Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
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Character Analysis

Gulliver can't immediately find a ship to take him from Balnibarbi to the island of Luggnagg. He's lucky, though: he makes two random friends (whose names we never even learn) in the port city of Maldonada. They offer to escort him to a nearby island for some quality touristing. This island is called Glubbdubdrib, and it's kind of a secret island.

The Glubbdubdribbians are a race of magicians. The island has a Governor who raises people from the dead for a term of 24 hours (as ghosts, not zombies). There's another odd limit on his powers. The Governor can only raise a given person once every three months, so he can't just keep raising the same guy every day. Maybe because it would be a drag for the dead person to pop out of the afterlife all the time? We don't know.

Gulliver befriends the Governor, who offers to raise any dead person Gulliver wants to meet, but only if Gulliver confines his questions to the period this person was alive. Gulliver is really excited.

On the first day, Gulliver calls up several famous heroes: Alexander the Great, who conquered all of Greece and Persia (modern day Iran); Hannibal, a general from North Africa who fought the Ancient Romans by crossing the Alps into northern Italy; Julius Caesar, the first Roman Emperor, and his chief rival, Pompey the Great; and Marcus Junius Brutus, who assassinated Caesar in an attempt to preserve the Roman Republic from becoming a hereditary monarchy.

We learn a couple of key things from this first day:

  1. Heroes aren't all they're cracked up to be. Gulliver finds out that several famous stories about Alexander and Hannibal are not true. Alexander didn't die from a fever, he reveals. He died from drinking too much. And Hannibal never broke any rocks blocking him from the Alps using vinegar. This introduces one of the key themes of this section of the novel: that history itself is a pack of lies.

  2. We also learn that Gulliver really admires tyrannicides, men who kill or assassinate severe, exploitative leaders in the name of freedom. So, when he speaks to Julius Caesar, the founder of Rome's most famous succession of Emperors, even Julius admits that nothing he ever did was better or braver than what Brutus does to Julius by assassinating him. Considering Swift's obviously terrible opinion of George I, doesn't this seem kind of like...suggesting or implying that someone should kill the king? Probably nothing so extreme, but it's clear that Gulliver doesn't think much of what power does to men with too much authority.

The March of History

Anyway, so as we've said so far, the main focus of the satire in Gulliver's trip to Glubbdubdrib is to point out two things: (1) history lies, and (2) people who kill tyrants in the name of freedom are good. Gulliver also sets aside a day to talk to famous smart guys, and it's on this day that we learn two more lessons: (3) people who write commentary are mostly stupid, and (4) everything, everywhere is getting worse and worse.

First, he chats with two hugely famous writers, Homer (author of the Odyssey) and Aristotle (a philosopher best known for his writing on ethics, free will, and rhetoric).

Gulliver takes a swipe at people who spend their time commenting on other people's literature. (Eep! That's what we do here at Shmoop! Sorry, Swift, but we think it's a public service.) He points out that neither Homer nor Aristotle know the guys who got famous for commenting on them: in Homer's case, Eustathius and Didymus, and in Aristotle's case, John Duns Scotus and Ramus, a.k.a. Pierre de la Ramée. What Gulliver's getting at here is that you become famous for pioneering your own great literature and ethical models, not for talking endlessly about someone else's. Much like the whole Royal Academy of Projectors thing, Gulliver's giving us another attack on naval gazing and learning for its own sake. Instead of endless analysis of what other people have said, he prefers useful learning: applied science and practical philosophy, which considers what is right and wrong.

As to point number four, that everything, everywhere, is getting worse, Gulliver starts out with some famous thinkers, Pierre Gassendi and René Descartes. Gassendi was a material philosopher (and also, as Gulliver mentions, a follower of Greek thinker Epicurus who thought that everything we think about comes from our direct personal experiences. On the other hand, Descartes wrote the famous statement, "I think, therefore I am," meaning that the senses are liars, and all we can be sure of is our intellect.

