Gulliver's Travels


Jonathan Swift

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Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Analysis

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.
Moral vs. Physical Power Theme Icon

By placing Gulliver amongst people of extremely different physical circumstances than his own, Gulliver’s adventures dramatize the distinction between moral and physical power. In Lilliput, Gulliver’s huge size advantage over the Lilliputians would make it easy for him to treat them like inhuman vermin and to assert himself against them by physical force (he even imagines squashing them by the handfuls during their initial encounter on the beach). But Gulliver’s willingness to empathize, reason with, and respect the Lilliputians despite their diminutive size yields a much more meaningful, rewarding experience (at least until the prince turns against him). Conversely, in Brobdingnag, the Brobdingnagians could easily dehumanize and squash Gulliver, but Gulliver is impressed by their kindness and willingness to listen and empathize with him (though they do treat Gulliver a little more like a cute clown than he would like). Through the example of the Lilliputians’ ridiculous, futile battles over how best to crack an egg, the novel suggests the absurdity of all warfare as a means to settle matters of the mind and faith. Through the example of the Laputian king and the Luggnaggian king, the novel presents a parody of tyrannical excess and shows the dangers of rulers who assert themselves through physical power. In Laputa, the king is totally out of touch with his people and maintains his hold over the people simply by making himself “taller” than they are by floating above them on his island. In Luggnagg, the king demands grotesque demonstrations of physical supplication, making subjects crawl on their stomachs licking the dirty floor before him.

As the novel considers the dangers of physical power in society, it also considers the physical character of the individual and reflects on how best to handle one’s body. The Laputians’ and Lagadans’ obsession with reason and knowledge has rendered them utterly out of touch with their bodies. Their inability to function in the practical, physical world has in turn destroyed their society, and their example indicates that ignoring physical reality inevitably leads to suffering. Among the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver learns that the possession of a human body does not automatically elevate a person over the animals. The Yahoos, it turns out, are much more bestial than the animal Houyhnhnms. This directly contradicts the common European assertion of the time that human bodies were automatically superior to animal bodies because the human form necessarily contained moral and rational power. Indeed, the Houyhnhnms possess a stronger moral compass and sense of reason than the Yahoos and the Europeans alike. At each instance, the novel thus shows that true superiority and worthy power come from a moral, rational mind in harmony with the body it inhabits.

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Moral vs. Physical Power Quotes in Gulliver's Travels

Below you will find the important quotes in Gulliver's Travels related to the theme of Moral vs. Physical Power.
Book 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

I confess, I was often tempted, while they were passing backwards and forwards on my body, to seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground. But the remembrance of what I had felt, which probably might not be the worst they could do, and the promise of honor I made them—for so I interpreted my submissive behavior—soon drove out those imaginations. Besides, I now considered myself as bound, by the laws of hospitality, to a people who had treated me with so much expense and magnificence.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputians
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

…taking them one by one out of my pocket…I observed both the soldiers and people were highly delighted at this mark of my clemency, which was represented very much to my advantage at court.

Related Characters: Lemuel Gulliver (speaker), The Lilliputians
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:
Book 1, Chapter 4 Quotes

It is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy…

Related Characters: Redresal (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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: