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.
Perspective Theme Icon

Above all, Gulliver’s Travels is a novel about perspective. While the story is abundant with potential morals, the strongest and most consistent message is a lesson in relativism: one’s point of view is contingent upon one’s own physical and social circumstances and looking at people’s circumstances explains a lot about their respective viewpoints. Gulliver explicitly lectures the reader on relativism, explaining how England’s ideas of beauty, goodness, and fairness are radically different from notions of those qualities possessed by the beings he visits in other lands. Until novel’s end, Gulliver is able to see merit in his own country’s perspective as well as in the perspectives of other nations, a fair-mindedness which he acquires from immersing himself in different cultures and adopting their opposite points of view. Indeed, his travels possess a perfect symmetry: he goes from being a giant among the Lilliputians to being a tiny person among the Brobdingnagians; he exploits the world of tiny people for his own profit (by showing off Lilliputian animals for profit in England) and is in turn exploited in the world of the giants (by the Brobdingnagian Farmer who charges people to gawk at Gulliver); he goes from Laputa, where the Laputians ignore their bodies to concentrate on abstract knowledge and science, to the land of the Yahoos, who are exclusively absorbed by their bodies and the pursuit of crude physical pleasures. Though Gulliver continually marvels at the otherness and strangeness of the foreign people he’s landed among, he is also constantly comparing them to people back home in England, finding analogues or points of comparison for even the least familiar customs.

The novel ultimately suggests that one’s perspective on reality is even more powerful than reality itself. When Gulliver returns to England from Brobdingnag, he encounters “normal” human-sized life but sees everyone and everything as miniature. He thus misgauges size, misjudges people’s health, and generally misunderstands his situation until enough time passes for his perspective to adjust. Likewise, Gulliver’s time spent among the Houyhnhmns enables him to see his own society in a new way. Though he has been eager to go home after all his prior adventures, he no longer wants to return to England after living amongst the Houyhnhmns, for he has so internalized their perspective that he sees all human beings as Yahoos. He is disgusted even by his own reflection and starts affecting the manner of a horse. Though he is, from a biological standpoint, still fully human, his new perspective has transformed him into a Houyhnhmn and he can no longer function in human society.

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Perspective Quotes in Gulliver's Travels

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

In the right coat-pocket of the great man-mountain…after the strictest search, we found only one great piece of coarse cloth, large enough to be a foot-cloth for your majesty’s chief room of state.

Related Characters: The Lilliputians (speaker), Lemuel Gulliver
Related Symbols: Clothing
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, the Lilliputians—tiny people, for whom Gulliver is a “man mountain”—examine Gulliver’s possessions. Although they don’t really understand what Gulliver’s possessions are (here, for example, they have no idea that they’ve found his handkerchief), the Lilliputians offer their own unique perspective on the objects.The passage is an excellent example of defamiliarization. By showing a common object from the perspective of the Lilliputians, who've never seen such a thing before, Swift makes readers question aspects of their life that they’d otherwise take for granted. In other words, Swift’s strategy is two-fold. Here, he defamiliarizes readers with their own culture (a culture of handkerchiefs, watches, guns, etc.); later, he’ll encourage readers to see the eerie similarities between their own culture and that of the Lilliputians (and others).


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Book 1, Chapter 5 Quotes

And so immeasurable is the ambition of princes, that he seemed to think of nothing less than reducing the whole empire of Blefuscu into a province, and governing it as a viceroy…by which he would remain the sole monarch of the whole world…And I plainly protested that I would never be an instrument of bringing a free and brave people into slavery.

Related Characters: Redresal (speaker), The Lilliputian King, The Blefuscans
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Gulliver has helped the Lilliputians win a great war against the people of Blefescu: he's surprised the navy of Blefescu, tying together all the ships and pulling them to Lilliput, where the people of Blefescu surrender right away. Although the emperor of Lilliput is pleased with Gulliver's actions, he's angry when Gulliver refuses to go further and enslave the people of Blefescu.

Gulliver's refusal to enslave the people of Blefescu is a mark of his virtue--in spite of his many faults, he's not the type to actively cause pain to other people, whether they're human beings or Lilliputians. The irony, however, is that Gulliver, as a European man, lives in a society that does enslave the people of other countries (Irish, Africans, etc.)--Gulliver seems too naive to realize the truth about his own homeland.

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?

This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size...

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Brobdingnagians
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gulliver examines the women of Brobdingnag--because they're enormous, they're not particularly beautiful to him. Indeed, Gulliver is able to see the tiny cracks and wrinkles in their skin, which frequently disgust him. (It's been suggested that Swift was responding to the recent discovery of the microscope--an invention that allowed scientists to study the tiny hairs and pores on the human body, effectively seeing the body in a new, less appealing light).

