You might have heard people call Gulliver's Travels a satire. A satire is a (generally funny) fictional work that uses sarcasm and irony to poke fun at the general patheticness of humanity – our weakness, our stupidity, all that jazz. Some of our favorite satires include The Onion and The Daily Show. But if you love twenty-first century satire (like we do), you should check out the eighteenth century – those guys were huge fans of a good satire. In fact, some of the greatest thinkers of the eighteenth century, including poet Alexander Pope, mathematician John Arbuthnot, and our main man, Jonathan Swift, could not get enough satire. They even started a club, the Scriblerus Club, to express their general contempt for humanity and for bad writing in particular.Thus, we think it's fair to say that the early eighteenth century was a good time for haters. This was lucky for Jonathan Swift, since he's like the king of haters – one of the greatest writers of satire that English literature has ever seen.In fact, Swift had a lot of cause to despise people, because he had a somewhat disastrous public life. Swift was an Irish clergyman who regularly came to London to participate in the political and literary scene under Queen Anne. While Jonathan Swift began life as a Whig (Britain's liberal party in the eighteenth century), he eventually became a prominent Tory (a member of England's conservative party).Tories favored royal authority and the national church (Anglicanism).
The Tories also opposed increased power for the Parliament, the English equivalent of the American Congress. Swift may not have believed as strongly in the divine right of kings as some dyed-in-the-wool Tories (as you might guess from his satire of kings in Gulliver's Travels). Still, he did generally side with political conservatives on the issues of the day.Everything seemed to be going relatively well until George I took the English throne in 1714. With George came a strongly pro-Whig Parliament. The Whigs were the political enemies of the Tories, and Swift found himself up a creek without a paddle. Facing the end of his political life, Swift headed back to Ireland, becoming dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin . This feud between the Whigs and the Tories provides the primary political material for Gulliver's Travels – for more specifics, check out our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians.Swift completed Gulliver's Travels in 1725 and published it through London printer Benjamin Motte in 1726. Swift wrote to Motte under an assumed name, Richard Sympson, to arrange the novel's printing. Motte was so concerned with being charged with treason for publishing Gulliver's Travels that he tried to tone down the political content of several parts of the novel (source). The fact that Swift couldn't even use his own name when planning his book's publication, and that the publisher tried to censor its content, gives us a sense of exactly how offensive Gulliver's Travels must have been when it was written.Outraged that Motte rearranged his original text, Swift finally sent Gulliver's Travels to another press for printing. The 1735 edition, printed by George Faulkner in Dublin, restores the novel in its complete form and includes a nasty little letter supposedly from "Captain Gulliver" criticizing the 1726 edition's changes. But even Motte got a happy ending: Gulliver's Travels sold out its first printing in 10 days. Everybody read it, and now here we all are, ready to get to the nitty gritty of Lemuel Gulliver and his travels.
Lemuel Gulliver :
As you might expect, Lemuel Gulliver is the star and central character of Gulliver's Travels. In fact, he narrates the novel himself, and he is the only genuinely developed character in the whole book. Other figures in Gulliver's Travels absolutely fade into the background. For example, Gulliver only mentions his wife, Mary, in passing as he stays home just long enough to get her pregnant again before heading out to the high seas. Yes, Gulliver is pretty much it when it comes to rounded, individual characters in this novel.Gulliver is the son of a middle-class family in Nottinghamshire, England. He has studied medicine both in England and at the University of Leiden in Holland. Gulliver has also served as an apprentice under a master surgeon, Mr. James Bates. Mainly, Gulliver has two great gifts. For one, though, he isn't a nobleman, he's a really smart guy.
Also, he is interested in people-watching ("My hours of leisure I spent [...] in observing the manners and dispositions of the people" (1.1.3)).Both of these traits come in handy. First, Gulliver's medium-class birth means that he is pretty flexible in terms of the social circles he moves in. While he always wants to associate himself with "people of quality," he also falls relatively easily into conversation with working-class people and servants. What's more, his pragmatism and practical nature save his life over and over again. He's not too proud to lick the floor in front of the Luggnaggian King or to suck up pretty outrageously to the Queen of Brobdingnag. Gulliver is the central character of Gulliver's Travels, but there's nothing outsized or heroic about him. He really does seem to be a kind of Everyman, maybe more resourceful than many, but not too brave or powerful.Second, Gulliver's interest in languages and customs is the primary engine for his Travels. He's good at adapting himself to other cultures. He takes genuine interest in humans – which makes him the perfect narrator for a novel about human nature. (For more on human nature and Gulliver's Travels, check out "In a Nutshell" and our "Character Analysis" of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms.)So Gulliver has a genuine interest in people at the beginning of the novel. Great. But it sure doesn't last. And by the end of the book, he's totally over it. In a novel about what wretched wastes of space we humans are, it makes sense that the only logical conclusion would be the narrator's complete rejection of people. By the end of Part 4, Gulliver has gone from being a pretty open, flexible kind of guy to being a crazed shut-in who can't stand the smell of his own wife and kids. That's what three hundred-odd pages of exposure to Jonathan Swift will do to you.
