Gulliver's giant feet walking in the diminuative forest of the lilliputians

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

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What is the difference between the society of Lilliput and the society of Brobdingnag?

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Gulliver's time in Lilliput and Brobdingnag allow Swift to use the size of the inhabitants as a proxy for their moral, political, and intellectual development. The small size of the Lilliputians yields equally small minds and spirits, and the gigantic Brobdingnagians are, like their bodies, expansive in intellect and morals. And the visits in Books I and II give Swift the opportunity to satirize the society of his native Great Britain, its government, and King William by the implicit comparison and contrast among the three monarchies.

In Lilliput, where Gulliver dwarfs the inhabitants, the Lilliputians are as spiritually and politically stunted as are their bodies. When he is observing the political machinations in the Lilliputian court, for example, he sees that the King's ministers are not appointed on the basis of their intellectual and moral qualifications or their desire to make the lives of the king's subjects better, but their successful rise to power is dependent upon their ability to walk a tightrope:

When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens), five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office.

Swift is satirizing the court of William and the king's tendency to choose his ministers on the basis of their influence and wealth rather than their inherent intellectual or moral worth. He continues this satire in his depiction of the Lilliputian religious controversy—two factions (Catholic and Protestant) in a bitter dispute over which end of an egg to crack first, a dispute in which thousands have died, mirroring the history of Catholic and Protestant violence in Great Britain.

When Gulliver arrives in Brobdingnag, a country populated by giants and in which he is now the Lilliputian, he discovers a society that is populated by gentle, rational people and governed by a benign monarch. When Gulliver eventually has a chance to discuss governmental policy with the King of Brobdingnag, who is curious about Gulliver's country, Gulliver somewhat naively extolls the powers exercised by Great Britain in its relations with the rest of Europe, to which the Brobdingnagian King replies in horror:

‘it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.’

His reaction, although stunning Gulliver into silence, is a summary of those aspects of 18th century Great Britain that Swift, as a keen observer of his society, its religious controversies, and the monarchy of the Williams, found most damaging.

The differences between Lilliput and Brobdingnag, starting with their respective physical attributes, are stark—the former is characterized by viciousness in every aspect of life, the latter by magnanimity—but both serve as a mirror to Swift's primary target in these two voyages: Great Britain and its monarch.

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When Gulliver first meets the Lilliputians, he finds these tiny,...

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doll-like creatures physically appealing to him. However, their pretty appearance masks their warlike, petty natures. The Lilliputians are quick to take offense and tend to focus on and quarrel about minor details of no importance rather than looking at the bigger picture. Worse, Gulliver is condemned to death as a traitor for putting out a palace fire by urinating on it, which misses the point that his quick action saved lives.

The giant Brobdingnagians at first repulse Gulliver because their size (sixty times that of humans) makes them appear hideous to his eyes. For example, the pores in their skin seem huge and ugly. However, he discovers that these people are more peaceful than the Lilliputians. Their society is based on rationality. It highly prizes mathematics. Once again, Gulliver finds that initial appearances are deceiving. The Brobdingnagians may seem ugly, but they are, if imperfect, kinder people than the Lilliputians, with a more orderly society.

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The first major difference is physical. The Lilliputians are very small and consider Gulliver a giant. The Brobdingnagians are huge, and Gulliver appears tiny in comparison to them. These size differences lead to many of Gulliver's more humorous adventures.

Next, the society of Lilliput is extremely competitive and quarrelsome, obsessed with debates over trivial differences such as those between the Low-heelers and High-heelers and those between the Big-enders and Little-enders, who differ over which end of an egg should be cracked. This is intended to satirize the political and theological disputes of Swift's own period.

The Brobdingnagian society, by contrast, is peaceful and well-governed. Their laws are clear and simple, and the focus of intellectual effort is not on theology or metaphysics but on things which directly benefit people, such as medicine, history, economics, and the arts.

Although both societies are, like Swift's own, monarchies, in Lilliput power is wielded capriciously and in Brobdingnag philosophically.

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The Lilliputians are very warlike while the society of Brobdingnag is quite peace-loving and gentle, especially in comparison to the society of Lilliput.  In Lilliput, terrible wars have been fought and thousands have died over disagreements about which side of the egg should be cracked: the big end or the small.  The emperor of Lilliput becomes angry with Gulliver when Gulliver refuses to decimate the Blefuscudian fleet or participate in the enslavement of the citizens of Blefuscu by the Lilliputians.  Ultimately, he charges Gulliver with treason and plans to put him to death for his supposed crimes against the state. 

The ruler of Brobdingnag, on the other hand, recoils from Gulliver and pronounces his countrymen to be the most hateful race of vermin that has ever inhabited the world after Gulliver tells him all about their society and military and politics.  This society is much more peaceful than Gulliver's and the Lilliputians'.

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