Belonging in Gulliver’s Travels

In our discussion of Gulliver’s Travels this week, we touched on Gulliver and his sense of belonging in the world. I found Gulliver to be a peculiar character, as I cannot tell whether he hates the idea of belonging altogether or only belonging when connected to England and the Yahoos. In support of the former, Gulliver is always traveling and never stays in one place for too long (if he can help it). He is of English birth but has no true home; he transfers his “home” to wherever he is. Gulliver seems like he is the most comfortable when he is in the states of in-between found in his often aimless traveling. To most people, being in between two states is often an uncomfortable position. Gulliver, however, always seeks to set himself out into the unknown, leaving behind all sense of belonging in the process. 

On the other hand, Gulliver seems as though he is always ready to jump into a new culture, as long as it is not English. During his travels, he readily abandons the ways of life that he learned from his English origins in order to conform and belong with the peoples that he encounters. He adopts the customs of both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms, learning their languages and contributing to their societies. Gulliver even sees the Houyhnhnms’ way of life as far superior to any of the peoples he’s seen before, including the English. Gulliver is a product of English society but, as a result of his travels, comes to completely reject his national origin and even his identity as a Yahoo. He does not reject all sense of identity and belonging, however, as he comes to express his wishes to find a place of belonging among the Houyhnhnms. So, is it just England (and the Yahoos that inhabit it) that Gulliver wants to abandon or is it all sense of belonging as well? What does the answer mean for us as the reader?

Gulliver and Belonging

This week I thought a lot about Gulliver as a reputable and trustworthy character. While relatively neutral in part one, I found Gulliver to be very unlikeable in part four. This was mostly due to his rejection of his family and all of humanity as he comes to believe he is above them after his time with the Houyhnhnms. Is this forgivable? Gulliver spurns his wife and children to the point of only letting his wife eat all the way across the table from him. He cannot stand the smell of his wife or the sight of his children. But, Gulliver rejects them because he has no home. He is constantly on the move, feeling out of place where-ever he ends up. With the Lilliputians, he is a giant unable to be sustained by their society. To the Houyhnhnms, he is a yahoo – a kind of pet for them to play and converse with but never fully relate to. While this does not fully excuse Gulliver’s rejection of his family and the rest of humanity, it helps me understand why he makes this ultimate decision. If he never feels at home, how can he reintegrate himself within society without a certain sense of trust and companionship?

Gulliver is very similar to Helga Crane in Quicksand. Quicksand is about a young biracial woman who struggles to find a home as she moves between America and Denmark. After being rejected by her European relatives, Helga moves schools, communities, and countries, always feeling as though she is in-between or out of place. She doesn’t fit in with the strict atmosphere in the school she teaches in, Harlem’s rigid ideas of race, or the lavish Denmark lifestyle. She ends up in an unhappy marriage and fails to find fulfillment in every move she takes. This novel has a very pessimistic outlook, matching the tone of Gulliver’s Travels. Helga and Gulliver both end up unhappy without a home or family, due to their constant movement and rejection. Looking at Gulliver through the lens of Helga Crane, I can understand his rejection of humanity as not just thinking he is “above”, but that he does not belong.

Modern Day Gulliver

In my initial reaction to part 1 of Gulliver’s Travel, I wasn’t shocked to see the exaggerated depiction of Gulliver and his encounter with the Lilliputian people. Right away we see how
Guliver is presented as a well-educated, distinguished, and adventurous individual. In class we entertained the idea of Gulliver being representative of English culture during that time, and I think that approach is fairly accurate through the obvious symbolism in part 1. Gulliver is illustrated as a giant in comparison to the Lilliputians. He is also considered to be far more intelligent and superior than them. I would imagine that during this time period, England viewed themselves as one of the leading powers in the world that couldn’t be touched, and had this “giant” mentality. 

In addition, I mentioned in class how the fact that gullivers accounts are very generous in reference to himself but far fetched when concerning the Lilliputians. This is a great representation of how a country like England would view themselves compared to the rest of the world. A country that, even with its flaws, is more sophisticated, modernized, and appealing than anyone else. I think there is a clear sense of power and dominance through the beginning of Gulliver’s journey, however, there is also a side of compassion and humanity which allows the reader to relate. 

