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.
Perspective Quotes in Gulliver's Travels
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.”
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.
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…