Gulliver and English Exceptionalism
I begin part 2 of this book—a series of case studies in quixotic exceptionalism—with a study of English exceptionalism in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The logic of state exceptionalism—that a state should act and be treated differently from other states on account of its claim to moral leadership in the international community—is likely familiar to those who have read about or experienced the widespread effects of American exceptionalism. The prominence of the idea of American exceptionalism is both a boon and a drawback for understanding how quixotes embody, and are sometimes used to challenge, exceptionalist politics. On one hand, as I argued in part 1, the logic of American exceptionalism is similar to that of quixotism: in both cases, exceptionalism is a mind-set or an attitude reinforced and perpetuated rhetorically. On the other hand, the exceptionalism of quixotes is akin to but not identical to state exceptionalisms like American exceptionalism. Quixotes like Gulliver (and his US analogue, Updike Underhill, treated in the following chapter) do not necessarily embark on rhetorical or propaganda campaigns aimed at convincing others of their exceptionality. They have already prevailed upon themselves in believing in their exceptionality, a consequence of which is, as we will see throughout part 2 of this book, that others frequently imitate quixotism, even without buying into it.
For this reason quixotic figures like Gulliver have been potent vehicles for critiquing state exceptionalism, because such figures embody and illustrate the naïveté of state exceptionalism, or the tendency to believe in the superiority of one’s nation even in the face of compelling counterevidence. Because quixotes like Gulliver are already convinced of their exceptionality, and—unlike those who intentionally promulgate the myth of state exceptionalism—feel no urgency or imperative to convince anyone else of what is for them self-evidently true, they are perfect foils for the ideology of state exceptionalism. As such, they draw our attention to the frequently unexamined assumptions of state exceptionalism.
Further, because the quixote is a distinctly transatlantic character archetype, a literary history of quixotes is crucial for understanding the transatlantic history of American exceptionalism. Understanding American exceptionalism, in other words, necessitates understanding its roots in English exceptionalism in the eighteenth century. The quixote, shipped across the Atlantic from its inception in seventeenth-century Spain and published more widely in English in the eighteenth century than in its original Spanish, carried notions of state exceptionalism from England to the early US.1 Gulliver’s quixotic exceptionalism is an indispensable part of the transatlantic histories of both quixotism and state exceptionalism. Yet at this point we might wonder, What is quixotic about Gulliver?
Two contextual aspects of Gulliver’s Travels make it a particularly useful case study in quixotism. First, like Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels was met with widespread interest and imitation. Within two years of the first publication of Gulliver’s Travels, English and Irish readers could peruse a half dozen printings and as many imitations. Overall, scholars have counted more than sixty responses to Gulliver’s Travels by the end of the eighteenth century, eighteen of which are rather direct imitations, “attempting to reproduce something of its style, intent, and design.”2 As with the quixotic, then, what counts as “Gulliveriana” is subject to difficult questions of allusive, thematic, and stylistic imitation, such that a taxonomy of responses to Gulliver’s Travels is at once useful and limited. A character study of Gulliver as quixote can address both the question of what constitutes Gulliveriana and what constitutes quixotism, locating in Gulliver the attributes of Quixote.
Second, Gulliver, like Quixote, is one of what David Brewer might term “inexhaustible” characters. As Jeanne Welcher tells us, “Gulliver achieved a further destiny [beyond Gulliver’s Travels] that, while characteristic of myth, is rare in literary fiction.” Gulliver is a character who “stepped off the printed page and assumed an extra-literary existence,” a description very similar to that which Brewer calls the “off-page” lives of inexhaustible characters.3 As with Don Quixote, people know roughly who Gulliver is without having read the book. We might consider, then, whether Gulliver’s inexhaustibility is related to Quixote’s, given what Gulliver and Quixote have in common.
