Gulliver's Travels Themes
The main themes in Gulliver’s Travels are human folly and evil, filth and disgust, and conservatism and progress.
- Human folly and evil: Swift satirizes the foibles of humankind, and of England in particular, through Gulliver’s encounters with various fantastical societies.
- Filth and disgust: Throughout the novel, excrement, disease, and physical repulsion are associated with human failings and original sin.
- Conservatism and progress: Swift portrays humans as essentially corrupted and, through Gulliver’s encounters with the Houyhnhnms and with the ghosts on Glubbdubdrib, argues that humanity can only achieve moral progress by regressing to a simpler way of life.
Last Updated on May 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
Human Folly and Evil
Swift wrote that Gulliver’s Travels was based upon “a great foundation of Misanthropy,” and the least attractive qualities of the human race furnish the most pervasive theme of the book. This theme intensifies until it finds its most extreme expression in the Yahoos at the end of the book. Gulliver’s description of the first Yahoos he encounters is consistent with their looking like humans, but he does not himself see the resemblance until his Houyhnhnm master places him side by side with a Yahoo. He accepts the Houyhnhnms’ view of the world completely, regarding them as the wisest beings he has ever met. He therefore finds himself agreeing with their assessment of humanity as being identical to the Yahoos in all important respects, and perhaps even worse, since humans have a greater capacity for destruction. Gulliver comes to detest humans so completely that by the conclusion of the book, he cannot bear to be near one, even his wife and children.
The Houyhnhnms’ perception of the Yahoos is foreshadowed in part 2 by the king of Brobdingnag, who enquires into the laws and customs of England in much the same way as Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master. The king is described by Gulliver as the wisest and most admirable character in the first half of the book, and he shares the Houyhnhnms’ horror of war, disdainfully refusing when Gulliver offers to share the secret of gunpowder with him. The way in which human folly and evil are presented therefore alternates between the four parts of the story. In parts 1 and 3, the vices of humanity are satirized directly in the self-importance, deviousness, cruelty, and violence of the Lilliputians, then in the prodigality, impracticality, and foolish conformity of the scholars on Laputa and in Lagado. In parts 2 and 4, the king of Brobdingnag and Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master provide the commentary on the specific vices of the English described to them by Gulliver.
The catalogue of human failings Swift presents is very long indeed. One of his favorite techniques is to make a long list of pejorative words to drive home the sheer variety of folly and evil against which he is inveighing. The king of Brobdingnag provides an example when he describes the history of England which Gulliver has related to him as “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.” Another technique which creates some of Swift’s most memorable effects is to give a detailed historical account of the ludicrous origins of some quarrel, like the dispute in Lilliput over the correct end at which to crack an egg.
Filth and Disgust
Gulliver affects a certain delicacy about his frequent references to excrement, urine, dirt, and disease. However, it quickly becomes clear that Swift is obsessed with this aspect of human existence. The second part of the book gives him a particular opportunity to enlarge on this theme, since Gulliver is observing creatures so much larger than himself and is therefore able to examine their defects in lurid detail. He describes a woman with breast cancer, which has produced holes large enough for him to creep inside, and talks about the coarse, uneven complexions of the court ladies “with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads.”
In part 4, the Yahoos pelt Gulliver with excrement almost as soon as he arrives in the country of the Houyhnhnms, and one of their children whom he later holds in his arms covers him with “its filthy excrements of a yellow liquid substance.” He also notes that when a pack of Yahoos decides to elect a new leader, they “come in a body, and discharge their excrements upon him from head to foot.” Swift’s particular association of the Yahoos with physical filth, and particularly with a stench so repulsive that Gulliver has to plug his nose with tobacco or herbs to be able to endure their proximity, gives the reader a clear indication of his intention in addressing this theme. It is closely related to his excoriation of folly and evil, in the attempt to strike directly at humanity’s sense of its own dignity. Swift wants to remind his readers of the corrupt nature of their own bodies. Even a healthy body produces waste which looks and smells disgusting, and an unhealthy one can be described in all manner of humiliating ways. Despite being a clergyman, Swift was far from being a conventional Christian, but he does have a strong sense of original sin, and he expresses this through physical disgust. Even if a person manages to be wise and virtuous (which he thinks they will not), their excrement will continue to stink, and this is a mark of the fallen nature of humanity. As George Orwell remarks in “Politics vs. Literature,” it is probably not a coincidence that Swift’s ideal beings, the Houyhnhnms, are horses, an animal which produces the least offensive dung of practically any animal. Even so, it is striking, given the number of times Swift mentions excrement and foul smells in part 4, that never once are these themes associated with the Houyhnhnms.
Conservatism and Progress
It may seem paradoxical for a writer who is constantly complaining about the corruption of the society in which he lives to be a social and political conservative. Why satirize a system if you do not want to change it in any way? Swift’s answer to this appears to be that the corruption of human beings is endemic. There is no point in trying to change anything or discover anything new. His approval of the Houyhnhnms, who are not at all interested in the world around them, and have not mastered even the most basic technology, is contrasted with his continual sneering at the Grand Academy of Lagado, with its experiments in agriculture and architecture.
The conservatism of Swift’s worldview is confirmed by the episode in Glubbdubdrib. He idealizes the Roman senate and disparages modern parliaments by comparison. He regards Homer and Aristotle as admirable but will not allow that anyone who has ever commented on or been influenced by their writings has added anything to human understanding. Swift’s ideal human is a Roman patrician, such as Brutus. His ideal society is one of horses who never change or discover anything new. The idea that humanity could progress to a better state through new discoveries or innovations never seems to occur to him. The only possible moral progress is through a political and economic regress, returning to a simpler and purer style of life and shedding the luxuries and distractions of modernity.