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In the voyage to Brobdingnag section of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the title character fits a common psychological profile over 150 years before the theory describing it was technically defined. The story manifestly presupposes the Freudian concept of sublimation of repressed sexual frustration into behavior redirected toward another goal with the intent to prove the initial sexual merit through other means. Norman O. Brown recognizes Swift’s foresight, explicitly stating that “Swift did anticipate the doctrine of sublimation” (44). Brown expresses wonder at how Swift was able to anticipate the doctrine (44). Swift’s intention is not critical to this interpretation of the story, but the idea that Swift was not familiar with the concept of sublimation as it existed during his time would be a real surprise. Gulliver’s voyage to Brobdingnag is a thematically coherent pre-Freudian exploration of Gulliver’s sublimating his sexual frustration and humiliation into his vision of the higher goal of proving to the King his own unquestioned masculine worth, climaxing in his aggressive, sexually charged revelation of the secrets of the invention and uses of gunpowder.
Etymological evidence strongly supports the possibility that Swift was acquainted with sublimation as a motivating factor that at the time was quite similar in definition to its meaning in current Freudian terminology. The intrinsic meaning of the word “sublimation” according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “the chemical action or process of subliming or converting a solid substance by means of heat into vapour, which resolidifies on cooling.” By the seventeenth century however, the word was also being defined as an “elevation to a higher state or plane of existence; transmutation into something higher, purer, or more sublime” (Loewald 12). In A Tale of a Tub Swift writes that a “certain great prince” dealing with sexual frustration was moved by a “vapour” that rose to his brain and caused him to turn aside “all peaceable endeavors” and instead aggressively “dream of nothing but sieges, battles and victories” (2313-2314). In psychoanalytical terms, sublimation “denotes some sort of conversion or transmutation from a lower to a higher, and presumably purer, state or plane of existence-be it the transmutation of a material substance or of an instinct and its objects and aim” (Loewald 12-13). The modern psychological definition is almost identical to the definition with which Swift would have been familiar. Of key importance is the understanding that often the sublimated action involves aggressive behavior-the psychological equivalent of the heat that converts solids into vapor-that underlies the supposed purer goal. Aggressiveness as it relates to the pursuit of a higher goal is demonstrated by Swift’s prince, who was suspected by others of raising mighty armies for such elevated purposes-some would say-of strengthening his reformed religion, or of recapturing Palestine from the Turks (2313). These are admirable ends from one perspective, but ones that utilize severely aggressive means. In Gulliver’s Travels, sublimation is examined in much more detail, resulting in Gulliver also exhibiting sexual frustration that he sublimates into the pursuit of admirable goals that end up intertwined with violence by the end.
Gulliver’s description of himself in Lilliput heightens his sense of sexual potency and power because of his physical size relative to the natives, inflating his ego precisely because the size of his penis instills awe among the little people. In a very telling passage from the first voyage Gulliver describes how he would “stand like a Colussus, with my Legs as far asunder as I conveniently could” while the army of Lilliput would march underneath him, taking the opportunity to look up his breeches, affording the soldiers “some Opportunities for Laughter and Admiration” (25). The description of himself as a colossus not only implies something large and powerful, but references the Colussus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Combined with the “Admiration” he instills in the soldiers who gaze upon his magnificent member, it’s obvious that Gulliver is extremely pleased with the view of himself in Lilliput as the supreme exemplar of sexual potency. But how can Gulliver deliver on this sexual capacity when it seems physically beyond consummation? What is the point of sexual power when it cannot be used?
In a passage in which the purpose for writing it is quite relevant but not entirely clear, Gulliver is able to both further boost his ego and also circumvent the problems posed by these questions. He delivers to the reader an inference that even if he is incapable of committing sexual acts with the Lilliputian women, they at least find him attractive and sexually desirable. The description of the alleged affair with the Treasurer’s wife no doubt proves comical to everyone but Gulliver, who doth protest too much against his having engaged in a feat of intercourse which would be physically impossible. That being the case, it seems probable that despite his protestation Gulliver doesn’t really relate this story to clear the name of a woman the reader will never know, but rather includes it in the narrative to aggrandize his sexual appeal.