In addition to these contextual elements that Gulliver shares with Quixote—Gulliver is a popularly reproduced character beyond Swift’s original rendering, and consequently Gulliver enjoys an “extra-literary existence”—we can also observe more immediate character commonalities between the two. Gulliver is raised like a quixote and behaves like a quixote; but in turning away from England and the human race in the land of the Houyhnhnms, he also undergoes a quixotic conversion, a moment at which he realizes that the idealism that guides his exceptionalist way of proceeding in the world is empty or flawed. The test of quixotic conversions—which frequently appear in quixotic narratives of the long eighteenth century—is not simply if the quixote disavows the particular brand of idealism that drives him, but if he disavows the exceptionalist worldview. Don Quixote’s deathbed conversion—his rejection of the chivalric idealism by which he lived—is among the most challenging and disappointing moments for readers of Cervantes’s original (2.74.976–77). But it also provided authors of subsequent quixotic narratives with a potent literary device, a means of signaling a narrative’s political or satirical intervention according to the tone with which the narrative treats the moment of quixotic conversion.4 If we are disappointed that the quixote has renounced quixotism, there must have been something good or useful in the quixotic mind-set; and if we are relieved that the quixote has come back to earth, the narrative has accomplished a critique of quixotism. Gulliver’s conversion to the Houyhnhnm way of life is just such a pivotal moment and helps us gauge the extent to which quixotism is a valuable heuristic with which to read and understand Swift’s critique in Gulliver’s Travels.
To be clear, literary scholars generally have not associated Gulliver with quixotism, though we know Swift started and abandoned a translation of Don Quixote in the 1730s.5 If Swift had Cervantes in mind when he was writing Gulliver’s Travels, he certainly refrained from the kinds of straightforward allusions to Don Quixote that we see in Fielding, Lennox, Sterne, and Smollett. The idea of Gulliver as quixote is not entirely without precedent, however. When Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726, Craftsman editor Nicholas Amhurst compared it with Don Quixote, hinting at the relationship between quixotic protagonist and object of critique when he commented on “the same Manner that Cervantes exposes Books of Chivalry, or Captain Gulliver the Writings of Travellers.”6 In more contemporary readings of Gulliver’s Travels, however, comparisons between Gulliver and Don Quixote are rare, overshadowed by historicist preoccupations with Swift’s political life.7 Frequently lost amid this diligent historicizing about Swift are his characters, who amount to more than mere stand-ins for the nonfictional victims of Swiftian political satire. We can read Gulliver as a quixote even as Swift chose not to allude to Quixote directly, as Gulliver proceeds with an exceptionalist disposition fundamental to quixotes. In these ways Gulliver’s Travels anticipates the development of the quixotic as a political concept in eighteenth-century literatures in English that transcends directly or immediately allusive ties to Don Quixote.
As I have suggested, Swift gives no overt indication in Gulliver’s Travels that Don Quixote was a literary source for his narrative, either by title (as in Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote), front matter (as in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews), or direct thematic allusion (as in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). As Christine Rees suggests, however, Swift, a master of weaving together the comic and the ironic, was certainly an admirer of Cervantes.8 While we do know that Swift was very familiar with Don Quixote, no statements or correspondences of Swift’s tie Gulliver’s Travels directly to Don Quixote. This lack of overt paratextual evidence—overt in such a way as to link the two texts in a chain of authorial influence—has led critics away from prominent elements of Gulliver’s Travels that, wittingly or not for Swift, are strikingly quixotic.
At the outset of Gulliver’s Travels, we learn that Gulliver comes from the lower noble ranks, having been raised on his father’s “small estate in Nottinghamshire” and having received an education at “Emanuel-College in Cambridge.”9 Like Don Quixote, a hidalgo, Gulliver’s family estate is not adequate to provide the kind of lifestyle he seeks, so he undergoes a practical education with a desire to embark on an itinerant life. As Frank Boyle notes, “When his father’s land cannot support him through his university studies, he turns or is directed to the New Philosophy’s most practical discipline, medicine, and to sea as a ship’s surgeon.”10 Though not educated specifically in literature or in the romance tradition, he does, after becoming an apprenticed surgeon, spend allowances sent from his father on “learning Navigation, and other Parts of the Mathematicks, useful to those who intend to travel, as [he] always believed it would be some time or another [his] Fortune to do” (15).