Swift demonstrates Gulliver's final awakening to the vanity and stupidity of the world in very clear, practical terms. Gulliver starts out the novel accounting for everything: he tells us that Mrs. Mary Burton's dowry to him was 400 pounds, that he passes 200 sprugs (Lilliputian money) to Captain John Biddell, and that he gives the Brobdingnagian King 6 Spanish gold pieces. But by the end of the novel, he cannot even pay for his own passage to Portugal with Don Pedro de Mendez – in fact, he doesn't even want to. Gold has literally lost meaning for him.As for clothes, Gulliver laboriously tells us how he clothes himself in each country: in Lilliput, he wears clothes patched together from hundreds of tiny pieces of fabric; in Brobdingnag, his child nurse sews him clothes as though he were a doll; in Laputa, he mentions that none of his suits fit because no one knows how to do anything as practical as tailoring there. However, by the time Gulliver has been expelled from Houyhnhnm Land, he no longer cares what he is wearing. He absolutely refuses to let go of the odd clothes patched together from skins that he acquired in Houyhnhnm Land until Don Pedro de Mendez insists on giving him a set of clothes. Gulliver, who has been so caught up in both financial and fashion details, learns to be content with simplicity while in Houyhnhnm Land – the true mark of his newfound virtue.
One of the main tools of satire is irony, in which the reader knows more about the course of events than the main character does. Gulliver totally controls the narration of this novel. He provides a huge amount of context and interpretation for the different people he encounters over the course of his travels. At the same time, we, the readers, are often given indications of two things outside of the realm of Gulliver's knowledge or observation:
(1) Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. In other words, Gulliver never actually says Lilliput=England and Blefuscu=France, but the text contains all kinds of indications that they do. (For more on this point, check out our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians).
(2) Gulliver pretends to know a lot more than he actually does. For example, yeah, Gulliver's pretty darn good with languages, but he still makes mistakes. In Part 2, Chapter 2, he refers to two fake words, the supposedly Latin "nanunculus" and Italian "homunceletino." Also, Gulliver he considers the development of the island name "Laputa," he goes through lots of made-up derivations without considering the most obvious choice: "la puta," Italian for "whore," which may be a reference to the weird sexual arrangements of the Laputians (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 135). So, Gulliver is not perfect: he's vain and paranoid and kind of cowardly, and there are many moments when the text itself seems to be poking fun at him. We definitely have to take Gulliver's opinions with a grain of salt, even if he is our only narrator.
Mary Burton : Gulliver marries Mary Burton in the first chapter of his travels, but he never exactly spends a lot of time with her. In fact, even though she expressly asks him not to go back to sea at the end of Part 3, there he is, leaving again in Part 4. It is only upon Gulliver's return from Houyhnhnm Land that he resolves to stay home – but not because he's filled with a strong sense of family love. He is so fed up with people at this point in the novel that he can't bear to travel any more. This disgust extends to his wife and family: the smell and appearance of humans seems revolting to him. The thought that Mary has borne him children – has added to the overall human population! – is utterly revolting to him. For more on the novel's wonky ideas about gender, check out our "Theme" on the subject.We have to wonder: what kind of a woman puts up with a husband who leaves for years at a time and won't help her raise her children with basically no complaints? What sort of a lady accepts the fact that her husband is too disgusted to eat dinner with her for five years? The answer is that it totally doesn't matter: Gulliver's wife has a function in the novel as a symbol of the home Gulliver has no interest in living in. She's definitely not a well-rounded character with any kind of psychological depth – like 99.9% of the other people in this book.
The Lilliputians: The Lilliputians inhabit the first island Gulliver visits. They all stand about six inches tall, with proportionally tiny buildings and trees and horses. The Lilliputians are ruled by an Emperor who appoints his high court officials according to their skills with rope dancing rather than their actual abilities. In other words, they're not exactly governed according to rational principles. The court of Lilliput mostly seems to spend its time plotting against one another. Gulliver, unfortunately, forms one of the primary targets of these plots. His enormous size makes him both expensive and dangerous for the Emperor to keep, so, even though he has made himself useful in Lilliput's wars against Blefuscu, Gulliver eventually has to flee the country to avoid having his eyes put out.Gulliver is enormous and the Lilliputians are tiny, so obviously Gulliver is not literally a Lilliputian. However, there are hints that Gulliver shares more with the Lilliputians than he is fully willing to admit. Gulliver comments on their great mechanical abilities: they have "arrived to a great perfection in mechanics" (1.1.8). Many of the engines that they have constructed run towards weaponry.As for Gulliver, in addition to being pretty flexible with class and language, Gulliver also has "a head mechanically turned" (1.6.19). He offers to turn this mechanical ability to the advantage of the King of Brobdingnag by making gunpowder, but is refused. This kind of practical mechanical ability is (a) better than what the Laputians do, but (b) completely despised by the brilliant, beautiful, rational horses of the Houyhnhnms. For all of his giant size, Gulliver's mind works mechanically and in terms of profit, like a Lilliputian – but it takes his exposure to the men of Brobdingnag and the horses of the Houyhnhnms to see it.
