Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels Foreignness and 'the Other'

By Jonathan Swift

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Foreignness and 'the Other'

Part 1, Chapter 2

In the right coat-Pocket of the Great Man Mountain (for so I interpret the words Quinbus Flestrin), 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. In the same left pocket, we saw a huge silver chest, with a cover of the same metal, which we, the searchers, were not able to lift. We desired it should be opened; and one of us stepping into it, found himself up to the mid leg in a sort of dust, some part whereof flying up to our faces, set us both a sneezing for several times together. (1.2.7)

One of the things we really like about Gulliver's Travels is that it's never totally one-sided. These aren't just the adventures of Gulliver looking around at a lot of strangely tiny and strangely huge people. They look back at him in curiosity and wonder. In this scene, two Lilliputian soldiers are taking an inventory of Gulliver's possessions. That "great piece of coarse cloth" is his handkerchief, the "huge silver chest," a snuff box. Gulliver may make these foreign people seem distant, ridiculous, or worthy of satire, but they always seem human, with the same uncertainties that Gulliver feels towards then. Of course, considering Gulliver's finally opinion of mankind, maybe making strangers seem more human isn't such a great thing after all?

Part 1, Chapter 5

It is to be observed, that these ambassadors spoke to me, by an interpreter, the languages of both empires differing as much from each other as any two in Europe, and each nation priding itself upon the antiquity, beauty, and energy of their own tongue, with an avowed contempt for that of their neighbour; yet our emperor, standing upon the advantage he had got by the seizure of their fleet, obliged them to deliver their credentials, and make their speech, in the Lilliputian tongue. And it must be confessed, that from the great intercourse of trade and commerce between both realms [...] there are few persons of distinction, or merchants, or seamen, who dwell in the maritime parts, but what can hold conversation in both tongues. (1.5.8)

As we've discussed in our "Character Analysis" of the Lilliputians, Lilliput = England and Blefuscu = France. And it is one of the historical oddities of these two countries that, even when they have been at war, noblemen from France will marry noblewomen from England, and vice versa. And French children would be sent abroad to study in England and vice versa. So, even though English and French sound like pretty different languages, there aren't many English or French noblemen of Jonathan Swift's time who wouldn't have spoken at least a little bit of both. This constant cultural exchange calls into question the whole point of "the Other": Blefuscu and Lilliput are enemies, but they are basically mirror reflections of one another. Maybe it's because they're so alike that they hate each other so much – like, as competition? Sibling rivalry? Hmm ...

Part 2, Chapter 1

I remember when I was at Lilliput, the complexion of those diminutive people appeared to me the fairest in the world; and talking upon this subject with a person of learning there, who was an intimate friend of mine, he said that my face appeared much fairer and smoother when he looked on me from the ground, than it did upon a nearer view, when I took him up in my hand, and brought him close, which he confessed was at first a very shocking sight. He said, "he could discover great holes in my skin; that the stumps of my beard were ten times stronger than the bristles of a boar, and my complexion made up of several colours altogether disagreeable:" although I must beg leave to say for myself, that I am as fair as most of my sex and country. (2.1.11)

Speaking of perspective, one of the first observations Gulliver makes upon arriving at Brobdingnag is that, when you see the human body magnified, man, is it ugly. Suddenly, all of those flaws that we barely see – pores and moles and complexion issues – become totally apparent. Here, Gulliver is comparing his own experiences with Brobdingnagian bodies to his own body as seen by a Lilliputian friend of his. This is an interesting moment of alienation from Gulliver's own body, which foreshadows his later self-distancing from the Yahoos in Part 4.

But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes; for, as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison. (2.1.5)

Here, Gulliver is comparing two philosophies. He's sitting in Brobdingnag and looking at a giant. He believes that giants have to be worse than normal-sized people because they contain so much more space for evil in their bodies. On the other hand, some philosophers also point out that size is all relative. The Brobdingnagians seem giant to Gulliver, but Gulliver seems giant to the Lilliputians. All of this speculation here is only possible because Gulliver has yet to speak to a Brobdingnagian. Once he does speak to them, they seem much less foreign and strange to him, despite their size.