The word “Fortune” here—and throughout Gulliver’s Travels—is telling. Of course Gulliver seeks a material fortune with each maritime adventure, but his belief that travel is his destiny takes the form of idealism. As Amhurst recognized in his 1726 review, Gulliver’s is a quixotism of travel. Gulliver’s affinity with travel is both reinforced and made literary by the fact that, in addition to writing a book of travel in Gulliver’s Travels, he also delighted in reading them in his youth, before his traveling imbued him with a sense that his accounts of the lands he visits are the only true accounts, or that his vision is self-justifiably true: “I have perused several Books of Travel with great Delight in my younger Days; but, having since gone over most Parts of the Globe, and been able to contradict many fabulous Accounts from my own Observation; it hath given me great Disgust against this Part of Reading, and some Indignation to see the Credulity of Mankind so impudently abused” (272).
In addition to his travel reading in youth, Gulliver is a bookish type more generally, passing his “hours of Leisure” amid his earlier travels in reading the best Authors, ancient and modern; being always provided with a good Number of Books” (16). Although Swift makes passing and comedic reference to the pitfalls of romance reading while describing the cause of the fire in the Lilliputian queen’s apartment—“by the Carelessness of a Maid of Honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a Romance”—we receive no indication that the practical Gulliver reads romances himself (49). However, Gulliver’s continual tendency toward “service” and courtly manners—as when the Brobdingnagian queen takes interest in him, and he vows that “if [he] were at [his] own Disposal, [he] should be proud to devote [his] life to her Majesty’s Service”—is reminiscent of Don Quixote’s imitation of chivalric code (91). Both Gulliver and Quixote overcompensate with affectatious politeness for a lack of access to the lifestyles of high-ranking aristocracy and court life.
Gulliver’s “quixotism of travel” is also, beyond its literary manifestation in his travel narrations, highly romanticized. Gulliver recapitulates the belief that traveling is his “Fortune to do” each time he returns to England from a journey that, however fascinating and adventurous, proves also perilous. Like Quixote, harsh reality is not only incapable of curing Gulliver’s quixotism but likely to reinforce and propel it. After the voyage to Lilliput, Gulliver’s adventure in Brobdingnag begins with what becomes a familiar line of justification for Gulliver throughout his travels: “Having been condemned by Nature and Fortune to an active and restless life; in two months after my return [to England], I again left my native country” (75). Gulliver leaves for Brobdingnag on account of his “insatiable Desire of seeing foreign Countries” (71). After returning from Brobdingnag and before embarking on a trip to Laputa in part 3, Gulliver ends part 2 with an admission that “my Wife protested I should never go to Sea any more; although my evil Destiny so ordered, that she had not Power to hinder me; as the reader may know hereafter” (137). At last, after returning home for the third time after yet another long and dangerous journey, and finding his “Wife and Family in good health,” Gulliver remains home with his family “about five months in a very happy Condition” before leaving a final time for his most fateful journey to the Country of the Houyhnhnms, his wife “big with Child,” musing, “If I could have learned the Lesson of Knowing when I was well” (203, 207).11
In each of these passages Gulliver behaves as if compelled by a force greater than his own will, such that travel becomes not just an itch in need of scratching but a romantic call of duty. Against the rational understanding that his perpetual journeys could at some point estrange him from family and country, Gulliver chases a romantic ideal as if duty-bound to fate or destiny, travel being his “Fortune to do” (15). Just as Don Quixote’s romantic idealization of knight-errantry renders him duty-bound to its conventions, Gulliver’s romantic idealization of the traveling life causes him to understand his recurrent journeys as preordained and necessary, to be carried out above the needs and desires of his wife and children, and those who would advise him to remain at home after testing his “Fortune” so many times, each time narrowly escaping an unfortunate end.
