«AMATORY CONVENTIONS, LUXURY TRADE, AND THE CULTURE OF EXCESS IN THE RAPE OF THE LOCK, ROXANA, AND GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by DAVID VINSON LILA GRAVES, ...»
V. Amatory Tropes and Gulliver’s Emasculation at Brobdingnag At Brobdingnag in Part II, Gulliver undergoes a transformative role-reversal that is instrumental in what leads to his personal, psychic disintegration. Swift again deploys multiple amatory tropes to stage this role-reversal; in a larger sense, the tropes extend the author’s indignation towards the ways in which human beings are commodified as goods to be used, abused, and hoarded. Such a rhetorical strategy pervades Gulliver’s experiences at Brobdingnag. Formerly a giant among the Lilliputians, his reversal into a miniature size is a clear signal of his newfound status as a vulnerable, emasculated commodity; his alteration is likewise a means for Swift to subvert the amatory trope of the male as a dominant force of physical power. Upon seeing the native giants, Gulliver rues his power-reversal: “I could not forbear of thinking of Lilliput, whose Inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the World; where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my Hand” (72). Gulliver’s reaction to their physical appearance is revealing: he commodifies them on the basis of material appearances, which is no different than the treatment he received from the Lilliputians. He identifies the natives as “Monsters” and rationalizes that they must be “more savage and cruel in Proportion [due] their Bulk” (72).
Gulliver’s emasculation and psychic transformation is most immediately triggered by the vulnerability he now experiences due to his miniature size. In the process of staging Gulliver’s gradual breakdown, Swift engages several amatory tropes. Perhaps most apparent is the trope of curiosity, which pervades the entire narrative at Brobdingnag because Gulliver’s size is an unfathomable oddity to the natives. When he is first discovered by one of the giants, Gulliver is perceived with “a Curiosity, much wondering to hear [him] pronounce articulate Words, although [the giant] could not understand them” (73). Upon meeting a “substantial Farmer,” Gulliver describes the farmer’s disbelief, how he “blew [his] Hairs aside to take a better view of [his] Face” (73Of course, Gulliver also becomes a victim of curiosity as well. When he is informally adopted by the farmer’s family, he is taken by the patriarch to a marketplace; it is there that he is put on display, commodified as a “strange Creature” capable of “[performing] an hundred diverting Tricks” (82-3). Brobdingnag is primarily an agrarian society, but Swift aligns depravity with humanity’s propensity to unabashedly exploit for material profit. Gulliver is forced to perform for hundreds each day until he “was half dead with Weariness and Vexation” (82); finding him so profitable, the farmer even takes Gulliver on tour as the star of his very own traveling freak show—another means for Swift to stage the dark side of travel. Gulliver is enslaved, shackled by “a Leading-string” and forced to “act [his] Part” beyond the excesses of humiliation and exhaustion (83). When Gulliver is finally sold to the Queen for a thousand pieces of gold, he is so desperate to flee from his cruel master that he drops to his knees and kisses her “Imperial foot” (84).
Gulliver is an enslaved victim of curiosity and a symbolic victim of humanity’s most base desires to commodify and exploit. Swift is thus covertly commenting on the kinds of psychic diseases resulting from capitalism and trade (in this case, slave trade); with the figure of the farmer, in particular, Swift is also illustrating how material greed creates new identities capable of horrific cruelties.
Gulliver’s groveling submissiveness to the Queen is jarring in light of how he once stood his moral high ground with the Emperor at Lilliput. The psychic trauma of being enslaved and emasculated leads him to this low point. Swift notably subverts two amatory tropes to stage his transformative unraveling: the male as the dominant force of physical power; and the female as sexual object and powerless sexual prey. Gulliver’s physical vulnerability is constant and all-encompassing: while being held by the massive finger and thumb of a giant, he “was not able to forbear groaning and shedding Tears” (73); he also describes being terrorized by the farmer’s cat and his trepidation at the sight of a mastiff “equal in bulk to four Elephants” (76). His experiences at the farmer’s home are frequently violent and traumatic. The farmer’s wife carelessly hands Gulliver over to her baby, who promptly shoves him inside of its mouth. For a brief moment, Gulliver is suckled upon as if her were a woman’s nipple. Reduced to this humiliating, helpless state, his head is enveloped by the baby’s saliva—it is a gross violation of his physical space, a quasi-rape, and thus an implicit reversal of the amatory trope in which the female is the victim of sexualized force.
