Gulliver's Travels

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Society and the State Theme Analysis

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Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Icon
Society and the State Theme Icon
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As Gulliver travels from society to society, he observes each one’s organization in detail and compares and contrasts it with the English state. Though all of the societies visited are flawed, several possess some admirable qualities and almost all of them play out the consequences of a particular utopian ideal. Their admirable qualities include the peaceful Brobdingnagian king’s disgust at the thought of gunpowder and rule by violent force; the Lilliputian king’s initial generosity and warmth towards the foreign Gulliver; the Houyhnhnms’ reason-driven peace and order. But the societies also demonstrate the unfortunate outcome of certain utopian ideals. Lilliput separates its children from their birth parents (as Plato himself advised in), but the practice does not end up yielding very mature or reasonable adults. The Lilliputian king and his court are petty grudge-holders, no better than the monarchs of Europe. Laputa dedicates itself to reason and scientific progress but its devotion produces only trivialities and useless inventions, leaving the useful parts of society to decay. The Houyhnhnms practice strict family planning, but the plans leave no room for the passionate and beautiful parts of love and marriage. The Houyhnhnms’ also transcend humanity’s ills and evils, but this, too, ends up stripping them of personal identity so that their society lacks humanity’s rich vividness and seems to the reader a bit too robotic, even as Gulliver professes to love it. Gulliver himself attempts to live the ideal of uniting with nature by living among the Houyhnhnms, but this commitment only dooms him to dissatisfaction and insanity in the human life he must inevitably return to.

Swift never draws up a formula for an ideal state and society because he does not believe that one exists. However, by showing the goods and ills of the vastly different societies Gulliver visits, Swift implicitly points out the errors of human society while also cautioning against the embrace of certain “utopian” solutions.

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Society and the State Quotes in Gulliver's Travels

Below you will find the important quotes in Gulliver's Travels related to the theme of Society and the State.
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.


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Book 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

They look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputians
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Swift makes an interesting point about Lilliput--a point that could easily be applied to Swift's own European homeland. The Lilliputians consider fraud worse than theft. As we've seen, Lilliputians seem perfectly content to commit theft on a massive scale: conquering the people of Blefescu and taking away their property, freedom, etc. And yet the Lilliputians simultaneously believe that honesty--understood in the sense of legal cooperation and trustworthiness--is of the utmost important.

In short, Lilliput is meant to be a caricature of early modern European society: a society in which legalism and bureaucracy were becoming extremely important (i.e., fraud was an extremely serious crime) and yet where the most basic forms of crime (violence, theft, genocide, practiced under the guise of imperialism) were accepted and even glorified. In the same way, we could interpret this as a satire of modern American society, in which fraud--considered a more upper-class crime--is often drastically less punished than petty theft, though one crime may ruin lives and the other be relatively victimless.

Book 1, Chapter 7 Quotes

It was a custom, introduced by this prince and his ministry…that after the court had decreed any cruel execution either to gratify the monarch’s resentment or the malice of a favorite, the emperor always made a speech to his whole council, expressing his great lenity and tenderness, as qualities known and confessed by all the world…nor did anything terrify the people so much as those encomiums on his majesty’s mercy; because it was observed that, the more these praises were enlarged and insisted on, the more inhuman was the punishment, and the sufferer more innocent.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputian King
Page Number: 68-69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this fascinating quotation, Gulliver describes how the emperor of Lilliput maintains power over his people. Whenever he executes someone, he makes a great show of claiming to be "merciful"--to the point where the Lilliputians come to associate mercy itself with deadly executions.

Swift is satirizing the systems of absolute monarchy of the early modern era--in which a single, volatile, all-powerful ruler aimed to be (like God) both loved and feared. In The Prince, Machiavelli argued that a great ruler had to intimidate his people into submission, to the point where even the ruler's gentleness held the possibility of more cruelty behind it--Machiavelli set the tone for centuries of absolute kings and emperors, whom Swift satirizes here. It may seem strange to say that mercy can be intimidating, but in fact we already have evidence for such an idea: Gulliver's decision to spare his Lilliputian attackers (see quote above) intimidated the people of Lilliput more, not less.

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 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 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!