What conclusion should Gulliver draw from his observations? While Gulliver made few connections between the society of Lilliput and that of his own country, because of his experience with the Lilliputians he now seems to grasp the connection between the Brobdingnagian women and those of his home. Gulliver's women are no more or less pretty than those of Brobdingnag; if he pointed a microscope at his wife, he'd probably be just as revolted--in short, it's all a matter of perspective.

Book 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

…he observed how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as I.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Blefuscan King
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the King of Brobdingnag listens to Gulliver’s descriptions of human society—a society in which some humans (kings, emperors, popes, etc.) pretend to be greater and more important than others. From the perspective of an enormous Brobdingnagian, however, humans’ delusions of grandeur are pathetic—the “greatest” human is of no more importance to the King than the “greatest” termite.

In a way, the King’s insights in this quotation show what Gulliver failed to fully grasp in his first voyage with regard to the Lilliputians. All thinking beings (humans, Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, Blefuscans) claim some kind of superiority over their peers. In the grand scheme of things, however, such claims of superiority are nonsensical--it takes a radical shift in perspective (Gulliver staring down at the Lilliputians, for example) to see how nonsensical they are. (Interestingly, the King of Brobdingnag seems not to see the connection between humans’ delusions of grandeur and those of his own way of life—i.e., he seems to be making the same mistake as Gulliver with the Lilliputians.)

Book 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

However, my speech produced nothing else besides a loud laughter, which all the respect due to his majesty from those about him could not make them contain. This made me reflect how vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Brobdingnagian King
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important quotation, Gulliver tries to make a grand address to his Brobdingnagian hosts--who tower over him--but finds himself unable to do so. Gulliver is too small and feeble to impress his new friends, and nothing he says can be taken seriously. The quotation is interesting, because it could be considered a metaphor for Swift's own philosophy of comedy and satire. Swift lived at a time when the institutions of society, such as family, the monarchy, and the church, were considered to be above all criticism--to criticize the Pope, for example, was practically a capital offense (in fact, it was a capital offense on many occasions).

It's hard to imagine Swift's world, since in our own era, there are very few things that are considered to be above criticism (everybody makes fun of the President, the Pope, etc.). Swift was a man ahead of his time--as he suggests here, nothing is immune from ridicule, as long as the perspective is right. The most honorable and impressive man would still seem silly and amusing if seen from the perspective of a giant. Swift the satirist is putting himself in the position of the Brobdingnagians, staring down at human folly with amusement.

Book 2, Chapter 6 Quotes

…you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country; you have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness, and vice are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. I observe among you some lines of an institution, which in its original might have been tolerable, but these half erased, and the rest wholly blurred and blotted by corruptions.

Related Characters: The Brobdingnagian King (speaker), The Brobdingnagian King
Page Number: 122-123
Explanation and Analysis:

The King of Brobdingnag comments on the speech Gulliver has just delivered, in which Gulliver describes his own European society. From Gulliver’s perspective, his home is  a perfectly ordinary place—Gulliver accepts the corruption and hypocrisy of his world, simply because he’s used to it. The King of Brobdingnag, by contrast, questions everything about Gulliver’s world—because he’s defamiliarized with Europe, he has no problem seeing what’s absurd, contradictory, or otherwise immoral about it.The King’s comments reinforce Swift’s reason for writing Gulliver’s Travels in the first place. By offering a novel perspective on a familiar topic (such as the Brobdingnagian King’s perspective on Europe), Swift satirizes the institutions of his own society, encouraging readers to see them in a new light, as if for the first time.

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 3, Chapter 8 Quotes

I was chiefly disgusted with modern history. For having strictly examined all the persons of greatest name in the courts of princes, for a hundred years past, I found how the world had been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war, to cowards; the wisest counsel, to fools; sincerity, to flatterers; Roman virtue, to betrayers of their country…

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker)
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, the Laputians take Gulliver to visit with the great leaders and thinkers of human history: Homer, Aristotle, etc. Here, Gulliver segues from the Greek and Roman leaders to the modern European kings and emperors. Surprisingly, Gulliver finds the European "greats" sorely lacking in dignity or grandeur of any kind. The reputation of a king for greatness, Gulliver realizes, is the result of "prostitute writers" who lie about kings' abilities and fool millions of people into worshipping kings as gods.

The passage is an excellent example of what Swift finds lacking in European literature. Swift sees his literary colleagues and predecessors as toadies--groveling before the kings and queens in Europe instead of "calling it like they see it." Swift also implies that reason itself is too easily manipulated to make mediocrity seem great--kings and traitors have gained a reputation for brilliance because smart people were too willing to sell their literary and legal services to the highest bidder. (The word "prostitute," it's been noted, translates to "puta" in Spanish--in other words, the very name "Laputa" is supposed to remind us of the cheapness and hypocrisy of supposed intelligence.)