Swift continues this rhetorical strategy, as Gulliver is repeatedly commodified, violated, and exploited. In Part I, Gulliver’s public display of his enormous phallus is a grotesque absurdity, a means to flaunt his virility; in Part II, however, he experiences a near reversal of a similar incident. Swift describes the “monstrous breast” of the farmer’s wife, which disgusts Gulliver and likewise demystifies the amatory trope of the female’s irresistible powers of sexual persuasion. He is also dressed and undressed like a doll, a most humiliating form of emasculation, and by a girl whose “towardly parts” terrify him (79). This scene is significant not only because Swift is obviously highlighting Gulliver’s commodification; given the context of the girl (who is only nine years old) undressing him, Gulliver is the forced participant in a quasi-sexual exchange. The disparity of their age is troubling enough, but especially surreal is the blurring of boundaries between traditional sexual expression and the forced usage of Gulliver as a sexual prop or plaything. The child may not understand the gravity of her actions, but Swift certainly does.
He again subverts the amatory template to illustrate the emergence of new personalities and dangerous moral codes which result from the spreading disease of commodification and consumption—one that has penetrated the agrarian society of Brobdingnag.
A most extreme example of Gulliver’s emasculation that extends his casting as a victim of quasi-sexual force occurs when he is stripped naked and placed on the bosoms of certain members of elite Brobdingnag society. Gulliver is treated as if he were a living and breathing doll, a luxurious and foreign play-thing; he explains, for instance, that the Maids of Honor sought “to have the pleasure of seeing and touching [him]” (98). In yet another subversion of amatory tropes, the women exercise complete control over Gulliver’s body; moreover, Swift debunks the trope of the female as irresistible siren, for they are rendered entirely undesirable. Gulliver is appalled by the “offensive Smell” of their natural odor (98), and in a manner customary of romantic heroines, he swoons from the intensity of their perfumes. The amatory trope of the male sexual voyeur is also parodied and subverted. Gulliver is forced to play the role of voyeur as the women “would strip themselves to the Skin, and put on their Smocks in [his] Presence, while [he] was placed on their Toylet directly before their naked Bodies” (99). Female vanity, which is harmless in consideration of the acts to which Gulliver has already been subjected, is posited as a destructive, perverse mode of self-commodification; the women want to be objectified, to be valued solely on the basis of their material selves. For an ancient like Swift, this is absurd and symptomatic of a much larger moral problem.
As a method of compensation, Gulliver’s psychological response to his miniature size and his new status as a vulnerable, toy-like commodity is to latch onto the uglier facets of his inherited British identity. Robert Markley, for instance, detects an attitude of “European triumphalism” in Gulliver (459), an imperialistic haughtiness that emerges when he feels most physically vulnerable. Upon first arriving at Brobdingnag, Swift provides many clues that Gulliver has stumbled upon an agrarian society, which in turn potentially aligns the natives with ancient as opposed to modern values. Gulliver describes the “fully cultivated” land (74), and of course he encounters farmers and multiple animals. Also, the native who discovers Gulliver appears “wholly ignorant” of the currency that Gulliver places into his hand (74), but a likely explanation is that he simply does not recognize such tiny currency as being currency at all. As mentioned previously, Gulliver labels the Brobdingnagians “barbarians” on the basis of their size alone (72); and in light of Gulliver’s many suffered traumas, his assumption is not a stretch in certain instances. Not all Brobdingnagians, however, are as sadistic as the farmer or as careless as his wife. In fact, the King, with whom Gulliver engages in a philosophical discourse, more than adequately fits the mold of the rational ancient.
Gulliver adopts the role of the proud nationalist and goes into ample detail explaining modern customs of British law, politics, economics, and its history of imperialism and warfare, which includes boastful descriptions of modern war machines. The King’s response is one of the most memorable moments of Gulliver’s Travels, particularly as he expresses astonishment at the savagery of British values, what he identifies as “the very worst Effects that Avarice, Faction, Hypocrisy, Perfidiousness, Cruelty, Rage, Madness, Hatred, Envy, Lust, Malice, or Ambition could produce” (110). Swift uses this discourse to summarize his own beliefs regarding the vast decline of modern Britain, one contextually related to the rise of finance capitalism, global luxury trade, and the egregious expansion of the British Empire. The King’s rhetoric is profound and powerfully delivered, but his ancient ideals are withering away even inside his own country. Such is yet another reminder from Swift that the ethos of commodification and consumption is rapidly facilitating cruel new identities and modes of behavior.