Both Gassendi and Descartes were famous for their disputes with each other about the nature of physics and of the mind. As Gulliver comments, their theories about motion "were equally to be exploded" (3.8.2). In other words, despite all of their high philosophy, neither of them were absolutely right in their analyses. But when Gulliver tells both men that their ideas have fallen a bit out of fashion, each man comments philosophically that such is the way of the world. Each new era is going to have a popular explanation of how the world works, but none of them will ever last. So, we have these two guys admitting that everything dies, even ideas.

What starts to worry Gulliver isn't so much that ideas die, but that they don't seem to be replaced by anything particularly great these days. Gulliver moves from ancient Rome to the modern royal houses of Europe. What he finds among these royal houses disgusts him. He sees lots of so-called "kings" who are actually the children of roving musicians, clergymen, barbers – low-class guys. And it's even worse among noble families, where men marry women of lower classes, women whom they despise, just for their money. In Gulliver's mind, these kinds of inter-class marriages and affairs start to erode the greatness of Europe's aristocracy. The nobility is getting stupider, greedier, and grosser by the day – no wonder English politics is so corrupt!

This brings us back to lesson number one, that historians lie. Gulliver claims that what hides this overall drop in quality among humans are "prostitute writers" (3.8.5) who write false histories for cash. They sell their pens and reputations to the highest bidder, in other words. For the past hundred years, Gulliver rants, these so-called "historians" have been claiming that men who are really cowards are brave, that fools are honest, and that liars tell the truth. They've also been smearing the reputations of really good people by allowing innocent and talented individuals to be condemned to death or to be forgotten or hated in posterity. The danger of written language is that it can literally alter history to suit those who pay for it. For more on this, check out our themes on "Lies and Deceit" and "Literature and Writing."

Other Famous Men

In addition to Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Pompey the Great, Pierre Gassendi, and René Descartes, Gulliver also chats with a couple other people in this chapter. Just FYI, he mentions:

  1. "[Brutus's] ancestor Junius" (3.7.10), Lucius Junius Brutus, led the revolt against the last Roman King to found the Roman Republic. Obviously, Gulliver likes this guy because he ended the reign of the last Tarquin, Rome's famously brutal line of kings.

  2. Socrates was a famous (probably the most famous) Greek philosopher. He believed in the importance of ethical education for the young.

  3. Epaminondas was a general of the Hellenic (i.e., Greek-influenced) Egyptian city-state of Thebes. He waged several campaigns against the Spartans, and eventually succeeded in breaking their military control of the Greek city-states.

  4. Cato the Younger was a Roman philosopher and enemy of Julius Caesar's who became famous for his crusades against corruption in Roman public offices.

  5. Sir Thomas More – now, this one is interesting. Remember, Jonathan Swift was an Anglican clergyman, which means he was an official representative of the Church of England. And as a Tory, he does seem committed to the maintenance of a national church. But what made Sir Thomas More famous (besides his famous satire/fantasy Utopia) was his principled stand against King Henry VIII's decision to break with the Catholic Church. More was dead set against the founding a new denomination of Christianity with the English king as its head. Swift admires More, even though More stood against the Anglican church Swift represents. This is totally consistent with Gulliver's earlier downplaying of Catholic vs. Protestant politics in the Lilliput chapters' satire of the Big-Endian/Little-Endian controversy. Anything divisive – religion, politics, you name it – comes in for satire in Gulliver's Travels.

  6. There's a little joke in here about "Heliogabalus's cooks" (3.8.3). Heliogabalus was a Roman Emperor famous for his love of luxury, so his food would've been really good. Of course, he's also known as one of the worst tyrants in Roman history, so there's also that (source).

  7. There's another little joke about the bad cooking of a helot of Agesilaus (3.8.3). Agesilaus was a leader of the Greek city-state Sparta when they went on a profoundly ill-advised mission against the Persians (in modern-day Iran) (source). As for the "helot" bit, the helots were a class of Greek slaves held by Sparta and often used in Sparta's wars. The Spartans were famous for their stance against luxury. So, presumably, any food cooked by a slave of Sparta would be less than delicious – which seems like a long way to go for a joke, but that's what we've come up with.

Next Page: Luggnagg
Previous Page: The Projectors

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