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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Gulliver's time in Lilliput affect his interaction with others when he returns home in Gulliver's Travels, Part 1, Chapter 8?

When Gulliver is picked up by an English ship and returned to England, his story of Lilliput and Blefuscu is, understandably, difficult to believe. The other sailors think Gulliver has lost his mind, and from their point of view, this certainly seems to be the case. Gulliver is able to convince his rescuers of the truth of his story only by showing them the tiny herd of cattle and sheep he has carried in his pockets from Blefuscu. These animals would have provided Gulliver's food supply had he not been rescued quickly, so he is lucky to still have most of them. When he returns to England, Gulliver puts his miniature livestock to pasture on a bowling green—a small grassy area for lawn bowling—and they thrive. Eventually, Gulliver is able to make a "considerable profit" by showing his tiny animals to small audiences "of quality." The additional funds and notoriety contribute to the Gulliver family's well-being. He sells his cattle before he goes to sea again, but Gulliver hopes his sheep flock will increase to produce sufficient wool for manufacturing textiles because their fleece is very fine compared with normal-sized sheep. This, too, would benefit Gulliver and his family's fortunes. All of these benefits are nice enough for Gulliver, but his first return home from travels provides the first piece of groundwork for his isolation from his family and from European society. His experience is totally unique compared with those around him, and it is difficult to imagine who might possibly understand or sympathize with these experience, even after proof is offered. Gulliver obtained his cattle by escaping a very dangerous situation, but the entire story becomes a simple novelty, not a basis for meaningful intercourse with others. The time in Lilliput does not even inspire Gulliver to have a greater appreciation for home.

How does Gulliver discover that beauty is a relative concept in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapter 1?

Gulliver's arrival in Brobdingnag is all about the shift in perspective from being the largest man on the island of Lilliput to being the smallest man in a land of giants. He develops an appreciation and understanding of the Lilliputians' simultaneous fear and awe of him. The Lilliputians lauded Gulliver for his power and accomplishments, which reflects how size equals power in the world of the novel. At the same time, Gulliver recalls how the Lilliputians found his appearance odd, even repellent, because he was so large. Gulliver remembers how one of his Lilliputian friends told him how the pores of Gulliver's skin appeared as "great holes" and his skin tone was made of several "disagreeable" colors, even though among the English, Gulliver describes himself as average in appearance. Gulliver remembers this as he observes the giants of Brobdingnag and feels disgusted by the flaws in their skin. At the same time, Gulliver found the Lilliputians almost uniformly beautiful because they were too small for him to observe any flaws in their appearances. The same friend who observed Gulliver's giant pores described the women at court in far less favorable terms than Gulliver could observe because the friend's perspective allowed him to see them in more detail. Gulliver speculates that the Lilliputians would be delighted to find a race smaller than themselves because they would likely find this race as beautiful as Gulliver finds the Lilliputians. Ultimately, beauty appears to be a matter of making personal imperfections small enough to escape the eye of the beholder.

Why is it important that the character who shows Gulliver the most kindness in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapter 2 is a young girl?

The Brobdingnagian farmer who finds Gulliver is kind to Gulliver until he discovers he can make a profit by putting Gulliver on display to the public. In a turn of dramatic irony, when he returned from Lilliput, Gulliver made a profit from displaying his Lilliputian livestock to English audiences, although Gulliver may have been more selective in his audience and did not place the same performance expectations on his cattle that the farmer places on him. Gulliver is not simply on display; he must do tricks for the crowd, working to the point of exhaustion. The farmer's daughter, whom Gulliver calls Glumdalclitch, which means "little nurse," is nine years old and is given charge of Gulliver's care for the entirety of his stay in Brobdingnag. She carries out this duty with genuine concern and affection for Gulliver, and she is highly protective of him. Her treatment of Gulliver illustrates the innocence of a child in contrast to the cynical machinations of an adult. She has nothing to gain from taking care of Gulliver; she does not share in her father's profits. She cares for him because this is her nature as a child, which suggests that greed and indifference are qualities that are learned, not innate. Her gender may also predispose her toward caretaking, as the gender roles in this society are highly traditional.

How is Gulliver's experience at court in Brobdingnag in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapter 3 similar to his past experience at court in Lilliput in Part 1?

