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Breanna Moll

The Vices of Men and the Virtues of Yahoos

With the turn of a new era, authors and intellectuals alike devoted their talents to

understanding society’s new collective monologue involving vices and virtues. Gender

roles became detached, right and wrong were tethered together intimately, and the ethical

integrity and responsibilities of this new society were being evaluated. As with preceding

works, the prominent authors of the time referred back to their religious foundations in

order to examine and contrast these new standings. Within these collected works emerged

a common, central theme of good and evil that depicted how they could easy mingle. One

efficient way of demonstrating these points was through the effective use of contrasting,

yet unsettling similar protagonists and antagonists, which embodied the forms of good

and evil. Filled with rich metaphors, heavy depictions, and alarming foreshadows,

authors such as Jonathan Swift and John Milton attempted to bring these thoughts to the

public in a captivating capacity.

The first example submitted for observation is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s

Travels. Presented to the audience is the intelligent, steadily literal, and if not somewhat

calculable-mannered gentleman by the name of Gulliver. Throughout his epic adventures,

Gulliver remains ultimately true to his base characteristics, until the very end. Although

he does set out on these adventures, there seems a lack in a fundamental, enthusiastic

driving point pushing him ceaselessly to some underlying aspiration or ambition. This

ultimately encompasses the description of Gulliver’s overall life up to his sea-faring days.

He simply takes the next logical step. Ultimately, Gulliver’s adult life and adventures

follow suit. The entire first three paragraphs depict a mild-mannered, predictable, and
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scientific man, which can come across as mundane. This is illustrated in the first

paragraph when he states, “I was the third of five sons”. This becomes historically

significant due to the traditional importance of the first-born son, who held all the

prominence, inherited the family fortune, and became head of the family and business.

Gulliver had nothing special from birth, and nothing special was to be expected of him.

There is also the unavoidable stigma of the “forgotten” middle child. Another key factor

is the lack of personal relationships and connections. In chapter one, paragraph three, it is

mentioned that Gulliver “[had] few friends” which is accompanied by a strange lack of

preface as to how he met or married his wife. Everything is conducted such as a business

transaction. All of these factors carry an odd air of familiarity in concern with the older

Puritan ways that often pervaded literature in earlier English writings. Gulliver embodies

the stereotypical religious and righteous character, which left no room for creative

questioning or outside thought. He is the traditional embodiment of moral and virtue.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Swift delivers a race of characters simply

called the Yahoos. These bestial and boorish abominations of the community present a

unique paradoxical viewpoint that represents the evil pitfalls of a sinful life. Living in

filth and squalor, the audience is painted a most vivid image of humans living as animals,

as Gulliver described when he picked up a child and “the little imp fell a squalling, and

scratching, and biting with such violence, that [he] was forced to let it go;” (4.8.2).

During his observations, Gulliver also noted that although they behaved like animals in

all civilized aspects, he mentioned they were “…cunning, malicious, treacherous, and

revengeful” (4.8.3). This gives way to comparisons of early biblical writings concerning

the outcomes of a malignant life. The final connection to a deeper biblical message comes
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with the mention of the first Yahoos ever discovered which gave a slight foreboding nod

at Adam and Eve after their fall from grace and into sin. “… The two Yahoos said to be

seen… had been driven thither over the sea;… being forsaken by their companions, they

retired to the mountains… became in process of time much more savage than those of

their own species in the country whence these two originals came” (4.9.4).

A deeper evaluation of society through the use of these exaggerated descriptive

characters lets the audience reflect on the meaning and repercussions of their actions.

This becomes crucial during Swift’s time as society struggled to understand its sense of

wonderment over new societal roles and how these would affect one individually and as a

community. At the end, it became apparent that even Gulliver had issues with these

reflections and the status quo he once held so dear. Good and evil do not remain so black

and white. By creating the Yahoos to look like humans, it drives home the notion that

anyone carries the capacity for either good or evil. As Gulliver realized through his own

personal transitions, daring to ask questions will not necessarily lead to an ultimate

demise, despite what previous biblical references claim. At the end, the heaviest notion

became that even the Yahoos, who once started out with virtues and grace, descended into

utter madness. Evil is more relatable and familiar than what previous eras chose to

believe.

The second example of the exploration of good and evil is presented on a

somewhat larger and more literal scale through John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In his

narrative, Milton rehashes the well-known biblical tale of Satan’s fall from grace and his

diligent efforts at bringing God’s creations with him. Through Satan, the audience is met

with a character that, on the surface, seems wholly evil and ambiguous, but underneath
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displays hauntingly relatable human qualities. He taps into his emotion of pride in a way

that leads to the questioning of his current status among God’s creatures. When he is

passed over in favor of the Son, he displays all too familiar emotions such as jealousy and

anger that lead to his ultimate demise. He questions his current circumstance and chooses

to defy what has been the religious status quo. This reflects the fears of previous eras that

even the slightest stray from the preset honorable path would cascade into an avalanche

of disaster and evil. These fears are escalated when Milton reveals how a malevolent

force has the capacity to poison all of those around them through the introduction of

Adam and Eve. As Satan mentions to Eve in book 9,

“ye shall be as Gods

Knowing both good and evil as they know.

That ye should be as Gods, since I as Man,

Internal Man, is but proportion meet.”

By tapping into Eve’s natural pride and sense of wonder over the breadth of good and

evil, he successfully infiltrates the spiritual haven God created. This ultimately makes a

connection to the feelings of the masses in Milton’s era. Traditionalists expressed disdain

for the newer generation who were questioning traditional religious truths and displaying

looser morals. These viewpoints become strengthened with Milton’s exquisite detail and

descriptions of Satan and his human-like qualities. At the end, it poses the question, does

Satan possess human qualities or do humans possess satanic qualities.

Traditional eras in England revolved around classic religious foundations that

created a struggled to understand the ever-changing boundaries of vices and virtues.

Artists and authors alike took up the gauntlet in order to expand the realm of
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understanding in this often-tumultuous time. By comparing and contrasting the forces of

good and evil in different mediums, it encapsulated and exposed different spectrums of

grey within these areas of society. By challenging these preconceptions within the

religious arena, the audience is challenged to evaluate not only society, but one’s

individual moral standings and capabilities within his or herself. Milton and Swift

challenge the reader to expose oneself to the real vices of the world by becoming more

secure with ones own virtues. By demonstrating how easily one can slip into the

darkness, society is challenged to redefine preconceptions on the degrees of separation

between the good and the evil.


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Works Cited

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The Norton Anthology of English Litereature. Gen.

ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 1945-2175. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen.

ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 2489-2633. Print.