Gulliver's Travels and A Horse and Two Goats
The Potency and Impotence of Language
Cultural encounters can bring about a multitude of positive and negative effects. Where there is confusion there can also be revelation. Sometimes out of confusion comes a fortuitous opportunity. Sometimes out of revelation comes letdown. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and R.K. Narayan’s “A Horse and Two Goats” (1970) examine cultural encounters with specific attention on the affects these interactions have on the parties involved. Narayan whimsically celebrates cultural differences while Swift severely criticizes eighteenth century British culture in addition to warning against the acceptance of seemingly ideal ways of life. While both works serve to highlight the dichotomy of two cultures, each author has his respective position on the implications of cultural exchange.
In both works, the initial encounter between people of different cultures is met with confusion. Swift’s characters, Gulliver, the narrator and protagonist and the rational horses, the Houyhnhnms, ultimately resolve this issue when the Master steed and Gulliver gradually teach each other their native tongue. In Narayan’s short story, Muni, a poor goat herder from the smallest town in India, and the Red-faced Man, an American tourist, never break the language barrier in their brief interaction. The difficulty in the failure to communicate due to something as fundamental as language is a key theme in both works.
The confusion that arises out of the language barrier presents itself in Gulliver’s Travels when Gulliver is explaining to Master what the English word “opinion” means. “Neither is reason among them a point problematical as with us, where men can argue with plausibility on both sides of the question, but strikes you with immediate conviction…it was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion ” (181 Book 4). The Master’s failure to grasp the concept displays a main fault in the Houyhnhnms. While Gulliver attributes them as a “perfection of nature” (161 Book 4), that is, their staunch adherence to reason, what this quote shows is that rationality becomes a limiting factor to the horse culture. There is uniformity to their knowledge, as everyone believes what everyone else believes.
In “A Horse and Two Goats” the language barrier is never resolved. Nonetheless, the cultural encounter is a pleasant one as opposed to the case of Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms, which results in Gulliver’s exile because he will only ever be seen as an “enlightened yahoo”, who can never assimilate with the Houyhnhnm culture he idolizes. Narayan’s work, on the other hand, resolves confusion with fortuity. Muni receives one hundred rupees and the Red-faced Man gets a lavish antique for his living room. The language barrier, in a sense, unites the tourist with the local, as both gain from their encounter.
Where Gulliver has trouble explaining words like “opinion” and “precedent” to Master, Muni and the Red-faced Man are hopelessly trapped discussing entirely different subjects simultaneously. The dichotomy of cultures is first displayed when the Red-faced Man offers Muni a cigarette and Muni, uncertain of what a lighter is, blows out the flame. This technology gap initiates a theme that continues throughout the narrative: one of luxury versus squalor. While the Red-faced Man is factoring how the horse statue will fit in his living room, Muni is explaining the statue’s religious significance. Additionally, the language barrier, in separating the two characters, is illustrated in the final exchange of words: “The old man chattered away in the spirit of balancing off the credits and debits of conversational exchange…the red man dashed his hand into his pocket and brought forth his wallet” (795 Book 6). While Muni is cordially thanking the Red-faced Man for keeping him company, the American is negotiating a price for the statue. This point illustrates Narayans’ theme of disparity between cultures. Additionally, it also illustrates that out of misunderstanding comes fortune.
Language plays a major role in both works. In both, language provides a gateway to cultural exchange. For Swift this exchange, the fact that Gulliver is exiled, should not be viewed as pessimistic, however serves as a stark warning against idealization. While Gulliver loses faith in human nature, he never realizes what the reader is meant to: that the Houyhnhnms rigid rationality is not utopian either. By juxtaposing British and Houyhnhnm culture, Swift condemns extremism but also conservatism. Gulliver’s Travels highlights these beliefs. Narayan is more optimistic. Neither character can understand the other; the cultures and languages vary greatly, yet both succeed in their interaction. Swift’s view is not pessimistic, only satirical, while Narayan’s view is a comical interaction that ends in equitable joy.
Works by Narayan
- Literature: Candide and Olaudah Equiano
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- Literature: Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughter-House Five"
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- Literature: The Things They Carried
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Davis, Paul, et al, eds. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 4-6. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2003. Print.
Narayan R.K. “A Horse and Two Goats”. Davis, et al 785-797 Book 6.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Davis, et al 147-198 Book 4.
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