Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Part 1, Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

The Lilliputians begin to like and trust Gulliver. The emperor entertains Gulliver by showing him the rope-dancers, commoners who seek government jobs. They must dance on a rope 12 inches above the ground. Whoever jumps highest while performing wins the job. From time to time, current government officials must rope dance to show that they have not become complacent in their positions.

The emperor shows Gulliver another game in which he holds out a stick and government candidates either leap over or crawl under it. The top three candidates who jump and crawl the longest are given special silks to wear around their waists. Gulliver creates a new way to entertain the emperor. He builds a platform out of his handkerchief and sticks. The emperor's troops train and perform mock battles on the platform until a horse rips a hole through the handkerchief and gets hurt. Gulliver decides the game might be too dangerous for the Lilliputians.

The Lilliputians find a giant black object on shore. Gulliver realizes the object is his hat, and it is returned to him in good shape. Two days later, the emperor asks Gulliver to wear the hat and stand like a giant statue so that the Lilliputian army can march beneath him. Gulliver is granted his freedom, but he has to follow certain conditions, including the following: he is forbidden to leave the island without permission; he must be an ally to the Lilliputians in wars; and he must help with construction projects.

Analysis

The means by which government jobs are assigned and retained—through a series of dangerous physical challenges—reveals two problems with the Lilliputian government. The first problem is the seemingly arbitrary method used to assign such positions. The ability to walk on a tightrope appears to have little to do with character, ability, or other qualifications that might be useful in a government position. The task, however, symbolizes the balancing act government officials must perform to please those who employ them, whether that be satisfying the whims of a monarch or the desires of a fickle voting public.

The second problem in this system is the emperor's apparent lack of concern for the safety of the commoners seeking jobs in his government, or those already in his employ. The dangers of rope dancing—somewhat high off the ground for a six-inch Lilliputian—are not mortal, but it does pose the potential for injury. The emperor does not seem to consider this or show any care about it if he does, but he does show the indifference those in positions of authority have for those below them in the hierarchy. Gulliver's decision to stop performances on his handkerchief platform after the horse is injured shows he has greater empathy for others than the Lilliputian government.

The terms of Gulliver's release also reveal the emperor's self-interest. He grants Gulliver freedom of movement, but these terms reveal that the emperor has specific tasks in mind for Gulliver. Certainly, given the amount of food Gulliver consumes, he should be expected to earn his keep, but this could be adequately accomplished through Gulliver's assistance with construction and delivery of messages exclusively. The emperor, however, also wants to use Gulliver as a weapon against his enemies, showing little regard for Gulliver's safety or any possible moral objections to using his might against others.

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