Many people ask me why I study literature. In fact, I spend most of time trying to convince my students why literature is so important for one to understand the world they live in. I study and I teach literature because literature is timeless. Authors who critiqued their politicians in earlier times, complained about many of the same battles I still deal with in making my own decisions about the world. Several of the discussions about humanity and virtue that permeated classical literature in earlier ages still plague authors today. I am fascinated in finding these commonalties between generations of authors and I am intrigued by the similar themes that keep evolving as each author leaves his or her legacy onto another. Jonathan Swift, a prolific satirist in the early eighteenth century, is one of those authors who has left his mark. Not only did Swift leave his mark in the history books, not only upon the millions who have and continue to read him today, but, more importantly, Swift affected a young, impressionable mind who later became a famous author himself, Herbert George Wells. After reading texts from both authors, I found several parallels: their satirical style, their passion for fantastical places, and their texts that questioned the nature and place of humanity. Both authors were essentialists meaning they believed all of humanity were linked by a common core or a common unconscious self (whereas anti-essentialists believe that each human has its own core and are not linked). In fact, Wells often admitted that he admired and attempted to imitate Swift. Wells critic, Williamson writes, “Wells had been a child of the past, he was a conscious disciple of Jonathan Swift” (pg. 5). Wells not only emulated his writing after his favorite author as a child, but also, both authors shared similar struggles in their lives. More specifically, these struggles and their beliefs on humanity were evident in their literature. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Wells’s The Time Machine both contain similar characters who struggle with similar issues in fantastical worlds, which in turn reflect the beliefs of the authors.
Jonathan Swift, Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1667 became one of the most notable writers of his time. He was infamous for his satires, his political pamphlets and his contempt for human’s failure to live up to the ideal. His contemporary audience constantly misunderstood him and he continues to baffle students today with his ironic subtleties. After education at Trinity College, he became a secretary to Sir William Temple who was a well-known neo-classicist. During this time, there was a battle between the “ancients” and the “moderns.” Ancients were usually neo-classicists who believed in one Truth with a capital T and that virtue is the most precious and noble thing to achieve in life. Thus, they believed true progression came from working on the interior character of a person. On the other hand, moderns were more interested in many truths and they focussed on how science could help progress society into something better; therefore, they believed in external, social progressions rather than the virtue of an individual. Swift soon took on his mentor’s neo-classical robe and entered the controversy as an ancient when he wrote The Battle of the Books in 1704. He also entered into church controversies with brilliant satires. However, because his satires were so brilliant, he angered people because they did not understand his satirical texts. Thus, Swift was ostracized from the upper class in England and he was sent to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Ireland to be the Dean. However, because Swift felt he was an outsider, he was able to ridicule and analyze society in a keener way; he did not feel like he was a part of the societal structures. Regardless, his satirical wit, political critiques and ancient ideals about humanity are all embedded into his book Gulliver’s Travels.
Much like Swift, Herbert George Wells (better known as H.G. Wells) was also a prolific writer in his time, though he was born almost 200 years after Swift in Bromley, England. Wells was the son of an improvident shopkeeper and a maidservant but he worked as an apprentice in order to attend Midhurst Grammar School and then later graduate in science from London University. Wells taught until he became sick with tuberculosis, but while he was recovering, he began his career as a writer. Like swift, he too began his career feeling like an outsider. Wells lived in England during the Victorian era where class structure was rigid and ones “place” in that structure determined ones worth. Due to Wells’s lower economic background, he struggled amongst a Victorian society that praised the progress or at least the image of progress. Wells also lived in a time where a battle of intellect was waged between the progression of science and classical traditional values. Thus, just like Swift’s era, there was an on going battle between the ancients and the moderns. However, Darwinism had made its mark on society and the enlightenment had people aching for more and more scientific progress. Wells did not buy into the idea of scientific progress rather, he too, was an ancient and a neo-classicist. In fact, along with reading Swift’s books as a child, he also engrossed himself with classical writers. “The notion that man might use his mind to design a better world is at least as old as Plato’s Republic- a book that once excited Wells” (Williamson 10). Thus, Wells based his beliefs off of Plato and began writing science fiction novels that mocked Victorian society and revolted from their ideas of external progress. “His [Wells] heart yearns for the freedom of the Greeks, symbolized in the dream of man-directed progress” (Williamson 14). Wells believed that True progress was an internal progress of improving the virtue of the self rather than the scientific, external progressions that “benefited” society. And even though Wells joined the Socialist Fabian Society in 1903, his ideal utopian society was still reflective of Plato’s Republic. Additionally, Wells’s social commentary, criticism on progress and political ideals permeated his book The Time Machine.
