerge in the tribute system imposed on the terrestrial Balnibarbi and the methods he has used to crush the rebellion in the capital: withholding sunlight and rain, and thereafter dropping stones on its citizens. The land of Laputans with their maningless scientific experiments and tyrannical ways might be a satirized representation of the British Royal Academy. The Luggnagg encounter, too, stresses the sordidness of tyranny. The megalomaniac king of Luggnagg makes his visitors lick the ground in front of him which is often sprinkled with poison.
His meeting with the dead in Glubbdubdrib teaches Gulliver that history is often a construct. He also learns that reality is kept from the public by historians who are on the payrolls of corrupt rulers. This encounter also proves that society is in “perpetual danger of corruption” (Quintana 153). The meeting with the Struldbrugs, immortals who lose everything and everyone as a result of their ‘gift’, is a critique on man’s insatiable nature and their ultimate aim to live forever.
At each meeting with the ‘other,’ Gulliver identifies their weaknesses and returns to England which he still believes to be superior. Hence, thematically, the first three voyages can be considered as preparatory work for the voyage to Houyhnhnm. All the ‘others’ Gulliver has met so far have been human. Houyhnhnms, in contrast, are a race of horses. The land of Houyhnhnms - a demilitarized Sparta – is governed by rationality and moderation; the citizens of this land refrain from over indulgence and are not overly moved by either death or love. Their language is simple and they do not have laws. The fact that the Houyhnhnms do not have names points to a highly evolved sense of communal identity. This communal identity is in direct contrast to the emerging idea of individualism as a result of humanism, Protestantism and capitalism in Europe.
The Yahoos of Houyhnhnm are assumed to be the descendants of a shipwrecked couple. In a similar situation, sustained by his faith and values, Defoe’s Crusoe remained superhumanly faithful to his identity as a WASP[y1] for nearly three decades and showed every sign of being able to continue indefinitely in that vein. In contrast, Yahoos allow their innate brutishness to emerge within a generation, thereby, pointing to the shallowness of the notion ‘civilization’ according to Swift. Gulliver implies that at first he has been uncertain of the identity of the Yahoos as humans. This is undeniably an instinctive denial of a truth too horrible to be acknowledged – the possibility of his own humanness descending into that beast-like state with the passage of time as a result of being cut off from the civilizing influence of European socioeconomic institutions. Nevertheless, Houyhnhnms find the rational Europeans to be more offensive than the beast-like Yahoos. W. D. Taylor states that the last voyage portrays the “natural man as below the beast, and civilized man as fiend” (228). Thus, Swift seems to disagree with not only Jean Jacques Rousseau but also Plato on the issue of nobility of man.
Theme-wise, Houyhnhnms can be seen as a representation of the height of rationality or as a satire on the pursuit of reason at all cost. The Houyhnhnm society is rigidly hierarchical and the relationships between individuals are almost devoid of emotions. Gulliver overlooks these problematic aspects in his ideals/idols and yearns to be a part of the Houyhnhnm community. Anxious for acceptance, he even tries to hide his Yahooness behind his clothes only for it to be thrust upon him by a female Yahoo who leaps on him driven by lust. In the end he is made to leave.
The traditional colonial encounter assigns sub-human status to the native, but in Swift it is Gulliver who readjusts his sense of personhood with each of his encounters with the Other. It is striking that, unlike Crusoe who calls himself master, Gulliver addresses the Other thus. Back in England, the disillusioned Gulliver rejects his family and the English society in favour of two degenerated Houyhnhnms. Gulliver’s Travels, thus, ends as “only half a Christian sermon [by the Dean with] no salvation in it” (Taylor 219). Gulliver’s meetings with the Other in Gulliver’s Travels satirize the activities of “every boasted institution of European life” and “suggest that reason that distinguishes man from the brute may be a kind of a false mirror” (Taylor 228). The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos represent extremes of the social spectrum; thus, Gulliver must learn to walk the middle path in order to find true contentment.
In conclusion, the meetings with the Other in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels are acid tests for the norms and values of their protagonists. In Defoe, the hero’s meetings with the Other, to a large extent, confirm Crusoe’s own superiority as a middleclass Puritan Englishman; whereas, in Swift’s, as intended, they do the exact reverse.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. London: David Campbell, 1992.
Lipking, Lawrence, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature – The Restoration And The Eighteenth Century.7th ed. New York: Norton, 2000.
Obeysekere, Gananath. Cannibal Talk: The Man-Eating Myth and Human Sacrifice in the South Seas. Berkley: California UP, 2005.
Quintana, Ricardo. Swift – An Introduction. London: Oxford UP, 1955.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Cornwall: Blackwell, 1998.
Taylor, W. D. Jonathan Swift – A Critical Essay. London: Peter Davies, 1933.