Although Gulliver is a bold adventurer who visits a multitude of strange lands, it is difficult to regard him as truly heroic. Even well before his slide into misanthropy at the end of the book, he simply does not show the stuff of which grand heroes are made. He is not cowardly—on the contrary, he undergoes the unnerving experiences of nearly being devoured by a giant rat, taken captive by pirates, shipwrecked on faraway shores, sexually assaulted by an eleven-year-old girl, and shot in the face with poison arrows. Additionally, the isolation from humanity that he endures for sixteen years must be hard to bear, though Gulliver rarely talks about such matters. Yet despite the courage Gulliver shows throughout his voyages, his character lacks basic greatness. This impression could be due to the fact that he rarely shows his feelings, reveals his soul, or experiences great passions of any sort. But other literary adventurers, like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, seem heroic without being particularly open about their emotions.
What seems most lacking in Gulliver is not courage or feelings, but drive. One modern critic has described Gulliver as possessing the smallest will in all of Western literature: he is simply devoid of a sense of mission, a goal that would make his wandering into a quest. Odysseus’s goal is to get home again, Aeneas’s goal in Virgil’s Aeneid is to found Rome, but Gulliver’s goal on his sea voyage is uncertain. He says that he needs to make some money after the failure of his business, but he rarely mentions finances throughout the work and indeed almost never even mentions home. He has no awareness of any greatness in what he is doing or what he is working toward. In short, he has no aspirations. When he leaves home on his travels for the first time, he gives no impression that he regards himself as undertaking a great endeavor or embarking on a thrilling new challenge.
We may also note Gulliver’s lack of ingenuity and savvy. Other great travelers, such as Odysseus, get themselves out of dangerous situations by exercising their wit and ability to trick others. Gulliver seems too dull for any battles of wit and too unimaginative to think up tricks, and thus he ends up being passive in most of the situations in which he finds himself. He is held captive several times throughout his voyages, but he is never once released through his own stratagems, relying instead on chance factors for his liberation. Once presented with a way out, he works hard to escape, as when he repairs the boat he finds that delivers him from Blefuscu, but he is never actively ingenious in attaining freedom. This example summarizes quite well Gulliver’s intelligence, which is factual and practical rather than imaginative or introspective.
Gulliver is gullible, as his name suggests. For example, he misses the obvious ways in which the Lilliputians exploit him. While he is quite adept at navigational calculations and the humdrum details of seafaring, he is far less able to reflect on himself or his nation in any profoundly critical way. Traveling to such different countries and returning to England in between each voyage, he seems poised to make some great anthropological speculations about cultural differences around the world, about how societies are similar despite their variations or different despite their similarities. But, frustratingly, Gulliver gives us nothing of the sort. He provides us only with literal facts and narrative events, never with any generalizing or philosophizing. He is a self-hating, self-proclaimed Yahoo at the end, announcing his misanthropy quite loudly, but even this attitude is difficult to accept as the moral of the story. Gulliver is not a figure with whom we identify but, rather, part of the array of personalities and behaviors about which we must make judgments.
The Brobdingnagian queen is hardly a well-developed character in this novel, but she is important in one sense: she is one of the very few females in Gulliver’s Travels who is given much notice. Gulliver’s own wife is scarcely even mentioned, even at what one would expect to be the touching moment of homecoming at the end of the fourth voyage. Gulliver seems little more than indifferent to his wife. The farmer’s daughter in Brobdingnag wins some of Gulliver’s attention but chiefly because she cares for him so tenderly. Gulliver is courteous to the empress of Lilliput but presumably mainly because she is royalty. The queen of Brobdingnag, however, arouses some deeper feelings in Gulliver that go beyond her royal status. He compliments her effusively, as he does no other female personage in the work, calling her infinitely witty and humorous. He describes in proud detail the manner in which he is permitted to kiss the tip of her little finger. For her part, the queen seems earnest in her concern about Gulliver’s welfare. When her court dwarf insults him, she gives the dwarf away to another household as punishment. The interaction between Gulliver and the queen hints that Gulliver is indeed capable of emotional connections.
Lord Munodi is a minor character, but he plays the important role of showing the possibility of individual dissent within a brainwashed community. While the inhabitants of Lagado pursue their attempts to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and to eliminate all verbs and adjectives from their language, Munodi is a rare example of practical intelligence. Having tried unsuccessfully to convince his fellows of their misguided public policies, he has given up and is content to practice what he preaches on his own estates. In his kindness to strangers, Munodi is also a counterexample to the contemptuous treatment that the other Laputians and Lagadans show Gulliver. He takes his guest on a tour of the kingdom, explains the advantages of his own estates without boasting, and is, in general, a figure of great common sense and humanity amid theoretical delusions and impractical fantasizing. As a figure isolated from his community, Munodi is similar to Gulliver, though Gulliver is unaware of his alienation while Munodi suffers acutely from his. Indeed, in Munodi we glimpse what Gulliver could be if he were wiser: a figure able to think critically about life and society.
Don Pedro is a minor character in terms of plot, but he plays an important symbolic role at the end of the novel. He treats the half-deranged Gulliver with great patience, even tenderness, when he allows him to travel on his ship as far as Lisbon, offering to give him his own finest suit of clothes to replace the seaman’s tatters, and giving him twenty pounds for his journey home to England. Don Pedro never judges Gulliver, despite Gulliver’s abominably antisocial behavior on the trip back. Ironically, though Don Pedro shows the same kind of generosity and understanding that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master earlier shows him, Gulliver still considers Don Pedro a repulsive Yahoo. Were Gulliver able to escape his own delusions, he might be able to see the Houyhnhnm-like reasonableness and kindness in Don Pedro’s behavior. Don Pedro is thus the touchstone through which we see that Gulliver is no longer a reliable and objective commentator on the reality he sees but, rather, a skewed observer of a reality colored by private delusions.
Gulliver’s wife is mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the novel and appears only for an instant at the conclusion. Gulliver never thinks about Mary on his travels and never feels guilty about his lack of attention to her. A dozen far more trivial characters get much greater attention than she receives. She is, in this respect, the opposite of Odysseus’s wife Penelope in the Odyssey, who is never far from her husband’s thoughts and is the final destination of his journey. Mary’s neglected presence in Gulliver’s narrative gives her a certain claim to importance. It suggests that despite Gulliver’s curiosity about new lands and exotic races, he is virtually indifferent to those people closest to him. His lack of interest in his wife bespeaks his underdeveloped inner life. Gulliver is a man of skill and knowledge in certain practical matters, but he is disadvantaged in self-reflection, personal interactions, and perhaps overall wisdom.