This seems to be a reasonable interpretation, but Gulliver’s motivation for including the story of the impossible affair nevetheless remains open to debate. Charles Hinnant devotes an entire book to the argument that Gulliver’s Travels is concerned primarily with purity and defilement. He comes to the conclusion that the Treasurer’s anger isn’t even directed at the specific charge of infidelity, but rather at the “pollution of forbidden contact” (24) between Gulliver and his wife. Robert Hunting recognizes that Gulliver protests too much against the insinuation, but then dismisses Gulliver’s failure to mention the critical size difference as Gulliver simply “being naive” (100). What neither of these viewpoints address is the important question of why Gulliver bothers to share this information in the first place, when the prospect is clearly ludicrous. Gulliver must have had some reason for including the account of the liaison and even Philip Pinkus’ argument that the affair was an incident that developed “a chain of intrigue that leads to his downfall and almost to his destruction” isn’t very strong (33). After all, immediately after his discourse on the affair, Gulliver admits that the intrigue “had been for two Months forming against me” (47). The strongest argument for Gulliver relating the details of such a bizarrely ridiculous event as his sexual rendezvous with a six-inch tall woman seems to be that it was ego-related on his part to provide further evidence of Gulliver’s sexual power and desirability. Considering the string of humiliating events which are to follow, it should come as little surprise that Gulliver was tempted to inflate his own ego by overemphasizing sexual attractiveness to Lilliputian women, for it is primarily the women of Brobdingnag who will contribute to Gulliver’s sexual deflation.
The women of Brobdingnag are most significantly responsible for neutering Gulliver through dehumanizing him and questioning his masculinity. This contributes to the denial of his own desires for them, which then results in the subsequent sublimation of this denigration of his manhood. Laura Brown is perhaps overstating the case when she writes “the scenes that emphasize the scale of size in Book 2 are all centered around the female figure” (128), and her point that this emphasis results in misogyny is misplaced, but she’s correct in intimating that Gulliver’s relation to the size of the women will adversely affect his ego. The giant men who originally discover Gulliver don’t treat him disrespectfully. Not until the wife of the farmer sees Gulliver is he treated as an object of disgust, and in the course of a few pages Gulliver has gone from seeing himself as a magnificent Wonder of the World to seeing himself as a “loathsome little toad” or spider (69). He is immediately rejected by the first female Brobdingnagian he sees as a potential object of sexual desire. This same woman, along with her young daughter, will further undercut Gulliver’s claim to manliness by preparing a female doll’s cradle for Gulliver to sleep in (74), beginning a process of dehumanizing Gulliver into a plaything that eventually leads to his figurative castration at the hands of a teenage girl. The Queen will express surprise at “so much Wit and good Sense in so diminutive an Animal” (81). Wit, of course, was highly valued in the marking of a man at the time as being worthy of sexual interest and the contemptuousness of this back-handed compliment regarding his wit is deepened by the description of Gulliver as being both small and less than human. The Queen later demeans Gulliver by comparing their sizes in a mirror. Aggravating the humiliation of the observation that Gulliver has a significantly less imposing presence than a woman is the fact that he has to accept the humiliation with good humor, beginning the process of self-abasement that will be reversed through his efforts of sublimation (85). And finally, it is again the Queen who delivers a gut-wrenching blow to Gulliver’s machismo by asking him if “the People of my Country were as great Cowards as my self” (87). Philip Pinkus observes that “there is no possibility of [Gulliver’s] being incorporated into [Brobdingnagian] society as he was in Lilliput” (56) because he is a harmless little animal and not a fully actualized man. It might also be added that there is no possibility that Gulliver will be implicated in the same kind of sex scandal that he takes pains to deny in Lilliput. Gulliver clearly is not a sexual being worth tainting one’s reputation over in Brobdingnag. As humiliating as these attacks upon his manhood are, however, sublimation wouldn’t be necessary were Gulliver not faced with accepting his own sexual desire for the giantesses.
