Gulliver's Travels

Major Themes

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The Body

Throughout Gulliver's Travels the narrator spends a great deal of time discussing the human body-going so far as to detail his own urination and defecation. In each of the various lands to which Gulliver travels, he comes face to face with excrement. In Lilliput he urinates on the queen's apartment to put out a fire; in Luggnagg the professors work to turn excrement back into the food it began as; in the country of the Houyhnhnms the Yahoos throw their excrement at each other and at him.

Looking at the body from new perspectives gives Gulliver a special insight into the body's materiality. When he is relatively small, he can see the minute, ugly details of others' bodies. By looking closely at the body as a material thing and paying attention to what humans do on a daily basis, Swift makes it impossible to look at humans as exclusively spiritual or intellectual beings.

Literature and Language

Gulliver is a reader: "My Hours of Leisure I spent in reading the best Authors ancient and modern, being always provided with a good number of books." He reads whenever he has the time. And on each of the islands he visits, he makes a point of noticing whether the inhabitants write or do not write. The Lilliputians, for instance, write diagonally like the ladies of England. The Houyhnhnms lack a form of writing, but Gulliver spends a great deal of time considering how they pass on their history.

Gulliver is also a master linguist, making him a man of virtually all peoples. On each of the islands he visits, he learns the language quickly, sometimes being taught by learned scholars (as in Lilliput) and once being taught by a young girl (in Brobdingnag). His ability to communicate suggests the value of communication across cultures. Once Gulliver has learned the language of a given society, he visits the King or Queen or Emperor or Governor and discusses politics. This ability to share knowledge is beneficial to both parties.

Narrow-Mindedness and Enlightenment

Throughout his journeys Gulliver comes into contact with several different races of people, all of which are narrow-minded in some way. Many of the peoples are conspicuously narrow-minded, such as the Lilliputians, who have wars over the correct way to cut open an egg. (Such squabbles over unimportant matters are a common object of satire.) Even the Houyhnhnms, who are so revered by Gulliver, cannot believe there are other reasonable ways of living.

Much of Swift's satirical focus is on people who cannot see past their own ways, their own power, or their own beliefs. Readers (especially his contemporary readers) can see themselves in some of this satire.

Otherness

Otherness plays a large part in Gulliver's Travels. Throughout his journeys Gulliver never quite fits in, regardless of how long he stays. Partly this is a matter of size. In Lilliput, he is the only giant. In Brobdingnag, everyone else is giant and he is small. Mainly, however, it is a matter of being different and simply from elsewhere. On his final journey, when he is captain and his crew mutinies, they leave him on an uncharted island. In Houyhnhnm, where there actually are human beings, they are disgusting creatures with whom Gulliver certainly cannot relate. Finally, after spending years with the Houyhnhnms and coming to consider them better in every way than humanity, Gulliver is still a human. Yet, his experience has made him an outsider in England, completely disgusted with even his own wife and children.

Perspective and Relativity

In Gulliver's Travels the reader comes to realize that much in the world really is relative. Gulliver's first journey lands him in Lilliput where he is called the Mountain Man, because the people there are only five to six inches tall. On the other hand, in Brobdingnag, Gulliver is tiny compared to the enormous creatures who find him and keep him as a pet.

Gulliver spends a great deal of time pondering this situation when he arrives in Brobdingnag. He writes, "In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose Inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the World: where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my Hand .... I reflected what a Mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this Nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us." Gulliver adds, "Undoubtedly Philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by Comparison."

Perspective and relativity do not only apply to size, however, in Gulliver's Travels. After spending time with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver considers them above humanity in nearly every way. Returning to England, Gulliver is repulsed by the humans he formerly loved and instead chooses to spend his time in the barn with his horses. The question remains about what in the world is not relative after all; size is relative, but what about space itself? Is time relative in the novel as well? A careful reader will find many universals in the midst of so much cultural relativity.

Travel

The novel is set in the traditional mode of satirical travel literature. Many other classic works use the same device, such as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Homer's Odyssey. Travel in the case of Gulliver's Travels gives Swift the opportunity to compare the ways of humanity, more specifically those of the English, with several other ways of living. Travel also keeps the story entertaining. It is not often that a person finds a book with four sailing journeys each interrupted by torrential storms, although one should remember that the Age of Exploration in Europe provided many stories of travels and discoveries of new lands and new peoples.

Truth and Deception

Truth and deception are prominent themes in Gulliver's Travels. For one thing, the reader is constantly questioning whether or not Gulliver is a reliable narrator-simply because what he is conveying is so fantastic. Most critics and readers determine that Gulliver is reliable, however. One sign of his honesty is established within the first few pages, when he tells the reader about where he came from.

Our comfort with Gulliver's reliability is challenged in the last chapter of the novel, though, when Gulliver tells his readers he cannot tell a lie and swears this oath: "Nec si miserum Fortuna Sinonem Finxit, vanum etiam, mendacemque improba finget," which in English means, "Nor if Fortune had molded Sinon for misery, would she also in spite mold him as false and lying."

Lying does appear within Gulliver's journeys. In Lilliput he learns that for the Lilliputians lying is a capital punishment and is considered worse than stealing. In the country of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is surprised to learn that the Houyhnhnms have no concept of what it means to lie. Their complete honesty is part of what makes Gulliver decide that they are the noblest creatures on Earth.