Tomorrow night I am beginning my graduate seminar on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy by having my students read Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I’m hoping that this text will serve as a useful model for Sterne’s difficult novel.

I’ve taught Gulliver’s Travels before, but this time I’m taking a slight risk. In addition to the usual discussion of politics and the Enlightenment (and Swift’s views on each), I am also emphasizing a reading of the novel based on two essays by Christopher Fox. The first is an article published in EIghteenth-Century Studies in 1986 entitled “The Myth of Narcissus in Swift’s Travels.” The second is a chapter in an MLA volume, Approaches to Teaching Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels entitled “Sexuality and the Body.”

What I’m interested in exploring is the joke early in the text in which Swift brings up masturbation. The joke starts with Gulliver’s mentioning the man to whom he is apprenticed, Mr. Bates. After a few near misses, Gulliver finally calls him “Master Bates.” The question I have is, “Why does Swift begin his text with this joke?” I wonder what function it serves and what connotations are evoked by it. This joke is all the more interesting because the opening paragraphs of Gulliver’s Travels so heavily emphasize the conventions of realist fiction: where Gulliver was born, who his parents are, where he went to college, how old he is, etc. This joke immediately seems to undermine this realism.

So, I turned to Fox’s work to see what he says about it. In sum, Fox argues that this allusion to masturbation would have evoked very negative connotations for contemporary readers and ultimately connected Gulliver to the myth of Narcissus. His essays mention a couple of other eighteenth-century texts, which are available on Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, a great database, so I downloaded a few excerpts for us to discuss in class.

The first of these is Onania; or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, a 1724 text that purports to elucidate all of the “Frightful Consequences” of masturbation. This passage gives a good sense of this text’s view on this activity:

For Fornication and Adultery it self, tho’ heinous sins, we have Frailty and Nature to plead; but SELF-POLLUTION is a Sin, not only against Nature, but a Sin, that perverts and extinguishes Nature, and he who is guilty of it, is labouring at the Destruction of his Kind, and in a manner that strikes at Creation it self.

Later, the text delineates the consequences of “the frequent Use of this POLLUTION” for men, which include “Stranguries, Priapisms, and other Disorders of the Penis and Testes,” a form of Gonorrhea that’s “more difficult to be cur’d than those contracted from Women,” “fainting Fits and Epilepsies,” impotence, and, when these men are able to procreate, “weakly little ones, that either die soon, or become tender sickly People, always ailing and complaining.”

Besides making me wonder what Mr. Elliot in Persuasion and Lady Catherine DeBourgh’s husband in Pride & Prejudice were up to in their youth, this description of the dire consequences of masturbation seems to connect to Gulliver’s increasingly weak constitution as the narrative progresses. By the end of the book, he’s even starts to swoon when he is among humans again.

A Modest Defense of Publick Stews; or, An Essay upon Whoring, a satiric work written by Bernard Mandeville also in 1724 continues this theme, though with much more colorful language.

What I hope my students get out of this is the violent language. These texts also depict Onanites as isolated, unable to engage in “natural” intercourse, and ultimately unmanned and impotent.

Fox connects these texts to a chapter in the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, which was written by Swift in conjunction with the other Scriblerians. Chapter XI tells the story of a young nobleman at court who has fallen in love with himself. Many of his symptoms are similar to those associated with “self-pollution.” What’s more, there are several resonances between this chapter and Gulliver’s behavior especially after his last return to England.

This association of Gulliver with Onanism and Narcissism undermines his status as a trustworthy narrator whose opinions readers are meant to adopt. Instead, he is critiqued just as much as “the human condition” is satirized in the Travels. I hope that we are able to connect this critique to a larger critique of the Enlightenment by Swift, his rejection of rationalism as the sole guide for learning and wisdom. We’ll see how it goes.

Of course this begs the eternal question, “How much masturbation is too much?” This question is particularly important to ask when we’re talking about the first class meeting of a new class. It’s a risky way to start, but I hope that, if nothing else, it will set up for talking about Tristram Shandy later. We’ll see how it goes!