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Gulliver's Travels Suggested Essays

by Jonathan Swift

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. Consider Gulliver's stated intentions in writing about his travels. What do the letters at the beginning of the work reveal about his character? What kind of a person is Gulliver? Why is he driven to the sea repeatedly even as his wife and children wait at home?

    Answer: Gulliver repeatedly heeds the call to go off to sea. He claims that it is for commercial reasons, but Gulliver easily adapts to foreign cultures and usually does not mind seeing how another culture might be superior to his own. He is a reader and a traveler, not the kind of person who feels bound to traditional society.

  2. Perspective and relativity are very important aspects of Gulliver's Travels. Compare Gulliver's experiences in the first and second parts of the novel. How does Gulliver act differently? How is he treated differently?

    Answer: In the first part, Gulliver is the giant; in the second, everyone else is a giant. In both, he is the outsider and is treated as such. Consider the power relationships in each part and the ability of prudence and reason to overcome differences in perspective.

  3. Bodily functions are described often and in great detail in the novel. Why is Swift so graphic?

    Answer: Humanity's base functions comprise an important aspect of the novel? Swift pays great attention to the real world, the material world where people actually have to live their lives. In addition to the slapstick value of associating different things in the text with excrement, Swift reminds us that we are embodied mortals.

  4. Is Gulliver a hero?

    Answer: One may choose to compare Gulliver's actions and characteristics with other great characters such as Odysseus, who also has great sea adventures, or Jason and the Argonauts. Odysseus is crafty and strong, but Gulliver does not endure great hardships or overcome great enemies. This is a satire, not an epic, so we neither expect nor need a hero. Instead, Swift gives us a narrator who tells his own story as an everyman. The point is that he is not greatly different from an average human being, though he becomes much wiser and more thoughtful.

  5. Is Gulliver a reliable narrator?

    Answer: We generally trust his statements even though they are about fantastic beings and places. We do not need to believe that such things actually happened. Instead we should recall that Swift has important lessons to teach though the satire and the imaginary narrator of these fictional travels. Beyond that, we might trust Gulliver because of his thoughtfulness and prudence in some ways and because he is willing to relate good news and bad news, good and bad things about various kinds of people, in the same even tone.

  6. Discuss Swift's connection to Gulliver.

    Answer: The author need not share the narrator's opinions, but we always should keep in mind that it is Swift who has presented a narrator with certain opinions. Sometimes, Swift's joke is at Gulliver's expense. Also consider Gulliver's attack on humanity in Part IV.

  7. What makes the Houyhnhnms' society ideal or a model for humans?

    Answer: From Gulliver's perspective, the Houyhnhnms have established the ideal society. In fact, when he returns home to England, he cannot stand the sight or smell of humans and prefers to spend his time in the barn with his horses. The Houyhnhnms are more rational than the Yahoos and the other peoples in the novel. Note other ways that the Yahoos are unlike the Houyhnhnms.

  8. How does Gulliver change as the novel progresses? For instance, at the end of the novel, when Gulliver is spending time in the barn with his horses, do we as readers identify with him, or are we repulsed?

    Answer: Gulliver learns much about alternative ways of living and comes to appreciate the ways that various peoples have improved upon the ways that he knew in England. He also appreciates what it is like to be much larger or smaller, much better or worse, much more practical or less intelligent, than others. He has seen how what is an important difference within a culture seems petty to outsiders. Overall, he sees many things more objectively and has come to despise the usual ways of humans where he lives. The horses are not really like the Houyhnhnms, so we realize Gulliver's mistake, but we sense that Gulliver is better off with a lot of time to himself to contemplate his experiences and what they mean for living well.

  9. Compare the satire in this novel with the argument in Swift's short essay, "A Modest Proposal," in which he declares that the Irish should eat their children in order to keep from starving.

    Answer: "A Modest Proposal" purports to solve a number of problems with a simple but morally impossible solution. One's outrage at the proposed solution should be channeled into thinking about a real solution--including the moral elements of the solution. The novel takes on society and subgroups, and the ways we live, more than any particular problem, showing us more about human nature. This difference is in large measure a reflection of what can be done in an essay versus a novel.

  10. Who is Swift making fun of and why?

    Answer: A good answer will examine ways in which human nature as a whole is satirized as well as ways that the British are satirized and the ways that particular groups (such as intellectuals) are satirized. In each case, find something ironic or humorous, determine at whose expense we laugh, and decide why we are laughing. Sometimes we laugh because our intentions have unintended consequences, sometimes we are inconsistent or irrational, and sometimes we laugh when we see ourselves as outsiders would see us.

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