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Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift


Quotes Power
I confess I was often tempted, while they were passing backwards and forwards on my body, to seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground. But the remembrance of what I had felt, which probably might not be the worst they could do, and the promise of honour I made them, for so I interpreted my submissive behavior, soon drove out these imaginations.

Gulliver describes his initial reaction to having numerous Lilliputians walking all over his body. In this scene, Gulliver finds himself a prisoner in Lilliput, a nation of tiny people next to whom he stands a giant. He manages to free one of his hands, so he naturally thinks about harming his captors. Yet he restrains himself by remembering that they have already caused him pain by shooting him with hundreds of tiny arrows and binding him with hundreds of strings. He rationalizes his fear of them by telling himself his self-restraint represents his honor. The standoff between Gulliver and the Lilliputians echoes the uneasy balance of power between a single powerful ruler and his many subjects.

I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for, as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me?

Gulliver reflects on his perilous situation after washing ashore in Brobdingnag and coming across the land’s enormous inhabitants. At first, he bemoans the loss of status his small stature will entail. Then he realizes he should fear for his life. Having learned nothing from his own previous experiences, Gulliver expects the huge barbarians to eat him. Gulliver’s expectations arise from fear and prejudice: He assumes the capacity for cruelty to be proportional to physical size. As he learns more about Brobdingnag, however, Gulliver puts aside his prejudices and recognizes the admirable qualities of the country and government.

And the King, when he is highest provoked, and most determined to press a city to rubbish, orders the island to descend with great gentleness, out of a pretence of tenderness to his people, but indeed for fear of breaking the adamantine bottom; in which case it is the opinion of all their philosophers, that the loadstone could no longer hold it up, and the whole mass would fall to the ground.

Gulliver describes how the rulers on the floating island of Laputa control the land of Balnibarbi, over which they rule. The king possesses the power to crush rebellion by crashing the entire island onto a city, but by doing so he risks destroying the entire island. Thus the king manages an uneasy balance of power. The reader recognizes a similar principle of deterrence used in international relations. A person or government can use threats and attacks to maintain power, but exercising power too harshly risks the rulers’ self-destruction.