If Gulliver, an Englishman, is similar to the Lilliputians, it stands to reason that the place he's from, England, is a lot like Lilliput. Swift makes England physically tiny to introduce a new perspective on its politics and partisanship in the Lilliput chapters of Gulliver's Travels.One example of this new take on English politics is the deadly differences between the high heels and the low heels. In Lilliput, political affiliation splits between men who wear high-heeled shoes and men who wear low-heeled shoes. The high heels, a.k.a. the Tramecksans, support Lilliput's constitution and the Emperor. However, the low heels, a.k.a. the Slamecksans, are in power. The Emperor will only put low heels into high office in his government, regardless of the abilities or qualifications of the high heels. And the Emperor's son is even harder to pin down: he wears one high and one low heel, so no one knows where he stands.Basically, this is a jab at the Tories and the Whigs, prominent political parties in early eighteenth century England (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 30).
The Tories were political conservatives who supported a consolidation of royal authority and the restriction of the power of English Parliament (which is something like the American Senate). The Whigs were relatively liberal and wanted more power to go to the Parliament.Following England's 1689 Glorious Revolution (about which, check out our "Detailed Analysis" of Part 4, Chapter 5), in which Parliament essentially installed a new king on the throne, the Whigs were really riding high. And they began riding even higher when George I came to the throne after the death of Queen Anne. George was pro-Whig, and his Parliament was entirely Whig-dominated. Does this sound familiar to you at all? Yep, the Whigs are like the low heels, the only men who have any power in the Lilliputian government. And as you might have guessed from the sour grapes feel of this section of the book, Swift was a Tory (or in Lilliputian terms, a high heel). He had to return from England to Ireland once George I came to power (source).The shallowness of the nature of this division – high heeled versus low heeled shoes – emphasizes what the Emperor is not thinking about: actual ability. In fact, Gulliver claims that the Lilliputians prefer to choose fools for office over wise men, because they want to avoid corruption. Their logic is that it's less evil for guys to make mistakes in office out of gross stupidity than for guys to make mistakes in office because of bribery and favoritism. Of course, the assumption underlying this idea is that the same mistakes have to be made either way. Hey Lilliputians, here's a crazy idea: why not appoint people to office who are both smart and good?Similarly shallow is the difference between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. The story goes that, apparently, when this Emperor's grandfather was a child, he cut himself when he cracked a boiled egg on its big, rounded end. Following this accident, the current Emperor's great-grandfather laid down the law: no more cracking eggs at the big end. Now, the entire island of Lilliput can only crack eggs at the little end. This change completely outrages some Lilliputians, who raise rebellions and flee to the neighboring island of tiny people, Blefuscu, a haven for Big-Endians.The cause of the Little-Endians versus the Big-Endians is an allegory of the long (long) wars between Protestants (Little-Endians) and Catholics (Big-Endians) in England. During Jonathan Swift's lifetime, battles between Catholics and Protestants provided at least some of the fuel for the Glorious Revolution, Scottish Jacobite rebellions, and the War of the Spanish Succession between England, France, Austria, and Spain. The accusations that Lilliput makes against its neighboring island across the channel, that they are sheltering Big-Endian exiles and plotting against Lilliput, is a reference to the French harboring Catholic exiles following Henry VIII's break with Rome to found the Anglican Church (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 31.).Swift was himself a prominent Irish Anglican minister, and he believed strongly in the national church. However, despite his own religious views, Swift very clearly dismisses the use of differences of opinion, be it religious (Big-Endians vs. Little-Endians) or political (high heels vs. low heels), as pretexts for warfare. He also criticizes these differences being used as excuses to persecute honest, upstanding public servants. This is a theme that recurs throughout Gulliver's Travels. For other examples, see Lord Munodi in Part 3 and Gulliver's discussion of war with the Master Horse in Part 4.You remember, a while back, we mentioned that high positions in the Lilliputian government are staffed with rope dancing competition winners. This game has two meanings. First, this game indicates that being at court means literally dancing attendance to people of higher station than you. It's all about impressing the big boss, and not about substantial contributions to, well, anything. Secondly, being in court is dangerous: these dancing ropes are a foot high – potentially fatal for the tiny Lilliputians. As Gulliver learns when he gets the Articles of Impeachment written by Skyresh Bolgolam, depending on the favor of a single powerful man like the Emperor can result in the downfall of innocent people. These falls are just a little more literal in Lilliput. (There are also some pretty illuminating examples of courtly manners in Luggnagg – check out our "Character Analysis" for more.)