At court in both Lilliput and Brobdingnag, Gulliver is the subject of both fascination and amusement. However, his size in Lilliput commands a level of respect—based on fear at first—that Gulliver never encounters in Brobdingnag. At the same time, Gulliver is not subjected to the same kinds of rules in Brobdingnag that he had to observe in Lilliput, even though the Brobdingnagians present an arguably greater threat to Gulliver's physical safety. Gulliver presents no threat to them, however, which accounts for the difference. In Lilliput, Gulliver's size was threatening to the emperor and his power, so it was important for Gulliver to conform to the Lilliputians' expectations, and be confined socially once his physical confinement was over. The Lilliputians had a strong and natural need to control Gulliver for their own safety and interests. Control of Gulliver in Brobdingnag is a moot point. He is essentially helpless in this world where even precipitation falling from the sky could kill him. Therefore, Gulliver has greater leeway in his activities and is shown more favor. Even when the king disagrees with Gulliver's ways as an Englishman, he is not punished for this disagreement as he (almost) was in Lilliput. On Lilliput and Brobdingnag, Gulliver is never judged by the quality of his ideas or the content of his character. He is almost exclusively judged by his relative size, either as a menace in Lilliput or as a plaything in Brobdingnag.

What does Gulliver's reaction to the beggars reveal about his perspective in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapter 4?

While out with Glumdalclitch and her governess one day in the city, their carriage is approached by a group of beggars who fill Gulliver with disgust proportional to their size. Their maladies, ranging from a tumor on a woman's breast to a wen, or boil, on one of the men, would potentially repel an average person of normal size. Gulliver is trained as a surgeon, so if he were seeing these maladies on people proportional to himself, he would probably not be squeamish about them. From the perspective he holds in Brobdingnag, however, he declares them "the most horrible spectacle that ever a European eye beheld." Seeing the maladies familiar in his chosen career on a grand scale does not elicit the caring bedside manner of a doctor, nor is his scientific curiosity piqued. Gulliver's new perspective causes him to abandon whatever ethics or oaths he swore as a doctor. His choice to invoke his European background here also indicates a feeling of cultural superiority over the Brobdingnagians. The most repellent part of this encounter for Gulliver is the lice on the beggars, which he says he can see in detail better than he might have through a microscope. He acknowledges that he should feel curious enough to dissect one of these insects, but he is too nauseated by the sight of them. Again, this change in perspective actively contradicts his training as a doctor and man of science.

How and to what purpose do the queen of Brobdingnag's maids sexualize Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapter 5?

The queen's maids often undress Gulliver and place him on their bodies, and they seem particularly fond of putting him into their cleavage. The women have no hesitation about stripping naked in front of him as well, placing him on the dressing table while they do so. He describes how one of them is fond of sitting him astride her nipple along with "many other tricks" that he declines to describe in detail. Gulliver finds this experience humiliating and, if his silence on details is any indication, indecent. He finds the women, whose flaws are made gigantic in front of him, repulsive and their bodily odors offensive. He concedes the odor is likely a function of the differences in their sizes, but the entire scene is so upsetting to him that he begs Glumdalclitch to intercede. This scene demonstrates how much of our humanity is connected to the control over our own bodies. Gulliver is distressed because his humanity is taken away as the women treat him as an object, "like a creature who had no sort of consequence." At the same time, these games the women play with Gulliver allow them a level of control and even empowerment that they may not experience in other aspects of their lives. As the queen's women, they would be expected to conform to ideals of respectability that reflect well on themselves and the queen. In these private moments, with this nonthreatening male figure, they are able to express themselves in much more bawdy ways than they might otherwise be able to do. In this sense, Gulliver is of consequence, because he provides an audience to their antics.

How are both Gulliver and the king of Brobdingnag guilty of being closed-minded in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapters 6 and 7?

