Symbols in Gulliver's Travels

Symbols Examples in Gulliver's Travels:

Part I - Chapter II 1

"difficulties between urgency and shame..."   (Part I - Chapter II)

Excrement is a playful symbol that Swift will use throughout his satire, but it actually has a deeper meaning than we might initially assume. Excrement will symbolize the recognition that humans are not an elevated, supreme species, like much of high-society and nobility would believe. By focusing on excrement, Swift simultaneously humbles the reader and satirizes the Enlightenment culture that views humans as grand and dignified.

"intestine disquiets..."   (Part I - Chapter IV)

By “intestine disquiets,” Gulliver means the persistent interior feelings of animosity that the two nations have for one another. This furthers the motif of excrement that Swift introduced in the second chapter by comparing international hostility to that of intestinal trouble or unease. This again reminds the reader of human bodily imperfections.

"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.

"Their style is clear, masculine, and smooth, but not florid; for they avoid nothing more than multiplying unnecessary words or using various expressions..."   (Part II - Chapter VII)

Swift uses the symbol of language again to satirize the elevated rhetoric in European societies. Flowery language contrasts the Brobdingnagian principles of practicality and efficiency. Knowledge is clear, communicable, and rife with useless convoluted language.

"Lastly, I desired him to see the breeches I had then on, which were made of a mouse's skin..."   (Part II - Chapter VIII)

Gulliver uses his clothing to provide evidence for the truthfulness of his story. Note again, that clothing is emphasized at the moment when Gulliver’s circumstances have drastically changed, symbolizing that his perspective will once again be altered by new surroundings.

"Although neither of us understood the other, yet my meaning was easily known, for the people saw the distress I was in...."   (Part III - Chapter I)

Swift uses language as a symbol to advance the theme that communication across cultures is valuable, even when it is difficult. Language is not universal, but emotions can sometimes communicate for us when words fail. Gulliver has encountered many societies and different languages, but he has been able to communicate with others when he really needs to.

"Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars, interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords,..."   (Part III - Chapter II)

Swift again uses clothing as a symbol. In this case, it’s used to symbolize that the people of the island value abstract concepts like astronomy and art above all else. Though these are important subjects, these people ignore practical daily tasks that are absolutely essential, and view those who spend time on practical matters as inferior.

"During my confinement for want of clothes, and by an indisposition that held me some days longer, I much enlarged my dictionary, and, when I went next to court, was able to understand many things the King spoke and to return him some kind of answers. ..."   (Part III - Chapter II)

Note again that Gulliver finds himself in a change of circumstance and thus, his clothing changes. The clothing (or lack thereof) symbolizes his being stripped of preconceived notions, as he is now in a new and very different situation and must adapt again.

"mathematical figures..."   (Part III - Chapter II)

The Laputans delay their meal to cut their foods into “mathematical figures”and shapes of instruments. Their food unnecessarily becomes an intellectual project that illustrates how greatly Laputan society contrasts with the practical Brobdingnagians. The food symbolizes the ignorance of seeking intellect merely for intellect’s sake and not for the betterment of society.

"operation to reduce human excrement to its original food by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odor exhale, and scumming off the saliva..."   (Part III - Chapter V)

Following the symbol of excrement, the Lagado “projectors” attempt to turn human excrement into food. Besides being disgusting, this is impractical and harmful. The Laputans refuse to use agricultural methods that they know work, in favor of this fruitless experiment.Their reason for this experiment is not to help feed more people, but simply to see if it can be done.

"it was proposed that the members should raffle for employments, every man first taking an oath, and giving security that he would vote for the court, whether he won or no; after which the losers had, in their turn, the liberty of raffling upon the next vacancy..."   (Part III - Chapter VI)

The idea of choosing senators by raffle, and that conspirators can be located by examining their excrement, is absurd. Swift uses a hilariously extreme example to liken the reliability of English political appointments to a random raffle and to emphasize that the English government accuses citizens of treason based on outlandish claims.

"purulent ..."   (Part III - Chapter VI)

“Purulent” means resembling, containing, or consisting of pus. Swift emphasizes the imperfections of humans again, following the symbol of excrement.

"Otherwise, as avarice is the necessary consequent of old age, those immortals would in time become proprietors of the whole nation, and engross the civil power, which, for want of abilities to manage, must end in the ruin of the public...."   (Part III - Chapter X)

Swift points out that we all like to imagine that if we were granted immortality, we would use it to benefit others. However, the immortals become selfish and only end up hurting their community in their quest for more and more. Swift uses the Struldbruggs as a symbol to satirize European society. The ruling class attempts to make their legacies immortal, and this can have harmful repercussions.

"for they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood..."   (Part IV - Chapter III)

The fact that the Houyhnhnm language does not have a word for lying, and that the Houyhnhnm leader has trouble even comprehending the idea of lying, symbolizes that this society is very honest. Swift illustrates that language, apart from being an effective means to communicate ideas, can tell us a lot about a given society’s values.

"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.