Gulliver’s defense mechanism to deal with his emasculation at the hands of the Brobdingnagian women is to deny the obvious sexual desire he feels upon seeing their body parts. Just as Gulliver’s denial of the affair with the Treasurer’s wife in Lilliput proves to be driven by ulterior, egotistical motives, his repeated professions of disgust at the sight of Brobdingnagian breasts reinforces the idea that Gulliver is actually erotically fixated on that particular body part. Gulliver is exposed to Brobdingnagian female nudity in its totality, but all he ever describes are their breasts. Very shortly after arriving, Gulliver finds himself in the presence of the naked breast of a Brobdingnagian woman and describes no part of the woman’s body other than her breasts (74). Of course, as Robert Hunting writes, “confronted by the fact of this huge and horrid dug, who could honestly pretend to see anything else?” (124). Naturally, Gulliver declares that he is more affected by the horridness of the breast than by its hugeness and that the sight of it disgusts him. Nonetheless, he does not even note any other portion of her anatomy. The probability that Gulliver is indeed a breast-man is certainly palpable; upon seeing a woman with cancer in her breast, though described as a “most horrible Spectacle”, he nonetheless engages in the rather fetishistic fantasy of creeping into her breast and covering his whole body (90). Gulliver allows himself to lay naked in the bosoms of the Maids of Honor, yet once again describes the circumstance as being digesting (95). The final example showing Gulliver’s breast obsession occurs in the same passage, where he describes being set upon the nipples of one of the Maids of Honor (96). Gulliver may well be repulsed by the sight of Brobdingnagian female nudity, but his disgust certainly seems to stem from voyeurism that could be rather easily avoided if he so desired. Also of interest is that it’s not just any one of the Maids of Honor who places him upon her nipples, but significantly and specifically it is the “handsomest” Maid who is a “pleasant and frolicsome Girl of sixteen” (95-96). Dismissing the pedophilic overtones that the passage inspires today, what man with Gulliver’s fixation wouldn’t find erotic satisfaction in being in the presence of a beautiful naked sixteen year old girl and being placed upon her immense breast? As Laura Brown rightfully observes, “Gulliver’s disgust with the maids of honor is balanced by a titillating voyeurism that singles out the ‘handsomest’ and suggests that he is sexually implicated in the scene” (129). Furthermore, this scene, by his own description, isn’t limited to a single occurrence. Gulliver could have stopped the proceedings before they were repeated simply by appealing to the exceptionally loyal Glumdalclitch. Only after these circumstances have occurred enough times for Gulliver to satisfy his desires and for the humiliation involved to overpower that desire does he reject the idea of any sexual arousal at the sight of the maid, and eventually ask that he not be taken to see her any more (96). At this point, Gulliver’s denial of sexual impulses converts into actual repression.
After all, what can Gulliver hope to accomplish even when he does become sexually aroused? In the words of Frank Boyle, “[Gulliver’s] penis, potent and generative at home and awe-inspiring in Lilliput, would be hardly detectable” (Boyle 36). Boyle then goes on to hit the mark directly: “Gulliver’s impotence in Brobdingnag gives rise to horror and disgust” (36). This horror arises because he is unable to function sexually in this society. The disgust is borne of his need to repress sexual fantasies which, if expressed, would only further his mortification. Gulliver’s ultimate sexual humiliation is the energy behind his attempts to sublimate those repressed desires into something higher.
