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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Discussion Questions 51 - 56


What about Gulliver makes him a limited or unreliable narrator throughout Gulliver's Travels?

Most first person narrators who participate in a narrative carry limitations that are a function of their perspective; humans have biases, and so do human narrators. The reader gets all of Gulliver's experiences through the lens of his experience and his biases. While these biases may not make Gulliver intentionally unreliable, they do limit his perspective. The evidence of how fully filtered the reader's experience is can be seen in the dearth of quotations from other speakers or accounts of dialogue. Seldom does the reader get a word-for-word accounting of a conversation. Everything comes through Gulliver. One of Gulliver's great advantages as the reader's surrogate is his ability and willingness to adapt to new circumstances. He embraces the role he plays in each society that takes him in, so he gets as close to a complete knowledge as is possible for an outsider. Yet there are times when Gulliver's European sensibilities prevent him from opening his mind. The Lilliputians treat Gulliver with hospitality and then hostility. Much of this treatment results from Gulliver's inexperience with courtly matters, but it is not until he finds himself in Brobdingnag that he is able to sympathize with the Lilliputian perspective on him. Although he engages in zealous defense of European culture while talking to the Brobdingnagian king, Gulliver does not engage in such spirited debate with other leaders until he meets the Houyhnhnms, and even then, his position as a Yahoo allows him little opportunity to disagree. Instead, he internalizes the criticisms leveled at him. At this point Gulliver's experiences, particularly his revelations while talking to the dead on the island of Glubbdubdrib, have weakened his opinion of humanity to the point that he is eager to embrace the Houyhnhnm way. In this respect, Gulliver's personal opinions and levels of sympathy toward his hosts also influence his storytelling.

How does Jonathan Swift reveal the limitations of Gulliver's perspective in Gulliver's Travels?

Gulliver is established as an unreliable narrator, but author Jonathan Swift drops clues to indicate where Gulliver's perspective is limited in a way that prevents him from seeing the whole story. In Parts 1 and 2, when Gulliver visits Lilliput and Brobdingnag, Gulliver's perspective is limited by his relative lack of power in each of these societies. His literal difference in perspective means he can never truly understand what life is like for these societies. In other moments Gulliver is, as his name implies, gullible. For example, Gulliver may be seen responding in a reasonable and accepting way to something that is outrageously absurd, as is the case when he greets the projectors at the academy in Balnibarbi in Part 3. These scenes offer sharp contrast, because the experiments—one of the tamest being an attempt to extract sunlight from cucumbers—are exaggerated examples of scholarship, but Gulliver seems genuinely interested and accepting of most of these studies. He criticizes little during this tour through the depths of silliness. In fact, Gulliver's failure to criticize his surroundings tends to be a red flag that indicates the reader should think critically because Gulliver is not. Nowhere is this principle more obvious than in Gulliver's blind allegiance to the Houyhnhnms in Part 4. While the Houyhnhnm society has many admirable qualities that humans might aspire to cultivate in themselves, Gulliver treats them as flawless creatures and ignores their bent toward prejudice and exploitation. At the same time, Gulliver's criticisms should not be taken as authoritative. He criticizes the Laputans for their immersion in the cerebral world of philosophy and physics because it leads to anxiety and poor planning in their society, but this perspective minimizes their actual accomplishments as a culture. He criticizes the Yahoos for their barbarism, and eventually turns against the European society he once defended, but his words against Yahoo civilization also reveal a lack of critical thought. While Gulliver is exposed to many different perspectives in his travels, he has difficulty using that perspective to look at the world through those new perspectives.

How would you describe the tone of the narration in Gulliver's Travels, and what is important about it?

The more Gulliver sees, the more cynical his tone becomes. He presents his visit to Lilliput in Part 1 almost as a lark. Because the people are small, the entire episode takes on the tone of detached curiosity. Gulliver describes what he eats and drinks and who comes to visit him. There are a few funny moments involving bodily functions. Gulliver does not play these scenes for laughs, but they incite humor, nonetheless. Even when Gulliver is on the run for his life, his escape is reasonably straightforward and resolved easily. In Part 2 the same threads of bodily humor come into play in Brobdingnag, but the stakes are raised slightly because Gulliver's circumstances living among giants place him in constant danger. His place remains that of a detached observer. When he witnesses an execution, he is less concerned about the ethics of execution and more concerned about maintaining a safe distance from the mess. Only when he visits the various islands in Part 3 does Gulliver find himself engaging more with ideas than with the physical. He maintains his position as observer through his visits to Laputa and Balnibarbi. He becomes more actively engaged when he visits Glubbdubdrib and has the opportunity to talk with the dead. This is an important turning point in Gulliver's travels because he participates more than he observes, and his conversations lead him to present scathing opinions about the leaders of the past and about the chroniclers of historic events. Until this point in the narrative, Gulliver expresses bland opinions and describes his defense of European ways in conversations with others, but in this section, the criticism enters the narrative itself. Gulliver is not sparring with a third party; he is airing grievances directly to the reader. This shift carries through to Gulliver's time with the Houyhnhnms, which takes a still more critical turn. At turns Gulliver uses his narrative voice to criticize European society and to praise the Houyhnhnms. His language in these scenes becomes increasingly harsh, and as the ending demonstrates, that harshness knows no loyalty to kin or country.

