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Character Analysis in Gulliver's Travels

Lemuel Gulliver: As far as narrator and chroniclers go, Gulliver is somewhat of a blank character. He is fairly closed off about his emotions, rarely choosing to record them in his travel log. By the end of his travels, Gulliver hates both himself and humanity as a whole, choosing to self-identify as a Yahoo rather than attempt to improve himself in order to become closer to more virtuous creatures.

The Lilliputians: Standing at six inches tall, the Lilliputians have a grand idea of their importance. They are the first group of beings that Gulliver meets, and Swift uses their squabbling of high- vs. low-heeled shoes to satirize English politics. They make Gulliver sign an article that sounds quite similar to English law. It is implied that their small stature is indicative of their importance; much like self-aggrandizing politicians, the Lilliputians have an inflated sense of self-worth.

Character Analysis Examples in Gulliver's Travels:

Part I - Chapter I

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"I now considered myself as bound by the laws of hospitality to a people who had treated me with so much expense and magnificence...."   (Part I - Chapter I)

Gulliver is again characterized as having decent moral standards. His giant size in comparison to the inhabitants of the island means that he has considerable strength and could use it to his advantage. While he notes that it is not without effort on his part that he does not exercise his power, he ultimately makes an ethical choice based on the “hospitality” of the inhabitants.

"What became of my companions in the boat, as well as of those who escaped on the rock, or were left in the vessel, I cannot tell, but conclude they were all lost..."   (Part I - Chapter I)

Contrary to many novels with first-person narrators, Gulliver’s inner sentiments are not expressed. The neutral language that he uses to describe the death of his crew members is comparable to a basic report of facts, devoid of emotion. However, at this point, it is unclear if this is because Gulliver lacks emotional depth or because he chooses not to reveal it.

" knowing it would be useful in long voyages..."   (Part I - Chapter I)

Gulliver’s past choices set his values apart from those of his society, but they also highlight an emotional distance from his family and friends. At this point in the novel, Gulliver is characterized as fairly dispassionate and generally governed by practicality and logic.

"demesnes..."   (Part I - Chapter II)

A “demesne” is land that one legally owns, or private property. Typically, a demesne is exclusively for the use of the owner and not for the use of any citizens of the surrounding land. Gulliver makes it clear that the Prince is no exception to this rule; the Prince uses his land only for himself and rarely gives financial aid to his subjects, characterizing him as selfish and greedy.

"I offered to lie down, that he might the more conveniently reach my ear..."   (Part I - Chapter IV)

Again, Gulliver shows consideration for people of different circumstances. Gulliver is careful to take into account that his size may be an inconvenience and discomfort to those that are smaller than him. However, note that this is not instinctual; Swift illustrates that Gulliver develops this ethic over time spent with the Lilliputians.

"circumspection..."   (Part I - Chapter IV)

“Circumspection” refers to the ability to take all circumstances and possible outcomes into account. Gulliver’s giant size means that he is a constant threat to the Lilliputians, even if he does not intend to be. However, he learns to be incredibly mindful and considerate of them, never exercising even half of the power that he could over them.

"I stayed but two months with my wife and family..."   (Part I - Chapter VIII)

Note that Gulliver never stays at home for very long. If we consider his experiences during each of his voyages, Gulliver almost always gets into a position that requires him to move on—in other words, he is never able to settle comfortably anywhere. Swift uses Gulliver, in part, to represent a man who never quite belongs anywhere. He is merely an observer, always outside his society.

"these she constantly washed for me with her own hands..."   (Part II - Chapter II)

Here, Swift introduces clothing as a symbol for change. Throughout the rest of the novel, whenever Gulliver enters a new environment, or gains a new perspective, his clothing will change. Clothing becomes a way for Swift to illustrate both a change in Gulliver’s perspective and his tremendous adaptability when he finds himself in an unfamiliar land.

"Nanunculus, the Italians Homunceletino..."   (Part II - Chapter II)

The words "Nanunculus" and "Homunceletino" don't exist in either Latin or Italian. Swift could be having fun with language or subtly satirizing Gulliver for his deficient language skills.

"and she used to ask me whether the people of my country were as great cowards as myself?..."   (Part II - Chapter III)

Things that the queen considers harmless can potentially place Gulliver in great danger due to his size. The queen ignorantly expects someone in very different circumstances to behave as if they have the same privilege that she does. By highlighting the absurdity of this, Swift uses the queen to satirize the ignorance and insensitivity of colonial superpowers.

"became so insolent at seeing a creature so much beneath him..."   (Part II - Chapter III)

The dwarf has been marginalized and treated cruelly by his own society, but he now uses his size to treat Gulliver in the same way. The dwarf’s crude treatment of someone smaller than himself is another way that Swift highlights the unethical use of physical advantage.

"the more my master got by me the more insatiable he grew...."   (Part II - Chapter III)

The farmer grows more and more greedy to profit from Gulliver. He continues to exercise his physical power over Gulliver despite the fact that the intensive “performances” are harming Gulliver. The farmer treats Gulliver like a puppet, but it is negligence, not malice, that harms Gulliver.

