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Swift's characters aren't the well-rounded, "flesh and blood" characters you usually find in a skillfully written novel. His characters are allegorical; that is, they stand for something-an idea, an attitude, a posture-or someone else. It's never simple with Swift. Gulliver, for instance, represents different things at different points in the novel. In Part I Gulliver is solid, decent, and responsible. At times in Lilliput (during the inventory sequence in Chapter II for example), Gulliver stands for Lords Oxford and Bolingbroke. In Part II Gulliver represents a man who under repeated attacks on his ego and self-image succumbs to pettiness and vindictiveness characteristic of the Lilliputians.

Swift's allegories are never black and white. Even the Lilliputians have their good points-they are very clever. And the Houyhnhnms, who have created a perfectly orderly society in which there are not even words to describe anger, lying, and disagreement, let alone the more serious vices, have their drawbacks, subtle though they may be. A life without passion may always be calm, but is it life as humans know it, and could live it?

Part III may be the exception, in that the Laputans and Projectors do tend to be black and white. Many critics feel that because of this, Swift's satire, from an artistic standpoint, is weaker here than in the other books. You will have to decide this for yourself.

Bear in mind that in Gulliver's Travels there's no character you can follow as you can a traditional omniscient narrator. Swift's satire is designed to keep you an independent reader, the characters are meant to stimulate you, not to lead you.


Gulliver is the most important character in this novel. He's the "author" of the Travels, he's your tour guide. He's also one of the most vexing characters in English literature.

Gulliver's frustrating to deal with for a number of reasons. 1. He's not steady; he changes in relation to the places he visits and the events that befall him as he voyages. 2. He's often a victim of Swift's satire. This means that we have to be on our guard against what he says, and even though he's our guide, we can't follow him everywhere. If we do, he'll lead us into madness. 3. It's impossible to feel relaxed with Gulliver, as we can with a traditional omniscient narrator. Swift won't let us trust him enough for that. 4. Because Gulliver directs a lot of his hostility toward us-readers beyond reform-we in turn feel hostile toward him. 5. Looking at Gulliver is a lot like looking in a mirror. We are by turns fascinated, attracted, disgusted, and ashamed.

You first meet Gulliver at the "end" of his story, in a letter he's written to his publisher. By now Gulliver is out of his mind: he's raving, he's nasty, he lies, he's proud beyond the limits of pride. But he wasn't always.

He grew up in Nottinghamshire, the third of five sons in a respectable, middle-class family. While in school he held jobs: as an apprentice, he proved his competence; as a physician, he was able to get work on ships, which had been his lifelong dream. Before Gulliver leaves for Lilliput it can be said that he's reasonably intelligent, hard working, disciplined, alert, and curious. As a traveler in Lilliput he's careful in his observations, complete in his descriptions. Occupied as he is with the surface of things, he's a bit naive. Gulliver is a good, all-around type of guy.

But he gets knocked around while he's traveling, and this affects his character. In Lilliput he seems to be eminently fair-minded compared to the cunning, vindictive, petty Lilliputians. Literally a giant in their land, Gulliver never takes unfair advantage of his size in his dealing with them. Though they're violent with him, he never retaliates in kind.

In Brobdingnag, land of the giants, Gulliver appears Lilliputian in more ways than one. But his size is a dire problem to him here. He is frequently injured, the king's dwarf takes out his frustrations on tiny Gulliver, but the latter is an improvement for Gulliver-before coming to court, his master hired him out as a freak at village fairs. Gulliver can't keep it together under the strain of repeated attacks on his ego, and in his dealings with the Brobdingnagian king, Gulliver appears as nasty and cruel as the Lilliputians themselves.

Gulliver recedes in Part III. Not much happens to him personally, for the most part he recounts what he observes in the way of scientific experiments. Swift uses Gulliver to relate deadpan what he himself considers to be foolish attitudes and activities.

Gulliver goes mad in Part IV. Presented with the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, Gulliver tries desperately to become a Houyhnhnm, an animal governed entirely by reason. He cannot, of course. Gulliver isn't able to see the Yahoos as Swift intends them to be seen-as representing the worst traits in human nature, and the lowest level to which he might sink. Gulliver sees the Yahoos as mankind, period. Gulliver also misapprehends the Houyhnhnms. It is only to Gulliver-not to Swift-that these creatures represent a human ideal. Gulliver, neither Yahoo nor Houyhnhnm, can find no species to which he belongs, and so goes mad.

When the Travels first came out Swift was attacked for misanthropy, largely on the basis of Gulliver's hostility to humans in Part IV. Highly influential critics, such as William Thackeray (whose novels include Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond, Esq.) equated Gulliver with Swift. This is a misreading of the book, but the notion remains an important part of the early history of critical reaction to Gulliver's Travels. You must come to terms with Gulliver and with the uses Swift has for Gulliver. Be alert for the instances when Swift and Gulliver overlap, when Gulliver says something with which Swift agrees; for the instances when Swift lets us know that Gulliver's viewpoint is one among many; and for the instances when Swift holds Gulliver up for our criticism.


On one level, the Lilliputian emperor represents George I of England. Swift had no admiration for this king, and uses Lilliputian court practices allegorically to criticize the English monarch. On another level the tiny emperor represents tyranny, cruelty, lust for power, and corruption. He is a timeless symbol of bad government.


This is a Lilliputian government official who represents Robert Walpole, the Whig prime minister under George I. Walpole was Swift's enemy.


The empress represents Queen Anne, who blocked Swift's advancement in the Church of England because she was offended by his writings. The empress bears early responsibility for Gulliver's demise in Lilliput.

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