Study Guide

Gulliver's Travels Society and Class

By Jonathan Swift

Society and Class

Part 1, Chapter 3
Lemuel Gulliver

"Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue, most mighty Emperor of Lilliput, delight and terror of the universe, whose dominions extend five thousand blustrugs (about twelve miles in circumference) to the extremities of the globe; monarch of all monarchs, taller than the sons of men; whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun; at whose nod the princes of the earth shake their knees; pleasant as the spring, comfortable as the summer, fruitful as autumn, dreadful as winter: his most sublime majesty proposes to the man-mountain, lately arrived at our celestial dominions, the following articles, which, by a solemn oath, he shall be obliged to perform." (1.3.9)

This is the incredibly long introduction to the document that allows Gulliver his (limited) freedom in Lilliput. There are a couple of things that strike us about this: first off, it shows the restricted perspective of the Lilliputians. They think that twelve miles extends to the ends of the earth? Second, the incredibly exaggerated descriptions of the Emperor of Lilliput (whose head certainly does not hit the sun) indicates the way that written language can be used to flatter and deceive (compare this, with, say, the lack of any written language at all in Houyhnhnm Land). And last but not least, we get a small parody of courtly language; boy, does it take them a long time to get to the point.

Part 2, Chapter 3

Nothing angered and mortified me so much as the queen's dwarf; who being of the lowest stature that was ever in that country (for I verily think he was not full thirty feet high), became so insolent at seeing a creature so much beneath him, that he would always affect to swagger and look big as he passed by me in the queen's antechamber. (2.3.11)

The Brobdingnagian Queen's dwarf, who feels small compared to everyone else he knows, likes to bully Gulliver because Gulliver is even tinier. This is yet another satire of social relations: everyone weak finds someone even weaker than him to pick on, to make him feel big.

Part 3, Chapter 9

This is the court style, and I found it to be more than matter of form: for, upon my admittance two days after my arrival, I was commanded to crawl upon my belly, and lick the floor as I advanced; but, on account of my being a stranger, care was taken to have it made so clean, that the dust was not offensive. However, this was a peculiar grace, not allowed to any but persons of the highest rank, when they desire an admittance. (3.9.4)

Here, Gulliver is describing his experiences meeting the King of Luggnagg for the first time, when he is made to lick the floor in front of the guy's feet. It's amazing what we'll tolerate if it's custom in a place. What do you think of social custom? Where would you draw the line? If you were asked to kneel in front of a king and lick the floor, are there contexts when that would seem appropriate and unobjectionable? Are there compromises you can't imagine making?

Part 4, Chapter 6
Lemuel Gulliver

He made me observe, "that among the Houyhnhnms, the white, the sorrel, and the iron-gray, were not so exactly shaped as the bay, the dapple-gray, and the black; nor born with equal talents of mind, or a capacity to improve them; and therefore continued always in the condition of servants, without ever aspiring to match out of their own race, which in that country would be reckoned monstrous and unnatural." (4.6.15)

The Houyhnhnms split themselves up according to color and do not believe in intermixing. Gulliver doesn't talk much about races explicitly, but do you think this point about the Houyhnhnms indicate a racialist agenda to this portion of the satire? Where else might we find signs of what Gulliver thinks of race?

I told him "we fed on a thousand things which operated contrary to each other; that we ate when we were not hungry, and drank without the provocation of thirst; that we sat whole nights drinking strong liquors, without eating a bit, which disposed us to sloth, inflamed our bodies, and precipitated or prevented digestion; that prostitute female Yahoos acquired a certain malady, which bred rottenness in the bones of those who fell into their embraces; that this, and many other diseases, were propagated from father to son; so that great numbers came into the world with complicated maladies upon them; that it would be endless to give him a catalogue of all diseases incident to human bodies. (4.6.4)

The lucky Houyhnhnms don't get sick, but humans do. And Gulliver seems to feel that all illness is the sufferer's own fault, the result of living in a decadent society with too much food, drink, and sex. What's odd about this is that Gulliver is, himself, a surgeon. You wouldn't think he would speak out so strongly against medicine when he is a student of it. Among the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver really is forgetting everything about himself – and isn't hypocrisy itself a sin?