Gulliver’s humiliation and repression of his sexuality are cleverly combined with the use of symbolism in a scene in which Gulliver attempts to sublimate his frustration by proving his manhood and worth to the King. The very same “handsomest” maid of honor who placed Gulliver upon her nipples also used him in “many of Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse [him] for not being over particular” (96). One implication is that Gulliver is being used as a dildo. One way of responding to this would have been for Gulliver to have been happy at finally being seen as a worthy sexual object, and it seems likely that this may have been his initial reaction, since he explicitly states that this wasn’t a singular occurrence. At some point however, he must have, understandably, changed his mind about being used this way. “Gulliver’s penis is important in Lilliput as a symbol of martial power…and a stimulus for life-threatening personal jealousy [whereas] in Brobdingnag Gulliver becomes a sort of toy phallus, the sexual plaything of adolescent girls” (Boyle 35). In other words, the castration of Gulliver’s once-prodigious penis is complete. In fact, what he experiences is worse than castration. He is left with his penis and testicles intact because they are recognized as useless. Instead, his entire body is transmutated into a toy designed solely for the sexual gratification of a teenage girl with no consideration of Gulliver’s own sexual needs. The ultimate humiliation of being turned into a dildo lies in the fact that one thing a dildo cannot do that a penis can is provide sperm for procreation. The very essence of Gulliver’s manhood has been denied by Brobdingnagian women. His primal sexual worth as a man utterly rejected, Gulliver decides to prove his worth as a man through association with higher forms of accomplishment such as government, law, and economics.
During his initial interview with the King, Gulliver obviously engages in the process of sublimating his sexual frustration by attempting to raise his worth as a man from the genital function to a higher function by aligning himself with what he views as the civilizing effects of British politics. This sequence is an excellent demonstration of what Norman O. Brown had in mind when he wrote that Swift “sees in sublimation, or at least certain kinds of sublimation, a displacement upward of the genital function” (49). The genital function, of course, is to produce offspring and thereby keep the world running with the hope that the offspring will learn more and accomplish more and create a better world. Recognizing the impossibility of accomplishing that in Brobdingnag, Gulliver instead convinces himself that he can improve the kingdom for its succeeding generations by doing the King “some signal Service” (103). Gulliver then proceeds to outline for the King the greatness of the English system of constitutional government, England’s method of instilling law, and its management of money. Gulliver’s attempts to influence the king recalls another psychological term: transference. Gulliver hopes to transfer what he absolutely believes will be the King’s admiration with England onto Gulliver himself. Everett Zimmerman describes the situation more concretely when he writes that Gulliver “needs something of worth to which to attach himself” (120). If he can succeed in this attachment his hope is that it will atone for the lack of sexual admiration to which he has been subjected.
Unfortunately for Gulliver’s psychological well-being, the King is far from impressed with what Gulliver sees as the noble accomplishments of his mother country. This sequence climaxes in the celebrated moment after which the King has delineated all the faults he has found in Gulliver’s discourse and pronounces that Gulliver’s natives are “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (108). Faced with the wholesale desecration of not only his own character but the character of his entire race, Gulliver makes the mistake that many malicious rats have made throughout history. Gulliver redirects frustrated sexual energy into violence (Boyle 36).