Part 2, Chapter 8

My daughter kneeled to ask my blessing, but I could not see her till she arose, having been so long used to stand with my head and eyes erect to above sixty feet; and then I went to take her up with one hand by the waist. I looked down upon the servants, and one or two friends who were in the house, as if they had been pigmies and I a giant. (2.8.17)

After Gulliver spends several years in Brobdingnag, he finds himself changing his perspective drastically. When he arrives back in England, his own family seems completely unfamiliar to him. Travel has changed Gulliver's perspective so much that he sees people his own size as though they are "pigmies" – little people. He has become a stranger to himself, an effect that really gets amplified in Part 4 with the Yahoos.

Part 4, Chapter 2

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: the face of it indeed was flat and broad, the nose depressed, the lips large, and the mouth wide; but these differences are common to all savage nations. (4.2.4)

There are two things going on in this passage: first, Gulliver has the sinking realization that the Yahoos are humans. He must confront how loathsome he now finds humanity (the jury is still out on whether the novel's satire supports Gulliver's strong rejection of humanity in this section – check out our "Character Analysis" of the Master Horse for more on this). There's also this racialist reference to "savage nations." For a further discussion of Gulliver's comparisons of European and Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos, see our "Character Analysis" of the Yahoos.

Part 4, Chapter 10
The Master Horse

My master added, "that he was daily pressed by the Houyhnhnms of the neighbourhood to have the assembly's exhortation executed, which he could not put off much longer. He doubted it would be impossible for me to swim to another country; and therefore wished I would contrive some sort of vehicle, resembling those I had described to him, that might carry me on the sea; in which work I should have the assistance of his own servants, as well as those of his neighbours." He concluded, "that for his own part, he could have been content to keep me in his service as long as I lived; because he found I had cured myself of some bad habits and dispositions, by endeavouring, as far as my inferior nature was capable, to imitate the Houyhnhnms." (4.10.7)

Sorry to all the Houyhnhnms out there, but as human beings, we find the Master Horse fairly obnoxious. Maybe we're just not rational enough to follow his supreme genius. The Houyhnhnms think Gulliver is a threat because they are concerned that he will encourage the other Yahoos of the island to rebel. They demand that Gulliver leave the island forever, and they make the Master Horse tell him so. But the Master Horse is kind enough to tell Gulliver that, for his own part, he would be happy to keep Gulliver as a servant, because Gulliver has worked so hard to overcome his "inferior nature." Patronizing, much? We have to take at least some of the Master Horse's conclusions about people with a grain of salt, because the Houyhnhnms are so intolerant of other ways of living or seeing the world.

Part 4, Chapter 11

When they began to talk, I thought I never heard or saw any thing more unnatural; for it appeared to me as monstrous as if a dog or a cow should speak in England, or a Yahoo in Houyhnhnmland. (4.11.8)

We've talked about Gulliver's difficulty adjusting to the size of people in England once he gets back from Brobdingnag. He has similar trouble when he returns from Lilliput. Why does Gulliver find it so much more jarring to come back from Houyhnhnm Land? How does he try to adapt to Yahoos once he comes back to England? Does he really seem to be making much of an effort?

Part 4, Chapter 12

For who can read of the virtues I have mentioned in the glorious Houyhnhnms, without being ashamed of his own vices, when he considers himself as the reasoning, governing animal of his country? I shall say nothing of those remote nations where Yahoos preside; among which the least corrupted are the Brobdingnagians; whose wise maxims in morality and government it would be our happiness to observe. (4.12.4).

Gulliver seems to be giving us a rationale for the whole form of Gulliver's Travels. Whether or not you agree that the Houyhnhnms are "glorious", the important point is that Gulliver assumes that looking at the lives of other peoples – Houyhnhnms and Brobdingnagians – should make "us" Europeans feel ashamed. We can't help but compare our own society to these "foreign" lands, which is where the satire comes in.

But this description, I confess, does by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; their liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning; their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity; their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversations from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption; and, to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors, who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside, and the honour of the king their master. (4.12.9)

In the last chapter of the last part of the book, Gulliver explains why he doesn't think England should try to conquer the lands he has visited. His final reason is that they don't want to be conquered. But he also includes this little dig at England's colonial administration, which is, in fact, filled with incompetent, unjust, and exploitative managers. We have to give Gulliver this: he really does seem committed to other people's liberty, even if they are members of the "savage nations" (4.2.4) to which he refers earlier. And he certainly doesn't approve of the wealth flowing into England from its theft of other nations' resources.

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