Whereupon I was at much pains to describe to him the use of money, the materials it was made of, and the value of the metals; "that when a Yahoo had got a great store of this precious substance, he was able to purchase whatever he had a mind to; the finest clothing, the noblest houses, great tracts of land, the most costly meats and drinks, and have his choice of the most beautiful females." (4.6.1)

Gulliver explains to the Master Horse what money is. The Master Horse has also observed that Houyhnhnm Land Yahoos are attracted to shiny rocks. This raises the question: how many of our social problems are human nature, and how many are the result of historical or environmental problems? Gulliver seems to imply elsewhere that greed is human nature, but that it's gotten a lot worse in recent times. Why?

I replied "that England (the dear place of my nativity) was computed to produce three times the quantity of food more than its inhabitants are able to consume, as well as liquors extracted from grain, or pressed out of the fruit of certain trees, which made excellent drink, and the same proportion in every other convenience of life. But, in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, whence, in return, we brought the materials of diseases, folly, and vice, to spend among ourselves. (4.6.2)

Gulliver blames increasing desire for luxury on England's exposure to other nations. And Lilliput is in a high state of corruption in part because of its ongoing war with Blefuscu. All the best islands, Brobdingnag and Houyhnhnm Land, are totally isolated. So, it would seem that staying put in your country would be a good thing? But this book is called Gulliver's Travels, and Gulliver uses the opportunity of his travels to offer useful critiques. If you try to isolate your nation from the world too much, doesn't that lead to Houyhnhnm-style of smugness?

I made his honour my most humble acknowledgments for the good opinion he was pleased to conceive of me, but assured him at the same time, "that my birth was of the lower sort, having been born of plain honest parents, who were just able to give me a tolerable education; that nobility, among us, was altogether a different thing from the idea he had of it; that our young noblemen are bred from their childhood in idleness and luxury; that, as soon as years will permit, they consume their vigour, and contract odious diseases among lewd females. (4.6.16)

The Master Horse thinks Gulliver must be a superior breed of human. Gulliver says, Oh no – the nobility in my country has become rotten with luxury. Yet, even while he rejects noble birth as it currently exists in England, Gulliver loves "people of quality" and believes in the maintenance of noble families. Why would a man with "birth of the lower sort" be so invested in the aristocracy as an ideal?

Part 4, Chapter 7

He had heard, indeed, some curious Houyhnhnms observe, that in most herds there was a sort of ruling Yahoo (as among us there is generally some leading or principal stag in a park), who was always more deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition, than any of the rest; that this leader had usually a favourite as like himself as he could get, whose employment was to lick his master's feet and posteriors, and drive the female Yahoos to his kennel; for which he was now and then rewarded with a piece of ass's flesh. This favourite is hated by the whole herd, and therefore, to protect himself, keeps always near the person of his leader. (4.7.13)

The Master Horse tells Gulliver that Yahoos tend to choose terrible leaders, who surround themselves with even worse people to make them look better. And indeed, the Houyhnhnms whom Gulliver likes so much don't appear to have leaders or power hierarchies that Gulliver recognizes. But many of the great men of history whom Gulliver meets in Glubbdubdrib are leaders of men. What makes a man a good leader in this novel? Or a bad one?

Part 4, Chapter 9

They live generally to seventy, or seventy-five years, very seldom to fourscore. Some weeks before their death, they feel a gradual decay; but without pain. During this time they are much visited by their friends, because they cannot go abroad with their usual ease and satisfaction. However, about ten days before their death, which they seldom fail in computing, they return the visits that have been made them by those who are nearest in the neighbourhood, being carried in a convenient sledge drawn by Yahoos; which vehicle they use, not only upon this occasion, but when they grow old, upon long journeys, or when they are lamed by any accident: and therefore when the dying Houyhnhnms return those visits, they take a solemn leave of their friends, as if they were going to some remote part of the country, where they designed to pass the rest of their lives. (4.9.10)

The death of the Houyhnhnm starts out with a kind of pre-death wake that the dying Houyhnhnm himself gets to attend. He visits with all of his friends and then disappears to die with dignity. What do you think of this model of death? How does it compare to American funeral customs? What are its benefits?

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