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THEMES

The overarching theme of this novel is the question, 'What is it to be human?' You follow Gulliver through four traumatic voyages, you are exposed to a host of creatures and situations and systems of their devising that help you to form an answer to this question.

But let's break it down.

1. HUMAN NATURE IS PETTY

The Lilliputians and Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians make a good case for the pettiness of human nature.

2. HUMAN NATURE IS MAGNANIMOUS AND JUST

The Brobdingnagians and Pedro de Mendez are fine examples of generosity and fairness.

3. MAN IS SOMEWHERE BETWEEN PETTINESS AND MAGNANIMITY

There are two ways of looking at this theme: either man is capable of improving himself, or he is not. Bear in mind that Swift was a traditional cleric who held the view that man's task on earth is to better himself spiritually, to get as far as possible from the Yahoo parts of his character. On the other hand, the Yahoos make an extremely strong impression and Gulliver never fully recovers from his exposure to them. It seems it's an individual thing-some people can and some can't.

4. THE SIN OF PRIDE IS THE MOST DANGEROUS SIN OF ALL

Gulliver at the end is guilty of pride even as he inveighs against it. He is most like a Yahoo at this moment. Trace the attacks against Gulliver's pride throughout the four books, and the fatal blows to his ego.


5. WHAT IS GOOD GOVERNMENT?

Contrast the governments of Lilliput and Brobdingnag.

6. WHAT IS THE PROPER PLACE AND USE OF SCIENCE AND THE ABSTRACT DISCIPLINES?

Consider the follies committed in Part III.

7. WHAT IS THE VALUE OF TRADITION?

Consider the contempt for tradition among the Projectors in Part III.

8. WHAT IS THE FUNCTION OF RELIGION?

Is it a means to attain political power, as in Lilliput? Are religious differences really worth going to war over? Is religion a means whereby man might improve himself spiritually?

9. WHAT ARE THE VALUES OF REASON?

Consider not only the most sensible aspects of Houyhnhnm society, but Lilliputian ingenuity, Brobdingnagian justice and forbearance, and the kindness and patience of Pedro de Mendez.

10. WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF REASON?

Think of the dryness of many Houyhnhnm ways. Think, too, of the ways in which Lilliputians and Laputans distort reason and its powers.

Notice that many of these themes contradict each other. Swift was writing to vex you, to startle you into deep reflection, to invite debate.

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