Study Guide

The Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels

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The Lilliputians

The Lilliputians inhabit the first island Gulliver visits. They all stand about six inches tall, with proportionally tiny buildings and trees and horses. The Lilliputians are ruled by an Emperor who appoints his high court officials according to their skills with rope dancing rather than their actual abilities. In other words, they're not exactly governed according to rational principles. The court of Lilliput mostly seems to spend its time plotting against one another. Gulliver, unfortunately, forms one of the primary targets of these plots. His enormous size makes him both expensive and dangerous for the Emperor to keep, so, even though he has made himself useful in Lilliput's wars against Blefuscu, Gulliver eventually has to flee the country to avoid having his eyes put out.

Gulliver as a Lilliputian

Gulliver is enormous and the Lilliputians are tiny, so obviously Gulliver is not literally a Lilliputian. However, there are hints that Gulliver shares more with the Lilliputians than he is fully willing to admit. Gulliver comments on their great mechanical abilities: they have "arrived to a great perfection in mechanics" (1.1.8). Many of the engines that they have constructed run towards weaponry.

As for Gulliver, in addition to being pretty flexible with class and language, Gulliver also has "a head mechanically turned" (1.6.19). He offers to turn this mechanical ability to the advantage of the King of Brobdingnag by making gunpowder, but is refused. This kind of practical mechanical ability is (a) better than what the Laputians do, but (b) completely despised by the brilliant, beautiful, rational horses of the Houyhnhnms. For all of his giant size, Gulliver's mind works mechanically and in terms of profit, like a Lilliputian – but it takes his exposure to the men of Brobdingnag and the horses of the Houyhnhnms to see it.

The High Heels and the Low Heels

If Gulliver, an Englishman, is similar to the Lilliputians, it stands to reason that the place he's from, England, is a lot like Lilliput. Swift makes England physically tiny to introduce a new perspective on its politics and partisanship in the Lilliput chapters of Gulliver's Travels.

One example of this new take on English politics is the deadly differences between the high heels and the low heels. In Lilliput, political affiliation splits between men who wear high-heeled shoes and men who wear low-heeled shoes. The high heels, a.k.a. the Tramecksans, support Lilliput's constitution and the Emperor. However, the low heels, a.k.a. the Slamecksans, are in power. The Emperor will only put low heels into high office in his government, regardless of the abilities or qualifications of the high heels. And the Emperor's son is even harder to pin down: he wears one high and one low heel, so no one knows where he stands.

Basically, this is a jab at the Tories and the Whigs, prominent political parties in early eighteenth century England (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 30). The Tories were political conservatives who supported a consolidation of royal authority and the restriction of the power of English Parliament (which is something like the American Senate). The Whigs were relatively liberal and wanted more power to go to the Parliament.

Following England's 1689 Glorious Revolution (about which, check out our "Detailed Analysis" of Part 4, Chapter 5), in which Parliament essentially installed a new king on the throne, the Whigs were really riding high. And they began riding even higher when George I came to the throne after the death of Queen Anne. George was pro-Whig, and his Parliament was entirely Whig-dominated. Does this sound familiar to you at all? Yep, the Whigs are like the low heels, the only men who have any power in the Lilliputian government. And as you might have guessed from the sour grapes feel of this section of the book, Swift was a Tory (or in Lilliputian terms, a high heel). He had to return from England to Ireland once George I came to power (source).

The shallowness of the nature of this division – high heeled versus low heeled shoes – emphasizes what the Emperor is not thinking about: actual ability. In fact, Gulliver claims that the Lilliputians prefer to choose fools for office over wise men, because they want to avoid corruption. Their logic is that it's less evil for guys to make mistakes in office out of gross stupidity than for guys to make mistakes in office because of bribery and favoritism. Of course, the assumption underlying this idea is that the same mistakes have to be made either way. Hey Lilliputians, here's a crazy idea: why not appoint people to office who are both smart and good?

The Big-Endians, the Little-Endians, and Blefuscu

Similarly shallow is the difference between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. The story goes that, apparently, when this Emperor's grandfather was a child, he cut himself when he cracked a boiled egg on its big, rounded end. Following this accident, the current Emperor's great-grandfather laid down the law: no more cracking eggs at the big end. Now, the entire island of Lilliput can only crack eggs at the little end. This change completely outrages some Lilliputians, who raise rebellions and flee to the neighboring island of tiny people, Blefuscu, a haven for Big-Endians.

The cause of the Little-Endians versus the Big-Endians is an allegory of the long (long) wars between Protestants (Little-Endians) and Catholics (Big-Endians) in England. During Jonathan Swift's lifetime, battles between Catholics and Protestants provided at least some of the fuel for the Glorious Revolution, Scottish Jacobite rebellions, and the War of the Spanish Succession between England, France, Austria, and Spain. The accusations that Lilliput makes against its neighboring island across the channel, that they are sheltering Big-Endian exiles and plotting against Lilliput, is a reference to the French harboring Catholic exiles following Henry VIII's break with Rome to found the Anglican Church (source: Robert Greenberg, Editor, Gulliver's Travels. New York: Norton, 1961, 31.).

Swift was himself a prominent Irish Anglican minister, and he believed strongly in the national church. However, despite his own religious views, Swift very clearly dismisses the use of differences of opinion, be it religious (Big-Endians vs. Little-Endians) or political (high heels vs. low heels), as pretexts for warfare. He also criticizes these differences being used as excuses to persecute honest, upstanding public servants. This is a theme that recurs throughout Gulliver's Travels. For other examples, see Lord Munodi in Part 3 and Gulliver's discussion of war with the Master Horse in Part 4.

(However, we'd like to note – even though Swift doesn't seem too fond of religious warfare, he still thinks states should have a religion. For more on this point, check out "Why Does Swift Seem to Hate the Dutch So Much?" under our "Character Analysis" of Japan.)

Courtly Manners

You remember, a while back, we mentioned that high positions in the Lilliputian government are staffed with rope dancing competition winners. This game has two meanings. First, this game indicates that being at court means literally dancing attendance to people of higher station than you. It's all about impressing the big boss, and not about substantial contributions to, well, anything. Secondly, being in court is dangerous: these dancing ropes are a foot high – potentially fatal for the tiny Lilliputians. As Gulliver learns when he gets the Articles of Impeachment written by Skyresh Bolgolam, depending on the favor of a single powerful man like the Emperor can result in the downfall of innocent people. These falls are just a little more literal in Lilliput. (There are also some pretty illuminating examples of courtly manners in Luggnagg – check out our "Character Analysis" for more.)

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