Relationship between Individual and Society in Gulliver’s Travels and Candide
Gulliver’s Travels and Candide are popular adventure stories depicting man’s search for a perfect world. Numerous interpretations are prevalent in the literary world exploring the various aspects of these works. The protagonists of both theses novels go through a series of adventures. These adventures are characterized by incidents or events of extreme emotional experiences. Gulliver’s experiences border on dangers of the extreme kind, often threatening his life and very existence. Similar is the case of Candide who experiences horrifying violence, often perpetrated by the so-called guardians of the society. The plot of the novel is complex with a number of characters interacting with each other to weave the matrix of the action. Both the protagonists survive these extremities by their inner quest for an ideal world that they can never achieve. They make themselves believe that they have achieved their goal at certain points. For example Gullver thinks that the ideal world is the world of Houyhnhnms. Similarly Candide cultivates a garden, following the advice of the farmer. He thinks the garden is the symbol of a world of perfect justice where returns are proportionate to the efforts. Hence both the novels basically explore the relationship of the individual to the society in spite of the multifarious interpretations these works offer.
To establish the contention that both the works centre round the theme of individual and society, it is necessary to evaluate them from the point of view of the chief protagonists in the novels. In Gulliver’s Travels, the strange and peculiar world with their inhabitants is unravelled before us through the perception and analysis of the protagonist Gulliver. The ideal and real world of an individual is graphically portrayed by the diametrically opposed worlds of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. Houyhnhnms are paragons of perfection, embodying an ideal relationship between individual and society. They live an orderly and disciplined life fully governed by reason. They are completely devoted to truth and justice. They speak clearly and act justly and have simple laws. Each Houyhnhnm knows what is right and acts accordingly. They are untouched by greed, politics, or lust and live a life of cleanliness and exist in peace and serenity. “They live by the grand maxim: cultivate reason and be totally governed by it. So perfect is their society, in fact, that they have no concept of a lie, and therefore no word to express it. The only word for evil is Yahoo.”(Cliff Notes)
Yahoos are portrayed as disgusting animals or semi-human creates that are naturally vicious and degenerating by degrees. Gulliver tries to distance him from these creatures but their appearance, behaviour and social relationship are akin to human being. They are humanlike beasts that live in servitude to the Houyhnhnms. “Yahoos seem to belong to various ethnic groups since there are blond Yahoos as well as dark-haired and redheaded ones. The men are characterized by their hairy bodies, and the women by their low-hanging breasts.”(Spark Notes) All these descriptions reveal that they have strong biological affinities with human beings. “They are naked, filthy, and extremely primitive in their eating habits. Yahoos are not capable of government, and thus they are kept as servants to the Houyhnhnms, pulling their carriages and performing manual tasks.” (Spark Notes)
This description of the Houyhnhnms and their world bespeak an underlying
tension and a constant yearning to achieve the perfection of these imaginary creatures. The use of adjectives like ‘grand maxim’, ‘life of cleanliness’, ‘exist in peace and serenity’ are all indications that the protagonist is deprived of an ideal life or is unable to achieve that level of perfection. These are the ideals that the society upholds and constantly urges a person to achieve in his life. Unfortunately this ideal world is only a wishful dream. The reality is something completely different. Life is portrayed as a continuous struggle to achieve this ideal relationship with society and other individuals. Each attempt of the protagonist to achieve this ideal relationship ends up in further complications. It exposes the vulnerability of the protagonist and he discovers that his affinity is not to the Houyhnhnms but to theYahoos:
Gulliver, however, reacts to the Yahoos with immediate and overpowering detestation and is horrified by the Yahoos’ similarity to him. He lacks the humility to see himself as a sort of Yahoo. Rather, his pride leads him to try to become a horse. Gulliver will try with admirable determination to improve himself; he will try to change himself into a more horse-like state, but he will fail. He is, simply, more of a Yahoo than a Houyhnhnm.(Cliff Notes)
Gulliver’s futile attempt to identify him with the Houyhnhnms leads him to the truth that in their wisdom and rational simplicity, the Houyhnhnms are indistinct personalities who do not even have proper names. In other words, they are like the modern clones with just minor physical differences. they are all so good and rational that they are more or less interchangeable, without individual identities. “In their absolute fusion with their society and lack of individuality, they are in a sense the exact opposite of Gulliver, who has hardly any sense of belonging to his native society.” (Spark Notes) His longing for perfection and the impossibility to achieve it makes him alienated from society. In this sense Gulliver’s Travels can be considered to be a modern novel dealing with the theme of alienation, focusing on an individual’s repeated failures to integrate into society to which he does not belong.
In contrast to Gulliver, Candide tries to immerse himself in this world through passive submission to integrate him to the society. Candide sees the world through the philosophy of his teacher Pangloss who believes that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This idea is a reductively simplified version of the idea that God is perfect, so the world he created should be perfect but people perceive imperfections in the world because they do not understand God’s plan. This philosophy of Candide undergoes a drastic change when he is witnesses “floggings, rapes, robberies, unjust executions, disease, an earthquake, betrayals, and crushing ennui. These horrors do not serve any apparent greater good, but point only to the cruelty and folly of humanity and the indifference of the natural world. “ (Spark Notes)
The excessive optimism of candide becomes ineffective and proves to be futile because it is based on an abstract philosophy rather than on real world evidence. “In the chaotic world of the novel, philosophical speculation repeatedly proves to be useless and even destructive. Time and time again, it prevents characters from making realistic assessments of the world around them and from taking positive action to change adverse situations.” (Spark Notes) Finally, Candide rejects his philosophy and creates his own space in the blissful garden that he created through hard work.
This garden is made by candide by following the advice of a farmer who is far removed from the machinations of this world. This garden is based on the perfect ideal of justice where the returns are proportionate to the efforts one puts in. There is no injustice here like those we see in the outside world. The farmer reminds us of the Houyhnhnms who are symbols of truth and justice and the garden can be compared to the land of Houyhnhnms. “In the world outside the garden, people suffer and are rewarded for no discernible cause. In the garden, however, cause and effect are easy to determine—careful planting and cultivation yield good produce.” (Spark Notes) The symbolic significance of the garden is multifaceted. It is often compared to garden of Eden because the garden marks the end of the characters’ trials, but for Adam and Eve it is the place where their troubles begin. “ Moreover, in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve enjoyed the fruits of nature without having to work, whereas the main virtue of Candide’s garden is that it forces the characters to do hard, simple labor.”(Spark Notes)
In Short, the protagonists in both the novels wanted to forge an ideal relationship with their society. Gulliver opted for an active course of action by going away in search of his ideal world. In the process of his journey he stumbled upon this ideal world. Unfortunately, he couldn’t integrate him into the world of Houyhnhnms. So he returned disillusioned to his society and lived as an alien thinking of the ideal world. Candide on the other hand immersed himself in this world through passive submission in order to integrate him into his society. He too met with the same fate. He decided to return from this world to assert his individuality in his garden of bliss by alienating him from the faceless crowd. In the course of their journey they realize that it is not possible to fulfil this dream of integrating themselves into their societies. Though they took different routes to achieve their goal, they both discovered the same truth. In this sense both the works deal with the basic theme of man’s relationship to his society.