What Do Writers Find In Other Lands?

Daniel Owens

This essay discusses the idea that early modern literature suggests there was a need to convert all that was not considered ‘European’ into a more ‘civilised’ world, as foreign lands, people and religions were considered ‘barbaric’. This prevalent and common thought is demonstrated and argued through Owen’s in depth study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Milton


Michel de Montaigne’s Of Cannibals (1562) offers an explanation as to why the European colonialists were threatened by the Native Americans whose land they were invading.  He states that ‘everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country’, that anything unfamiliar to one’s ‘own country’ must be changed to comply with a European vision of society. Interestingly, modern critic Edward Said talks about ‘the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all non-European peoples and cultures’. It appears then, that there is a tradition of European thinking that highlights superiority that cultural and ideological differences are viewed as inferior, and must be altered to fit a European ideal. Heidi Hunter furthers this, ‘apologists for the Empire claimed that natives were primitives that needed to be Christianised’, this aversion to difference taps into a fear of the unknown, ‘of the people who differ very little from beasts’ who must be ‘Christianised’ into assimilation, placed within an ideological model understandable to Europeans.


In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1606) Prospero, Frank Kermode states is the ‘ordination of civility, the control of appetite, the transformation of nature by breeding and learning’. Prospero’s magic is the European patriarchal dominance which prevents Caliban undermining his authority, ‘he didst seek to violate the honour of my child’, the controlling of Caliban’s urges to ‘people the island with Calibans’, sees Prospero’s patriarchy win out, adding to his control of Miranda, whose ‘female body is the means in which patriarchal authority is maintained’. If Caliban and Miranda had reproduced, Prospero’s power would have collapsed, because Miranda’s virginity is the commodity by which he reigns; this is later subverted by John Dryden’s sexualised Miranda in the Enchanted Island. Yet Shakespeare’s Prospero successfully represses Miranda’s sexuality until the arrival of Ferdinand, mirroring the arranged marriage of Frances Howard and the Earl of Essex as one that performs a political purpose, granting Prospero his lost European authority and tying him back to Europe at the play’s end.

Prospero’s treatment of Caliban consists of racial epithets, ‘thou poisonous slave got by the devil himself, ‘thy vile race’  after he sees the ungratefulness of Caliban in attempting to undermine his power. George Lamming highlights the attempts at ‘civilising’ Caliban with lessons of language ‘Education, meaning the possession of the word … is the tool that Prospero has tried on the irredeemable nature of his savage and deformed slave’ . Prospero hopes that the power of speech will give him a greater understanding of Caliban, but he is only repaid by him attempting to violate Miranda. He ‘took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour, one thing or other, when thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning’. This highlights Prospero’s blindness, manipulated by his singular European view, he cannot comprehend that Caliban’s island ‘does prove that an alternative to the present age could exist’, that perhaps by living in nature, Caliban’s is a happier existence because he is ‘less corrupted by the practices and prejudices of civilisation and… considered natural’.


His desires are more ‘natural’ because he is not bound by the socially constructed ideas that dominate the 17th century European and lives liberally before Prospero arrives to ‘forge the island in his own image’. His ‘image’ is what is familiar, organising the wildness of Caliban and the island into a functioning project of assimilation into European beliefs; imposing European language, customs and a patriarchal ideology onto a land that is distanced from Europe, but one that Prospero must bring under his control through what he finds familiar, for fear of ‘going native’.

It scares the European Prospero to envisage, as Montaigne does, that as the ‘laws of nature govern them’ and ‘no logic of letters, no science of numbers… or political authority’ are to be found on the island, that so primitive an existence to that of the ‘advanced’ Europeans can be maintained. Colonialism, ironically seems to expose the barbarity within Europeans, subjugating those who ‘covet so much as their natural necessities require’ because these ways of life differ greatly form European ideology, exemplified when Hippolito in Dryden’sThe Enchanted Island soliloquises about Ferdinand’s monogamous beliefs. ‘This Stranger does insult and comes into my world to take those heavenly beauties from me’. Hippolito resents Ferdinand’s talk of purity found in publications such as The English Housewife , a pamphlet in which social expectations are absorbed into the European consciousness, and in a twist, Ferdinand becomes the ‘stranger’ as Hippolito ridicules his supposed rationality, initially refusing to embrace the ‘normalisation’ of his own ‘barbaric’ ways.


Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) also offers a discourse on the European perception of the differences between the civilised and the ‘savage’. Gulliver, like Prospero, ‘others’ the natives because like Caliban, they ‘simply refuse to accept the European code of ethics’, they do not try to rape Gulliver but they are governed by their ‘laws and customs... very peculiar, and if they were not so directly contrary to those of my dear country, I should be tempted to say a little in their justification’. Gulliver is Prospero-like in his devaluation of non-Europeans; where Prospero represses Caliban’s desires, whose ‘natural conduct... associated with sexual promiscuity’ he ridicules the Lilliputians’ customs because they do not fit those of his ‘dear country’, the values of which he constantly employs to assess contrasting beliefs. Although the European in Gulliver questions the practices of ‘others’, unlike Prospero, who attempts to ‘forge the island in his own image’ Gulliver attempts to assimilate himself with the Lilliputians’, ‘I had now made a good progress in understanding and speaking their language’ . This reveals that perhaps he doesn’t have too much faith in his ‘dear country’ he later claims that it is his aim ‘to make wiser and better, and improve minds by the bad as well as good examples’ of his findings as he obsessively scours the world, observing new lands.