With that being said, if this approach is accurate, and this is a clear depiction of English culture from a position of power, I am curious to see what a current story of Gulliver’s Travel would look like. When I think about how countries employ propaganda and insert themselves at the center of the world, I think this story could be told from the perspective of any one of today’s world powers and the story wouldn’t be too far off from the original. Who today would take the place of Gulliver, and who would be the Lilliputian people?

The Irish as “Almost White”

After reading Lloyd’s piece, the similarities between the treatment of the Irish and Africans and African Americans by the English during the period of colonialism become much more clear. The arguments for Irish colonization used in many of the citations in Lloyd’s writing reflect staple claims of the British civilizing mission, the argument for colonization based on the “improvement” of “less evolved” societies through English teaching. The attitudes of the British writers cited by Lloyd are almost exactly the same to those promoting the African civilizing mission, which shows that the English viewed the black world and the Irish world as two very similar entities. 

The language used to describe the Irish by the English is similarly racist to the language used to describe blacks and makes very similar arguments to those describing the colonization of the African continent. Lloyd’s citation of Thomas Carlyle reads, “The time has come when the Irish population must either be improved a little, or else exterminated… In a state of perennial ultra-savage famine, in the midst of civilization, they cannot continue,” (9). This statement is a disturbing, yet accurate depiction of what the civilizing mission philosophy entails; one either conforms to the English way of life or must be eliminated by that way of life. Civilizations that are not in line with English ideas of modernity are all viewed as inferior under this philosophy, and the African and Irish civilizations are viewed as similar under this philosophy due to their similar apparent lack of modernity. Another quote from Carlyle says, “Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns… In his rags and laughing savagery, he is there to undertake all the work that can be done by mere strength of hand and back,” (9). Carlyle describes the Irish as savages in a manner similar to the racist descriptions of black individuals. But he also says the Irish will physically “darken” the towns of the British, implying that the Irish are viewed as “black” individuals. Carlyle goes on further to describe the Irish as “white negroes” and claims that the emancipation of the West Indies would turn the nation into a “Black Ireland, ‘free’ indeed, but an Ireland, and Black!” (10). This racist dialogue implies that the English believed there was an inherent similarity between blacks and the Irish due to the two groups’ lack of modernity, and it is this very lack of modernity that caused the English to see these two peoples as a plague to cultured society.

Heterogeneity and Origin Points

Gilroy’s theory that there is no individual race due to the great levels of cultural mixing that occurred during the period of Circum-Atlantic trade emphasizes the necessity to look at individuals as beings of multiple influences, but fails to look at those influences as singular entities in and of themselves. I think Gilroy highlights this idea well when he describes Delany’s tour of Africa, saying that the tour “confirmed the dissimilarities between African-American ideologues and the Africans with whom they treated,” (24). The idea that race is an objectively improper descriptor of a human being is justified by this emotional distance from one’s “homeland” and the lack of emotional response that occurs upon “homecoming” after exile. But I believe Gilroy’s argument that all human beings in the Circum-Atlantic area maintain some form of cultural unity with one another is flawed due to the strength of an origin point’s influence over an individual. 

Gilroy describes a difficulty with thinking in black and white terms as “the overintegrated conceptions of pure and homogeneous culture which mean that black political struggles are construed as somehow automatically expressive of the national or ethnic differences with which they are associated,” (31). Essentially, he is saying that black political concerns will always be construed with racial implications if homogeneous thinking continues in society. But, I do not believe that the racial implications of political arguments regarding any race of people can be ignored. I agree that the rationality to think in terms of race is utterly flawed when describing human beings, but I do not believe we realistically have the ability to live in a post-racial world. As much as one can argue that the characters of people are a result of a heterogeneous cultural mixing, it cannot be ignored that there are origin points that led to the mixing in the first place. Origin points are the beginnings of the cultural mixing that Gilroy describes, so this mixing could not exist without them. I think his plea to focus on the heterogeneous rather than homogeneous is a noble one, but to dispel with the notion of origins would completely eliminate the presence of a heterogeneous culture. Without origins, people would be left without cultural definers.