VI. Gulliver’s Dizzying Exposure to Bad Ideas, and the Trope of Inquiry Part III of Gulliver’s Travels is an anomaly because it is highly episodic and features Gulliver’s encounters with representatives of “real” locations such as the Netherlands and Japan as well as fictional nations like Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, and Luggnagg. Rhetorically, the section functions mostly as a satire on modern thinking—particularly modern science—and it revives the ancient versus modern debate with which Swift was so heavily engaged. The amatory trope of inquiry is implied in Part III by the activities of travel and discovery—most notably, Gulliver’s numerous trips to foreign lands, trips which primarily function as a panoptic survey of what Swift would surely label “bad thinking” across multiple cultures. This section is a wonderful example of Swift’s expertise in delivering Menippean satire. Critics such as Robert Markley45 and Glyndwr Williams46 argue that Part III is the author’s means of lambasting the corruptive ideologies associated with empire. It is also more than reasonable to conclude that the Dutch pirate who captures Gulliver serves as an allusion to the monopoly on trade See: Markley, Robert. “Gulliver and the Japanese: The Limits of the Postcolonial Past.” Modern Language Quarterly 65.3 (2004): 457-79.
See: Williams, Glyndwr. The Great South Sea: English Voyages and Encounters, 1570-1750 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997): 208-12.
enjoyed by the Dutch, particularly during the sixteenth and seventeenth century; Swift’s negative portrayal of the Dutch pirate as a “malicious Reprobate” very likely plays into the author’s vitriolic attacks on the Dutch in other works47. While amatory tropes in this section are scarce, Part III is especially valuable in consideration of what follows. Part III is loaded with satirical references to modern science, and Gulliver is overexposed to a variety of modern ideas. Part IV, in which Gulliver travels to the country of the Houyhnhnms, posits horses as the dehumanized embodiment of reason. The psychological impact on Gulliver is significant, for he becomes increasingly confused about his own identity and that of his relationship to his British cultural roots and values.
As a traveler to strange lands, Gulliver is repeatedly cast as the outsider; his physical differences render him freakish and further solidify his outsider-status, but his cultural values have a similarly polarizing effect. When he arrives at the country of the Houyhnhnms, he undergoes a marked change to his psyche; his self-image deteriorates from a proud, hegemonic representative of Britain to a self-hating, submissive subaltern.
The devolution of his character serves as a logical conclusion to Swift’s deployment of the amatory template, for Gulliver becomes the proverbial punching bag for a changing world armed with dangerous, new personalities and corrupt moral codes—contextually, this of course points to Swift’s commentary on the effects of the modern traditions of finance capitalism, global luxury trade, and the ethos of commodification and consumption on the British psyche. Part IV is Swift at his most satirically dark and meanSee: Gardiner, Anne Barbeau. “Swift on the Dutch East India Merchants: The Context of the 1672-73 War Literature.” Huntington Library Quarterly 54 (1991): 234-52.
spirited; not only does the section signal Gulliver’s psychic breakdown, it also features the loathsome, filthy Yahoos, who for Swift signify materialism incarnate. Rawson has argued that the Yahoos are on the one hand a “type of all savage nations” and at the same time “generically human, ourselves” (96). Gulliver’s nightmarish epiphany is that he, too, is a Yahoo, and he is devastated upon confronting the basic truth that his self-imagined identity (his lineage, his values, his self-worth) is not the valuable commodity he once
imagined. This is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of Swift’s rhetoric:
Gulliver, who is used and abused as a commodity, is also guilty of self-commodification.
For Swift, the hefty investment by the individual in the act of self-commodification is perhaps modernity’s most careless and dangerous flaw. Gulliver’s loss of his own identity results in a psychic death from which he cannot recover.
Amatory tropes continue to play a major role in facilitating Swift’s antagonistic rhetoric towards modern values and practices. Prior to his arrival at the country of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver’s self-imagined status as an empowered patriarch is shattered when he captains a mercantile ship whose workers stage a mutiny at his expense. The typical amatory male is strong, a schemer, and Swift reverses this trope—it is Gulliver who is the victim of a scheme that further calls into question his status as a masculine commodity. A key ingredient for the male figure of amatory fiction is to be in control, to feel stable in his surroundings. Gulliver sizes up his surroundings, which are very natural and pre-modern: “The Land was divided by long Rows of Trees not regularly planted, but naturally growing; there was plenty of Grass, and several Fields of Oats” (189). This quasi-Edenic scene is abruptly disrupted, however, by the appearance of the Yahoos;
Gulliver is both vulnerable and terrified by what he describes at differing moments as “Animals,” “Monsters,” and “Brute Beasts” (190-1).
Their effect upon him is striking:
“Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my Travels so disagreeable an Animal, which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy” (190-1). Gulliver’s instinctive repulsion towards the Yahoos helps to dramatize the abject shock he later experiences upon realizing that the man-beasts are but pre-historic versions of the human race to which he, of course, belongs.