Yet, even though his intentions are pure, apart from his voyage to Houyhnhmnland, Gulliver doesn’t bring any ‘laws and customs’ back to the land of ‘English colours’. The reason behind the Lilliput-Blefuscu conflict is something that Gulliver could have learnt from; as Larry Wollf and Marco Cipolloni declare ‘Swift was aware that customs of culture could be basis for comparing people worldwide... the militant enmity between the islands... comical point of discord was their irreconcilable customs for cracking eggs’. In this idea, Swift articulates the triviality of conflict, the notion that ‘the books of Big-endians have been long forbidden’ is metaphorical of the European justification of colonialism.

This subtle clash in ideology mirrors the contrast between Christian Europeans and the Native Americans, justifying the invasion of native America to erase its different and therefore ‘primitive’ beliefs. The main reason for this assimilation though, lies in the ‘recognition of one’s past in another... where the other must be made the same- forcibly brought up to date...’. Just as the Lilliputians recognise their past in the ‘Big-endian exiles’ of Blefuscu, the Europeans recognise their primitive selves in the Virginian natives whom ‘they could reduce... from brutishness to civility’, imposing Christianity on the natives to protect their culture from the threat of opposing, or ‘old-fashioned’ ideals.

Another facet of The Tempest is how it ‘functions as a testing ground for resolving rifts and discontinuities in English politics and culture’. Stephen Orgel argues that ‘Prospero’s magic power over children: his daughter Miranda, the bad child Caliban... the adolescent Ferdinand’reaffirms the superiority he relinquished when his ‘brother... a treacherous army levied’ against him in the ‘Old World’. Prospero uses this new world as a surrogate for his failures in Europe, but instead of embracing a new ideology, he regresses back to European beliefs. He initially fathers Caliban, ‘when thou camest first thou strokedst me and made much of me’ and attempts to ‘civilise’ him with language until ‘the attempted violation of Miranda’ , tapping into Prospero’s sense of his daughter as his property.  

The ‘natural right of a supreme father over every multitude’ in the 17th century grants him authority over everyone , dooming his ‘bad child’ Caliban ‘to make our fire, fetch in our wood and serve in offices’ and to be looked upon as an ‘abhorred slave’. So where there is a chance for Prospero to embrace a different ideology through ‘the sexual innocence, the equality of condition... and vigorous minds unsullied by the complexities and sophistication of modern civilisation’ offered by Caliban’s native land, instead he scorns Caliban because he is not what Prospero expects from a man of ‘modern civilisation’, and his potent sexuality threatens to overthrow the ‘natural right’ of Prospero’s European-influenced rule.


For an expansion of these ideas, we may look to The Enchanted Island where the ‘savagery of Caliban... has invaded the Europeans. In particular, the European female characters... who are far more sexually uncontrollable than Shakespeare’s Miranda’. When discussing men, Miranda tells Dorinda ‘I know no more than you but I have heard my father say we women were made for them’. It appears that Dryden’s Prospero’s manipulation of his daughters’ sexuality has failed and ‘the unruly native is present within the European daughter’, brought out by ‘dwelling in nature according to nature, existing free of history’s burdens’, allowing sexuality to blossom naturally, free from the confines of Europe and its notions of femininity and female sexuality, found in publications such as A Crystal Glass for Christian Women (1606).

This sexual liberty is reminiscent of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in which ‘human eroticism and passion... are essential to Milton’s paradisal ideal’, to an extent where he empowers Eve’s nakedness ‘unadorned golden tresses wore dishevelled but in wanton ringlets waved as the vine curls her tendrils’. The notion of Milton’s ‘paradisal ideal’ is at odds with 17th century views of women but supports Dryden’s study on the ‘conventional characteristics of the native woman’, the sexually desirous Dorinda and Miranda. Yet this sexuality can be dismissed as a Westernised view of the ‘unenlightened heathenism’ of native peoples that infects the purity of the ideal European woman, whose ‘chastity is an enclosed garden, it should not be so assaulted lest the report of her spotless beauty become soiled’.

