The narrator and protagonist of the story. Although Lemuel Gulliver’s vivid and detailed style of narration makes it clear that he is intelligent and well educated, his perceptions are naïve and gullible. He has virtually no emotional life, or at least no awareness of it, and his comments are strictly factual. Indeed, sometimes his obsession with the facts of navigation, for example, becomes unbearable for us, as his fictional editor, Richard Sympson, makes clear when he explains having had to cut out nearly half of Gulliver’s verbiage. Gulliver never thinks that the absurdities he encounters are funny and never makes the satiric connections between the lands he visits and his own home. Gulliver’s naïveté makes the satire possible, as we pick up on things that Gulliver does not notice.
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Read an in-depth analysis of Gulliver.
The ruler of Lilliput. Like all Lilliputians, the emperor is fewer than six inches tall. His power and majesty impress Gulliver deeply, but to us he appears both laughable and sinister. Because of his tiny size, his belief that he can control Gulliver seems silly, but his willingness to execute his subjects for minor reasons of politics or honor gives him a frightening aspect. He is proud of possessing the tallest trees and biggest palace in the kingdom, but he is also quite hospitable, spending a fortune on his captive’s food. The emperor is both a satire of the autocratic ruler and a strangely serious portrait of political power.
Gulliver’s first master in Brobdingnag. The farmer speaks to Gulliver, showing that he is willing to believe that the relatively tiny Gulliver may be as rational as he himself is, and treats him with gentleness. However, the farmer puts Gulliver on display around Brobdingnag, which clearly shows that he would rather profit from his discovery than converse with him as an equal. His exploitation of Gulliver as a laborer, which nearly starves Gulliver to death, seems less cruel than simpleminded. Generally, the farmer represents the average Brobdingnagian of no great gifts or intelligence, wielding an extraordinary power over Gulliver simply by virtue of his immense size.
The farmer’s nine-year-old daughter, who is forty feet tall. Glumdalclitch becomes Gulliver’s friend and nursemaid, hanging him to sleep safely in her closet at night and teaching him the Brobdingnagian language by day. She is skilled at sewing and makes Gulliver several sets of new clothes, taking delight in dressing him. When the queen discovers that no one at court is suited to care for Gulliver, she invites Glumdalclitch to live at court as his sole babysitter, a function she performs with great seriousness and attentiveness. To Glumdalclitch, Gulliver is basically a living doll, symbolizing the general status Gulliver has in Brobdingnag.
The queen of Brobdingnag, who is so delighted by Gulliver’s beauty and charms that she agrees to buy him from the farmer for 1,000 pieces of gold. Gulliver appreciates her kindness after the hardships he suffers at the farmer’s and shows his usual fawning love for royalty by kissing the tip of her little finger when presented before her. She possesses, in Gulliver’s words, “infinite” wit and humor, though this description may entail a bit of Gulliver’s characteristic flattery of superiors. The queen seems genuinely considerate, asking Gulliver whether he would consent to live at court instead of simply taking him in as a pet and inquiring into the reasons for his cold good-byes with the farmer. She is by no means a hero, but simply a pleasant, powerful person.
The king of Brobdingnag, who, in contrast to the emperor of Lilliput, seems to be a true intellectual, well versed in political science among other disciplines. While his wife has an intimate, friendly relationship with the diminutive visitor, the king’s relation to Gulliver is limited to serious discussions about the history and institutions of Gulliver’s native land. He is thus a figure of rational thought who somewhat prefigures the Houyhnhnms in Book IV.
A lord of Lagado, capital of the underdeveloped land beneath Laputa, who hosts Gulliver and gives him a tour of the country on Gulliver’s third voyage. Munodi is a rare example of practical-minded intelligence both in Lagado, where the applied sciences are wildly impractical, and in Laputa, where no one even considers practicality a virtue. He fell from grace with the ruling elite by counseling a commonsense approach to agriculture and land management in Lagado, an approach that was rejected even though it proved successful when applied to his own flourishing estate. Lord Munodi serves as a reality check for Gulliver on his third voyage, an objective-minded contrast to the theoretical delusions of the other inhabitants of Laputa and Lagado.
