Gulliver's Travels: Essay Q&A
1. How does Gulliver's role develop and change throughout the novel?
At the beginning of the novel, Gulliver is an everyman through whose eyes the reader sees the inhabitants of the places he visits. For most of the book, merely recounts his observations in deadpan mode. He appears to have no will or desires, but is led from land to land by fate. He gives his detailed descriptions without judgment, and without the capacity for reflection and distance that the reader possesses. He often fails to see the ludicrous, greedy, and morally depraved nature of the people around him, whereas this is all too clear to the reader. This gap between Gulliver's and the reader's perception of events leads to dramatic irony (a literary device in which the reader or audience of a work knows more than the character).
As a middle-of-the-road human being, Gulliver finds himself to be morally superior to the Lilliputians but morally inferior to the Brobdingnagians. In Brobdingnag, his weakness becomes clear. It is his pride in, and loyalty to, England, which leads him to lie to the Brobdingnagian king in order to paint his country in a favorable light.
As Gulliver's education progresses, he makes more direct judgments on the societies he visits, though at first these are understated. For example, in Part I, Chapter V, after the ministers have plotted to kill Gulliver in gruesome ways for trivial offenses, he notes for the first time that courts and ministers may not be perfect. By the end of his stay in Laputa, he is overtly despondent about the Laputans' shortcomings and the ruined society that they have sacrificed to theoretical thought.
Gulliver's stay in the land of the Houyhnhnms marks the complete loss of his objectivity and innocence. He finds himself midway between the rationality of the Houyhnhnms and the bestiality of the Yahoos. So impressed is he by the Houyhnhnms and so disgusted is he by the Yahoos that he becomes obsessed with trying to be like the Houyhnhnms, when he physically resembles the Yahoos far more. Finally, he gives way to an insanity in which he seems to believe himself to be a Houyhnhnm and rejects even the best of humankind because he believes them to be Yahoos. At the end of the book, Gulliver is still trying to re-acclimatize to life among humans. While condemning his fellow men for their pride, he fails to see that he himself has fallen victim to pride in his disgust at humanity. As a result, the reader ceases to look through his eyes to judge others and begins to look at him and judge him. He, too, becomes an object of satire.
2. What is the significance of size in the novel?
The physical size of the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians reflects their moral stature. The tiny Lilliputians are petty, vain, hypocritical, and self-important, and their government enshrines all that is foolish, vicious, and cruel in human nature. Though they are the smallest beings in the novel, they are the only race that parades its army in front of Gulliver to impress him. This is done, however, in full view of the nether regions of Gulliver's body, which are exposed due to the deterioration of his breeches. This detail makes the vanity and pomposity of the Lilliputians appear ridiculous. The smallness combined with the military aggressiveness of the Lilliputians calls to mind another small country with a tradition of military aggression and disproportionate power in the world: England. This equivalence is confirmed by the fact that Swift based several of the characters in the Lilliputian government on real-life models from the English government of his time. These include Flimnap (Sir Robert Walpole) and Reldresal, who probably represents Viscount Townshend or Lord Carteret, political allies of Walpole. The hysterical and vindictive Empress of Lilliput represents Queen Anne, who took offense at Swift's satirical writings. In making the reader view Lilliputians as tiny but threatening, and vicious, Swift is passing a similar judgment upon England.
The Brobdingnagians, in contrast, are physically and morally larger than Gulliver. Morality is built into their government, in contrast with England as described by Gulliver to the King of Brobdingnag, where immorality and vice are built into the government. The King is shocked by Gulliver's account of the abuses that have grown in English institutions and government and refuses Gulliver's offer to tell him the secret of gunpowder on the grounds that it is inhumane. The King's conclusion that mankind is "pernicious" and "odious" can be considered to be a commonsense judgment. His alarm at the destruction that man wreaks upon his fellow man is equivalent to the alarm that the reader (and even the insensitive Gulliver) feels at the vicious threats posed by the tiny Lilliputians. It is noteworthy that, while the Brobdingnagians' great size means that they could effortlessly destroy other nations and races, they would not dream of doing so.
