by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver's Travels Theme of Lies and Deceit
We see Gulliver lying all the time, as when he tells the Japanese Emperor that he is a Dutchman, or when he attempts to prevent the Houyhnhnms from discovering that his clothes are not part of his skin. Gulliver's ease with lying during his adventures makes his frequent claims to the reader that he is "chiefly studious of truth" (2.1.16) seem a little, well, doubtful. This ability of language to deceive other people is something that comes up a lot in this book: Gulliver tells the Master Horse that the purpose of lawyers is to confuse and distract people from the truth by using special lawyer-talk. And Gulliver finally discovers the Houyhnhnms have no word for lying – the closest they come to it is "the thing which is not" (4.5.6) – because the virtuous purpose of communication is to speak one's own thoughts. The Houyhnhnms find lying to go against reason.
Questions About Lies and Deceit
- Why does Gulliver claim that the practice of law is particularly vulnerable to lying? How does Gulliver describe the association of lying and law?
- We see plenty examples of people trying to deceive others, Gulliver, Flimnap, and Skyresh Bolgolam being the primary examples. But which characters seem most prone to self-deception? What do they lie to themselves about?
- Do the lords and kings in Gulliver's Travels tell more lies than their servants? Does the capacity or desire to deceive seem tied to class or official position in this novel?
Chew on This
Lawyers come in for particularly tough criticism from Gulliver because he believes that they will defend anything, whether they believe it or not, which makes all of their arguments deceitful.
Self-deception in Gulliver's Travels belongs particularly to national leaders: the Emperor of the Lilliputians, the Queen of Brobdingnag, and the King of Luggnagg are all vulnerable to Gulliver's flattery.