The Lilliputian Emperor:Swift is definitely playing with fire with this one: the Lilliputian Emperor represents the King of England at the time of the publication of Gulliver's Travels, George I. George was a strongly pro-Whig king. The King actively persecuted the Tories, hence the whole high heel/low heel thing (discussed in the Lilliputians' "Character Analysis"). The Emperor's vulnerability to manipulation by his ministers, Flimnap and Skyresh Bolgolam, implies that the actual King, George I, is too easily influenced by his favorites.The Emperor of Lilliput also loves war, and really wants to enslave the people of his neighboring island, Blefuscu. When Gulliver refuses to help him destroy Blefuscu's freedom, the Emperor starts to hate Gulliver. This may be a reference to George I's war with France and Austria over Spanish territories in the War of the Spanish Succession.Besides satirizing the man's government, Swift gets in a couple of quick jabs at his personal appearance: apparently George I was really unattractive (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 13). This makes Gulliver's excessively admiring physical description of the Lilliputian Emperor kind of snippy.
The Brobdinagians: The Brobdingnagians are giants: they average around 60 feet tall, and their lands and animals are correspondingly huge. Gulliver is incredibly vulnerable in this country, which is why it makes sense that the satire turns increasingly towards the fragility (and grotesqueness) of the human body. Gulliver stumbles into cow pats and is nearly drowned by a frog. All of these tales are truly dire to him, but to the Brobdingnagian court, they are a laugh riot.In fact, Gulliver's own ego becomes a subject of satire in this section of the novel. The Brobdingnagian King asks Gulliver if he is a Whig or a Tory (about which, see our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians), and then laughs. The difference between Whigs and Tories matters about as much to a Brobdingnagian as the distinction between Lilliputian high and low heels matters to Gulliver. Brobdingnag gives Gulliver a taste of his own medicine. On the last island, he was fed and clothed by thousands of servants. Now, he receives the services of Glumdalclitch, a 9-year-old who treats him like a doll.
THE BROBDINGNAGIAN KING:As opposed to the Lilliputian Emperor, who primarily uses Gulliver as a weapon against Blefuscu, the Brobdingnagian King wants Gulliver to teach him English governance in case there's something worth imitating there. Gulliver describes the English monarchy, Parliament, religion, and the judicial system. Upon hearing these descriptions, the Brobdingnagian King answers that he cannot understand how the English avoid bribery, corruption, influence peddling, or hypocrisy, when there are no safeguards against these sins in their government system. In fact, the King concludes, most Englishmen must be "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth" (2.6.18). In other words, the English = nasty.Again, the King of Brobdingnag is not a well-rounded character. We know nothing of his feelings, origins, any of that stuff that might make him seem more like a real person. That's not the point. His purpose is to direct the satire of the novel at England in an even more pointed way than the Lilliput chapters did.The Lilliput chapters present English politics through a kind of Alice in Wonderland lens, distancing the reader from the topics under discussion. Here, the King of Brobdingnag is a tool to turn that same lens on the narrator himself, Gulliver, and his country. Just as the magnification of a beautiful lady's moles suddenly makes her ugly, the magnification of the weakness of England (and Gulliver) make them seem all the more pathetic.
Ouyhnm Land:Like Brobdingnag, Houyhnhnm (pronounced "whinim") Land is completely cut off from other nations – no one on Houyhnhnm Land has ever visited another country. This kind of isolation appears to be good for producing relatively virtuous societies. After all, the chief problem Gulliver sees with Lilliput and Laputa – their tendency to fight and conquer other peoples – isn't really possible on Brobdingnag and Houyhnhnm Land, where there are no other peoples readily available for conquest. At the same time, there are two distinct kinds of people living on Houyhnhnm Land, and it is the differences between these two that form the final part of the satire of Gulliver's Travels.Gulliver arrives on Houyhnhnm Land by chance. After a really brief stay in England, Gulliver becomes captain of his own ship. He sails towards the South Seas when suddenly his men mutiny against him and lock him in his own cabin. Eventually, they maroon Gulliver on an island – Houyhnhnm Land. When Gulliver first starts exploring this island, he runs across a herd of deformed animals with hair on their heads and covering their genitals but leaving the rest of their bodies bare. They seem agile, but they also tend to sit around on their butts a lot. The females have bare faces, without the long, goatish beards of the men, and their breasts ("dugs" (4.1.4)) hang down almost to the ground. These creatures are violent and easily frightened. When Gulliver strikes one with the flat part of his sword, a whole bunch of them swarm around him throwing feces, until he thinks he's going to be smothered in poo.Just as Gulliver thinks he's going to suffocate in poo, another resident of the island comes to his rescue: a kind, gentle looking gray horse who seems to frighten these gross animals away. The horse seems fascinated by Gulliver, and particularly by Gulliver's clothing. As Gulliver hears this horse apparently speaking to another horse, he realizes that the horse's neighs and whinnies (from which the word "Houyhnhnm" comes) are slowly starting to make sense to him. The horse keeps saying the word "Yahoo" and gesturing to Gulliver.The gray horse leads Gulliver through his own house and out to a kind of stable where a bunch of those vile beasts from the earlier scene are kept chained to a wall, surrounded by bits of raw donkey meat. Suddenly, Gulliver realizes the awful truth: these grotesque, violent, brutal, cowardly, hairy-but-also-way-too-naked