Wells first found his passion for questioning external progress when he read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a satirical, fictional, fantastical travel narrative that parodies England and Europe’s false sense of progress. In Gulliver’s Travels Swift tells a completely fictional tale with a fictional narrator; however, Swift tells the story with an incredible amount of verisimilitude. “He also includes pictorial representations of various sorts; and, as a letter to his publisher reveals, he thought them important because they undeniably gave the appearance of truth-telling to his account” (Hunting Pg. 96). In addition to his pictorial representations that serve as rhetorical devices to add to the text’s ethos, Swift also uses a map that looks accurate and genuine. Even though the map is purely fictitious, like the rest of the text, the map, paired with Swift’s writing make the travel narrative seem so real. In fact, many people in Swift’s contemporary audience thought there was a real Gulliver and that these tales he told were true. Although it is hard to believe that Swift’s audience really bought that there were really flying islands and talking horses, Swift’s audience did believe in the progress of science so their naivete made it possible for the book to portray verisimilitude. Also, Swift’s writing style was very believable because he used so many details. In fact, Swift had the narrator, Gulliver, tell the stories of his travels much like an average man would tell a tale coming back from a voyage. Swift added many superfluous details that made the reader think that because there was so much information, then the story must be factual. In fact, many of these small facts, like the emphasis of the Sun, relate back to ancient ideals where the neoclassicists believed that the sun was a constant, stable entity in life; therefore, it was used prevalently in literature. In addition, even the beginnings of each Book (or adventure) were begun with very plausible happenings in the eighteenth century: mutiny, pirates, lost at sea and huge storms. Thus, because Swift used rhetorical devices to make the narrative credible, his satire was successful in becoming poignant with his audience.
Over a hundred years later, one of those who remembered the effectiveness of Swift’s verisimilitude was H.G. Wells. Instead of writing about fantastical lands of flying islands, Wells wrote about a flying machine that took one to a fantastical land in the future. In Wells’s Time Machine, the year 802,701 is portrayed and although the future world seems like a foreign place with ape-like people and a dying sun, the story is told with verisimilitude so these strange images become quite plausible. “The story opens with an air of documentary factuality that echoes Defoe as well as Swift” (Williamson pg. 76). Wells, like Swift uses rhetorical devices in his writing to make something so bizarre, seem so real.
The first page of The Time Machine opens with a clear statement of the concept of a fourth dimension by analogy with spatial dimensions, and then proceeds to clarify basic assumptions involved in the idea of time as a dimension (Haynes pg. 56).
Wells uses analogies to make difficult scientific special relativity theory into something simple that his audience could identify with and believe. Once again, Wells emphasizes the sun because he repeats the sun id dying out in the future, perhaps that parallels how neoclassical, ancient beliefs were dying out from moderns and scientific progressions. In addition to analogies, Wells is very detail oriented and makes sure that he fully explains all the scientific concepts with superfluous details. This surmount of facts makes the possibility of time travel seem quite possible and; furthermore, the future prophesies of humanity to become quite scary.