Though Gulliver shares with Robinson Crusoe the need to travel despite the protests of his family, it is less his faith and industriousness than his tendency to romanticize and aggrandize his desire that propels each journey. And just as a profound sense of justice propels Don Quixote, Gulliver’s voyages also become more about just governance and ways of living than simply collecting curios from foreign lands and amassing a fortune in trade. Because of Swift’s wry portrayal of Gulliver, critics tend to overlook the extent to which Gulliver’s deepest existential entanglements—his argument with the Brobdingnagian king and his struggle to embrace and then separate from the ways of the Houyhnhnms—center on justice in living and in governance.
Gulliver’s idealism morphs gradually throughout Swift’s narrative into a full-on quixotic quest for a utopian ideal (which he eventually finds, though perhaps without the results he desires, in the land of the Houyhnhnms).12 As the narrative progresses, Gulliver develops greater vocabulary and facility in his criticisms of the political systems and ways of life most familiar to him, this progression hitting its nationalist peak in Gulliver’s conversation with the King of Brobdingnag, and its culmination in the outright rejection of his own nationality upon returning from the Country of the Houyhnhnms.
At the very least, then, we can build a circumstantial case for reading Gulliver as a quixote, and taking the quixotic as a framework for understanding Gulliver’s actions and Swift’s satirical performance in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver comes from a socioeconomic background that allows for both education and quixotic idealism, and his education is inextricably connected with the obsession (or call to duty) that he develops (travel). As with Don Quixote, this obsession is both literary (insofar as it relates to the reading and writing of travel narratives) and romanticized (insofar as it is understood as a function of his destiny). The telos of this romanticized obsession with travel is a utopian ideal, or the discovery of a land, culture, and political system capable of addressing the cumulative set of problems that Gulliver registers with the known world (Europe). When Quixote looks around his native Spain and witnesses social and legal systems incapable of providing justice, he sets out to provide justice his own way. When Gulliver witnesses in travel all the ways his native country is comparatively unjust and unscrupulous, he feebly attempts to bring the Houyhnhnm way of life back to England.
In light of these conditions, Gulliver also constructs and exposes exceptionalist arguments throughout his travels, culminating in a moment of quixotic conversion at the end of the narrative—what Michael McKeon calls “a decisive island conversion”—that reinforces rather than extinguishes his quixotism.13 While Gulliver’s Travels is certainly Cervantic in its many moments of comic irony, its protagonist is also quixotic in his brand of exceptionalism, his tendency to continually separate himself from the reality of his parochial worldview, or to simultaneously defend and expose the flaws of his nation and national identity. Gulliver illuminates England’s flaws even to himself as he defends them to foreign peoples. In Gulliver we see the beginnings of an eighteenth-century quixotic exceptionalism, a belief in one’s moral superiority arising from literary idealism in the face of counterevidence.
Part 1 of the Travels has been the subject of extensive commentary on the Lilliputians as political allegory for English court society, but it also reflects Gulliver’s chivalrous mind-set. In part 1, Gulliver proceeds with a removed, anthropological perspective on the world around him. He engages with the Lilliputians not with the imperialist air of Robinson Crusoe, but with a sense of bewilderment. And he finds occasion to behave deferentially, to bow, or to indicate courtly respect for his foreign hosts.14 Among the relatively tiny Lilliputians, Gulliver expresses gratitude for being released from captivity in a graceful and deferential manner: “I made my Acknowledgements, by prostrating myself at his Majesty’s Feet” (39). And, as Neil Chudgar has pointed out, Gulliver proceeds mainly with gentleness, which he largely shares with those around him.15 Gulliver’s mannerisms in Lilliput are chivalric, awkwardly formal gestures of the sort that a lower-ranking noble like Gulliver or Quixote might expect when in the company of court (given that Gulliver’s social standing precludes any familiarity with court life in his own country).
