Themes in Gulliver's Travels

Themes Examples in Gulliver's Travels:

A Letter 2

"I hear the original manuscript is all destroyed, since the publication of my book. Neither have I any copy left..."   (A Letter)

Gulliver’s Travels continually explores the ways in which truth, knowledge, and meaning are constructed or altered by various cultures and individuals. In addition to reality being subjective, here Swift introduces the theme that facts can be revised or erased, thereby amending history if the original account is destroyed. Human knowledge and understanding is conditional and, therefore, limited.

"I do here renounce every thing of that kind..."   (A Letter)

By illustrating two conflicting perspectives on one “true” story, Swift calls attention to a theme that will be explored throughout the novel: that reality is relative to and determined by each individual’s cultural, social, and political environment. The line between fact and fiction is blurred, as we are unsure whose account is the most accurate and objective.

"set us both a-sneezing for several times together..."   (Part I - Chapter II)

Swift further satirizes humans for their high-minded and enlightened self-perception by having the inhabitants of the island use elevated legal and scientific jargon when taking inventory of Gulliver’s ordinary possessions. The things he carries are basic, everyday objects, but the officers act as if their job is of extremely high importance.

" It is allowed on all hands that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them was upon the larger end; but his present Majesty's grandfather while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers..."   (Part I - Chapter IV)

These two nations that could have been allies are instead fighting each other in a continuous war. Swift illustrates the illogical nature of this by describing the hilariously ridiculous subject over which their feud is based upon—eggs. Swift uses satire to highlight the absurdity of war and conflict between nations. In this context, Swift is using Lilliput and Blefuscu as symbols for England and France, whose dispute, from an outsider’s perspective, might seem just as unnecessary.

"It is to be observed that these ambassadors spoke to me by an interpreter, the languages of both empires differing as much from each other as any two in Europe, and each nation priding itself upon the antiquity, beauty, and energy of their own tongues, with an avowed contempt for that of their neighbor..."   (Part I - Chapter V)

Throughout Swift’s novel, Swift explores differences in language and how these differences affect meaning, understanding, and communication between various cultures. Languages can both induce and inhibit productive conversation between different groups. In this case, the differences in Lilliput and Blefuscu’s languages simply deepen “contempt” of one another and further their divide.

"all intercourse between the two empires having been strictly forbidden during the war, upon pain of death..."   (Part I - Chapter V)

While it might seem logical not to chance revealing one’s whereabouts to enemies, this limits communication so much that negotiations are not even possible. Forbidding all conversation for decades upon “pain of death” does not leave any room for verbal compromise, regardless of whether either nation’s beliefs have shifted over time. Here, Swift reinforces the absurdity of wars between nations by showing how they tend to be ignorantly initiated, prolonged, or perpetuated by refusing to communicate.

"Although we usually call reward and punishment the two hinges upon which all government turns, yet I could never observe this maxim to be put in practice by any nation except that of Lilliput..."   (Part I - Chapter VI)

The Lilliputian government not only punishes citizens for committing crimes, but it also rewards them for doing good. Swift thereby creates a fictional government that contrasts England’s punishment-based legislation. His satire suggests that by giving people an incentive to do good, rather than simply to not do bad, society can be greatly improved.

"ignominiou..."   (Part I - Chapter VI)

If a punishment is ignominious, then it is humiliating and shame-inducing. In Lilliput, the punishment for false accusation and fraud is this humiliating death, a concept that illustrates how highly the Lilliputians and their government value honesty and trust. Gulliver’s Travels thereby implies that the primary foundation of any sustainable and prosperous society is trust.

"like a false traitor against his most auspicious, serene, Imperial Majesty, did petition to be excused from the said service, upon pretense of unwillingness to force the consciences or destroy the liberties and lives of innocent people...."   (Part I - Chapter VII)

Note again Swift’s humorous way of calling attention to the ridiculousness and the irrational basis of war. The Lilliputian government sees Gulliver as a traitor for not wanting to “destroy the liberties and lives of innocent people.” Here, Swift uses an indisputably reasonable example to highlight this nonsensical government, which is characteristic of the genre of satire.

"did maliciously, traitorously, and devilishly, by discharge of urine, put out the said fire kindled in the said apartment..."   (Part I - Chapter VII)

Swift furthers the theme that truth is subjective, and he uses it to explore the problems that arise when motive meets law. Gulliver’s motives were noble: to put out the fire at any cost. However, Lilliputian law does not recognize intent, except when it is assumed that the intent was malicious.The truth depends on perspective, but the government behaves as though it is objective.

"treason and other capital crimes..."   (Part I - Chapter VII)

Swift satirizes legal policy by creating a glaring contrast between the pretentious language of Lilliputian officials and their ludicrous accusations. People in power use elevated language to justify outrageous capital punishment unfitting for the crime in question.