"were no more disagreeable to their lovers, or to each other, than people of the same quality are with us in England..."   (Part II - Chapter V)

Gulliver is able to see the Brobdingnagians as they might see each other. He recognizes that his aversion to their smell is due to his smaller size and not because they objectively smell bad. Thus, when Gulliver recalls that a citizen of Lilliput told Gulliver of his bad smell, Swift characterizes Gulliver as being more sensitive to people’s differences than the Lilliputians.

"panegyric..."   (Part II - Chapter VI)

“Panegyric” means a speech of elaborate praise. Gulliver has delivered a panegyric of British society and omitted the uglier aspects in order to paint Britain in a better light. However, while Gulliver preaches that all information must be included for the sake of candor, he only follows this when it best suits him. Gulliver does not hesitate to shed light on the negative parts of other societies, but will omit details if it makes Britain (and himself) look better.

"When I came to my own house, for which I was forced to inquire..."   (Part II - Chapter VIII)

The fact that Gulliver states that he was “forced” to visit his family is very telling. He does not show the least excitement to be back at home with his family for the first time in years. In fact, it seems like a chore. Gulliver is continually drawn to adventure and feels little to no attachment to his family.

"propagate the breed..."   (Part II - Chapter VIII)

Recall that Gulliver used these exact words to explain why he wanted to bring the Lilliputian people and animals to England. However, now that Gulliver is the one at a disadvantage, he likens it to being a “disgrace.” Note though, that Gulliver does not reflect on his treatment of the Lilliputians here even though the parallel may be obvious to a reader.

"His Majesty took not the least notice of us, although our entrance was not without sufficient noise, by the concourse of all persons belonging to the court. But he was then deep in a problem, and we attended at least an hour before he could solve it. ..."   (Part III - Chapter II)

The king is so consumed with his work that he takes no notice when someone comes to speak with him, even when it is a matter of great importance. The king’s apathy satirizes European governments that are so distracted by their own endeavors that they ignore the needs of the citizens.

" for the island is the King's demesne...."   (Part III - Chapter III)

The king of Laputa punishes citizens who live on the continent directly under the island by causing draughts or hailing down rocks if they do not obey him or decide to rebel. He is a perfect example of a monarch that abuses his physical power over those who are, in this case literally, beneath him.

"amuse myself with visions of what I should do if I were a King..."   (Part III - Chapter X)

Gulliver is an ordinary person, not rich in goods or prestige, and this line reminds us of this. Many people with great ideas imagine how they might change the world if given the chance. Gulliver is relatable in that he is a regular person who sometimes finds himself dreaming of being a leader. Gulliver thinks immortality could offer him this.

"My only concern is that I shall hardly be able to do justice to my master's arguments and expressions, which must needs suffer by my want of capacity, as well as by a translation into our barbarous English...."   (Part IV - Chapter V)

The fourth voyage differs from the first three in that Gulliver not only critiques European culture, but he begins to despise and repudiate it. Gulliver sees the Houyhnhnm language as more intricate than his own and even regrets translating their words into “barbarous” English. Swift uses language to symbolize this change in character.

"For now I could no longer deny that I was a real Yahoo in every limb and feature..."   (Part IV - Chapter VIII)

Gulliver has perceived the yahoos as various animals like “vermin” and “monkeys” thus far. In doing so, Gulliver has been able to imagine that he is superior to the yahoos, rather than one of them. However, once this woman tries to “mate” with Gulliver, he must confront the undeniable reality that he is a yahoo, which is deeply upsetting for him.

"springes made of Yahoos’ hairs..."   (Part IV - Chapter X)

A “springe” is a snare that is used for catching small game. Notice that Gulliver uses yahoo hair to make the springes. Recall also, that the Houyhnhnm leader was appalled that Gulliver had once used animal hides to make useful items for himself. Swift emphasizes how much Gulliver’s perspective has shifted; he has now come fully to view the yahoos as animals.

"The captain had often entreated me to strip myself of my savage dress, and offered to lend me the best suit of clothes he had..."   (Part IV - Chapter XI)

Don Pedro treats Gulliver with kindness, despite Gulliver’s assertion that humans are all inherently horrible. Gulliver sees Don Pedro as an “animal which ha[s] some little portion of reason,” and can only narrowly accept that Don Pedro may be benevolent. Gulliver’s pride and “antipathy” for the human race blinds him to the extent that he no longer can accept kind gestures or recognize his similarity to those around him.

"at the same time fell a-laughing at my strange tone in speaking, which resembled the neighing of a horse...."   (Part IV - Chapter XI)

The fourth part of the novel drastically differs from the first three. Gulliver’s voyages outside of Europe have thus far allowed him enough distance from his society to see its numerous flaws. However, the time he has spent with the Houyhnhnms actually leads him to conclude that it is not only European society that is bad, but humankind as a whole. Gulliver has been the outsider in different cultures, but he now views himself as an outsider among all of humankind.

"so horrible was the idea I conceived of returning to live in the society and under the government of Yahoos...."   (Part IV - Chapter XI)

From all the time Gulliver has spent amongst the Houyhnhnms, he has grown to be completely disgusted with himself and with humans in general. Gulliver views the Houyhnhnm society as perfect, and the thought of living in anything less than perfect is enough to make him resolve to spend the rest of his life on an uninhabited island.

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