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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is significant about the faults Gulliver's Houyhnhnm Master finds with Gulliver's physical condition in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapter 4?

In the Houyhnhnm Master's opinion, Gulliver is even less suited for survival than the Yahoos of his island. His skin is pale and soft, unsuited for exposure to sunlight. His nails are useless for digging or grasping anything, while the island Yahoos have long nails for use in defense and digging. He requires shoes in order to walk on the rough ground, something neither the Yahoos nor the Houyhnhnms need. Gulliver requires clothing to protect him from the heat and cold, another item neither the Yahoos nor the Houyhnhnms appear to need. Furthermore, the necessity of clothing means Gulliver must expend time and energy each day to dress and undress. Most importantly, the Yahoos are detested by all other creatures, and the master cannot see how a sense of reason could help the Europeans overcome this general sense of ill will. With all of these problems, the master finds it difficult to believe Gulliver and his kind are able to rule their own country or exercise dominion over other creatures. It is noteworthy that the very things that mark Gulliver as a European—pale skin, shoes, and clothing—are the very things that make him seem vulnerable and useless to the Houyhnhnms.

How does Gulliver feel about war, based on his comments in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapter 5?

Gulliver describes the causes of war as based on differences of opinion, and he alludes to the numerous disagreements between Catholics and Protestants that sparked numerous conflicts throughout Europe in the century before his travels began. He refers to disagreements over whether "bread be flesh" or "the juice of a certain berry be blood" in reference to the Protestant and Catholic difference of opinion over the doctrine of transubstantiation. He goes on to describe more differences of opinion regarding clothing, a reference to disagreements over the robes of different orders of monks within the Catholic Church. His remark that wars are longer and bloodier when they are "occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent" reveals that he believes wars are inspired by pointless arguments. His description of royal greed for land or prestige also reflects his belief that wars are fought for largely personal reason, with little concern for the damage they inflict—to monarchs these wars are almost like a game to be won or lost, a diversion.

How does Gulliver feel about the justice system, based on his comments in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapter 5?

Gulliver's contempt for lawyers is evident as he explains his only knowledge of law is based on the lawyers he has hired "in vain" to defend him against injustices. He describes lawyers as a group of men bred to argue "by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white." In saying this, he means that through use of complicated language and obfuscation, lawyers construct arguments that have no relationship to truth or reality. Gulliver provides an example concerning ownership of a cow, to show that the system itself places him at a disadvantage because his adversary's lawyer has mastery over creating false arguments, and his lawyer must retain the favor of the court, which is headed by a judge who used to be a lawyer himself. Gulliver's accounting of the law and workings of the court imply that he has been burned in disputes. He later calls lawyers "the most ignorant and stupid generation among us, the most despicable in common conversation, avowed enemies to all knowledge and learning." He has no confidence that courts of law are interested in anything resembling justice.

In Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapter 6, how does Gulliver present wealth as an overarching evil in society?

In Chapter 6 Gulliver presents a few different problems with English society, including disease and government corruption, but he starts the conversation by explaining money to his master, and everything that follows relates to the role money plays as well. Trade, and the colonization and exploitation that comes with it, results from the wealthy demanding new and exotic goods from different parts of the world, even though domestic goods could easily serve the same purpose. Most people, Gulliver observes, end up working to serve the needs of the wealthy, either through providing direct services or engaging in trade or supporting those who do. Essentially society is constructed to cater to the needs and desires of the rich. This setup, Gulliver contends, also leads large numbers of people to resort to begging or crime if they are unable to make ends meet through legitimate means. Furthermore, the services provided for the rich may include illegal pursuits such as prostitution and gambling. The rich food and drink the wealthy consume leads to a host of physical ailments. The sloth that comes from working too little carries another host of ailments, and the overwork that comes from service to the wealthy brings still more problems. Sexual activity spreads other ailments. Plus, idle minds may contrive fake illnesses for treatment as well. Finally, corruption and problems in government result from the pursuit of wealth in another sector of the population: ministers who achieve their post through any number of means that have nothing to do with merit. They spend their careers engaged in political intrigues with little concern for the public, but they "retire from the public laden with the spoils of the nation."

In Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapter 6, how do Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm Master differ in their interpretation of the term nobility?

Gulliver's master assumes Gulliver must be a nobleman back in England because Gulliver "far exceeded in shape, colour, and cleanliness, all the Yahoos of his nation." The master goes on to praise Gulliver's ability to speak in several languages and his sense of reason. In short, the master is interpreting "nobility" as a reflection of a high degree of character and a firm constitution. For him, nobility implies a level of intrinsic quality and worth. Of course, Gulliver corrects his master, telling him nobility is a class rank in his country, and Gulliver was born to humble middle class parents. In fact, the nobility of Gulliver's country are in every way the opposite of what his master describes: weak, sallow, dull, ignorant, lustful, and proud. There is nothing noble about these men, and they come to their distinction purely through the accident of birth into a family that has been favored by the monarch at some point in history.

What do his master's stories about female Yahoos teach Gulliver about women in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapter 7?