creatures are, in fact, humans just like Gulliver. The horses, which are the reasonable creatures of this island, call humans "Yahoos," and keep a tight leash on them, because otherwise they'll misbehave.This slow introduction to the Yahoos (gross humans) and the Houyhnhnms (lovely, smart horses) makes humanity unfamiliar and horrible to the reader. Just as the tininess of Lilliput and Blefuscu make the problems and wars of Britain and France seem silly and insignificant, this moment of lack of recognition that Gulliver has with the Yahoos suddenly forces humankind itself to seem unfamiliar and revolting.Houyhnhnm Land is the one place out of all the islands he visits where Gulliver wishes he could stay. Sadly, though, he is forced to leave: the Houyhnhnms have an island-wide assembly every four years where they discuss important matters. Gulliver happens to be the important matter at the current assembly. The Houyhnhnms all decide that, as a superior Yahoo, Gulliver might some day go off and convince all the other Yahoos to organize and rise up against the Houyhnhnms. They decide he's too dangerous to have around, so they boot him out of the country. Gulliver has to make his own boat and sail to a nearby island.
The Houyhnhnms: So, let's get a little more specific about the Houyhnhnms. We love them because, well, they're horses – who doesn't like talking horses? But Gulliver kind of worships them, and it's worth talking about why. Here are some of the characteristics Gulliver singles out for comment: there are no words in Houyhnhnm language for any of the bad things we humans do, including lying, power, greed, or jealousy. In fact, Gulliver has a lot of trouble explaining human nature to his best buddy, the Master Horse, because he keeps having to talk around things that the Master Horse has no concept of. The best example of this kind of talking around that Gulliver has to do is "the thing which is not" (4.5.6), a phrase that the Master Horse uses to get as close as he can to "lie" in Houyhnhnm language.The Houyhnhnms don't need laws or a special class of lawyers because they are completely governed by reason. Breaking laws is not rational, so they don't need to spell out their codes of behavior. This is like a more perfect version of the less-than-twenty-words Brobdingnagian rule about law – the Houyhnhnms don't need to limit the length of their laws because they don't even need laws. They all agree about the rightness of what to do.The fact that all the Houyhnhnms agree about law points to something else Gulliver loves about them: they don't understand opinions or factions. To have an opinion about something, you have to speculate about something you can't know for sure. The Houyhnhnms accept hard facts; anything outside of fact, you can't argue about, because by definition you can't know what the correct answer is. It makes no sense to argue about something you can never answer correctly. This is why the Houyhnhnms have no law.As you may have guessed from the fact that the Houyhnhnms don't have arguments or differences of opinion, they are equally friendly with all members of their tribe. They value "friendship and benevolence" (4.8.10) above everything else. In fact, this friendship thing is so important to Houyhnhnms that they treat all of their children as their own, and will educate all the kids in the same way.This total lack of preference for one Houyhnhnm over another means that they always, always arrange marriages for their children. There's no such thing as a love match. Families will get together and decide: oh, your daughter is smart? My son is attractive. Let's breed them together to get smart, attractive children.
And Houyhnhnm couples never cheat on each other because it makes no sense – they're in this relationship for the kids, not for love or sex or anything. And it gets even more technical: Houyhnhnm couples are limited to one boy and one girl foal (a baby horse). If one couple has two girls and another couples has two boys, they trade one of their kids. If a couple is unfortunate enough to lose a child to an accident, they can have one more child to supply the loss.This type of rigidity in family arrangements is hugely different from what we've seen in, say, Laputa, where the wives are constantly on the lookout for other men. Or even Lilliput, where infidelity is clearly enough of an issue that Flimnap suspects his wife of sleeping with Gulliver. The Houyhnhnms have managed to subordinate their feelings to logic – like horse-shaped Vulcans or something.But, much as we love Spock, we have to admit that this particular aspect of Houyhnhnm society creeps us out a little, because it gets Gulliver into kind of a tricky moral area. To be clear, this is what Shmoop is saying, and not so much Swift. The Houyhnhnms have a strong class system. Gulliver refers to "the race of inferior Houyhnhnms" (4.8.11) who are born to be servants. These animals are allowed to have more kids so they can serve the high-born Houyhnhnms better. Different colors of Houyhnhnms also appear to be better suited to different stations in life (4.6.17). All of this stuff about selective breeding and maintaining racial characteristics is really common when you're talking about animals, which of course, the Houyhnhnms are. But they also think and speak, which makes us feel like there's a moral gray area in this portion of Gulliver's description of the Houyhnhnms. One last point about the Houyhnhnms as a group: they do not get sick. Gulliver describes most human illness as the result of overindulgence: too much food, drinking, and luxury in general. Add to that doctors who mostly make everything worse, and you have a recipe for a lot of human suffering. The Houyhnhnms eat a restricted, balanced diet which keeps them healthy until they are ready to die of old age. They feel this readiness to die about ten days before they do so, which gives them time to say goodbye to everyone and then go off by themselves to pass away in privacy and dignity. Compare this death to the unnatural long life of the struldbrugs, and we think you'll get a sense of what Gulliver thinks about the horrors of old age – death seems preferable.
