Gulliver's Travels

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Truth and Deception Theme Analysis

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

Much of the novel’s plot action is driven by deceptions, and Gulliver takes note of the inhabitants’ feelings about truth and lying in every country he visits. Deceptions that drive plot action include the Lilliputians’ secret plot to starve Gulliver to death and Gulliver’s subsequent deceits to escape Lilliput. Then, in Brobdingnag, Gulliver deliberately conceals as many of his mishaps he can from Glumdalclitch in order to try to maintain his dignity and freedom. Later, Gulliver lies to the Japanese emperor about being Dutch in order to be granted passage to England. Finally, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver deliberately avoids correcting the Houyhnhnms misimpression that his clothes are a part of his body, which helps distinguish him enough from the Yahoos to convince the Houyhnhnms he isn’t really one of them.

From society to society, Gulliver also tracks the inhabitants’ different attitudes towards truth and falsehood. The Lilliputians’ treat fraud as the highest crime and profess a rigorous devotion to honesty (which is, of course, somewhat undercut by the court’s deceptive plot against Gulliver). In Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver explores his own culture’s attitude towards truth by summoning ghosts of the past and having later thinkers show ancient thinkers like Aristotle the falsehood in their theories while also exposing rampant deception among the English royalty. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver encounters a purely honest society, so committed to truth that its members don’t even have a word for ‘lying’ and only refer to a falsehood as “the thing which is not.”

Yet even as the novel raises earnest questions about the value of honesty, it also toys with the reader, suggesting that truth may be more subjective than absolute. As certain as the novel’s human readers are that the societies described are pure fantasy, so too do the characters that inhabit those societies refuse to believe Gulliver’s descriptions of human society and insist that Europe is make-believe. Further, Swift makes a concerted effort at verisimilitude by including the preface from Richard Sympson, which repeatedly alludes to geographical facts omitted, supposedly to prevent boredom. (Earlier editions of the novel took this verisimilitude even further by keeping Swift’s name off the book and publishing it under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver.) Swift also has Gulliver attest again and again to his own honesty and to the true nature of his account. Beyond insisting that it is the factual count it emphatically isn’t, Gulliver’s Travels also criticizes the novelistic form it is when Gulliver encounters the erosive influence of novels on readers’ brains. As with knowledge, then, Swift presents a mixed message on truth: while his work advocates for honesty among individuals and human governments, it also suggests that life will always contain some degree of unknowability and confusion.

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Truth and Deception Quotes in Gulliver's Travels

Below you will find the important quotes in Gulliver's Travels related to the theme of Truth and Deception.
Preface 1 Quotes

This volume would have been at least twice as large if I had not made bold to strike out innumerable passages relating to the winds and tide, as well as to the variations and bearings in the several voyages…likewise the account of longitudes and latitudes…I was resolved to fit the work as much as possible to the general capacity of readers.

Related Characters: Richard Sympson (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Right away, Swift makes it clear that the tale we're about to hear isn't, strictly speaking, true; which is to say, it’s been edited and shortened to fit the tastes of the general public. Although Richard Sympson—the editor-figure who’s supposedly assembled the book we’re about to read—claims that he’s omitted parts of the text that deal with dull matters of navigation, we can’t help but wonder what else he’s omitted or changed, and therefore, whether or not we can really trust what we’re about to read. (This question of trustworthiness soon becomes absurd and humorous as Gulliver's tales really begin.)

One other important thing to notice about this passage is that Sympson has taken out all descriptions of location—we have no idea where any of the places Gulliver visits are located. By omitting all geographic specificity, Swift makes his descriptions of imaginary countries more pertinent to Western readers. If Swift were to describe Lilliput, for example, as being on the other side of the planet, then a European reader might assume that the country had no relevance to his own culture. But by refusing to specify where Lilliput is, Swift encourages the reader to see surprising similarities between his own country and the fictional ones in the novel.


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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 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 could, perhaps, like others, have astonished thee with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact, in the simplest manner and style…

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker)
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

In this ironic quotation, Gulliver insists that his story—i.e., the novel we’ve just finished reading—had been plain, simple, and straightforward. Right away, we recognize that we can’t take Gulliver seriously: contrary to what he insists, his adventures have been extremely “strange and improbable!” And yet there’s a grain of truth in Gulliver’s claim. Even if the content of his novel has been bizarre and fantastical, Gulliver’s tone has been calm and plain: instead of offering his own commentary on the events he witnesses, he explains them, leaving readers to judge for themselves. Moreover, as fantastical and bizarre as Laputa and Lilliput might be, they’re designed to reflect and parody aspects of European society. In other words, the worlds Gulliver describes aren’t that strange after all—they’re just exaggerated versions of Swift’s own society (and maybe the society we continue to live in).