Thus, Wells’s factual tone and rhetorical writing makes his futuristic, fantastical world seem quite real in The Time Machine, much like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
In addition to the verisimilitude in both travel narratives, the narrators also share similar roles within the fantastical journeys. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift uses Lemuel Gulliver to narrate the odd and outrageous details of his adventures. However, although the events in the travels are very odd (6 inch people, giants, flying islands, talking horses etc.) Gulliver himself is actually portrayed as an average man in the seventeenth century. Gulliver has children and a wife, he has a stable home and he starts off his travels with a stable job as a physician. A physician in Swift’s time was not a doctor in the sense of a medical doctor with years of trained medical, scientific experience, but rather a physician who physically did whatever he or she physically could to help a sick or injured person (cut off a leg, blood let etc.). Swift describes Gulliver as an average lower to middle class man in order for him to relate to the audience, create ethos for the literary work, and to mock the upper class who would have also read this narrative. Gulliver serves as a perfect literary tool for Swift. Swift uses Gulliver to show how even a simple lower class man can discover how warped European society is. In the beginning of the narrative Gulliver proudly boasts of his European homeland in the land of Brobdingnag. “There Gulliver’s pride is extended to European man, whose achievements are Gulliver’s own claim to importance and to rational powers” (Price pg. 96). However, after evolving his perception through the experiences in different lands, Gulliver begins to see how twisted humanity is and, in turn, he ends the narrative with nothing but disgust and hatred for European “civilized” society. “Gulliver, who began with a pride in man that found him above criticism, ends with a pride in pure reason that finds man insupportable” (Price pg. 101). In fact, Gulliver is so repulsed by Europeans, that when he returns home to his family, he avoids his children, faints when his wife kisses him and spends the rest of his days playing with horses. Thus, I believe Swift was using Gulliver’s character to mock the English and European aristocracy and show how true reason and virtue are more important than the frivolous things focused on in a society.
Much like Gulliver was a narrator to portray Swift’s ideals, The Time Traveler was a narrator that Wells used to show similar sentiments. In order for Wells to create a sense of verisimilitude, he needed an ordinary character to contrast the extraordinary events of time travel. Haynes writes,
The Time Traveler, far from being the exotic figure of the earlier draft, has become the epitome of ordinariness, so much so that he lacks even a name to identify him as an individual, as he shuffles in his carpet slippers around his cozy drawing room or devotes himself with relish to his dinner and cigar (pg. 198).
Thus, Wells uses a character that his Victorian audience would not only identify with, but also approve. Victorians were very strict with adhering to a “proper” societal structure; therefore, unlike Swift, he chose a narrator who was middle to upper class, but like Swift he chose a character who created verisimilitude while mocking the upper class. Also like Gulliver, The Time Traveler is a passive spectator who documents what he sees in the fantastical land; he is provoked to action only in emergencies and self-defense. During his journey, he too, evolves his perception of “civilized” society. The Time Traveler begins his journey proudly as he feels it is a great accomplishment to mankind in order to scientifically progress enough to build a successful time machine. However, even after horrific experiences in the year 802,701, The Time Traveler soon returns at the end of the novel because he no longer fits into conventional England.
The new and changed Time Traveler is an amiable and rather ordinary man, who explains his extraordinary machine to a group of completely ordinary skeptics in a setting of commonplace detail carefully selected to contrast with the wonder of travel in time (Williamson pg. 52).
His skeptical friends do not believe him, his reason is altered and interior progress of the self through experience becomes more important to him than the possibility of scientific progressions. Thus, Wells uses this ordinary narrator to exemplify the importance of progressing virtue rather than science.
Wells not only uses similar narrators and similar sentiments as Swift, but he also depicts some of the same types of characters in these fantastical places. In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels the narrator lives amongst a culture of rational, virtuous beings. The Houyhnhnms are horse-like creatures who focus on Truth (like the ancients), logic and reason. They resemble classical ideals in purity and originality in nature. They are vegetarians who do not even understand what war is and why people in Gulliver’s land would even want to progress in anything external (capitalistic gains, scientific progressions, written texts, etc.). “They [Houyhnhnms] serve as a standard of rational behavior if not as a model for human practice” (Price pg. 102). However, even though Gulliver sees this land as a utopian society, they too have faults exposed by Swift. The Houyhnhnms use other beings called Yahoos as slaves and because they deem Gulliver as a Yahoo, he too becomes an outsider and is no longer able to stay in their “pure” society. Of course the irony lies in that if Houyhnhnms are so virtuous then they should not use slavery or judge others by their differences. Thus, Swift uses these characters to show the hypocriticalness of “perfect” creatures and, in turn, Swift exposes how corruptive moral power can be. Even though he exposes the paradox within this utopian society, Swift is able to show how self-knowledge is more powerful and effective than the social and scientific industries.
