Themes and Characters

The character who merits thorough discussion is Lemuel Gulliver. In many ways Gulliver is an average human being with a profession (surgeon), a family, and a desire to be comfortable and secure. He is middle-class with no special ambitions that separate him from his contemporaries. In many ways he is an ordinary person who we would hardly expect to experience the adventures described. In other respects, Gulliver is not so typical. His acute curiosity leads him to discover much more about the societies he encounters than most travelers would. He measures, weighs, scrutinizes, and compares, giving the reader an accurate picture of all that he sees. He enjoys sitting for hours learning the customs and procedures of other societies, and he is just as willing to describe his own to a curious listener.

Because of his facility with languages, he quickly learns to communicate with the inhabitants, even to the point of learning to talk with horses (whose language is somewhat more sophisticated than the neighing of the horses we are familiar with). Gulliver has the perfect blend of curiosity and matter-of-fact pragmatism needed to report on the strangeness he encounters. Gulliver’s obsession with detail is fortunate, but he often does not recognize the significance of what he observes and reports, showing an obtuseness that eventually causes the reader to doubt his reliability as a moral guide.

Gulliver is also resourceful and courageous to an extreme. He always manages to feed, clothe, and shelter himself. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, where no creature is clothed or eats what Gulliver can stomach, he manages to make himself comfortable for the five years he spends there. In Brobdingnag he successfully defends himself with his hanger against rats the size of mastiffs, and he seems only slightly affected by this encounter. In fact, almost every living creature in this country is a threat, and he is constantly in danger of being squeezed, stepped on, or dropped by the giants who surround him. Gulliver, however, simply goes about his business as if these dangers were only minor inconveniences.

It is important for the reader to understand that Gulliver is not always Swift’s spokesman in the story, but often becomes an object of ridicule as well. Swift depicts Gulliver as a typical 18th-century Englishman who is blind to his own flaws and the flaws of those around him. When Gulliver proudly offers the Brobdingnagian king the formula for gunpowder, Swift is satirizing both man’s desire to conquer and destroy, and Gulliver’s blindness to the peaceful nature of the Brobdingnagians. At the end of his travels, when Gulliver has come to despise the entire human race, his unreasonable reaction to his fellow humans is as much the target of Swift’s anger as are the faults he finds despicable. Although the character of Gulliver at the end is problematic, it is safe to assume that Swift does not entirely approve of his attitudes and reactions.

The character Don Pedro de Mendez also deserves mention. He is the Portuguese captain who returns Gulliver to his home after he is expelled by the Houyhnhnms. Don Pedro’s generosity and his concern for a fellow human serve as an example to counter Gulliver’s opinion that all humans are despicable. In the face of Gulliver’s obvious indifference and even revulsion to him and the sailors, Don Pedro is all kindness and consideration as he cares for Gulliver until he can be reunited with his family. Don Pedro has neither the cold reasoning of the Houyhnhnms nor the vulgar passion of the Yahoos. He is an admirable human being, but Gulliver’s obtuseness and lack of judgment prevent him from recognizing Don Pedro’s qualities. In a similar manner Gulliver’s wife serves the same purpose; she continues to shower him with love and concern even when he mistreats her.

In terms of particular people and events, Swift attacks Robert Walpole and the Whig party (Flimnap and the Slamecksan) and reduces the controversy between the Roman Catholics and Protestants to the animosity between the Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Lilliput and Blefescu. With Gulliver’s description of the Royal Academy of Lagado, Swift ridicules many of the popular experiments of the Royal Society as well as the fascination with impractical experimentation based purely on theory.

In Gulliver’s Travels Swift satirizes the petty, envious, selfish, foolish, and cruel traits of humanity and its corrupt institutions, especially government. In most cases we can by means of Gulliver’s descriptions pinpoint the flaw that Swift wants to expose. At times, though, Swift’s purpose is more obscure. For example, most of Lilliputian society appears ridiculous and irrational, but their system of education seems quite reasonable. The Brobdingnagians are for the most part benevolent and sensible, but they can also be cruel, gross, and insensitive. Because of such ambiguities, gaining a complete understanding of Swift’s intentions is difficult, if not impossible. He did, however, want to improve humanity and society and hoped to change people’s attitudes and behaviors by holding them up for ridicule.


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