Gulliver’s final attempt at sublimating his frustrated sexual energy is expressed in the passage in which the protagonist reveals the secrets of gunpowder to the king. The language is charged with sexuality and aggression, ultimately combining both elements into a climax that leaves Gulliver completely impotent. Gulliver’s decision to embrace the power of war that he rejected in Lilliput is not difficult to understand. In the words of Frank Boyle: “Individual narcissism, the motive for all our actions, inevitably leads us to moments when the frustration of the narcissistic will detaches us from a sense of human sympathy” (Boyle 38). Gulliver’s sympathy is now entirely directed toward himself. At this point he is desperate to recover his lost sense of manhood that had been so greatly inflated in Lilliput. According to Everett Zimerman, Gulliver’s “behavior results from a comprehensible desire to demonstrate a capability that none of these giants had suspected” (Zimmerman 120,) and in this instance, “capability” can correctly be read sexually. Gulliver embraces the sexual component connected with the power of gunpowder as he attempts to both sell the King on the idea of its necessity and on the capability displayed by Gulliver’s possession of its secrets:
That a proper Quantity of this Powder rammed into an hollow Tube of
Brass or Iron, according to its Bigness, would drive a Ball of Iron or
Lead with such Violence and Speed, as nothing was able to sustain its
Force. That, the largest Balls thus discharged, would not only Destroy
whole Ranks of an Army at once, but batter the strongest Walls to the
Ground.[…]…could direct his Workmen how to make those Tubes of a
Size proportionable to all other Things in his Majesty’s Kingdom; and
the largest need not be above two hundred Foot long; twenty or thirty
of which Tubes, charged with the proper Quantity of Powder and Balls,
would batter down the Walls” (109-110).
The sexuality underlying the obsessiveness with tubes and balls and size and hard elements and the battering down of walls in this brief passage is striking. The capitalization choices used in this edition of the book leave no doubt as to the significance of the sexual connotations inherent in Gulliver’s aggressive double-edged sales pitch. Looked at with these connotations in mind, Gulliver isn’t just offering a mere weapon, he’s offering to supply the King with the knowledge of how to build a potent two-hundred-foot long phallus that will give the monarch absolute power over his dominion (Boyle 37). The King, obviously comfortable with his own sexuality, refuses Gulliver’s offer with indignation and horror. Once again Gulliver is humiliated, his attempts to sublimate sexual frustration into his conception of a noble goal come to an ignoble end. Gulliver’s only hope to reestablish his sexual worth is to leave the land of the giants, and his exit from Brobdingnag is done in short order immediately following this final failure to prove his manhood.
Gulliver’s adventures in Brobdingnag act as a direct comment upon his adventures in Lilliput and this contrast is very marked in response to Gulliver’s sexuality. Whereas in colossal sexual figure, in Brobdingnag he is subject to one sexual humiliation after another. This humiliation at the hands of the giant Brobdingnagian females eventually leads him to deny the quite obvious sexual desires that they instill. Denial of desires can lead either to unresolved repression or to the sublimation of those baser desires towards a higher goal. Gulliver chooses the latter, attempting to prove his sexual worth as a man by proving his intellectual capacity far exceeds that expected by the Brobdingnagian king. Upon this failure, Gulliver’s sublimation turns towads proving his manhood through aggression. Aggressive tendencies are a hallmark of sublimation. As Norman O. Brown points out, “the psychoanalytic theory of sublimation leads on to the theory of the universal neurosis of mankind” (48). The end result of Gulliver’s sublimation is his attempt to provide the King with the secrets to the ultimate product of mankind’s neuroses: the weapon by which we can undo all sexuality by wiping all the odious little vermin off the surface of the earth.
Boyle, Frank. Swift as Nemesis. Stanford Univ. Press: Stanford, 2000.
Brown, Laura. “Reading Race and Gender: Jonathan Swift.” Critical Essays on
Jonathan Swift. Ed. Frank Palmeri. GK Hall & Co.: New York, 1993.
Brown, Norman O. “The Excremental Vision.” Swift. Prentice-Hall: Englewood
Hinnant, Charles H. Purity and Defilement in Gulliver’s Travels. St. Martin’s Press:
New York, 1987.
Hunting, Robert. Jonathan Swift. Twayne Publishers Inc.: New York, 1967.
Loewald, Hans W. Sublimation. Yale Univ. Press: New Haven, 1988.
Pinkus, Philip. Swift’s Vision of Evil. Vol. II Gulliver’s Travels. English Literary
Studies: Univ. of Victoria, BC, Canada, 1975.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. WW Norton: New York
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Zimmerman, Everett. Swift’s Narrative Satires. Cornell Univ. Press: Ithaca,
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