Becoming White

The David Lloyd reading and the idea of “The Irish Becoming White” really struck me this week. I had not considered that African Americans and Irish were similarly described in the same time period, as I had thought of the two histories as separate. Lloyd brings to light descriptions of the Irish as savages, with a distinct look of an ape. The Irish are seen as a vulgar and radical people who were not considered “white”. But, the Irish did not look much different from the British. To anyone’s eyes they are considered white. This proves that “white” and “black” are not biological labels. Lloyd writes that these labels given to describe those who are considered “ready” to take part in society and those who are “not yet ready” or “never ready”. It was only when the Irish began to integrate into important roles in society – firemen, policemen- that they were considered ready to be “white” and a full part of society.


How can society abolish these fake labels? As Lloyd writes, “Race, we may observe, is a variable set of structures not a quality” (17). Yet, race descriptions surround us everywhere. On applications, surveys, standardized tests, and government forms we are asked to check the box of our race. American history has seen lots of immigrant groups from different countries as targets of prejudice and violence – Jews, Irish, Italians – that eventually joined the big amorphous category of “whiteness” while black remains the other. How will these labels continue to change? These questions are not easy, but they are ones I will think about often as “whiteness” and “blackness” continue to transform.

The Versatility of Performance

When reading the Roach piece, I felt very confused by the multiple contexts which he used the word “performance” in. Roach used “performance” to describe cultures, practices, and holidays. He uses the word as a verb, noun, and adjective. The most distinct context of “performance” I found while reading was on page 13: “the materials of the present study are thematized under categories of those restored behaviors that function as vehicles of cultural transmission. Each category pairs a form of collective memory with enactments that embody it through performance: death and burials, violence and sacrifices, laws and (dis)obedience, origins and segregation.” This quote stood out to me because laws, segregation, burials… these do not seem like performances to me. But, Roach’s article shows that performances are intertwined with and necessary to process and understand shared memory. When a death is experienced, disobedience is seen in society or people come from different backgrounds, our natural reaction as a society is to find a way to deal with this. Roach’s quote suggests and brings to light that burials help the living cope, laws help normalize society (in negative and positive ways) and segregation results from a society that creates differences that do not exist. These performances are ways that society forgets and attempts to erase and recreate.

United Irishmen and Jefferson?

As we look at the migration of the Irish into the U.S, their presence greatly influenced the dynamics of american law and politics. I found it quite interesting learning about their impact on American politics and their commitment to President Thomas Jefferson. According to Whelan, the Irish were “a driving force in the creation of the Republican party cohering around Thomas Jefferson”. It is important to note that the Irish, during this period, are making a transition into “whiteness”. Not only is the concept of whiteness problematic, but their odd attraction with Jefferson is also questionable. For example, Whelan notes that the Irish viewed Jefferson as “the first man of purity of character, talents, and amiable manners in the Republican world”. There is no doubt that Jefferson, during this time, was the most logical choice for leadership in the country, however, I wouldn’t give him that much credit. Thomas Jefferson is viewed as one of America’s “great” founding fathers, along with being a founder of American enlightenment. Yet, in my opinion, his controversial view on slavery only makes him the greater of two evils. While the Irish never participated in the traditional form of slavery, in some sense, they were still affected by it. 

Jefferson frowned upon the idea of slavery, and even viewed it as inhuman, still he continued to hold human beings as property his entire life. In addition, although he made some legislative attempts against slavery, he also profited directly from the institution on slavery. With that being said, I would agree that Jefferson’s intent to question the status quo did spark a civil movement, however, for a man who thought that “all men [were] created equal” it seems bizarre that the Irish put so much support behind him. Did they not see how blacks were treated? They must’ve been aware of their hierarchical position in American. So why would they support a man of “false promises”. It is interesting to see how the Irish were able to get more traction in regards to freedom and opportunity than blacks, especially since the two were once viewed equally by the majority. I begin to question, with their many similarities, why African-Americans and Irish-Americans weren’t able to form their own union.