In Wells’s The Time Machine The Time Traveler also ventures into a land that is inhabited by a culture similar to the Houyhnhnms. The Time Traveler discovers the Eloi in the year 802,701 when the sun is dying out. The Eloi are also vegetarians who survive mainly off of fruit. They are only four feet tall where I’m sure Wells received the idea of size changes from Swift. “Gulliver’s adventure with the Houyhnhnms seems to have been the model for Wells’s satire here- he often admitted his debt to Swift” (Williamson pg. 115). The Eloi are intellectuals who spend their days leisurely contemplating virtue and Truth. They epitomize the ancient ideals of Wells; they almost seem like angelic creatures who only pursue delight. Even the setting for their culture is described as a neoclassical environment. “The palaces and gardens suggest the landscape of neoclassical paintings and country houses” (Parrinder pg. 42). The Eloi are described as a utopian society; they have stamped out diseases, they have controlled their population growth and they have almost halted the process of natural decay. However, even though they are first depicted as a utopia, they show their weaknesses as they focus too much on delight and Truth while they ignore their reality; they are constantly attacked by the dangerous Morlocks who live in the underworld. “The Eloi desire above all else to escape from pain and effort, from seeing the unpleasant reality of their situation and seek only comfort and ease, the shallow happiness of an illusion (Haynes pg. 26). Thus, Wells shows how weak the supposed upper class can be and, in doing so, he demonstrates how fragile and naïve pure reason can be. Through the exposure of this paradox within the Eloi society, Wells demonstrates how important true progression stems from understanding the self, rather than scientific successes over decay and disease.
Both authors use a culture to counteract and contradict these supposed utopian cultures of the Houyhnhnms and the Eloi. Within the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, apelike creatures called Yahoos serve as slaves. Yahoos are clearly Swift’s representation of humanity and their faults.
Yahoos are the culmination of the symbolic matrix Swift has created for the corruptions of man. They embody in a crude animal form most of the vices (and supposed glories) of civilized man (Price pg. 85).
Yahoos exploit the “good” that supposedly science has to offer; thus, depicting Swift’s ancient ideals and critiques about scientific progression in society. Although the Yahoos are beastlike and animalistic in their savage, “uncivilized” ways, they still are at least passionate creatures unlike the pure reason in the Houyhnhnms. I think Swift believed that passion, even if it were used in obscene ways, is still better than no passion at all for life. Therefore, Swift uses the Yahoo culture not only to parody and ridicule humanity but more cleverly and perhaps more subtly he uses the Yahoo culture to show that passion within a being is natural.
In conjunction with Swift’s Yahoo culture, Wells also uses the Morlock culture to contrast the Eloi culture within The Time Machine. Morlocks are described much like the apelike creatures in Gulliver’s Travels. Morlocks like the Yahoos are depicted as evil beings who work in structured groups to manifest scientific successes. “Morlocks, the slothlike descendents of the laboring class, slaughter and eat the Eloi, the species descended from the upper classes” (Huntington pg. 41). The Morlocks live in under ground in the year 802,701 where they have built a complex technological society. Wells uses the corrupt characters of the Morlocks to show how the progress of science ruins the inner being of a person. In contrast to the Yahoos, the Morlocks are not slaves, yet they are actually in control of their society. They rule the Eloi because Eloi are afraid of being kidnapped and killed by the Morlocks. The Morlocks ability to create fear in the supposed virtuous society gives them power. I think Wells uses the Morlocks to parody the rising middle class in the Victorian era who were apart of the technological revolution. Thus, the prim and proper Victorians who enjoy the image and façade of perfection are threatened by the mass uprising of the working middle class. Therefore, Wells, like Swift, gives insights into the paradoxical benefits of civilization while at the same time, using fantastical characters and cultures to parody those paradoxes.