"to put out both your eyes..."   (Part I - Chapter VII)

The fact that the Lilliputians consider putting out Gulliver’s eyes to be a “merciful” punishment is laughable. By creating an exaggerated punishment for his “crime” and emphasizing the government’s assertion that they are granting him clemency via this punishment, Swift illustrates the absurdity, and arbitrary nature, of laws.

"Out of gratitude for the favors you have done me I procured information of the whole proceedings, and a copy of the articles, wherein I venture my head for your service..."   (Part I - Chapter VII)

Although the Lilliputian government values honesty and disclosure, they have secretly been planning a punishment for Gulliver’s “treason.” If it were not for this citizen’s integrity, Gulliver would have been caught by utter surprise. Swift thus points out the theme of the hypocrisy of government. Leaders preach candor to their subjects, but they do not hold themselves to the same standard.

"found a strange animal..."   (Part II - Chapter II)

This is not so unlike what Gulliver did when he brought the animals from Lilliput back to England. Gulliver is treated like a curiosity and a form of capital rather than an intelligent and feeling being. Swift thus continues to build on the theme of perspective by this time emphasizing that what we deem sentient or intelligent life is subjective.

"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.

"But, the most hateful sight of all was the lice crawling on their clothes..."   (Part II - Chapter IV)

The large size of the citizens means that their features are enormous to Gulliver. Gulliver can thus see all deformities in extreme detail, making the women seem grotesque. Note again, Swift’s emphasis on the flaws of the human body, which follows the theme that human grandiosity is an illusion and thus satirizes popular Enlightenment ideas.

"That, among other animals, bees and ants had the reputation of more industry, art, and sagacity than many of the larger kinds; and that, as inconsiderable as he took me to be, I hoped I might live to do his Majesty some signal service..."   (Part II - Chapter VI)

Just as Gulliver contributed to Lilliputian society despite his immense size, he finds a way to help the Brobdingnagians despite his small size. By emphasizing that even bees and ants can be productive members of society, Swift furthers the theme that strength and physical power should not be the ultimate values of a society.

" In short, I behaved myself so unaccountably that they were all of the captain's opinion when he first saw me, and concluded I had lost my wits. This I mention as an instance of the great power of habit and prejudice...."   (Part II - Chapter VIII)

Gulliver’s adventures have left him with so many different habits and perspectives that he not only seems strange to the people of Britain but he also sees them as strange. The themes of perspective and truth are both continued here, highlighting that one’s understanding of the world is subjective and not static.

" 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.

"This advantage hath enabled them to extend their discoveries much farther than our astronomers in Europe; for they have made a catalogue of ten thousand fixed stars, whereas the largest of ours do not contain above one-third part of that number. ..."   (Part III - Chapter III)

The Laputans have extensive knowledge of the stars, which Gulliver notes exceeds the knowledge that England and other parts of Europe have. However, their knowledge is meaningless if they disregard proper agriculture or forget to eat. This suggests that knowledge is only valuable if applied well, and the Laputans do not use their knowledge to benefit their own lives or the lives of others.

"That his countrymen ridiculed and despised him for managing his affairs no better, and for setting so ill an example to the kingdom, which, however, was followed by very few, such as were old and wilful and weak, like himself...."   (Part III - Chapter IV)

In Lagado, most of the citizens have dismissed traditional methods of agriculture and building in favor of methods that are more like those of the Laputans. The contrast between Munodi’s productive estate and the rest of Lagado better emphasizes the problem with valuing only abstract intellect and neglecting basic necessities and comforts.

"And this invention would certainly have taken place, to the great ease as well as health of the subject, if the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate, had not threatened to raise a rebellion unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues after the manner of their forefathers, such constant irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people. ..."   (Part III - Chapter V)

The idea that language be eliminated, and that people instead must carry around physical objects to communicate, is pointless and silly. The “common” people are the only ones who demonstrate any sense, opposing this preposterous idea. The common people know better how to govern society than those in power, who are blinded by their own pursuits.

"glory of taking it away..."   (Part III - Chapter VII)

Because the Governor practices necromancy, Gulliver asks him to bring back influential historical figures. However, Gulliver discovers that the things he had once thought to be undoubtable “truths” about the past are no more than false rumors. Swift thus emphasizes how history gets rewritten or embellished over time, advancing the theme that an absolute, objective truth is an illusion.

"How low an opinion I had of human wisdom and integrity when I was truly informed of the springs and motives of great enterprises and revolutions in the world, and of the contemptible accidents to which they owed their success!..."   (Part III - Chapter VIII)

Here, Swift is supporting the theme that truth is subjective and relative. The “prostitute writers” have presented the royalty of the past in a light that is far better than they deserve, which means that these writers have altered history in a sense. Our understanding of history can be manipulated and is thus not always as reliable or certain as we might think.

