Swift's Theories on Knowledge and Shuttlecock

Barry J. Fishman '89

One of the central conflicts in Swift's novels is whether or not ignorance is truly bliss. Ironically juxtaposed against an ongoing discussion of the importance of history, Swift's characters often wonder aloud if perhaps their lives would be improved by not knowing certain secrets of the past. This question attains primary importance in Shuttlecock as a function of Prentis's job. As the head investigator of the "dead crimes" division his entire life is devoted to uncovering the hidden past of unwilling subjects.

As Prentis works on certain investigations he notices that crucial files are mysteriously absent and he suspects that his boss, Quinn, has taken them. Struggling with the urge to confront Quinn, Prentis wants to ask him for more information. "More information?" Quinn answers, "Good heavens, limited information is why we're here, Prentis. If we had all the information we wanted, we'd be gods, wouldn't we?" (31) Quinn's attitude is somewhat controversial. His job is to provide information, yet he also wishes to avoid complete knowledge. His view is possibly the equivalent of Swift's own views, and by the time the novel concludes it becomes of utmost importance to Prentis.

The entire discussion of knowledge is presented to the reader through these discussions between Prentis and Quinn. These talks become a type of philosophical dialogue, a Socratic exchange. These discussions are in reality confrontations between Prentis and his boss. It is during one of these confrontations that Quinn asks, "Have you had moments in your life, Prentis, when you've found yourself asking the simple question: Is it better to know things or not to know them? Wouldn't we sometimes be happier not knowing them? Know what I mean?" (118) Prentis does not know what Quinn means but soon learns that Quinn has been using his power to destroy certain incriminating documents, protecting unknowing people from the rehashing of their own pasts. Quinn is in fact playing the very "god" that he resisted earlier.

In one of the novel's most climactic moments Prentis goes to Quinn's home for drinks. It is here that all of the threads of the mystery come together and Quinn's stance is solidified for the readers. "Prentis. I've alluded to all this before, haven't I? That great heap of secrets at the office. A cupboard full of skeletons. . . you must have worked out for yourself by now what I've been up to." Prentis responds, "You've been withholding -- or destroying -- information so as to spare people -- needless painful knowledge." (176) Quinn has been protecting a small group of people, whom he refers to as his "flock," and among this select group is Prentis. The missing information contains much that would place his father's status as a war hero in doubt.

Several of the characters in this novel attempt to isolate themselves from a painful past. The most successful attempt is made by Prentis's father. A mute who apparently has lost all contact with the world, the old man symbolizes an ideal of Swift's philosophy. His catatonic state is the perfect human equivalent of Quinn's file pinching -- a living demonstration of someone who has decided to give up the past to protect himself and perhaps those that he loves. In Swift's world it is better to be blissfully ignorant.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Shuttlecock