What aspects of Houyhnhnm society are represented as truly utopian and worth emulating in Gulliver's Travels, Part 4?

While Houyhnhmn society is not as perfect as Gulliver believes, it does have many positive qualities and practices. The Houyhnhnms express little greed. Even though a class system of sorts does exist among the horses, they share their food supplies and do not seem driven to hoard and amass wealth or stories—in contrast with the Yahoos who hoard colored stones. Houyhnhnms treat one another with hospitality and dignity, regardless of their social class. The respect paid to the dying is another example of the respect that infuses all Houyhnhnm interactions with one another. Perhaps the Houyhnhnms' greatest strength lies in their approach to child-rearing. Boy and girl children receive an equal education, and the Houyhnhnms regard the concept of doing otherwise to be barbaric. Moreover, all adult members of the society take responsibility for all the young. Although this practice robs them of the experience of familial love and affection, it does provide stability and safety for all Houyhnhnm children. Houyhnhnms care for the children of their neighbors as they care for their own. Furthermore, no couple need worry about the loss of a child, because if they are past breeding age and lose a child, another couple will breed a new offspring for them. This practice may seem heartless on its face, because it implies that one child can be replaced by another, but it also accounts for the high value placed on children in this society as well as the benevolent and sharing attitude of all Houyhnhnms.

How do the roles that women play in the various societies Gulliver encounters in Gulliver's Travels comment negatively on the lives of European women?

Gulliver makes a number of remarks about European women that indicate a low opinion of them. When he is in Lilliput, he compares their slanted writing to that of "English ladies," which indicates a diminutive view of the women—they are just like these tiny silly little men who think they are important. He also criticizes the women of England and all of Europe during his time with the Houyhnhnms, blaming them for the conspicuous consumption of goods that have resulted in global trade (which up to his point has given Gulliver a good living) and the waste of resources that results. The portrayal of the empress of Lilliput and the queen of Brobdingnag, the women most like their counterparts in Europe (except for size) seems to support this point of view. These are both women far more concerned with luxury and aesthetics than anything else. The first asks a man to be executed for the manner in which he put out a fire in her rooms. The second takes that same man and makes him into a pet for her amusement. Gulliver also makes remarks about the sexual assertiveness of women in Laputa, which he finds odd and off-putting. He also harshly judges the queen's servants who display their nakedness in Brobdingnag, which makes him deeply uncomfortable. When he reflects on the events of history on Glubbdubdrib, he reserves some of his deepest ire for the women who have influenced rulers through affairs, going so far as to call them whores. He is clearly threatened, even resentful, of overt expressions of sexuality. Gulliver is much more accustomed to women who are more reserved in expressions of sexuality or lacking any such expression at all, indicating that reserve as an ideal in European society.

How do women's roles in the various societies Gulliver encounters in Gulliver's Travels comment positively on the lives of European women?

From the women Gulliver has closest relationships with, it would appear that the primary role for European women seems to be that of caretaker. Gulliver has close relationships with two women, or females, during his travels. The first is Glumdalclitch, his "little nurse" in Brobdingnag. Glumdalclitch is a child when she takes charge of Gulliver's care and a young adolescent when he leaves her country. Even among giants, her youth and innocence make her nonthreatening and nonsexual. She caters to Gulliver's every need, protecting him from danger, keeping him fed, clothed, housed, and healthy. The sorrel nag, a servant of Gulliver's Houyhnhnm family, serves a similar purpose. She protects Gulliver as a mother might, keeping him away from the Yahoo threat and helping him with his daily functions. She is most grieved when he must leave the island. These examples indicate an ideal of European womanhood based in maternal affection as well as a certain level of servitude.

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