However, the real danger that Gulliver faces daily in Brobdingnag merely by virtue of being smaller than the natives stresses the vulnerability of the powerless in the face of the powerful. This fact of nature can only be mediated by kindness and compassion, such as Glumdalclitch shows towards Gulliver when he is threatened by the farmer's exploitation.
3. What kind of attitude or thinking is Swift satirizing in his section on the Lagado Academy? Does this satire only relate to his own time, or does it still have relevance in the modern age?
The Lagado Academy satirizes abstract or theoretical knowledge which is pursued for its own sake, with no thought to the practical applications or consequences in the real world.
The professor who is working on a project to extract sunbeams from cucumbers is a famous and often-quoted example of the academicians' brand of learned idiocy. It may surprise modern readers to learn that most of the ludicrous experiments and theories espoused at the Academy had actually been carried out or proposed by the scientist members of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, a scientific society founded in 1660 which as of 2006 continues under the shortened name, the Royal Society. It had among its members such luminaries as Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. Though the Royal Society was set up to improve the practice of crafts through science, it proved more successful at discovering and codifying natural forces and phenomena than in creating useful technologies. Hence it was vulnerable to attacks such as Swift's in this section of Gulliver's Travels.
In the twenty-first century, public debate still rages about the usefulness or otherwise of ambitious scientific projects, some of which, like the one that Swift's academician hopes to launch, consume large amounts of public and private money. Obvious examples include the cloning of humans and animals, and the genetic engineering of food crops, both being technologies that (critics assert) establishments including the Royal Society continue to support as of 2006. Though, in opinion polls, public criticism of these technologies runs high and public demand for them is low, Western governments funnel large amounts of public money into them. Public debate about such topics centers around whether the benefits of such technologies outweigh the risks, whether there is any problem in the first place that needs to be fixed, and whether the "solution" could cause more problems that would require ever more elaborate and expensive solutions. In cases where there is popular consensus that a problem does exist, the conflict often focuses on whether proven, lower-technology (and thus cheaper) solutions already exist but are being sidelined in favor of the expensive, high-technology solution. Proponents of these high-technology methods, like the professors of Lagado, accuse their critics of being ignorant Luddites (protestors who, during England's Industrial Revolution, smashed new weaving machines that were putting hand-weavers out of business), anti-science, and anti-progress. Opponents of these high-technology methods accuse genetic engineers and cloners of pursuing their own private agenda and of being out of touch with what works for farmers and consumers. Swift would recognize the conflict as mirroring that of his own time.
4. Do you think that Swift meant the country of the Houyhnhnms to represent an ideal society?
It is open to debate whether Swift intended the seemingly ideal Houyhnhnm society to be attractive or subtly unattractive, and to what extent Swift shares Gulliver's completely approving attitude. However, no proper arguments against the Houyhnhnms' society are presented, whereas many arguments are presented against the society of the Yahoos and that of the humanoids visited by Gulliver. For these reasons, it is probable that the author shares Gulliver's approval of the Houyhnhnms and his growing disgust at humankind.
This said, it is difficult for the reader of this section of the book to continue to sympathize with Gulliver and to look through his eyes at the society he visits. This is because he is increasingly hostile to, and isolated from, his fellow humans. His disgust at their follies and vices is so overwhelming that it would seem to encompass the whole of humankind, the reader included. This makes the reader stand back from Gulliver and look at him with more critical eyes than in previous sections, in which he was a more objective, if gullible, observer. His rejection of Don Pedro's kindly and courteous treatment and, later, of his family, comes across as mean-minded and unbalanced. His preference for talking to his horses over his family appears to be a kind of madness. In his devotion to the rationality exemplified by the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver has become irrational.
