Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Part 3, Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

Gulliver's conversations with the dead continue as he calls forth Homer and Aristotle to meet with other philosophers, including Descartes and Gassendi. Gulliver spends days talking to a cast of figures from all of history. As he speaks with more recent figures, he discovers how historians mislead the world and how sources use the writings of history for their own purposes. He is disgusted by the intrigues and lies that have shaped his understanding of the past and the present.

Analysis

Although Gulliver finds his conversations with the ancients satisfying and informative, as he talks to figures from modern history, which he has studied more intensely, Gulliver's disgust grows. By speaking with the figures who were actually there for events, he discovers how much of the history he has read and studied has been misinterpreted or outright fabricated, either by writers or by sources who were looking for their own glorious legacies at the expense of others. He comes to see the lessons of his own education to this point as not just unreliable but actively malignant, driven by the agendas of the writers themselves. Even writings contemporary to events, primary sources provided by observers or peers—which scholars generally regard as most reliable for historical study—are cast into doubt when Gulliver sees how these writers twist their observations. He sees how many leaders have ascended to power through nefarious means, how many innocent people have been "condemned to death or banishment" through judicial malpractice or malfeasance. The experience leaves him with a low opinion of all human society as a result. Despite these realizations about the unreliability of historical writers, Gulliver is happy to take the stories of the dead at face value. He does not consider that these speakers may also have reasons for spinning their tales as they do, that all accounts of history are subjective.

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