Unkempt humanlike beasts who live in servitude to the Houyhnhnms. Yahoos seem to belong to various ethnic groups, since there are blond Yahoos as well as dark-haired and redheaded ones. The men are characterized by their hairy bodies, and the women by their low-hanging breasts. They are naked, filthy, and extremely primitive in their eating habits. Yahoos are not capable of government, and thus they are kept as servants to the Houyhnhnms, pulling their carriages and performing manual tasks. They repel Gulliver with their lascivious sexual appetites, especially when an eleven-year-old Yahoo girl attempts to rape Gulliver as he is bathing naked. Yet despite Gulliver’s revulsion for these disgusting creatures, he ends his writings referring to himself as a Yahoo, just as the Houyhnhnms do as they regretfully evict him from their realm. Thus, “Yahoo” becomes another term for human, at least in the semideranged and self-loathing mind of Gulliver at the end of his fourth journey.
Rational horses who maintain a simple, peaceful society governed by reason and truthfulness—they do not even have a word for “lie” in their language. Houyhnhnms are like ordinary horses, except that they are highly intelligent and deeply wise. They live in a sort of socialist republic, with the needs of the community put before individual desires. They are the masters of the Yahoos, the savage humanlike creatures in Houyhnhnmland. In all, the Houyhnhnms have the greatest impact on Gulliver throughout all his four voyages. He is grieved to leave them, not relieved as he is in leaving the other three lands, and back in England he relates better with his horses than with his human family. The Houyhnhnms thus are a measure of the extent to which Gulliver has become a misanthrope, or “human-hater”; he is certainly, at the end, a horse lover.
The Houyhnhnm who first discovers Gulliver and takes him into his own home. Wary of Gulliver’s Yahoolike appearance at first, the master is hesitant to make contact with him, but Gulliver’s ability to mimic the Houyhnhnm’s own words persuades the master to protect Gulliver. The master’s domestic cleanliness, propriety, and tranquil reasonableness of speech have an extraordinary impact on Gulliver. It is through this horse that Gulliver is led to reevaluate the differences between humans and beasts and to question humanity’s claims to rationality.
The Portuguese captain who takes Gulliver back to Europe after he is forced to leave the land of the Houyhnhnms. Don Pedro is naturally benevolent and generous, offering the half-crazed Gulliver his own best suit of clothes to replace the tatters he is wearing. But Gulliver meets his generosity with repulsion, as he cannot bear the company of Yahoos. By the end of the voyage, Don Pedro has won over Gulliver to the extent that he is able to have a conversation with him, but the captain’s overall Yahoolike nature in Gulliver’s eyes alienates him from Gulliver to the very end.
Giants whom Gulliver meets on his second voyage. Brobdingnagians are basically a reasonable and kindly people governed by a sense of justice. Even the farmer who abuses Gulliver at the beginning is gentle with him, and politely takes the trouble to say good-bye to him upon leaving him. The farmer’s daughter, Glumdalclitch, gives Gulliver perhaps the most kindhearted treatment he receives on any of his voyages. The Brobdingnagians do not exploit him for personal or political reasons, as the Lilliputians do, and his life there is one of satisfaction and quietude. But the Brobdingnagians do treat Gulliver as a plaything. When he tries to speak seriously with the king of Brobdingnag about England, the king dismisses the English as odious vermin, showing that deep discussion is not possible for Gulliver here.
Two races of miniature people whom Gulliver meets on his first voyage. Lilliputians and Blefuscudians are prone to conspiracies and jealousies, and while they treat Gulliver well enough materially, they are quick to take advantage of him in political intrigues of various sorts. The two races have been in a longstanding war with each over the interpretation of a reference in their common holy scripture to the proper way to eat eggs. Gulliver helps the Lilliputians defeat the Blefuscudian navy, but he eventually leaves Lilliput and receives a warm welcome in the court of Blefuscu, by which Swift satirizes the arbitrariness of international relations.
Absentminded intellectuals who live on the floating island of Laputa, encountered by Gulliver on his third voyage. The Laputans are parodies of theoreticians, who have scant regard for any practical results of their own research. They are so inwardly absorbed in their own thoughts that they must be shaken out of their meditations by special servants called flappers, who shake rattles in their ears. During Gulliver’s stay among them, they do not mistreat him, but are generally unpleasant and dismiss him as intellectually deficient. They do not care about down-to-earth things like the dilapidation of their own houses, but worry intensely about abstract matters like the trajectories of comets and the course of the sun. They are dependent in their own material needs on the land below them, called Lagado, above which they hover by virtue of a magnetic field, and from which they periodically raise up food supplies. In the larger context of Gulliver’s journeys, the Laputans are a parody of the excesses of theoretical pursuits and the uselessness of purely abstract knowledge.