The changes Gulliver experiences in part 2 of the Travels, in Brobdingnag, best illustrate his quixotic exceptionalism. In Brobdingnag, the sheer size of the inhabitants forces Gulliver into a bellicose mode—as a quixote reacting to giants—and his chivalric quixotism turns defensive. From their size and appearance to their politics, as we learn once the king engages Gulliver in conversation about the land from which he came, the Brobdingnagians magnify Gulliver’s quixotism by rendering him defensive, just as Don Quixote’s forthrightness becomes more pronounced when interlocutors question or challenge his worldview. No longer capable of seeing himself as an exceptional figure on account of his size, Gulliver’s exceptionalism pivots to national pride. As Gulliver writes of his first encounter with the Brobdingnagians in part 2: “In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear 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, and perform those other Actions which will be recorded for ever in the Chronicles of that Empire, while Posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by Millions” (78).
By the time Gulliver makes it to Brobdingnag, a separate, oppositional sense of England and its national politics and customs emerges more saliently, forcing Gulliver to defend his Englishness while at the same time reckoning with its flaws. Part 1 is not without humorous comparisons to Gulliver’s native land—the “peculiar” manner of Lilliputian writing is “aslant from one corner of the Paper to the other, like Ladies in England”—though part 2 is the site of Gulliver’s pivotal interactions with the Brobdingnagian king, in which Swift positions a fuller, comparative portrait of Gulliver’s impression of England against Brobdingnagian ideals (51).
Early interactions with the Brobdingnagian king depict Gulliver as a patriotic traveler, one who leaves the homeland and finds abroad nothing but confirmations of the superiority of his own nation. Gulliver gushes “a little too copious[ly] in talking of [his] own beloved Country; of [English] Trade, and Wars by Sea and Land, of [English] Schisms in Religion, and Parties in the State.” The king’s counterperspective leaves Gulliver at a loss, compelling him to defend England and broader Europe with exceptionalist arguments (96). When the king prompts Gulliver to give an account of his native England, Gulliver provides a list of superlative descriptions: “the Fertility of our Soil”; “an illustrious body called the House of Peers” (as well as “that extraordinary Care always taken of their Education,” and their “Valour, Conduct, and Fidelity”); the House of Commons “freely picked by the People themselves, for their great Abilities, and Love of their Country, to represent the Wisdom of the whole Nation,” among others, along with a summary of English history, military and otherwise. The king’s series of questions and points of contention—asking about the qualifications of new Lords, the potential for political corruption and conflicts of interest, the existence of national credit and national debt, among others—lead him to conclude “the Bulk of [English] Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (116–21).
Confronted with such judgments, Gulliver finds himself “forced to rest with Patience, while [his] noble and most beloved Country was so injuriously treated” (122). Ashamed to admit his inability to offer a substantive counterargument to the king, Gulliver, “heartily sorry as any of [his] readers can possibly be, that such an Occasion was given,” admits in this attempt to excuse himself, that he “artfully eluded” many of the king’s questions “and gave every Point a more favourable turn by many Degrees than the strictness of Truth would allow” (122). Gulliver begins to construct an exceptionalist argument against the accusations of the Brobdingnagian king in the absence of a substantive one, alleging that Brobdingnag, unlike Europe, is too isolated to have knowledge of such things as cannons (widely known and understood in Europe) or to have “reduced Politicks into a Science, as the more acute Wits of Europe have done” (124). Gulliver laments the possibility that “a confined Education” and a “certain narrowness of Thinking,” such as those which he ascribes to the king in the absence of a solid counterargument to the king’s critiques of English society, “be offered as a Standard for all Mankind” (122). In other words, whereas Gulliver’s single-mindedness is cosmopolitan, the king’s is parochial. This is exceptionalist logic.