This represents the central paradox that Shakespeare and Dryden address in their respective works, whether it is better to embrace sexuality or to hinder sexual awareness, in order to retain a well-balanced and structured society. As George Lamming says of Miranda, ‘her father will arrange her future; and all will be well provided the references of truth are not disturbed’, as long as she resents the ‘rapist native’ Caliban, Prospero’s European patriarchal order will remain an antidote to his rampant sexuality. David Lowenstein’s study of Paradise Lost offers an alternative to this ‘the voyeuristic Satan is the one enviously gazing upon the primal couple and their Edenic delights’, the sexual freedom exhibited by Adam and Eve is not judged, it is envied. Perhaps there is a dichotomy that resides in colonialism; the wish to ‘Christianise’ the natives works in opposition with a longing to embrace those who are ‘unsuited to civilisation’ and rediscover a lost ‘Eden’ free from the chains of monogamous Western society.


When analysing Gulliver’s Travels, Brian Tippett states that it is ‘a view of human history as a degenerative process which through corruption and complication... carries mankind away from primal virtues and simplicities’. This deals with the same issues as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dryden and Milton, that Europeans are ‘degenerative’ because they have hidden a desire for sexual freedom behind institutional shackles of rationality. Gulliver, in the final book of the novel, is guilty of committing this very action. He is ‘reacting against the Yahoos because he mistakes the animal part of human nature which they repressed for the whole, Gulliver goes to the other extreme and worships pure rationality in the Houyhnhmns, which is likewise only part of the whole’. The victory for rational patriarchy inThe Tempest disturbs Miranda’s sexual development; she is moulded into loathing the abject Caliban because Prospero fears that his sexuality threatens the rationality of the European order, which has hidden its ‘animal part’ as it constructs a civilisation based on repression.

This is much the same way as Houyhnhmn society works (ironically, because the Houyhnhmns are in fact animals); after her husband’s death a woman ‘behaves as cheerfully as the rest: she died about three months after’, the sacrifice of emotion, for Gulliver, is a vision of utopia, allowing for a more rational ruling of the world where sex is a concept that has been forgotten. He is only swayed to these ideals by his repulsion of humanity, ‘when I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself’. He sees himself in these animalistic figures, so he turns to the extreme of assimilating himself with the Houyhnhmns to avoid being seen as primitive and associated with the atavistic behaviour of the Yahoos.


He does this to project his own uncertainties, much as the ‘Puritans’ image of the Indian was the projection of the fears and repressed desires of themselves’, and much the same as Prospero does to Caliban in The Tempest, to denigrate Caliban and deflect fears of the animal past of civilised Europeans. Richard Jacobs highlights a piece of mythology that cements Swift’s thoughts; he ‘turns Gulliver into Chrion, the wisest of centaurs, half-man and half-horse, accidentally wounded in his knee’. He is a symbol for 17th century man, desiring a society based on rationality but always haunted by the spectre of primitive lust, present in John Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, where a ‘forward-thinking’ European explorer is tempted by the idea of ‘going native’ and sexually conquering a native woman.


This is also reflected in the geography of Houyhnhmnland which maps out human duality in the 17th century, the rational intelligentsia who occupy the main land and the victimised Yahoos who live on the fringes of society. The rational horses wish them to be forgotten but they still occupy a space that keeps the idea of pre-‘civilised’ humanity alive, much like how Prospero attempts to imprison Caliban and Hippolito in The Tempest to erase their sexual urges, but they always remain on the periphery of the text, as Prospero and Miranda make numerous references to them, whether this is out of repulsion or fascination is never clear.


So, humanity, read through Gulliver’s Travels, is like Chiron, ‘half-horse and half-human’, rational and irrational, obsessed by progression but fascinated by the ‘purity of Edenic sexuality’. Irvin Ehrenpreis claims that ‘the object being ridiculed is not Europeans, Christians... it is mankind’. It is useless to try and normalise ourselves by fighting against ‘sexual innocence, equality of condition... peaceful simplicity’, like the European patriarchy that Prospero assumes when tackling Caliban or attempt to completely remove our sexuality in favour of rationality, like the Houyhnhmns. Maynard Mack states that this makes us as ‘absurd, monstrous and tedious as the Houyhnhmns’, and that we must acknowledge that we are carefully balanced between two opposites. Swift’s Houyhnhmns represent how truly ‘absurd’ we make ourselves by repressing our sexuality and imposing a strict patriarchal ideology, as Prospero does with Miranda, in an attempt to progress from a supposedly animalistic past to a rational and repressed future.


Perhaps this is the result of what that the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost brought about, Eve’s sexuality ultimately resulted in temptation, so the rule of the father and of man, evident in Patriarcha is the tool that is used to regulate Europe in the 17th century. Prospero imposes this onto Caliban’s land until he regains his political power through the ‘nuptial of these our dear beloved solemnized’ in true Christian fashion. Gulliver, due to his time in Houyhnhmnland has shunned sexuality entirely when he returns to England ‘neither was I able to let one of them take me by the hand’. Gulliver sees himself beyond his family, whom he now equates with Yahoos, as he worships the rationality favoured by the Houyhnhmns, his desire for assimilation resulting in a complete rejection of sexuality and human emotion, making him as ‘absurd’ as the Houyhnhmns.


Words: 2,744


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Daniel Owens


brightONLINE student literary journal

16 Nov 2012