Study Guide

Lemuel Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels

By Jonathan Swift

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Lemuel Gulliver

Gulliver the Man

As you might expect, Lemuel Gulliver is the star and central character of Gulliver's Travels. In fact, he narrates the novel himself, and he is the only genuinely developed character in the whole book. Other figures in Gulliver's Travels absolutely fade into the background. For example, Gulliver only mentions his wife, Mary, in passing as he stays home just long enough to get her pregnant again before heading out to the high seas. Yes, Gulliver is pretty much it when it comes to rounded, individual characters in this novel.

Gulliver is the son of a middle-class family in Nottinghamshire, England. He has studied medicine both in England and at the University of Leiden in Holland. Gulliver has also served as an apprentice under a master surgeon, Mr. James Bates. Mainly, Gulliver has two great gifts. For one, though, he isn't a nobleman, he's a really smart guy. Also, he is interested in people-watching ("My hours of leisure I spent [...] in observing the manners and dispositions of the people" (1.1.3)).

Both of these traits come in handy. First, Gulliver's medium-class birth means that he is pretty flexible in terms of the social circles he moves in. While he always wants to associate himself with "people of quality," he also falls relatively easily into conversation with working-class people and servants. What's more, his pragmatism and practical nature save his life over and over again. He's not too proud to lick the floor in front of the Luggnaggian King or to suck up pretty outrageously to the Queen of Brobdingnag. Gulliver is the central character of Gulliver's Travels, but there's nothing outsized or heroic about him. He really does seem to be a kind of Everyman, maybe more resourceful than many, but not too brave or powerful.

Second, Gulliver's interest in languages and customs is the primary engine for his Travels. He's good at adapting himself to other cultures. He takes genuine interest in humans – which makes him the perfect narrator for a novel about human nature. (For more on human nature and Gulliver's Travels, check out "In a Nutshell" and our "Character Analysis" of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms.)

So Gulliver has a genuine interest in people at the beginning of the novel. Great. But it sure doesn't last. And by the end of the book, he's totally over it. In a novel about what wretched wastes of space we humans are, it makes sense that the only logical conclusion would be the narrator's complete rejection of people. By the end of Part 4, Gulliver has gone from being a pretty open, flexible kind of guy to being a crazed shut-in who can't stand the smell of his own wife and kids. That's what three hundred-odd pages of exposure to Jonathan Swift will do to you.

Clothes and Money

Swift demonstrates Gulliver's final awakening to the vanity and stupidity of the world in very clear, practical terms. Gulliver starts out the novel accounting for everything: he tells us that Mrs. Mary Burton's dowry to him was 400 pounds, that he passes 200 sprugs (Lilliputian money) to Captain John Biddell, and that he gives the Brobdingnagian King 6 Spanish gold pieces. But by the end of the novel, he cannot even pay for his own passage to Portugal with Don Pedro de Mendez – in fact, he doesn't even want to. Gold has literally lost meaning for him.

As for clothes, Gulliver laboriously tells us how he clothes himself in each country: in Lilliput, he wears clothes patched together from hundreds of tiny pieces of fabric; in Brobdingnag, his child nurse sews him clothes as though he were a doll; in Laputa, he mentions that none of his suits fit because no one knows how to do anything as practical as tailoring there. However, by the time Gulliver has been expelled from Houyhnhnm Land, he no longer cares what he is wearing. He absolutely refuses to let go of the odd clothes patched together from skins that he acquired in Houyhnhnm Land until Don Pedro de Mendez insists on giving him a set of clothes. Gulliver, who has been so caught up in both financial and fashion details, learns to be content with simplicity while in Houyhnhnm Land – the true mark of his newfound virtue.

How Much Swift Is In Gulliver?

One of the main tools of satire is irony, in which the reader knows more about the course of events than the main character does. Gulliver totally controls the narration of this novel. He provides a huge amount of context and interpretation for the different people he encounters over the course of his travels. At the same time, we, the readers, are often given indications of two things outside of the realm of Gulliver's knowledge or observation:

(1) Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. In other words, Gulliver never actually says Lilliput=England and Blefuscu=France, but the text contains all kinds of indications that they do. (For more on this point, check out our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians).

(2) Gulliver pretends to know a lot more than he actually does. For example, yeah, Gulliver's pretty darn good with languages, but he still makes mistakes. In Part 2, Chapter 2, he refers to two fake words, the supposedly Latin "nanunculus" and Italian "homunceletino." Also, Gulliver he considers the development of the island name "Laputa," he goes through lots of made-up derivations without considering the most obvious choice: "la puta," Italian for "whore," which may be a reference to the weird sexual arrangements of the Laputians (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 135). So, Gulliver is not perfect: he's vain and paranoid and kind of cowardly, and there are many moments when the text itself seems to be poking fun at him. We definitely have to take Gulliver's opinions with a grain of salt, even if he is our only narrator.

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