Gulliver’s inability to defend his country before the king—his arguments in this endeavor “failed of Success”—renders him vulnerable to the kinds of utopian notions that he will eventually embrace wholeheartedly among the Houyhnhnms in part 4, leading ultimately to his quixotic conversion. Even before the Brobdingnagian king successfully makes his arguments against Gulliver’s account of Englishness, his first encounters with the king produce in Gulliver a critical outlook on his own country, along with seeds of doubt over his previously unquestioned patriotism and English identity:
But, as I was not in a Condition to resent Injuries, so, upon mature Thoughts, I began to doubt whether I were injured or no. For, after having been accustomed several months to the Sight and Converse of this People, and observed every Object upon which I cast my Eyes, to be of proportionable Magnitude; the Horror I had first conceived from their Bulk and Aspect was so far worn off, that if I had then beheld a Company of English Lords and Ladies in their Finery and Birth-day Cloaths, acting their several Parts in the most courtly Manner of Strutting, and Bowing and Prating; to say the Truth, I should have been strongly tempted to laugh as much at them as the King and his Grandees did at me. (97)
When the king forces Gulliver to think critically about both the practices of his native country and the ways his perspective, frequently changing amid his travels, can affect how he views England and his English identity, Gulliver doubles down on the single-mindedness of English (and European) exceptionalism. Thereafter he is hurdled with fragile nationalist baggage and magnified force into his quixotism of travel, believing still that, despite his willingness to bend the truth to skirt the Brobdingnagian king’s criticisms of England, his destiny is not an English utopia, but a utopia abroad. After his time in Brobdingnag, before setting sail yet again for Laputa, Gulliver writes: “I could not reject [Captain William Robinson’s] Proposal; the Thirst I had of seeing the World, notwithstanding my past Misfortunes, continuing as violent as ever” (141). In this moment, Gulliver is compelled by his quixotism of travel above and beyond whatever concerns he might have acquired from experience about the dangers of travel to his physical—and ultimately to his ontological—condition.
We can observe how the anthropological quixote of part 1 becomes a quixotic exceptionalist in part 2, paradoxically defending his own nation as a utopia only after departing from it to seek knowledge and better opportunity abroad. In the same vein of Swiftian irony, Gulliver extols that presumed characteristic of Europe—a broad range of knowledge, derived from intercultural relations and experience—that he seeks for himself through leaving Europe, indulging his quixotism of travel.
The English exceptionalism that Gulliver puts forth to counter the Brobdingnagian king’s critiques posits both the demonstrably false notion (falsified by the very presence and experience of Gulliver in a foreign land) that England “and the politer Countries of Europe are wholly exempted” from the prejudices of limited knowledge, as well as the ideal of universal knowledge through travel. Gulliver constructs an ideal (universal knowledge through travel) while positioning himself as an example of this ideal. This is precisely how Gulliver’s quixotism of travel works: it is the exceptionalist melding of the European ideal of universal knowledge with the itinerant quixotic ideal of universal knowledge through travel. Gulliver’s quixotism becomes in part 2 of the narrative a more traditional Anglo-European idealism—for Gulliver, a form of exceptionalism stemming from his nationalism and naïveté—to which Gulliver holds fast, despite the skillful counterarguments of the Brobdingnagian king. By the end of part 2, we have witnessed Gulliver’s display of quixotism, marked by his nationalist defense of England and wider Europe as particularly enlightened nations. As a quixote of travel bearing nationalist baggage, Gulliver has witnessed realities that contradict his idealisms about both travel and England, yet he clings to these idealisms.
After witnessing the Laputan dystopia in part 3 and returning home to England once more with a travel idealism that has not flagged, but has become stronger, Gulliver sets out in part 4 and arrives in the Country of the Houyhnhnms, a utopian land ultimately responsible for Gulliver’s final moments of quixotic conversion, not from mad quixote to rational English citizen, but from an apologist for a fictive vision of England and Europe to an apologist for a foreign utopia. Gulliver’s quixotic conversion is complex, less a rejection of quixotism than a substitution of one quixotic ideal for another. In this sense, Gulliver is the gullible character par excellence, an engine of satire because he fails to learn that his quixotism of travel and his exceptionalist predisposition are what continually land him in trouble.