The Yahoos:Beyond the discovery that we humans are all Yahoos, the main point of interest in Gulliver's long descriptions of these people is the comparison between European and Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos. Gulliver tells the Master Horse about (a) lawyers, who make a practice of defending opinions that aren't their own for money (a.k.a. lying, according to Gulliver); (b) wars, generally over differences of opinion rather than anything substantial; (c) doctors, who will poison people for money and who encourage hypochondria among weak, idle people for cash; and (d) Ministers of State, whose main job it is to betray the previous Minister and advance his own ambition.The Master Horse tells Gulliver a bunch of things his people have observed about Yahoos:
-They'll fight at the drop of a hat.
-They're endlessly greedy: they kill each other over a certain shiny rock found in Houyhnhnm Land (which, beyond being shiny, has no value). And even if there are only 5 Yahoos supplied with enough meat to fill 50, they will still attack each other for control of these supplies.
-"She Yahoos" (4.7.15) or in other words, women, will constantly try to seduce men, even while they are pregnant unlike "other brutes" (4.7.15). (Check out our theme on "Gender" for more analysis of this subject.)
-There's nothing Yahoos like better than sneaking up and stealing things or attacking – they hate doing things honestly and upfront.
-Yahoos are the only animals in Houyhnhnm Land who ever get sick. They treat their own illnesses with "medicines" mixed from their own pee and poo.
-Despite the fact that European Yahoos look better than Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos, with their shaved faces, clipped hair, filed nails, and clothing, in essential nature they are the same. All Yahoos, no matter where they (or we?) are from love war, theft, sex, luxury, medicine, and lying.
In fact, both the Master Horse and Gulliver decide that the Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos are better than European Yahoos because they don't try to hide their vicious natures under a mask of cleanliness and civilization. They are much stronger than Gulliver, and more able to stand the heat of the sun, thanks to their nakedness and outdoor living. To the Master Horse, it's far weirder to see a Yahoo pretending to use reason to explain things that cannot be rational, like war and lying and so on, than to see naked Yahoos acting according to their gross instincts.We do get an origin story for the Yahoos: they are probably the descendants of a shipwrecked couple who arrived on the shores of Houyhnhnm Land many years ago. By the time we reach the present day of Gulliver's Travels, they have completely lost all language and technology – again, yet more proof of the degeneration of mankind. (For more on this idea, check out our "Character Analysis" of the people of Glubbdubdrib.)There is a racialist edge to this comparison of European and Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos: the Master Horse calls Gulliver a "perfect Yahoo" who differs from other Yahoos in the "softness, whiteness, and smoothness of [his] skin" (4.3.9). And when Gulliver eventually gets banished from Houyhnhnm Land and is forced to find a nearby island, he encounters a group of local people naked, sitting around a fire, who shoot arrows at Gulliver, creating a clear parallel between the Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos and Pacific Islander populations in the South Seas.This idea that people living outside of Europe were somehow closer to nature or less tainted by civilization was a common one in Swift's day. Still, despite the fact that Gulliver's satire is largely directed at the European Yahoo, we can't ignore that he does seem to favor class and race distinctions. For more evidence of this kind of racialist thinking, check out the "Character Analyses" of the Houyhnhnms and their selective breeding and of Glubbdubdrib and Gulliver's analysis of the dwindling status of the English nobility.
Don Pedro de Mendez: Don Pedro de Mendez is the Portuguese captain who finds Gulliver on his island and encourages him to return to England. He is truly a lovely guy. He prevents Gulliver from killing himself in despair and listens to him rant about how awful human beings are. Don Pedro also convinces Gulliver that it would be dishonorable for him not to return to his wife and children. Don Pedro even insists that Gulliver change out of the Houyhnhnm Land skins he has been wearing and into a suit of clothes once Gulliver comes to stay at Don Pedro's house before gong to London. All in all, Don Pedro is a stand-up guy.He is also the first Yahoo whom Gulliver speaks to after leaving Houyhnhnm Land. His generosity to Gulliver seems to cast at least a little bit of doubt on Gulliver's dire conclusions about the awfulness of man. Maybe Don Pedro is Swift's way of distancing the reader from Gulliver, even though he is our first person narrator. After all, Don Pedro is a sweetie pie, and Gulliver spends the few pages they're together being a selfish jerk.