On one hand, Swift may be suggesting that Gulliver is now an insane person who has given way to the vice he most condemns, pride; thus he has forfeited any claim to the reader's sympathy and trust. On the other hand, he may be suggesting that Gulliver's state of mind is a predictable response to living for so long in a rational society and then returning to the irrational and vice-ridden human society. In this latter interpretation, Swift's purpose may be to suggest that a man who has awoken to the insanity in human society has little choice but to turn his back on it and to take refuge in any rational element he can find: in Gulliver's case, his horses. This is as heavy a condemnation of human society as it is possible to make.
It is more likely that Swift was not presenting the Houyhnhnms as the ideal that mankind should reflect, any more than he meant the Yahoos to be a true portrayal of humankind. Gulliver, as everyman, is poised between the rationality of the Houyhnhnms and the brutality of the Yahoos. He symbolizes man's potential for both higher reason and vicious, base appetites. But finally, he gives way to pride, the vice that is the most seductive of all because it often accompanies real virtues. Pride leads Gulliver to turn his back on his fellow man, in effect, giving up all faith and hope in humanity.
5. What view of humanity is presented by comparisons between humans and Yahoos?
Gulliver, as a fundamentally decent man, tries to dissociate himself from the Yahoos, but both the Houyhnhnm master's descriptions of the Yahoos and Gulliver's own observations confirm that the Yahoos' behavior is identical to that of human beings at their worst. For example, they are greedy, so that one Yahoo will keep for himself enough food to feed fifty. This behavior corresponds to the greed and resulting inequality of human society that has come to light previously in the novel. They have an inordinate fondness for shiny stones, which they hoard secretly in their kennels, and which are the focus of many fights between Yahoos. This is a reference to human avarice. The Yahoos eat to excess so that they are prone to diseases, just as humans are. Yahoos, like rich, idle Englishmen, are subject to the fashionable eighteenth-century disease of spleen, for which (the Houyhnhnms find) the only remedy is hard work. Female Yahoos, like human females, have a tendency to treat each other with disrespect and are prone to the human vanity of coquetry.
Gulliver is horrified to discover on his reconnaissance mission among the Yahoos that he is sexually desirable to the females. This convinces him that he is, indeed, a Yahoo. When he captures a young male Yahoo, the creature defecates over him, to his disgust. This would be just as likely to happen with a human infant, so again, the emphasis is on equating Yahoos with humans.
Sometimes, a distinction is drawn between humans and Yahoos. Gulliver's Houyhnhnm master, in spite of his poor view of the Yahoos, notes that Gulliver falls short of them in respect of physical agility. This confirms Swift's point that the Yahoos are bestial creatures with certain animal characteristics. In addition, in Part IV, Chapter V, Gulliver's Houyhnhnm master draws an important distinction between Yahoos and humans. He points out that he does not blame the Yahoos for their despicable behavior, since they are not endowed with reason and therefore have no choice. With mankind, the case is different: ". . . when a creature pretending to reason could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself." In other words, because man has free will, he is more reprehensible than the Yahoos for immoral or destructive behavior. Instead of using reason to choose virtue, as the Houyhnhnms do, man uses reason to enlarge his vices.
Gulliver misses the point, however, when he strains to become unlike the Yahoos and like the Houyhnhnms, even trotting like a horse and speaking in their neigh-like manner. He rejects the virtuous and eminently human Don Pedro because he does not resemble a horse and, like all humans, somewhat physically resembles the Yahoos. Having the physical shape or mannerisms of a Houyhnhnm or a Yahoo does not turn a person into either. The deciding factors are how he acts and whether he chooses good or evil.
Gullivers Travels Study GuideChoose to Continue
- Gulliver's Travels
- Novel Summary
- Part I Chapters I-III
- Part I Chapters IV-VI
- Part I Chapters VII-VIII
- Part II Chapters I-III
- Part II Chapters IV-VIII
- Part III Chapters IV-XI
- Part III Chapters I-III
- Part IV Chapters I-III
- Part IV Chapters IV-VII
- Part IV Chapters VIII-XII
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- Jonathan Swift
- Essay Q&A