- TYPE OF WORK - Novel
- GENRE - Satire
- NARRATOR - Lemuel Gulliver
- POINT OF VIEW - Gulliver speaks in the first person. He describes other characters and actions as they appear to him.
- TONE - Gulliver’s tone is gullible and naïve during the first three voyages; in the fourth, it turns cynical and bitter. The intention of the author, Jonathan Swift, is satirical and biting throughout.
- SETTING (TIME) - Early eighteenth century
- SETTING (PLACE) - Primarily England and the imaginary countries of Lilliput, Blefuscu, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and the land of the Houyhnhnms
- PROTAGONIST - Lemuel Gulliver
- MAJOR CONFLICT - On the surface, Gulliver strives to understand the various societies with which he comes into contact and to have these societies understand his native England. Below the surface, Swift is engaged in a conflict with the English society he is satirizing.
- RISING ACTION - Gulliver’s encounters with other societies eventually lead up to his rejection of human society in the fourth voyage
- CLIMAX - Gulliver rejects human society in the fourth voyage, specifically when he shuns the generous Don Pedro as a vulgar Yahoo
- FALLING ACTION - Gulliver’s unhappy return to England accentuates his alienation and compels him to buy horses, which remind him of Houyhnhnms, to keep him company
- THEMES - Might versus right; the individual versus society; the limits of human understanding
- MOTIFS - Excrement; foreign languages; clothing
- SYMBOLS - Lilliputians; Brobdingnagians; Laputans; Houyhnhnms; England
- FORESHADOWING - Gulliver’s experiences with various flawed societies foreshadow his ultimate rejection of human society in the fourth voyage.
Important Quotations Explained
My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons. . . . I was bound Apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent Surgeon in London . . . my Father now and then sending me small Sums of Money. . . . When I left Mr. Bates, I went down to my Father; where, by the Assistance of him and my Uncle John . . . I got Forty Pounds, and a Promise of Thirty Pounds a Year.
This introductory paragraph from Part I, Chapter I, is often passed over as simply providing the preliminary facts of Gulliver’s life, the bare essentials needed in order to proceed to the more interesting travel narrative. But this introduction is deeply significant in its own right, and it reveals much about Gulliver’s character that is necessary to understand not just his journeys but also his way of narrating them. Gulliver is bourgeois: he is primarily interested in money, acquisitions, and achievement, and his life story is filtered through these desires. The first sentence means more than just a statement of his financial situation, since the third son of a possessor of only a “small Estate” would have no hopes of inheriting enough on which to support himself and would be expected to leave the estate and seek his own fortune. If Gulliver had been the first-born son, he might very well not have embarked on his travels. But the passage is even more revealing in its tone, which is starkly impersonal. Gulliver provides no sentimental characterization of his father, Bates, or Uncle John; they appear in his story only insofar as they further him in life. There is no mention of any youthful dreams or ambitions or of any romantic attachments. This lack of an emotional inner life is traceable throughout his narrative until his virtual nervous breakdown at the very end.
He said, he knew no Reason, why those who entertain Opinions prejudicial to the Publick, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And, as it was Tyranny in any Government to require the first, so it was Weakness not to enforce the second.
This quotation comes from a conversation between Gulliver and the king of Brobdingnag, in Part II, Chapter VI. The belief expressed by the king is one that Swift, writing in his own voice, expressed elsewhere: that people have the right to their own beliefs but not the right to express them at will. As always, it is difficult to determine whether or not Swift’s view is exactly the one advanced by his characters. The king has little sympathy for many English institutions as Gulliver describes them to him. Swift would probably not have rejected such institutions, and we should keep in mind that Brobdingnagian criticism does not always imply Swiftian criticism. Indeed, Gulliver’s Travels could be considered to contain at least a few “Opinions prejudicial to the Publick”—unpopular opinions, in other words—so it is unlikely that Swift is in favor of suppressing all social criticism entirely. Whatever the final interpretation, the quotation raises interesting issues of censorship, freedom of speech, and the rightful place of indirect forms of criticism, such as the satire of which Swift was a master.
My little Friend Grildrig. . . . I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.
This famous judgment by the king of Brobdingnag on the people of England, given in Part II, Chapter VI, after Gulliver (or “Grildrig”) has summarized the institutions of his native land, is a harsh denunciation of mankind in its current state, and it stokes the misanthropy that dominates Gulliver’s mind by the end of Gulliver’s Travels. The judgment is particularly ironic because Gulliver’s own purpose in telling the king about England is to convince him of England’s significance. The king acts as though Gulliver has intended to “clearly prove” the faults of his land, though of course Gulliver does not mean to make such an attack at all. Gulliver’s speech on his country is not meant to be in the least critical, but it is received by the king as a forceful damnation, so what is mocked here is not just England but also Gulliver’s naïve and unthinking acceptance of his own society. Swift subtly raises the issue of ideology, which refers to a person’s brainwashed way of taking for granted a social arrangement that could or should be criticized and improved.
[T]hey go on Shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for the King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a Couple more by Force for a Sample, return home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a New Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right . . . the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants.
This quotation comes from Part IV, Chapter XII, when Gulliver, having returned home to England after his stay among the Houyhnhnms, tries to apologize for what he sees as the only fault he committed while on his journeys: failing to claim the lands he visited in the name of England. First, he justifies his failure by saying that the countries he visited would not be worth the effort of conquering them. In the section quoted above, however, he goes even further by criticizing the practice of colonization itself. His picture of colonization as a criminal enterprise justified by the state for the purposes of trade and military power is one that looks familiar to modern eyes but was radical for Swift’s time. Others criticized aspects of colonialism, such as the murder or enslavement of indigenous peoples, but few failed to see it as the justifiable expansion of purportedly civilized cultures. Swift employs his standard satirical technique here, as he first describes something without naming it in order to create an image in our minds, then gives it the name of something different, provoking us to rethink old assumptions.
My Reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult, if they would be content with those Vices and Follies only which Nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the Sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, a Colonel. . . . This is all according to the due Course of Things: But, when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience; neither shall I ever be able to comprehend how such an Animal and such a Vice could tally together.
This quotation comes from the end of the narrative, in Part IV, Chapter XII, when Gulliver describes the difficulties he has had in readjusting to his own human culture. He now associates English and European culture with the Yahoos, though the hypocrisy he describes is not a Yahoo characteristic. By attributing a number of sins to “the due Course of Things,” Gulliver expresses his new conviction that humanity is, as the Houyhnhnms believe, corrupt and ungovernable at heart. Humans are nothing more than beasts equipped with only enough reason to make their corruption dangerous. But even worse than that, he says, is the inability of humanity to see its own failings, to recognize its depravity behind its false nobility.
Gulliver’s apparent exemption of himself from this charge against humanity—referring to “such an Animal” rather than to humans, may be yet another moment of denial. In fact, he is guilty of the same hypocrisy he condemns, showing himself unaware of his own human flaws several times throughout his travels. He is a toady toward royalty in Lilliput and Brobdingnag, indifferent toward those in misery and pain when visiting the Yahoos, and ungrateful toward the kindness of strangers with the Portuguese captain, Don Pedro. Gulliver’s difficulty in including himself among the humans he describes as vice-ridden animals is symbolic of the identity crisis he undergoes at the end of the novel, even if he is unaware of it.