Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels Gender

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Part 1, Chapter 6

Thus the young ladies are as much ashamed of being cowards and fools as the men, and despise all personal ornaments, beyond decency and cleanliness: neither did I perceive any difference in their education made by their difference of sex, only that the exercises of the females were not altogether so robust; and that some rules were given them relating to domestic life, and a smaller compass of learning was enjoined them: for their maxim is, that among peoples of quality, a wife should be always a reasonable and agreeable companion, because she cannot always be young. (1.6.15)

We have to admit, we were kind of surprised to read about this fairly equitable system of education in Lilliput, of all places – Lilliput, where in all other ways, the education kind of sucks, because it focuses on control rather than on real learning. And this isn't just an object of satire, because the Houyhnhnms also do their best to educate their boys and girls equally.

Part 2, Chapter 1

The nurse, to quiet her babe, made use of a rattle which was a kind of hollow vessel filled with great stones, and fastened by a cable to the child's waist: but all in vain; so that she was forced to apply the last remedy by giving it suck. I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six feet, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug, so varied with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous. (2.1.11)

In Brobdingnag, Gulliver sees a sight that he imagines might be kind of exciting: a giant breast. But in reality, it horrifies him with its size, shape, and spottiness. Seeing things too close = bad. But we do find it interesting that Gulliver's first confrontation with the horrors of the human flesh should be with a woman's body. After all, Gulliver strongly associates flesh and sex with a woman's nature – check out our "Character Analysis" the Laputians for more on this point.

Part 2, Chapter 5

That which gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honour (when my nurse carried me to visit then) was, to see them use me without any manner of ceremony, like a creature who had no sort of consequence: for they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their toilet, directly before their naked bodies, which I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other emotions than those of horror and disgust: their skins appeared so coarse and uneven. (2.5.7)

Again, Gulliver is revolted by these giant female bodies. But he's also unnerved, because the Queen's servants don't regard him as a man. They undress and even pee in front of him as though he's a pet and not a person. We can compare Gulliver's anxiety about being a man in the Brobdingnag chapter with his joke about his penis size in Lilliput (about which, see our detailed summary of Part 1, Chapter 3) – when he's hugely, hugely manly relative to tiny residents of the island.

Part 3, Chapter 2

The wives and daughters lament their confinement to the island, although I think it the most delicious spot of ground in the world; and although they live here in the greatest plenty and magnificence, and are allowed to do whatever they please, they long to see the world, and take the diversions of the metropolis, which they are not allowed to do without a particular license from the king; and this is not easy to be obtained, because the people of quality have found, by frequent experience, how hard it is to persuade their women to return from below. (3.2.16)

Why don't the women of Laputa become mathematicians? Why do they spend all of their time "allowed to do whatever they please," which mostly seems to be seducing guys and going down to the mainland to have more fun? What can you deduce about Gulliver's opinion of women from this look at Laputian ladies?

Part 4, Chapter 7
The Master Horse

My master told me, "there were some qualities remarkable in the Yahoos, which he had not observed me to mention, or at least very slightly, in the accounts I had given of humankind." He said, "those animals, like other brutes, had their females in common; but in this they differed, that the she Yahoo would admit the males while she was pregnant; and that the hes would quarrel and fight with the females, as fiercely as with each other; both which practices were such degrees of infamous brutality, as no other sensitive creature ever arrived at. (4.7.15)

The Master Horse is grossed out by the fact that human women (a) keep having sex during pregnancy (prude!), and (b) fight fiercely with human men. He also gets in a gibe that humans, "like other brutes, had their females in common." In other words, that human women can sleep with multiple men, much as animals do. What is the tone of the Master Horse's discussion of human women? Is the Master Horse's assessment of human women consistent with other parts of Gulliver's own analyses of women? Do you get the sense that the novel of Gulliver's Travels as a whole supports a poor opinion of women, or do different sections contradict each other?

Part 4, Chapter 8

Temperance, industry, exercise, and cleanliness, are the lessons equally enjoined to the young ones of both sexes: and my master thought it monstrous in us, to give the females a different kind of education from the males, except in some articles of domestic management; whereby, as he truly observed, one half of our natives were good for nothing but bringing children into the world; and to trust the care of our children to such useless animals, he said, was yet a greater instance of brutality. (4.8.14)

See how similar this model of equal education for the sexes is in both Lilliput and Houyhnhnm Land? But the reason the Lilliputians seem to educate girls is to make them suitable wives, so that they can chat happily with their husbands "because she cannot always be young" (1.6.15) (ick). The Houyhnhnms educate girls to make them better, wiser mothers.

This was a matter of diversion to my master and his family, as well as of mortification to myself. For now I could no longer deny that I was a real Yahoo in every limb and feature, since the females had a natural propensity to me, as one of their own species. Neither was the hair of this brute of a red colour (which might have been some excuse for an appetite a little irregular), but black as a sloe, and her countenance did not make an appearance altogether so hideous as the rest of her kind; for I think she could not be above eleven years old. (4.8.7)

Gulliver is swimming one day during his stay in Houyhnhnm Land when a very young Yahoo, overcome with sexual desire, hurls herself at Gulliver. This startles him enough to make him scream, and he has to be saved from the girl by his guardian, the sorrel nag. We're struck once more by the association of women with sexual desire – Gulliver pretty much never indicates that he wants sex. Why might Gulliver be so careful to describe sexual desire in others, but not in himself? What kinds of ethical conclusions can we draw about Gulliver's view of sex?

In their marriages, they are exactly careful to choose such colours as will not make any disagreeable mixture in the breed. Strength is chiefly valued in the male, and comeliness in the female; not upon the account of love, but to preserve the race from degenerating; for where a female happens to excel in strength, a consort is chosen, with regard to comeliness. (4.8.12)

The Houyhnhnms arrange marriages for their children to "preserve the race from degenerating." Why might the Houyhnhnms view reason as incompatible with love? Are the two things in fact irreconcilable?

Part 4, Chapter 11

As soon as I entered the house, my wife took me in her arms, and kissed me; at which, having not been used to the touch of that odious animal for so many years, I fell into a swoon for almost an hour. At the time I am writing, it is five years since my last return to England. During the first year, I could not endure my wife or children in my presence; the very smell of them was intolerable; much less could I suffer them to eat in the same room. (4.11.18)

(Why does Gulliver's wife put up with this crap?) So, when Gulliver gets back from Houyhnhnm Land and his wife hugs him, he faints because he is so unused to being so close to such a disgusting animal as a Yahoo. Are there any positive examples of human family life in this novel? Why or why not?

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