Character Sketch Of Gulliver

3 Answers | Add Yours

mrdavis's profile pic

mrdavis | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

One cannot fully understand or appreciate Lemuel Gulliver as a character without first understanding that Jonathan Swift was a satirist and this novel is written as a satire of European culture/society, especially England.  In the context of being a satirical novel, Gulliver as a character becomes a vehicle for Swift's delivery of satire. I would disagree with the first commenter in that Gulliver is meant to represent the reader of the novel because doing so would entirely undercut the satire and ignores the historical context of Swift's writing.  Swift was not interested in writing a silly adventure because in 1703 tensions between England and his native Ireland were very turbulent and, at times, quite violent.  Swift, having become quite jaded and cynical himself, set out to draw attention to the flaws of the English socio-political climate and economic policies through satire.

So when Gulliver encounters the Lilliputans (who can see with great exactness, but not at a distance), and then the Brobdingnagians (who can see at great distance but without exactness), both groups ridicule the European ways and methods he explains to them.  And because Gulliver becomes a sympathetic character, perhaps because he is the only character relatable to the reader, the reader is expected to share in Gulliver's shame and confusion when his beloved England is ridiculed.  In both of these places it also becomes obvious that he cannot safely remain a resident.  In Lilliput he is feared for his size and potential for destruction (they did, after all, weaponize him to attack Blefuscu) to the point that they litigate him out of the equation to avoid the costs of maintaining him.  In Brobdingnag he is so insignificant that he is at risk of being forgotten and neglected, which is the opposite of the problem he had in Lilliput.  His money is invisible dust to the king of Brobdingnag while in Lilliput his money is a uselessly enormous burden to carry. 

All the while, Gulliver himself remains surprisingly emotionally objective, allowing his grasp on his Christian virtue to determine his actions and reactions.  In Lilliput he does not destroy the fleet of Blefuscu because he finds a more rational solution that is completely unfathomable to the Lilliputans and ultimately earns him charges of treason.  In Brobdingnag his virtue allows him to maintain his dignity is the face of humiliation and ridicule at the hands of the king. 

Part 3 is Swift's satiric ridicule of science and education and Part 4 satirizes philosophy and religion. 

The absurdity of what happens in the novel can deceive the reader to think that this is just a wacky adventure (it certainly tricked Jack Black into making that awful, awful movie), but absurdity is what makes the satire all the more powerful.  Gulliver is the static constant throughout the entire novel, hardly changing his virtue or disposition in spite of everything he sees and experiences.  Instead, he at times even closely resembles a straw man who is there simply to ask questions about the strange things he sees. 

Top Answer

rrteacher's profile pic

rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Gulliver seems to be an honest person, and we are told throughout the book that he is faithfully relaying the events he experienced and the peoples he encountered. One of his signal characteristics is that he changes over the course of the book due to his experiences. In particular, he is very disillusioned with humanity after encountering the peaceful and virtuous Houyhnhnms, whose lifestyle he is incapable of emulating due to his human weakness. On the other hand, throughout much of the book, he is a bit arrogant, presuming his own superiority to the peoples he encounters. Gulliver is a complex character, even if he does not always understand what is going on around him.

robinsteaching's profile pic

robinsteaching | In Training Educator

Posted on

Gulliver, as a character, can be understood to represent the reader of the novel. The reader, like Gulliver, is almost whimsically flung into bizarre worlds in bizarre circumstances. For this reason, Swift characterizes Gulliver much in the same way a reader my be characterized--curious, somewhat ignorant, and lacking control.

Gulliver, whose name is a somewhat transparent reference to gullible, lacks a lot of essential knowledge in each world he visits. This lack of knowledge enables Gulliver to be completely honest and earnest in some situations. For instance, when he meets the Lilliputians, he is so ignorant to their ways, that he somewhat blindly tries to conform to and obey the laws of the land. For this same reason, he also blindly believes that the Blefuscudians are the enemy because that is how the Lilliputians see them (at least initially). This blind acceptance of knowledge from those in authority gives Gulliver a child-like naivety. 

However, his complete lack of knowledge also causes him to act arrogant in other situations. For example, when he is hearing about the political fights in the land of Lilliput, he arrogantly assumes that the ways of his people (the British) would help solve the situation in Lilliput. For this reason, he believes that gun powder and ammunition will help solve the situation. Of course, the kind reasonably laughs this off, showing Swift's contempt for arrogance and violence. Thus, Gulliver's ignorance makes him both naive and childlike, but also arrogant and assuming.

Ultimately, Gulliver sees a concept of utopia in the Houyhnhnms, and seems to overcome some of his own spiciest arrogance. However, when he realizes humanity's inability to overcome our shortcoming, he becomes quite a misanthrope, choosing to spend time with his stable horses when he returns home instead of his own wife and family. This is perhaps Gulliver's biggest flaw--his new-gained knowledge emphasizes his true ignorance. Despite seeing and knowing more of the world, he can't see and understand his own situation and chooses to spend the rest of his life in misery because he cannot attain a perfect and majestic lifestyle like the Houyhnhnms. I do not believe it is a coincident that this novel deals a lot with objects that involve sight--spectacles and telescopes. Gulliver at times can see things quite clearly and makes acutely aware observations of the world. However, there are other times when he seems to be unable to see what is right in front of him.

Ultimately, like the reader of the novel, Gulliver doesn't seem to have much control in the worlds he sees and learns from. He gains knowledge from all of these journeys but still often acts out of ignorance. While he is genuinely an amiable and likable character for much of the novel, his exposure to the ostensible perfection of the Houyhnhnms turns him into a misanthrope who acts despicably towards his own family. There is obviously an irony in his hateful actions mimicking the horrible human behaviors he supposedly wants to rid humanity of.


We’ve answered 317,487 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question