And the A’s Have It

Scored my first A this week! Intro to Critical Reading scared me shitless within the first 12 minutes of class. In those 12 minutes we signed up for in-class groups, different groups for the following week, and groups for party-heads for exam days (On exam days, we have a party/pizza – not too shabby).
During our in-class group time that night, we had to read about the critical method New Historicism for roughly 45 minutes, figure out how to apply it to the assigned text of Gulliver’s Travels, then present all that to the class. Before the next class we had to read another critical method, choosing between Deconstruction, Feminist, Psychoanalytic, and Reader Response, and more Gulliver’s Travels then present it along with the other people who signed up for that method. The following week was exam day. Panic ensued.
I doubt anyone besides me is terribly interested in my exam, but here it is anyway.
Exam Question 1:
Do a close reading of chapter viii or chapter ix in Part Four of Gulliver’s Travels. We are given two images that in different ways are equally unbearable for Gulliver. On one hand the young female Yahoo “inflamed by desire” for Gulliver causes him to feel frightened and ashamed. On the other hand the rational horses that Gulliver admires are shown as lacking in compassion and tolerance as they meditate on genocide. As a reader how do you interpret the conflict between Gulliver’s physical shame at identification with the Yahoos versus Gulliver’s mental identification with the rational beings, whose side are you on and what interests you in these scenes?
My answer:
I think the conflict of Gulliver’s identification with both species can be interpreted as a treatment of mankind’s constant endeavor to reconcile himself as both divine and debased, created just a little lower than the angels, yet not so low as devils. We are somewhere in the middle with characteristics of each. Being in the middle often causes problems, and I think that’s where Gulliver is. He can’t fully claim reasonable identification with the Houyhnhms because in fact he is still quite attached to many of his ingrained Yahoo ways. However, recognizing his physical similarities with the Yahoos is not appealing nor entirely accurate. Gulliver is in constant limbo. He illustrates the polarization of the two worlds, and by default, his split identities all throughout chapter eight. I find it interesting that right in the middle of the descriptions of these two races is where he finally positions himself. He expresses on page 242 his identification in all physical appearances with the Yahoos, albeit reluctantly and, in my opinion, full of self-loathing: “I could no longer deny, that I was a real Yahoo in every limb and feature, since the females had a natural propensity to me as one of their own species.”
But the point is, he positioned himself directly after relating the specifics of the Yahoos and before describing the Houyhnhms. Precisely in the middle. And I don’t think that fencing-sitting is ever resolved. Ultimately, he is forced to leave because he can not fully be a Houyhnhm, for such would be a disgrace to them; neither can he align with the Yahoos for that would be disgraceful to him.
Then when he arrives home to live in a society of marginally civilized Yahoos, he still feels displaced. All this reminds me of the Biblical concept of being in the world without being of it. Representing the divine in a society of secularism. In a fallen world, that perfection will never be attained.
Exam Question 2:
Identify what you see as the principal argument by one of your chosen critics Felicity Nussbaum, Carol Barash, Michael Conlon, or Terry Castle. What part of Gulliver’s Travels does your chosen critic focus on, and do you agree or disagree with their reading?
My answer: Felicity Nussbaum – Feminist method
In order to make her essay work, Nussbaum necessarily redefines “misogyny.” On page 321 she explains the traditional treatment of the word with its implication of a personally motivated vendetta. I think everything else in her essay rests on this manipulation of a word. She redefines it as “a cluster of discourses circulating within the culture directed against all women everywhere.” So it takes on a more general application. She explains that moving away from that “individual animosity,” releases the reader from identifying the author’s intention, allowing readers to analyze gender on a more general cultural level.
This whole idea leaves me with a feeling that something is lacking or else it’s that the redefining of a word merely for the merit of argument is dissatisfying and perhaps a little too circumstantially convenient. I feel like her feminist argument is at times too contingent on this act of redefinition and otherwise the whole essay might disintegrate.
On the other hand, just as I was beginning to find fault with the entire essay, I was halted by her disclaimer on page 321: “Feminist criticism need not mean resorting to a reductive approach that would simply label Swift misogynist or not.” I like that she’s willing to concede a blurriness in the text of whether Gulliver, and thereby Swift, is misogynistic.
Finally, I appreciated that she carried that balanced perspective throughout her writing. I felt she offered a proper feminist critique by raising questions and offering suggestions, but never by railing against Swift as a woman-hater.
And for my efforts, I received an A.

4 thoughts on “And the A’s Have It

  1. Well I did find it interesting. And I thought that your first answer was really well written.
    (Not that I am saying that there was anything wrong with your second answer – it’s just that it was about something that I don’t really know anything about.)


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