On the brink of quixotic conversion, Gulliver is clearly impressed by the rational horses, their innovative child-distribution policies, their stoic attitude toward death, and the absence of words in their language to express “the thing which is not,” or “any thing that is evil, except what they borrow from the Deformities or ill Qualities of the Yahoos” (223, 257). Gulliver expresses his utopian vision of the Houyhnhnms in his description of his own life while among them: “I enjoyed perfect Health of Body, and Tranquility of Mind; I did not feel the Treachery or Inconstancy of a Friend, nor the Injuries of a secret or open Enemy” (258). While in the land of rational horses, Gulliver also begins to speak more critically of his native country, explaining wars resulting from “the Corruption of Ministers,” and the soldier as “a Yahoo hired to kill in cold Blood as many of his own Species, who have never offended him, as he possibly can” (228–29). These impressions lead to Gulliver’s final conversion in the land of the Houyhnhnms, at which point Gulliver admits that “those excellent Quadrupeds placed in opposite View to human Corruptions, had so far opened my Eyes, and enlarged my Understanding, that I began to view the Actions and Passions of man in a very different Light; and to think the Honour of my own Kind not worth managing,” resolving then “never to return to human Kind” (240).
The Houyhnhnms ultimately force Gulliver, by edict, to return home anyway. When he does, his wife and children, and the rest of his own species, repulse him. Converted, he still looks to re-create a utopian existence back in England. Whereas Don Quixote begins with idealism and concludes with a remorseful pragmatism upon his deathbed, Gulliver’s quixotism progresses in the opposite direction. Having gotten into travel for pragmatic purposes before realizing it was “his Fortune to do,” Gulliver’s quixotism of travel finally upends his entire life. He purchases two horses upon returning to England, whose smells he finds comforting, and with whom he “converse[s] at least four Hours every Day,” never rides, and considers partners “in great Amity” with himself and each other (271). When he launches what appears to be a final apologia for England, its government and its occupants—a seemingly out-of-place vestige of his preconversion sentiments in part 2—we can comfortably read these notes with irony (275). In the elusive, mocking tone of Morus’s final comments at the end of Utopia (1516), Gulliver writes of his previous denouncements of European colonialism: “This Description, I confess, doth by no means affect the British nation, who may be an Example to the whole World for their Wisdom, Care, and Justice in planting Colonies” (275). After this passage he goes on to affirm the psychological conditions of his utopian conversion, attempting to “apply those excellent Lessons of Virtue which [he] learned among the Houyhnhnms” in slowly conditioning himself to tolerate his family and, perhaps, “a neighbor Yahoo” (276).
In Gulliver’s relation of his travels we can see, then, a progression of quixotism and the ways this progression alters his quixotic exceptionalism. Gulliver embarks on his travels under the inspiration of a romanticized, quixotic ideal—the ideal of the life of travel, understood as his absolute destiny. He derives this destiny from a childhood fascination with books of travel, and the pursuit of a travel-oriented education. Despite early encounters with the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians—including an ability to appreciate some of the foreign things he witnesses—his quixotism of travel carries with it at first an idealistic belief in the supremacy and utopian potential of his native English culture. Gulliver encounters difference and is fascinated by it, yet his quixotism prevents him from dwelling on the wonders of Lilliput or Brobdingnag or developing a critical outlook on his own country. After passing through Laputa and its neighboring lands intrigued and questioning but still unmoored from his default nationalism, he undergoes a form of quixotic conversion in the Country of the Houyhnhnms, through which his quixotism remains, but its focus shifts. After living among the rational horses, Gulliver continues to embrace the cultural model of the Houyhnhnms, even as they evict him from their society, and even though his own family, still healthy and loyal, had long since awaited his physical and psychological return.
