How does the reader's opinion of the people of Lilliput change in Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift?

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rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It can be hard to define a reader’s “attitude” toward a character or characters. Attitudes are subject to all sorts of influences, some contained in the text, others caused by real life circumstances and experiences, other texts one might be familiar with, and so forth.

For Swift, part of the satire of Gulliver’s situation with the Lilliputians comes from the ironic reversal of social power dynamics: Gulliver is much more powerful than all the Lilliputians combined, but nevertheless he is made to serve the ruling Lilliputian class. At first, Gulliver thinks this is a point of honor, and serves them willingly and is hailed as a hero; however, as things turn out, the Lilliputians ultimately condemn Gulliver for a breach of etiquette. The Lilliputians turn out to be not any better than the aristocrats of Europe.

For the reader, there is a predisposition to want to trust the tiny Lilliputians. Although they bind him and shoot him with arrows at first, they also reward Gulliver’s mild behavior with food and drink, housing and clothing, and teach him their language. Gulliver becomes a great favorite at court and earns his liberty. But the longer Gulliver is in Lilliput, the more he learns about the politics of the place, which have to strike the reader as ridiculous. Far from being superior to European rulers, the Lilliputians are subject to the same petty prejudices (like which is the best side of an egg to break) and have the same lust for power. Gulliver’s ultimate condemnation (for “polluting the palace” by urinating when in fact he was extinguishing a dangerous fire) underlines their lack of gratitude and hypocrisy.

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Gulliver's Travels

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