Gulliver's Travels

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Themes and Colors
Perspective Theme Icon
Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Icon
Society and the State Theme Icon
Knowledge Theme Icon
Truth and Deception Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Gulliver's Travels, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Knowledge Theme Icon

Gulliver’s Travels also considers the value of knowledge and its best applications in life. The novel surveys many different kinds of knowledge and examines the effect they have on the people possessing them. Gulliver’s worldly knowledge about other societies and lifestyles makes him tolerant and open-minded person, able to see both sides of most stories while many of the minds around him are more rigid. Still, it’s unclear if this knowledge actually serves Gulliver well—it ends up, after all, leaving him dissatisfied and lonely, estranged from his family and his society and wishing futilely that he was one of the Houyhnhmms. In Brobdingnag and the land of the Houyhnhnms, the novel considers the kind of political knowledge that both the Brobdingnagian king and the Houyhnhnms lack. Yet, while both are ignorant of gunpowder, Machiavellian strategies, and the use of fear and violence to keep people in line, both organize successful, happy societies that seem much more functional than those governed by the more “sophisticated” political knowledge of Europe. The novel also compares practical scientific knowledge, as practiced to valuable effect by the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms, to abstract scientific knowledge, as practiced to useless effect by the the Laputians. The Laputians’ knowledge, Swift shows, may as well be ignorance, for they don’t put their theories to any useful purpose and only waste their lives on fruitless experimentation. Finally, the novel considers self-knowledge as it is gradually acquired by Gulliver over the course of the novel, most so in Book 4. One could see Gulliver’s end as an awakening to his true self (and the true self of all human beings), which leaves him disgusted with human nature. However, one could also see Gulliver’s end as a tragic exaggeration of self knowledge such that he amplifies human evil beyond its actual proportions and thereby bars himself from integrating productively into the human society he should be a part of.

In most of these instances, knowledge becomes harmful when it approaches an extreme: problems arise if one only understands scientific and mathematic abstraction, as the Laputians do, or if one only pursues knowledge of foreign lands without spending time at home among one’s own people, as in the case of Gulliver himself. Thus, the novel seems implicitly to advocate a moderate balance between practical and abstract knowledge, between knowledge of the outside world and knowledge of one’s own position in it.

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Knowledge Quotes in Gulliver's Travels

Below you will find the important quotes in Gulliver's Travels related to the theme of Knowledge.
Book 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Brobdingnagians
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation from the beginning of Gulliver's second voyage, Gulliver is discovered by a group of Brobdingnagians--giants, to whom Gulliver is as tiny as a Lilliputian is to Gulliver. Gulliver’s role is reversed—he’s now a tiny victim to his giant hosts, instead of a colossus, looming over them. The symmetrical relationship between the Lilliput voyage and the Brobdingnag voyage suggests a number of things. Life, we can see, is totally relative: Gulliver is a giant to some and a dwarf to others. Swift seems to suggest that “strangeness” is universal: Gulliver is bizarre to the Brobdingnagians in exactly the same way that the Lilliputians are bizarre to him. Since all beings are equally strange, then, the only question is: how do we treat those who are different from us—with hostility or graciousness?


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Book 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

He was amazed, how so impotent and groveling an insect as I…could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner, as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation, which I had painted, as the common effects of those destructive machines, whereof, he said, some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Brobdingnagian King
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

The King of Brobdingnag studies Gulliver's pistols, and Gulliver explains--very calmly--that people use these weapons to murder their enemies. The King is appalled that anyone, big or small, could speak so calmly of killing other people. Gulliver, for his part, seems puzzled that the King is so puzzled: he's so used to owning pistols and using them to "defend" himself that he can't understand why anybody would question his behavior.

It's ironic that the King supposes that some "enemy of mankind" invented the pistol. Logically, the King supposes, human beings themselves would never invent something that would cause them so much pain. But, as we know very well, humans did invent guns. The message is clear: people don't know what's good for them--they have an unlimited imagination for machines of pain, misery, and self-destruction.

