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Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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

Gulliver's Travels | Themes


Abuse of Power

Gulliver encounters a number of monarchs and leaders, from tiny to giant, from practical to esoteric, and they all take advantage of their superior position in some way. They either demand absolute obedience from their subjects through humiliating rituals, as is the case with the king of Luggnagg who makes his subjects lick the floor, or they exhibit extreme incompetence, as is the case with the Lilliputian king who engages in an ill-conceived war with his neighbors. Even Houyhnhnms, whom Gulliver idealizes, exploit the lesser species of their island, the Yahoos, through extreme prejudice.

Cerebral versus Real World

The cultures Gulliver encounters in his travels either take practicality to an extreme, rendering their practicality impractical, or focus on abstract ideas and pure reason in ways that make life difficult, for their own people or for others. For example, the Laputans are the most scientifically and mathematically advanced culture Gulliver encounters, yet they are unable to craft a decent suit of clothes, and their knowledge of the universe causes them tremendous anxiety. Likewise, the Houyhnhnms' focus on pure reason as the governing principle of their society causes them to miss out on some of the emotional experiences, love in particular, that give life meaning.

Society versus Individual

All of the cultures in the countries Gulliver visits demand a certain level of conformity from their citizens, whether that means following the rules set up in the royal courts or adhering to broader social conventions. These rules often create problems for people who break them, or for those who want to break the conventions but feel pressure that prevents them from doing so. For example, Gulliver faces censure and an eventual death sentence in Lilliput because he breaks the rules of court by behaving sympathetically toward the enemy country's ambassadors. Although the Houyhnhnms do not have a royal hierarchy, the master's family faces pressure from friends and neighbors to exile Gulliver for being a Yahoo.


Nothing in the world of Gulliver's Travels is purely objective, not even the size and shape of human beings. These differences in perspective are made literal in the appearance of the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians, but each land Gulliver visits reveals a society firmly enmeshed in its own point of view with little interest in exploring alternatives. The Laputans see the universe only through the perspective of mathematical probability; the Houyhnhnms limit their perspectives to cold reason, never emotion. All reality is filtered through the lens of each specific society, rendering all understanding of the world—even Gulliver's—totally subjective.

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