One prominent paradox in society that plagued Swift was the idea of the Great Chain of Being. Ancients believed in a specific hierarchy for all individuals. God is of course the top of the chain as He is omnipotent and all-powerful. Angels are next in the chain because they are ethereal spirits who can possess divine virtue and reason. Following is humanity, but humans are problematic because they have some logical reasoning but they also have innate, natural, animalistic urges due to the fact that humans contain a physical body. After all, humans are animals who cannot reason logically and only rely upon their natural, physical instinct. The crux of this chain is how a human copes with its limitations and internal conflicts as a being with both physical attributes and logical thinking capabilities. Swift draws out this battle in Gulliver’s Travels when he shows how Gulliver struggles to find balance between environment and him-self within each society he visits. More specifically, in book four, Gulliver does not identify himself as being a gluttonous Yahoo, yet he does have physical passions like a Yahoo. On the other hand, Gulliver is not accepted as a Houyhnhnm because he cannot use pure reason. Thus, the Yahoos are too much like animals and Houyhnhnms are too angelic for Gulliver to fit in. “I am convinced that Swift would, in the main, have endorsed Gulliver’s terrible indictment. Certainly man, though no doubt a child of God, has in him Houyhnhnm potentialities and not uncommonly behaves in true Yahoo fashion” (Hunting pg. 112). Therefore, both animalistic and angelic qualities are needed for ultimate balance in the universe. One could not be the same without the other. “The responsibility of man is imposed by the presence of both of conflict and of the capacity for change” (Price pg. 101). The idea that all beings (even the evil ones) are necessary in life is an ancient neoclassical ideal that Swift not only complied with but also demonstrated in Gulliver’s Travels.
Wells, who grew up reading about these neoclassical ideals of balance in life, also used The Time Traveler within The Time Machine to show the ongoing struggle in the Great Chain of Being. The Morlocks, like the Yahoos were too animalistic and the Eloi, similar to the Houyhnhnms were too angelic; therefore, The Time Traveler who contained qualities from both did not fit in. The Time Traveler did not want to be associated with the cruel and brutal Morlocks, yet he also did not identify with the lofty, childlike simplistic reasonings of the Eloi.
The Time Traveler at first responds to the Eloi in the Romantic manner, being enchanted, if perplexed, by their way of life, until it is forced upon his understanding that this Arcadian leisure is inextricably bound to, and indeed dependent upon, the brutalizing mechanical labour of the machine-tenders [Morlocks] (Haynes pg. 71).
Wells shows how both these cultures, as imperfect as they are, are essential for the others’ existence even though the two cultures are at odds. In fact, The Morlocks live under ground and the Eloi live above ground; this physical relationship between the two cultures is symbolic of Greek mythology where there is the world and the underworld. Furthermore, Wells not only subscribes to the ancient ideal that all creatures are necessary for true balance, but he also uses metaphorical creatures that parallel the Great Chain of Being. “The words Eloi and Morlocks signify angels and devils, and the two races, the products of natural selection, are held together in a predatory and symbiotic relationship- a ‘perpetuity of aggressions’ without which, neither could flourish” (Parrinder pg. 43). Therefore, Wells models ancient neoclassical ideals like his predecessor Swift in that he depicts how all things (good and evil) are imperfect without each other. Although good and evil are not necessarily synonymous with the spiritual and animalistic forces within a human, a balance is essential for both entities, whether it be life itself or one human life.