Gulliver's master describes the Yahoo women on the island as promiscuous, saying that the males of the species have "their females in common" and pointing out that the females will have sex with males while pregnant. He has observed female Yahoos hiding behind a hill or a bush and coaxing passing males into interaction, leading them to a place where she knows he will follow her. He also observes that the female Yahoos give off a strong odor, presumably meant to reflect their sexual activity or availability in some way. Gulliver is saddened to determine that "the rudiments of lewdness, coquetry, censure, and scandal, should have place by instinct in womankind." Furthermore, the female Yahoos tend to reject strange females that come into their midst. Gulliver finds his master's descriptions familiar to his own experience with women, and he determines that if Yahoo women on the island engage in the same behaviors as the Yahoo women of England, their tendencies are part of their nature. Gulliver's low opinion of women may explain why he has spent so little time in the company of his wife.

What flaws in the Houyhnhnm way of life does Gulliver overlook in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapters 8 and 9?

After almost three years of living with the Houyhnhnm, Gulliver has idealized them to the point that he rejects and loathes his own humanity. He believes the Houyhnhnm to be models of equality, kindness, and reason. As a result, he does not see the Houyhnhnm flaws. In their treatment of the Yahoos, the Houyhnhnms exhibit high levels of prejudice and close-mindedness. Even though Gulliver's example shows that the Yahoos are capable of reason, the Houyhnhnms push them to the margins of society, and keep them in servitude—even Gulliver himself is not immune to this treatment. The Houyhnhnm Master judges the English harshly for their class orientation and treatment of the poor, yet his own society treats the Yahoos with the same contempt and harsh judgment. Even within the Houyhnhnm society, there are class divisions that include a version of nobility and a serving class. The Houyhnhnms oppose war and violence, yet they are willing to debate killing the entire race of Yahoos in one go, and instead settle on forced castration of the males to eliminate the Yahoos over time. Gulliver is unable to see that even the most ideal creatures and leaders have hypocritical practices in place if it preserves the order that benefits them.

How does the social demand for conformity shape Gulliver's life with the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4, Chapters 10 and 11?

The Houyhnhnms' unity and relative equality as a culture stems from their overall similarity as a species. They adopt the principles of reason, raise their children in a controlled and homogenized environment, and everyone occupies their place in society. Gulliver, seeing this culture as ideal, wants desperately to be like the Houyhnhnm, modifying his speech, his walking gait, and his gestures to fit in with them. He curses his appearance, which is immutably Yahoo, but attempts to make his mind and thought processes more like the Houyhnhnms. If this means hating the Yahoos, then he is content to hate them, including his wife and children back home, and even himself. The demand for conformity, however, also facilitates Gulliver's exile from the land of the Houyhnhnms. The governing assembly orders Gulliver's master to either treat Gulliver as they treat the rest of the Yahoos on the island—turning him into a beast of burden who lives outside—or send Gulliver away. The master decides to send Gulliver away, but even this he must do quickly because of social pressure from the assembly and his neighbors. Conformity may allow society to function smoothly, but it is not necessarily beneficial to the individual.

How does Gulliver's return home in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4 Chapter 11 reveal that civilization is a relative concept?

When Gulliver encounters the Portuguese sailors who pull him from his boat in the sea and bring him back to Europe, Gulliver is disgusted by their appearance, speech, and smell. After three years among the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver has fully rejected all trappings of Yahoo life, even European Yahoo life. He sees these men as base and uncivilized, even though they treat him with as much dignity as possible. At the same time, the sailors laugh at Gulliver when he speaks to them in the Houyhnhnm language, because to them it sounds like he is imitating the neighing of a horse. This seems uncivilized at best, insane at worst. Gulliver's repeated rejections of their hospitality and his attempt to escape by jumping overboard do little to reassure the captain or crew of Gulliver's stability or civility. Most importantly, Gulliver rejects European clothing. He is wearing garments fashioned from the skins of animals from the island, which look odd and barbaric to the Portuguese. Yet, when the captain offers Gulliver a suit of his own clothes, Gulliver refuses to wear anything that has touched a Yahoo. When they arrive in Lisbon, the captain must cover Gulliver from view and bring him into the house through the back to keep him from being exposed to public view. When Gulliver sets foot in England, he avoids the company of his family and spends most of his time with his horses. Gulliver finds the horses more comforting and civilized than his children, but his family must surely consider his rejection and his preference for the company of animals highly uncivil.

How is the King of Laputa similar to the rulers of Lilliput and Brobdingnag in Gulliver's Travels, Part 3, Chapter 3?

Although his ministers keep him in check from becoming "the most absolute prince in the universe," the King of Laputa is similar to the other monarchs Gulliver meets in the novel in his demand for obedience from his people, and his expectation that the rules of court be followed. Gulliver discovers the necessity of conforming to courtly protocols when he arrives in Laputa and commits a minor offense by claiming to have no need for the flappers that facilitate all human interaction in Laputa. Although the king does not hold this against him in the long term, the incident confirms the expectation that everyone follows the rules of court and society. The king is much harsher with cities on the ground that dare oppose him. He uses his floating island to deprive these cities of sun and rain, creating famine and plague on the ground. His alternative, which is "seldom" used and only in "extremity," is to lower the island onto the city and literally crush rebellion. Gulliver's precise use of the word seldom indicates that either the current king or a past monarch has, in fact, used this course of action against a city at some point in the past. In similar fashion, the king of Brobdingnag has a standing militia to put down any rebellion or opposition to him in his country, and the emperor of Lilliput actively engages in war against another country for harboring Lilliputians who have dared defy his orders.

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