Book 3, Chapter 10 Quotes

…he observed long life to be the universal desire and wish of mankind. That whoever had one foot in the grave was sure to hold back the other as strongly as he could. That the oldest had still hopes of living one day longer, and looked on death as the greatest evil, form which nature always prompted him to retreat. Only in this island of Luggnagg the appetite for living was not so eager, from the continual example of the struldbrugs before their eyes.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Luggnaggians
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

In the land of Luggnagg, there are a certain number of immortal beings, known as struldbrugs. The struldbrugs live forever, but contrary to Gulliver's ideals, they're not perfect creatures. On the contrary, the struldbrugs are old, feeble, foolish, and generally contemptible--everyone in Luggnagg hates them. The Luggnagians tell Gulliver that Gulliver is wrong to think that immortality is the greatest good--actually, immortality gets pretty ugly.

The struldbrugs seem to refute the widespread belief in our society that life is the greatest good. As the Luggnaggians point out, Gulliver believes that life is an absolute good--the more life, the better. Yet the opposite is sometimes the case: when it's made a reality, an unlimited, long life can be a nightmare and a burden on the rest of society.

Book 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

The beast and I were brought close together, and by our countenances diligently compared both by master and servant, who thereupon repeated several times the word Yahoo. My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal, a perfect human figure.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Master Horse, The Yahoos
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Gulliver, washed up on an island after his fourth voyage, crosses paths with a Yahoo. The Yahoo at first appears to be a wild, unfamiliar creature. But on close inspection, Gulliver realizes that it’s a human being—in form and countenance no different from Gulliver himself. What’s the difference between Gulliver and the Yahoo? Although the two beings have the same body, Gulliver has culture, education, religion, and language, whereas the Yahoo has none. The Yahoo is the “raw material” of mankind—humanity with all the good parts stripped away. By juxtaposing the two creatures, the passage reminds us that deep down, human beings are savage, disgusting creatures, no different from animals—and Swift makes sure we don’t forget it.

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 4 Quotes

Power, government, war, law, punishment, and a thousand other things, had no terms wherein that language could express them…

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Houyhnhnms
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gulliver describes the nature of Houyhnhnm society—a place in which dishonesty or hypocrisy of any kind are rendered impossible by the qualities of language. There's no violence or crime among the Houyhnhnms, and therefore no need for words like war, law, punishment, etc.

In short, the Houyhnhnms' society is so perfect that language itself can't tolerate even a hint of immorality. After traveling the world, Gulliver finally seems to have encountered a totally moral society. And yet, as it's often observed, the Houyhnhnms are also the most boring characters in the entire novel. They're so vanilla that they don't hold our interest in the same way as the Laputians or the Lilliputians--just because they're good doesn't mean they're interesting. The blandness of the Houyhnhnm language suggests Swift's subtle attack on his own characters--if a writer like Swift had no way to communicate war or punishment, he'd have to find a new profession!

Book 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

But when a creature pretending to reason could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that, instead of reason we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill shapen body, not only larger but more distorted.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Master Horse (speaker)
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, the Master Horse asks Gulliver about his own society. Gulliver explains that in Europe, people have used their intelligence to build instruments of war, causing death and destruction to their fellow men. The Master Horse is astounded that it’s possible to use intelligence for such nefarious purposes. He concludes that humans aren’t actually intelligent at all—they’ve just found a way to increase the amount of evil in the world.

The Master Horse’s comments bring up an interesting idea: do morality and reason necessarily work together? As Gulliver’s own society proves, the smart thing and the right thing aren’t necessarily one and the same. The Master Horse, used to a society in which his fellow horses use their intelligence for the betterment of one another, is naturally reluctant to believe that humans are really intelligent at all—he can’t stand the idea that morality and reason need not agree. (We’ve already seen other examples of how reason and morality can oppose one another; for example, in Laputa Gulliver realizes that the supposedly great men of the past have been just painted in a positive light by the artists and writers of the past, and weren't morally "great" at all.)

Book 4, Chapter 8 Quotes

For now I could no longer deny that I was a real Yahoo in every limb and feature, since the females had a natural propensity to me, as one of their own species

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Yahoos
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

Gulliver comes to realize that he is a Yahoo: a savage beast living in the land of the Houyhnhnms. The Yahoos are violent, stupid, and barbaric, and yet they look exactly like people—therefore, for a long time Gulliver tries to distance himself from the Yahoos, but here at last he acknowledges that he really is a Yahoo, just one with more clothing, culture, and language.

Should we take Gulliver seriously? On one hand, Swift seems to be implying that the Yahoos are the “true” versions of human beings: humans with all their pomposity, duplicity, and pretentiousness stripped away. And yet perhaps Gulliver is too quick to assume that he is a Yahoo: the reason he gives for believing so (female Yahoos think he’s attractive) doesn’t make much sense at all, and in fact reduces all of human identity to sexual desire. So maybe Gulliver is once again jumping to conclusions, just because of what his peers do and say—he’s as gullible as his name suggests.

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.