Book 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

Their houses are very ill built, the walls bevel, without one right angle in any apartment; and this defect arises from the contempt they bear to practical geometry, which they despise as vulgar and mechanic; those instructions they give being too refined fro the intellects of their workers, which occasions perpetual mistakes.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Laputians
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

In Gulliver’s third voyage, he discovers the land of Laputa, where a race of cerebral, “book smart” people live. The Laputians have no “street smarts”—they know how to do math and make music, but they can’t build houses or plan a proper city. Indeed, the Laputians seem to despise practicality of any kind—the purest and most noble exercises of the mind, they believe, are those that have no practical application whatsoever.

The Laputa section is often interpreted as Swift’s satire of the Age of Enlightenment: an era in which the “wisest” members of society engaged in brilliant philosophy and metaphysics while often avoiding more concrete applications of knowledge. Note that Gulliver believes the Laputians’ intelligence to be too “refined” for workers to understand. While Gulliver doesn’t get the irony here, readers should: the Laputians blame the working class for any mistakes in their society, even though the Laputians themselves are to blame for being so cerebral and impractical in the first place.

Book 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

They were indeed excellent in two sciences for which I have great esteem, and wherein I am not unversed; but, at the same time, so abstracted and involved in speculation, that I never met with such disagreeable companions.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Laputians
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gulliver sums up his time with the Laputians. The Laputians could be considered pure Platonists: they’re obsessed with music and mathematics (the two sciences Gulliver mentions here), but think too abstractly for any other disciplines. In spite of their supposed intelligence, they’re unable to hold a simple conversation with Gulliver. (Coming from a great talker like Swift, not being able to have a conversation is a sure sign of being intellectually lacking!) They are, in short, stereotypical “ivory tower” figures—sheltered from the realities of the world. Swift suggests that for all their knowledge, the Laputians don’t have any real wisdom about the world: they’re so concerned with speculating about abstractions and the future that they can’t manage their own lives in the present.

Book 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

He replied, “that I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not;” for they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood. “He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon water. He was sure no Houyhnhmn alive could make such a vessel, nor would trust Yahoos to manage it.”

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Master Horse (speaker), The Yahoos
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

Gulliver explains to the Master Horse of the Houyhnhnms that in his homeland, Yahoos are strong and powerful, capable of building boats and sailing around the world. The Master Horse, still convinced that Yahoos must be subservient to horses in other parts of the world, continues to assume that Gulliver's people are subservient to their own horses, and further refuses to accept that humans are capable of building anything worthwhile.

The Master Horse's comments remind us that culture and civilization are all relative: the Master Horse, in spite of his wisdom, is just as clueless about Gulliver's society as Gulliver is about the Master Horse's. And while the Houyhnhnms are mostly portrayed as virtuous and morally upright beings, Swift makes it clear that human beings are technologically cleverer--they're capable of building great boats that can travel around the world. So perhaps it's fair to say that Houyhnhnms are more virtuous than people, but people are more technologically cunning.

Book 4, Chapter 12 Quotes

I here take a final leave of all my courteous readers…to apply those excellent lessons of virtue which I learned among the Houyhnhmns; to instruct the Yahoos of my own family, is far as I shall find them docible animals; to behold my figure often in a glass, and thus, if possible, habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creatures…

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Houyhnhnms, The Yahoos
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, Gulliver makes a strange series of claims. Touched by his time among the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver finds that he can’t stand human beings anymore—he finally realizes that, deep down, humans (even own wife and children, and even himself) are just filthy animals. Seeing that he has no choice but to live among humans, he resolves to “habituate” himself to humans.

The big question at the end of the novel is—should we take Gulliver seriously? Has Gulliver finally realized the truth (that the human race is barbaric and hopeless?), or is Swift making fun of Gulliver once again for his simple-mindedness? On one hand, it’s easy to imagine Swift agreeing with Gulliver: human beings are foolish, savage, violent, etc.—the entirety of the novel impresses such a point of view on us. And yet Gulliver, in reducing all human beings to Yahoos, seems to neglect the most important part of humanity, our ability to think, create, and (crucially for Swift) write. In the end, Swift seems to have his cake and eat it, too: the only thing dumber than believing that all humans are good, kind, and civilized is believing that all humans are barbarians.