April 14th: Gulliver’s Travels

In Book 4, Jonathan Swift frequently reminds us of his clothes and dressing procedure. For example, in the third chapter, he undresses completely and requests that his master not reveal the secret of his body’s “false covering” (pg. 1341). Then later, in the eleventh chapter, he is persuaded by the Captain “to accept a suit of clothes newly made” (pg. 1364). What do you think is the significance of clothes in Book 4?

10 thoughts on “April 14th: Gulliver’s Travels

  1. I think the reason that Swift emphasizes the clothes is because they are what separate Gulliver from the Yahoos. He writes, “The great difficulty that seemed to stick with the two horses was to see the rest of my body so very differently from that of a Yahoo, for which I was obliged to my clothes, whereof they had no conception” (1338). So the Houyhnhnms do not know what clothes are, and they think that Gulliver’s clothes are a part of his skin, which differentiates him from the Yahoos. The text reads, “I had hitherto concealed the secret of my dress in order to distinguish myself, as much as possible, from that cursed race of Yahoos” (1340). His clothes are meant to make him appear to be more civilized than the Yahoos, which makes the Houyhnhnms treat him better than the other “humans.”

    • To take this thought further, the clothes are fundamentally transformative. When the horse came in and discovered Gulliver not wearing his clothes in his bed, he reported the shocking discovery to his master and Gulliver had to explain why “I was not the same thing when I slept as I appeared to be at other times” (1340). Thus clothes are not just something he wears, but they fundamentally transform him from one thing into a completely separate thing. As Will noted it could be that the clothes represent civilization, and thus by their transformative influence, it would follow that a human wearing clothes in civilization is fundamentally different from a human naked in nature. Civilization transforms us from lowly beings who spurt excrement from trees into beings of a higher order. This line of thinking could be used to justify European colonialism because the people they conquered were in a sense uncivilized brutes, fundamentally different from themselves.

      • I agree with your idea of the clothes as a transformative ideal. I think that the clothes represent a facade that Gulliver embraces in order to separate himself from the “repulsive” Yahoos. He recognizes their inability to be civil or to learn and wants to distance himself from being categorized with them, even acknowledging that the humans back in his home country of England are quite like the Yahoos. The clothes provide him an escape from the stereotypical selfishness, greed, and maliciousness that the Yahoos display on a frequent basis.

        • I”m also going to add on to this chain and agree that the clothes are both distinguishing and transformative. However, I’d like to mention how they prove the difference between him and the Houyhnhnms, because they show that he is not as in tune with nature as they are, who “could not understand why nature should teach us to conceal what nature had given” (1341). They are more closely connected as a group with eachother and nature, because they have nothing to hide clearly, since they don’t even have a word for lying,and thus their nakedness illustrates this in comparison with humanity’s clothing.

          • Like you said, Sydney, about the Houyhnhnms being connected to each other and nature–it’s similar to Adam and Eve’s nakedness being a symbol for their innocence and their connection to the beauty and simple life of Eden. It is not until they gain knowledge that they feel the need to cover themselves. The satire of the story is emphasized when the head Houyhnhm, a very reasonable and mentally developed creature, is confused why the narrator would feel the need to cover his body parts (which everyone else has) with clothes. It begs the question, which is actually more reasonable–nakedness or being clothed?

  2. I agree with what everyone else has said, but I’d like to add that I think that clothes play an important part as being things that are (debatably) unnecessary in order to survive and yet European people put a large emphasis on them. What makes the society of the Houyhnhnms so appealing to Gulliver is that they only focus on things that can be seen as truly necessary for survival. Clothes become a representation of how complicated European life is in comparison to the simplicities of the Houyhnhnms. When Gulliver is picked up by Don Pedro’s ship and the captain offers him the new clothes, that’s kind of the first sign that Gulliver is now locked into having to go back to that complicated way of living that he has now grown to hate so passionately. It’s one of the first things that the captain suggests to Gulliver, which shows how much the European people value these things that the horses were completely unable to comprehend.

    • I would agree with this statement. What often sets native peoples from various parts of the globe apart from Europeans is the fact that they often go naked or wear very little clothes. Essentially, they have no need for clothes, and moreover don’t see the point in such complicated dress (as European dress of the time can best be described as complicated). I think it has something to do with the very Christian concept of guilt, that one is supposed to be ashamed of their naked body. Naturally, non-Christians wouldn’t be familiar with this sentiment, and viewed from a non-Western view point, having so many clothes (that are often wildly impractical for most circumstances) does seem rather silly.

  3. I think that his clothes have to do with signifying both civilization and Europeanization. Gulliver removes his clothes while he is on the island with the Houyhnhnms, but when he is picked up by the captain, who eventually takes him back to England, he is offered a nice coat. In this way, clothes seem to represent “civilization” and humanity. They are also what distinguish Gulliver from the Yahoos, who are distinctly less civilized then Gulliver appears, though the Yahoos are very human-like.

  4. I definitely agree with everything that everyone has said so far, but I would also like to add something. I think that his clothes don’t just differentiate and distinguish him from the barbaric Yahoos, but they are a part of his identity. It is so deeply ingrained into his way of thinking that it is nearly inhuman to go without clothes because all of the people to whom he had been previously accustomed wore clothes. If “clothes make the man” then what kind of man would he be if he was naked? A barbarous one like the Yahoos? I know that he doesn’t want that association to be made because he says that he does not even wish to be called the same name, let alone be compared to them. I think that clothes have also become a symbol of safety to him and when he doesn’t have them on anymore, he begins to feel vulnerable and exposed which is not a good or desired feeling for anyone.

    • I completely agree with the idea that the clothes are a part of his identity, defining his concepts of civilization and humanity. However, I think the clothes are meant to represent a superficial difference between Gulliver and the Yahoos, drawing a concrete line between them. On the surface, Gulliver and all Europeans are civilized, by their own definition, because of their complicated social hierarchies, economies, moral systems, and clothes. However, the real question is whether or not these machinations of a so-called cultured society actually differentiates the Europeans from the Yahoos; when you remove the clothes and the buildings and the complex language, are they the same at the core? Gulliver loves living with the Houyhnhnms because they strive to live without anything unnecessary in their lives; their rationality and clinical assessment of life is meant to represent a form of utopia. Though their physical form is different, they have a complex society like the Europeans. What I think Swift is trying to initiate here is a deep questioning of humanity as whole; are we more like the Houyhnhnms or the Yahoos, when we strip ourselves of all of our excess?

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