Gulliver's travels theme of morality and ethics: We've spent a lot of time in this guide talking about Swift the satirist and hater: his criticisms of the hypocrisy and favoritism of King George I and his court, his disgust with learning for no practical purpose, and so on. But what we haven't remarked on so much is that Gulliver's Travels does show evidence of moral alternatives to replace the corruption Swift sees in contemporary English society. Swift is resolutely anti-war; he also appears to despise luxury and greed. But the thing that most seems to guarantee a virtuous society for him is "friendship and benevolence" (4.8.10). He mentions that the Brobdingnagians have a remarkably disciplined army because all of the soldiers are fighting under leaders they know from their hometowns. This kind of personal loyalty inspires men to more genuine, direct heroism and justice than abstract fights for a cause.
Summary: Lemuel Gulliver is a married surgeon from Nottinghamshire, England, who has a taste for traveling. He heads out on a fateful voyage to the South Seas when he gets caught in a storm and washed up on an island. This island, Lilliput, has a population of tiny people about 6 inches tall. They capture Gulliver as he sleeps and carry him to their capital city, where they keep him chained inside a large abandoned temple outside the city walls.Gulliver becomes a great friend of the Emperor of Lilliput, who introduces Gulliver to many of their customs. For example, instead of staffing his cabinet with capable administrators, the Emperor chooses guys who perform best at a dangerous kind of rope dancing. The Emperor asks Gulliver to help him in his war against Blefuscu, a similarly tiny kingdom across a channel of water. Gulliver agrees and uses his huge size to capture all of Blefuscu's navy.In spite of the great service that Gulliver has done for the Lilliputians, he has two terrible enemies, who seem to be jealous of his strength and favor with the Emperor: the admiral Skyresh Bolgolam and the treasurer Flimnap. These two men conspire to influence the Emperor to have Gulliver executed. They serve Gulliver with a series of Articles of Impeachment, with the final sentence that Gulliver is going to be blinded. (The ministers also decide, in secret, that they are going to starve Gulliver to save money on the enormous amount of food he eats.) Gulliver is informed of this plot against him by a friend at the Lilliputian court. He manages to escape to the island of Blefuscu. Fortunately for him, a human-sized boat washes ashore on Blefuscu. Gulliver rows to nearby Australia and finds a boat to take him back to England.Gulliver heads out to sea again after a brief stay in England with his family (who, we have to say, he doesn't seem to like all that much). Once again, a storm blows up, and Gulliver winds up on the island of Brobdingnag. The Brobdingnag are giants 60 feet tall, who treat Gulliver like an attraction at a fair. Gulliver comes to the attention of the Brobdingnagian Queen, who keeps him like a kind of pet. She is amused, because he is so tiny and yet still manages to speak and act like a real person. This Queen employs a young girl, Glumdalclitch, to look after Gulliver and teach him their language. Glumdalclitch does this with great affection.While Gulliver lives at the palace, he is constantly in danger: bees the size of pigeons almost stab him, a puppy almost tramples him to death, a monkey mistakes him for a baby monkey and tries to stuff him full of food. Because Gulliver feels ridiculous all the time, he starts to lose some of the pride and self-importance he couldn't help having in Lilliput.The Brobdingnagian King reinforces this new sense of humility. After Gulliver describes to him all that he can think of about English culture and history, the King of Brobdingnag decides that the English sound like tiny little pests. He absolutely refuses to accept Gulliver's gift of gunpowder because such weapons seem like an invitation to horrible violence and abuse.Finally, Gulliver leaves Brobdingnag by a bizarre accident and returns home to England. He only stays there for about two months, however, when he goes to sea again. This time, he gets marooned by pirates on a small island near Vietnam. As he's sitting on this island, he sees a shadow passing overhead: a floating island called Laputa. He signals the Laputians for help and is brought up by rope.The Laputians are dedicated to only two things, mathematics and music. But their love of equations makes them really poor at practical things, so no one in the kingdom can make a good suit of clothes or build a house. And in imitation of the Laputians' abstract science, the residents of the continent below, Balnibarbi, have been steadily ruining their farms and buildings with newfangled "reforms."Gulliver also visits Glubbdubdrib, an island of sorcerers where he gets to meet the ghosts of famous historical figures, and Luggnagg, an island with an absolute king and also some very unfortunate immortals. He makes his way to Japan and then back to England once more – this time, for five months, before he sets out again, leaving his family behind once again.This time, Gulliver sails out as a captain in his own right, but his sailors quickly mutiny against him and maroon him on a distant island. This island is home to two kinds of creatures: (a) the beastly Yahoos, violent, lying, disgusting animals; and (b) the Houyhnhnms, who look like horses. The Houyhnhnms govern themselves with absolute reason. They do not even have words for human problems like disease, deception, or war. As for the Yahoos – they are human beings. They are just like Gulliver, except that Gulliver has learned to clip his nails, shave his face, and wear clothes.In Houyhnhnm Land, Gulliver finally realizes the true depths of human awfulness. He grows so used to the Houyhnhnm way of life that, when the Houyhnhnms finally tell him he must leave, he immediately faints. Gulliver obediently leaves the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he has been very happy, but he is so disgusted with human company that he nearly jumps off the Portuguese ship carrying home.Once Gulliver returns to his family, he feels physical revulsion at the thought that he had sex with a Yahoo female (his wife) and had three Yahoo children. He can barely be in the same room with them. We leave Gulliver slowly reconciling himself to being among humans again, but he is still really, really sad not to be with the Houyhnhnms. In fact, he spends at least four hours a day talking to his two stallions in their stable. Lesson learned from Gulliver's Travels: the more we see of humans, the less we want to be one.
