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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels.

Gulliver's Travels | Symbols



The Lilliputians represent the human tendency to consider themselves the most important creatures in the universe, but their tiny size and insignificance in the world as a whole reveals the error in this belief. For example, even after peace has been reached with the neighboring island of Blefscu, the emperor is not satisfied with his victory. He wants to enlist Gulliver in continuing the war so he can take over Blefscu. The emperor has little regard for his neighbors because his beliefs differ from theirs, and he thinks his own importance justifies the lives that may be lost if the war continues.


The Brobdingnagians' size magnifies both their best and worst aspects, symbolizing how all humans have the capacity for great good and beauty, as well as ugliness and evil. The farmer's family, Gulliver's first acquaintances in Brobdingnag, illustrate both extreme greed and extreme kindness. The farmer himself has no problem with exploiting Gulliver as a kind of sideshow attraction, to the detriment of Gulliver's health. The farmer's daughter, who Gulliver calls Glumdalclitch, is devoted to Gulliver's care, even leaving her family behind to accompany Gulliver to the royal court so she can protect him.


The Laputans, and their ground-dwelling counterparts on Balnibarbi, symbolize the futility of seeking knowledge without the means or desire to put it to practical use. The Laputans eschew most normal human interactions, preferring a life of the mind, puzzling over mysteries of mathematics, physics, and astronomy all day. They are unable to construct sturdy homes, and their ideas often cause them stress, but they continue to pursue knowledge for its own sake. On Balnibarbi, the projectors engage in studies and experiments with the aim of improving the lives of their people, but their understanding of science and other topics is so incomplete that they lack the ability to construct useful experiments or learn anything that might accomplish their goals.


The Houyhnhnms symbolize the rule of rational thinking and the benefits of collective living, but also the loss of individual identity that comes with extreme devotion to reason. While rationality has allowed the Houyhnhnms to construct a culture based on benevolence and friendship, peaceful and harmonious within, they are also overly beholden to the culture's rules and norms. Therefore, a recently widowed Houyhnhnm does not outwardly mourn her husband's passing, but she also does not live long after him. The master and his family have affection for Gulliver but social pressures force them to exile him. The denial of normal emotions prevent a full engagement with life.


The Yahoos symbolize a complete loss of rationality in a primitive state, but they also show how ongoing oppression can drive humans into this primitive state. Ample evidence of their propensity for violence appears in the novel; Yahoos fight one another; they hoard stones; and on one occasion a female tries to sexually accost Gulliver. At the same time, the Yahoos have little and are subject to abuse, enslavement, and rejection by the Houyhnhnms, which introduces a chicken-and-egg scenario: Are the Yahoos rejected because they are primitive, or are they violent because they have been rejected? Perhaps, as the Houyhnhnms claim, the Yahoos are a lost cause. On the other hand, the Yahoos have very little means for survival, which drives them to extreme measures.

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