Gulliver’s wife, whose perfunctory mention in the first paragraphs of Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates how unsentimental and unemotional Gulliver is. He makes no reference to any affection for his wife, either here or later in his travels when he is far away from her, and his detachment is so cool as to raise questions about his ability to form human attachments. When he returns to England, she is merely one part of his former existence, and he records no emotion even as she hugs him wildly. The most important facts about her in Gulliver’s mind are her social origin and the income she generates.
Gulliver’s cousin, self-proclaimed intimate friend, and the editor and publisher of Gulliver’s Travels. It was in Richard Sympson’s name that Jonathan Swift arranged for the publication of his narrative, thus somewhat mixing the fictional and actual worlds. Sympson is the fictional author of the prefatory note to Gulliver’s Travels, entitled “The Publisher to the Readers.” This note justifies Sympson’s elimination of nearly half of the original manuscript material on the grounds that it was irrelevant, a statement that Swift includes so as to allow us to doubt Gulliver’s overall wisdom and ability to distinguish between important facts and trivial details.
An eminent London surgeon under whom Gulliver serves as an apprentice after graduating from Cambridge. Bates helps get Gulliver his first job as a ship’s surgeon and then offers to set up a practice with him. After Bates’s death, Gulliver has trouble maintaining the business, a failure that casts doubt on his competence, though he himself has other explanations for the business’s failure. Bates is hardly mentioned in the travels, though he is surely at least as responsible for Gulliver’s welfare as some of the more exotic figures Gulliver meets. Nevertheless, Gulliver fleshes out figures such as the queen of Brobdingnag much more thoroughly in his narrative, underscoring the sharp contrast between his reticence regarding England and his long-windedness about foreigners.
The commander of the ship on which Gulliver first sails, the Swallow. Traveling to the Levant, or the eastern Mediterranean, and beyond, Gulliver spends three and a half years on Pannell’s ship. Virtually nothing is mentioned about Pannell, which heightens our sense that Gulliver’s fascination with exotic types is not matched by any interest in his fellow countrymen.
The master of the Antelope, the ship on which Gulliver embarks for the South Seas at the outset of his first journey, in 1699. When the Antelope sinks, Gulliver is washed ashore on Lilliput. No details are given about the personality of Prichard, and he is not important in Gulliver’s life or in the unfolding of the novel’s plot. That Gulliver takes pains to name him accurately reinforces our impression that he is obsessive about facts but not always reliable in assessing overall significance.
The Lord High Treasurer of Lilliput, who conceives a jealous hatred for Gulliver when he starts believing that his wife is having an affair with him. Flimnap is clearly paranoid, since the possibility of a love affair between Gulliver and a Lilliputian is wildly unlikely. Flimnap is a portrait of the weaknesses of character to which any human is prone but that become especially dangerous in those who wield great power.
The Principal Secretary of Private Affairs in Lilliput, who explains to Gulliver the history of the political tensions between the two principal parties in the realm, the High-Heels and the Low-Heels. Reldresal is more a source of much-needed information for Gulliver than a well-developed personality, but he does display personal courage and trust in allowing Gulliver to hold him in his palm while he talks politics. Within the convoluted context of Lilliput’s factions and conspiracies, such friendliness reminds us that fond personal relations may still exist even in this overheated political climate.
The High Admiral of Lilliput, who is the only member of the administration to oppose Gulliver’s liberation. Gulliver imagines that Skyresh’s enmity is simply personal, though there is no apparent reason for such hostility. Arguably, Skyresh’s hostility may be merely a tool to divert Gulliver from the larger system of Lilliputian exploitation to which he is subjected.
Also known as the High-Heels, a Lilliputian political group reminiscent of the British Tories. Tramecksan policies are said to be more agreeable to the ancient constitution of Lilliput, and while the High-Heels appear greater in number than the Low-Heels, their power is lesser. Unlike the king, the crown prince is believed to sympathize with the Tramecksan, wearing one low heel and one high heel, causing him to limp slightly.
The Low-Heels, a Lilliputian political group reminiscent of the British Whigs. The king has ordained that all governmental administrators must be selected from this party, much to the resentment of the High-Heels of the realm. Thus, while there are fewer Slamecksan than Tramecksan in Lilliput, their political power is greater. The king’s own sympathies with the Slamecksan are evident in the slightly lower heels he wears at court.