Beyond the ideal of balance and acknowledgement of ones place within the Great Chain of Being, Wells also shares Swift’s views about the value of the written word. In Gulliver’s Travels the perception of the written word clearly depicts Swift’s ancient ideals. Swift shows how problematic the written word can become. In Lilliput the written word is used for silly laws and ludicrous experiences, in Brobdingnag there are written laws against interpreting laws, in Laputa the written word is cheapened by a text factory, and the Houyhnhnms do not even use text because it is flawed and corruptive. In fact, part of the leeriness toward the written word, stems back to the Great Chain of Being. Ancient neoclassicists believed the oral form of thought was the most pure and natural form of discourse because nothing becomes disturbed or changed whereas in written language part of the original meaning is inevitably lost from the initial thought by trying to capture it on paper. In essence, the written text represents the physical body in the Great Chain of Being; writing has the capability to hold meaning but it is not necessarily the pure form of meaning. By the same token, the oral form of language is deemed higher in the hierarchy like an ethereal angel; oral language is expressed openly without having to alter it. This conflict between oral and written cultures was very prevalent in Swift’s day as England (a written culture) had oppressed and was currently taking over several oral cultures (Picts, Scottish Clans, Native African dialects). Therefore, Swifts satirizes how “civilized” societies ironically deem the written word as more worthy, when in fact, oral language is higher on the Great Chain of Being.
Once again, in accordance with Swift, Wells also examines the role of written language in the Great chain of Being within The Time Machine. Not only does the Eloi culture not use any written commerce, or written documents, but also even more shockingly, they do not even understand the importance of writing. The Eloi are so frivolous and easily fatigued that they lack the care to write. Moreover, they also tire of teaching The Time Traveler their spoken language. Thus, the Eloi culture represent how both the lack of written (body) and oral (ethereal) forms of language results in the downfall of their rational; thus, it is the cardinal flaw of its possible utopia. Wells was most likely mocking upper class aristocracy and their laziness to put emphasis on internal thoughts, feelings and the language to explain those expressions of virtue. Because Wells lived in a time where scientific progressions were at the forefront of society, he focussed on how the arts, the intellectual modes of expressing the self were in a time of possible extinction. Wells; therefore, uses the Eloi as a warning to his audience to not get wrapped up too much in the progress of science and to remember that the higher forms of self expression come from language, not mechanics. Furthermore, because the Eloi do not prioritize language, Wells makes the correlation, they do not prioritize human life and their position in the Great Chain of Being. The Eloi do not use written language (the text as body) and they do not put emphasis on spoken language (ethereal/spiritual) rather the Eloi try to play God. The Eloi attempt to jump to the pinnacle point of The Great Chain of Being by using science: stamping out disease, controlling population growth, halting natural decay. In essence, the Eloi, not only try to overcome nature through their scientific progressions, but also, Wells depicts their disregard to The Great Chain of Being through showing their weak ability to express themselves through language.
Both Swift and Wells would argue that language is the key to expressing, evolving and unveiling the True self; moreover, both writers believed in ancient ideals that stressed the importance of the self. In accordance with those beliefs, they were both able to write travel narratives where all societal groups were corruptive, even the possible utopias were full of flaws in subtle ways. Both of these men wrote models for society to learn from within a satirical tone; therefore, they both instructed and delighted. They were able to show how imagining the future or fantastical places can teach one about the importance of the past and the crucial understanding of the present. Although they both wrote in different time periods, literature and history has proven to continually address struggles that are timeless. Swift battled between two philosophies of life in his writing, yet Wells was able to continue that struggle in order to affect the generation after him. “As a questioner of the worth of man’s reason, a satirist of scientific trueness and man-directed progress, Wells followed and imitated Jonathan Swift” (Williamson pg. 130). More importantly, each piece of literature and each author, regardless of the time period, has something to offer, something to learn from and something to pass on. So when my seventh and eighth grade students whine about dead white authors, I can pull something meaningful out for each one of them to grasp onto. After all, the next promising author, the next Swift, the next Wells might be in my class, and that is ultimately the reason why I study, why I teach, and why I write about literature.