"out of vogue when that was determined...."   (Part III - Chapter VIII)

When Gulliver exposes the inaccuracies of Aristotle’s theories, Aristotle explains that all scientific findings evolve, no matter how seemingly accurate at the time of conception. Aristotle’s comments support the theme that knowledge and “truth” changes as we discover things we had not known before. Even Aristotle, once the authority on knowledge, learns that truth is relative and subject to change.

"Several horses and mares..."   (Part IV - Chapter III)

Here, Swift cleverly makes Gulliver a spectacle for the Houyhnhnms. While the Houyhnhnms do treat Gulliver respectfully, they are amazed by his intelligence, which defies all they know about yahoos. This supports the idea that intelligence is a matter of perspective. The Houyhnhnms might have assumed Gulliver was unintelligent, just as without a change in perspective, Gulliver might have assumed that all horses were less intelligent than humans.

"He said, if it were possible there could be any country where Yahoos alone were endued with reason, they certainly must be the governing animal, because reason will in time always prevail against brutal strength...."   (Part IV - Chapter IV)

The leading Houyhnhnm has trouble imagining a world in which “yahoos” rule society due to their slight build and physical weakness. In Houyhnhnm society, the Houyhnhnms are both stronger and smarter than the yahoos. However, the master Houyhnhnm says that reason should always rule over physical strength, supporting the theme that power should reside with those who will use it ethically and rationally.

"as in that of their own profession..."   (Part IV - Chapter V)

When Gulliver describes the European legal system to the Houyhnhnm leader, he likens lawyers and judges to liars and cheats. Although he notes that these individuals may be educated, similar to the Laputans, they use their knowledge for their own benefit and not to the benefit of humankind. Swift supports the theme that since knowledge is power, it must be used for good.

"if it be in things indifferent...."   (Part IV - Chapter V)

Swift satirizes European warfare by illustrating how extremely trivial matters lead to enormous bloodshed. By having Gulliver explain these matters to someone unfamiliar with Europe, the European readers at the time were able to view their own society somewhat from an outsider’s perspective. This not only showed how seem silly and unnecessary war is, but it also helps the Europeans see themselves from another point of view.

" I held the odious vermin..."   (Part IV - Chapter VIII)

Although Gulliver has met animals that he knows to be extremely intelligent, he still views them as human-like and views the yahoos as animals, despite his awareness that they are human. Gulliver has not quite been able to abandon his European perspective as much as he would like to. This supports the theme that the individual is not so easily separated from their society’s customs and beliefs. We are all influenced by our cultures.

"She died about three months after...."   (Part IV - Chapter IX)

There are a few ways that we can read the Houyhnhnm perspective on death and dying. On the one hand, readers might see an advantage to not feel attached to life, as it means that there is no grief at the loss of loved ones. On the other hand, it signals a kind of emotional indifference that might make the Houyhnhnms seem numb and cold in comparison to humans. Swift supports the theme that what may be “utopian” to some people is actually not all that desirable for others: it is all a matter of perspective.

"exalted notions of friendship and benevolence..."   (Part IV - Chapter IX)

Compare the Houyhnhnm’s study of the arts and astronomy to that of the Laputans. The Houyhnhnms use their knowledge effectively, helping to make life easier and more fulfilling for the people in their community. This suggests that the expansion of knowledge is not inherently bad, but that it must be used for good, or it is meaningless.

"building by the swallow..."   (Part IV - Chapter IX)

The Houyhnhnms see the yahoos as a group that needs to be controlled for the peace and safety of the community. The Houyhnhnm leader thus suggests to castrate all yahoos, just like Gulliver explained that they do to horses in England. By turning this around, Swift leads the reader to question if any being should be treated this way, even one that may exemplify the worst aspects of human nature. This supports the theme that using physical power to control one’s society is unethical.

"But the Houyhnhnms, who live under the government of reason, are no more proud of the good qualities they possess than I should be for not wanting a leg or an arm..."   (Part IV - Chapter XII)

Gulliver ends his narrative by explaining that although he has given a glowing, but truthful, account the Houyhnhnms, the Houyhnhnms themselves would find it strange to be prideful of their community. The Houyhnhnms, Gulliver explains, are decent and virtuous without needing recognition for it, which humans lack. Swift thus supports the theme that being ethical, and using our power for good, should be expected, not rewarded.

"I am not a little pleased that this work of mine can possibly meet with no censurers, for what objections can be made against a writer, who relates only plain facts that happened in such distant countries, where we have not the least interest with respect either to trade or negotiations?..."   (Part IV - Chapter XII)

Swift has explored the theme that truth and reality are subjective throughout most of the novel. Gulliver’s ardent insistence here that his book holds no bias whatsoever, and therefore is not subject to censure or fact-checking, is satirical. Gulliver may have attempted to write a narrative that is objective, but Swift again satirizes the assumption that writing can be completely objective. No writer can completely remove themselves from the limits of their own perspective.