Gulliver's travel analysis: Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory: A symbol is something that stands for something else. The thing about Gulliver's Travels is everything stands for something else – there's practically nothing in the whole book that isn't a symbol – because it is written for the purpose of critiquing contemporary philosophies and customs. Nearly every person in this book stands either for a historical figure or for an idea. Even in dialogue, men like the Brobdingnagian King sound less like individuals and more like mouthpieces for different perspectives on morality and governance. So head over to "Characters," where we discuss the characteristics and symbolic value of each group of people – the Lilliputians, the Brobdingnagians, etc.
SETTING:We're in kind of bind trying to describe the setting of Gulliver's Travels, because the setting itself is part of the satire, which we've already discussed in the "Characters" section, dealing with the people from all of these different islands. So, we hope you'll excuse us if we send you back to "Characters" for more information on which of Gulliver's islands are small, large, floating, or haunted!
Narrator point of view: First Person (Central Narrator)
Gulliver is it for this novel: not only does he tell the story, but he's also the only character who doesn't appear completely flat. Gulliver's Travels is a mix of sly insults, dirty words, and big ideas, a lot of which come directly from Gulliver. Gulliver provides the filter through which we see what Swift is trying to say about England, morality, and mankind. But he's also the only character available to sustain our interest in Gulliver's Travels as a novel. Gulliver doesn't just tell us his story; he also animates it for us. We could never sit through Swift's lengthy morality lessons without the entertaining liveliness of Gulliver to lighten them a little.
Genre: Adventure, Satire and Parody
Even we have lost track of how many times we have said the word "satire" in this guide, and we don't want to beat you guys over the heads with this. Just check out "In a Nutshell" for more on Gulliver's Travels as both a parody of popular travel narratives and as a satire of contemporary England and mankind in general. As for adventure – the man goes to numerous islands, one of them floating, and meets lots of strange people with curious customs and new languages. Even if Gulliver's Travels is a parody of the genre of the adventure tale, it still has all of the elements of the type. That still counts!
Writing style: Parodic, Absurd
We've talked about the ways that Gulliver's Travels parodies the whole genre of the traveler's tale, but the book also includes lots of parodic language at the level of the paragraph. For example, when Gulliver discusses Laputa's lodestone in Part 3, Chapter 3, he writes:By means of this loadstone, the island is made to rise and fall, and move from one place to another. For, with respect to that part of the earth over which the monarch presides, the stone is endued at one of its sides with an attractive power, and at the other with a repulsive.
Upon placing the magnet erect, with its attracting end towards the earth, the island descends; but when the repelling extremity points downwards, the island mounts directly upwards. When the position of the stone is oblique, the motion of the island is so too: for in this magnet, the forces always act in lines parallel to its direction. (3.3.5)Here, Gulliver describes how the island of Laputa moves using this giant magnet, which is attracted to the Earth on one side and repulsed by it on the other. If they stand the stone upright with the attracting side face down, the island goes down, and vice versa. Gulliver is using the formal mathematical and scientific language of his day with all of this stuff about parallelism, attraction, and repulsion. But it's clearly an imitation – none of Gulliver's regular descriptions of things sound this stiff and difficult. Swift imitates different kinds of jargon and technical writing to show that the weakness of mankind isn't just limited to politics and morals; we write pretty badly, too.Of course, in addition to all of these abstract parodies and moral lessons, the style of Gulliver's Travels is also pretty absurd. Consider the Lilliputian soldiers' curiosity about Gulliver's penis size or the bizarre Luggnaggian assassination method of licking the poisoned floor in front of their King. A lot of Swift's humor comes from his surprising twists and turns as a writer. Gulliver spends a lot of time dwelling on apparently minor digressions, such as how he arranges to pee when he is kept inside a giant's home during his first night in Brobdingnag. The contrast of very basic humor – there are really a lot of bathroom jokes in Gulliver's Travels – with high moral philosophy keeps the reader interested in what's going to happen next. After all, it's guaranteed to be something unexpected.