This progression of quixotism not only illuminates aspects of Gulliver’s character—his anthropological aloofness, his failure to compromise grand ideologies for smaller bits and pieces of useful knowledge he picks up amid his travels, and his stubborn inability to learn the flaws in his worldview through experience—but also directs our attention to one of the most critically underdeveloped yet important implications of Swift’s narrative. In Gulliver’s meandering and sometimes self-contradictory quixotism, Swift shows us how exceptionalism operates as apologia for both nationalist (Gulliver in Brobdingnag) and utopian (Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms) ideologies, the combination of which is the logic of what we can call eighteenth-century English exceptionalism. Further, Gulliver’s shift from exceptionalist notions about his own nation to an exceptionalist pursuit of utopia abroad provides a conceptual map for the historical transformation of forms of English patriotism into utopian visions of Anglo-America into nascent American exceptionalism.
This mode of exceptionalism—the shielding of one’s idealistic worldview from the scrutiny and harsh reality of the surrounding world—is expressly linked with quixotic qualities and characters in eighteenth-century prose fiction, from Gulliver’s contorted argument with the King of Brobdingnag, to Parson Adams’s shock and dismay at England’s treatment of the poor in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, to Arabella’s insistence that her lowly gardener is really a gentleman suitor in disguise in Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote. The fictive and fantastical elements of quixotism make possible each quixote’s resistance to surrounding realities and are as such the sine qua non of quixotic exceptionalism. Quixotic exceptionalism in fiction reflects the wider state exceptionalisms at work in British domestic and foreign policy, which constitute Britain as the world’s freest and mightiest nation, despite the abundance of domestic problems we see fictionalized in Gulliver’s Travels and elsewhere.
Though quixotes were increasingly understood, through the middle of the eighteenth century, as heroic visionaries rather than foolish objects of satire, Gulliver’s character progression preempts this shift, inviting our consideration of a third possibility for understanding quixotism. Whether Gulliver’s quixotic naïveté, idealism, and stubbornness frame him as an admirably determined dreamer—a gentle and well-meaning hero—or, perhaps more likely, the misguided butt of the joke who continually fails to learn his lesson, Gulliver’s quixotic characteristics underlie his exceptionalism, which is in either case central to the social and political interventions of Gulliver’s Travels. For it is not only the allusions to persons and policy issues that Swift pillories that define his political intervention in Gulliver’s Travels but also the manner in which Gulliver frames these issues. Gulliver’s quixotism leads him to willfully ignore arguments that he acknowledges to be superior to his own, to prioritize affinity over reason (whether identifying with the English or the Houyhnhnms), to estrange his family, and to repeatedly jeopardize his life. Gulliver’s exceptionalist justifications for each of these decisions undoubtedly say as much about fractious, vitriolic party politics, political corruption, militant nationalism, utopian beliefs, and misplaced social and domestic priorities as do Swift’s more minute political allusions throughout Gulliver’s Travels.
As we can see, then, Gulliver bears the core characteristics of Quixote in his upbringing in the ranks of the lower nobility, his literary education, his propensity for reading travel narratives and idealizing a life of travel, his belligerent defense of the worldview these produce, and his quixotic conversion from one form of idealism to another. Above all, perhaps, Gulliver’s exchanges with foreign Brahmins and potentates reflect an idealism in search of just governance and an end to needless warring, factionalism, and disputation, or an improved human condition that Gulliver’s family back in England can only interpret as a form of madness.
To be precise, it is not only idealism but an exceptionalist worldview that drives Gulliver. Until his conversion in the land of the Houyhnhnms, he argues for the exceptionality of the English way of life even as the Lilliputians had already demonstrated the pitfalls of so much of it, and even as the Brobdingnagian king put forth counterarguments that Gulliver could not refute. Afterward, that very exceptionalist mind-set enables Gulliver to identify with the Houyhnhnms despite his physical resemblance to the reviled Yahoos. That exceptionalist mind-set arose from his reading of books of travel that idealized England and wider Europe’s place in the world, and this is precisely why Amhurst took Gulliver’s Travels for a Cervantic satire on travel writing. In the end, because Gulliver’s exceptionalism proves catastrophically malleable, allowing Gulliver to turn entirely away from the English society he first defended as exceptional, Gulliver’s Travels offers an important illustration—and simultaneously an important critique—of English exceptionalism in the early eighteenth century.