When Gulliver describes the system of English government and politics to the king, the king is perplexed by the intrigues of European-style political life and declares the English "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin" ever to exist on earth. When Gulliver attempts to save face by revealing the secrets of gunpowder, he only worsens the king's opinion. The king is appalled by the violence and destruction that the weapons Gulliver describes can create. At no point does the king look at Gulliver's descriptions in an objective way because he does not really take Gulliver or his culture seriously. Gulliver's offense at the king's assessment does not show critical thought about these events or how they might appear to an outsider. Gulliver hears only the king's criticism of his homeland and feels insulted by the king's opinions. Gulliver reproaches himself for inadequately describing England or framing his country in overly negative terms. While the king is not open enough to Gulliver's ideas to make much difference, Gulliver does not recognize the potential truths in the king's assessment. The years of English history Gulliver presents are the century before Gulliver's arrival in Brobdingnag (the 1600s, more or less), a period marked by civil war, religious strife, and much political backstabbing. Gulliver's hurt feelings at the king's rejection of gunpowder does not account for the real destruction and danger cannons, guns, and gunpowder do present, even in storage. While Gulliver has reason to feel loyal to his home country, neither he nor the king seem able to consider the perspective of the other.

How does his time in Brobdingnag affect Gulliver's behavior when he is rescued in Gulliver's Travels, Part 2, Chapter 8?

When Gulliver is first taken on board the ship that rescues him from his floating box and takes him from Brobdingnag, Gulliver is not inclined to answer the sailors' questions and is overcome at "the sight of so many pigmies." His perspective has become so accustomed to giants, that now people his own size look impossibly small to him. Gulliver sends the men back into the box to get his furniture, which makes the captain think Gulliver is raving but he agrees to salvage the furniture anyway. Gulliver has fitful dreams about the dangers he encountered in Brobdingnag, the first such dreams he reports, indicating that he is only now coming to understand how much danger he actually experienced. After Gulliver presents his evidence of Brobdingnag and convinces the captain he is not insane, the captain asks why Gulliver speaks so loudly. Gulliver's speech has been influenced by two years spent shouting to be heard at all, so his visual sense along with his speech and hearing must readjust to their new (old) perspective.

Why does Gulliver accept another voyage so soon after coming home from Brobdingnag in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 1?

Gulliver explains that he is visited by an old friend, Captain William Robinson of the Hopewell, 10 days after he has returned from his previous voyage from Brobdingnag. The captain offers Gulliver double the usual pay, a staff of two other surgeons, and essentially equal command of the voyage. On the surface, this offer is too good for Gulliver to pass up. At the same time, the decision indicates how accustomed Gulliver has become to seafaring and the adventures his travels offer him. He is able to convince his wife to agree to the journey because of the benefits—presumably monetary—the voyage offers for their children. It stands to reason as well, that she has become accustomed to her husband's absence, and even if she does not find his absence preferable, she tolerates his wanderings. This decision also sets the stage for Gulliver's ultimate return home, still years away in Part 4, Chapter 12, which is marked by Gulliver's distance, even distaste for his family. Certainly the influence of the Houyhnhnm society on the last island contributes to this, but Gulliver's eagerness to leave so soon on this earlier voyage indicates the roots of that final distancing are already in place. He does not express the hostility he feels toward his family later, but neither does he express much affection for them. From a narrative standpoint, Gulliver's character has to keep traveling, to provide an external view and commentary on the multitude of perspectives he encounters through his travels. Gulliver is a vehicle to allow the reader to encounter all of these perspectives, and the lens through which to interpret them is not yet complete. It is especially crucial because the shift between Part 2 and Part 3 also represents a division in the narrative. The differing perspectives in the first two sections are based on physical attributes, which makes for some satire based on culture clashes. The differences of perspective in the final two sections are based on philosophies and worldviews, moving toward a more comprehensive understanding of the ways people differ in thought.

How are the people of Laputa different from the Brobdingnagians and Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapters 1 and 2?

Unlike the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians, the Laputans are normal-sized humans, like Gulliver. Physically, he fits into their society quite well. Gulliver's displacement among the Laputans is entirely intellectual. Even though Gulliver is an educated man, a surgeon, he is unable to compete with the Laputans on a mental level. Also unlike the Brobdingnagians and the Lilliputians, the Laputans are not especially social creatures, preferring their own interior contemplations to interaction with others. They have a system of buffers and go-betweens in the form of the flappers to facilitate conversations between themselves when absolutely necessary, but the intrusive nature of this social construct implies that they might prefer to avoid interactions altogether if they could. Neither the Lilliputians nor the Brobdingnagians possess this kind of singular focus on intellectual pursuits, and some of the evidence indicates that these two countries actively avoid abstract thought. The Brobdingnagians, in particular, learn nothing that is not practical and useful, and the Lilliputians shortsightedness indicates they are not prone to thinking beyond their own spheres.

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