Academic | Essay Contest

Thomas Johnson

Thomas Johnson The King of Brobdingnag, a character in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, remarks that humans are among "the most pernicious race of little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." The narrator meets many human and human-like figures in his travels, most of whom add credence to this generalization through their actions, but one in particular who does not.

One of the defining characteristics of humans and human-like creatures in Gulliver's Travels is their pettiness. This trait is particularly present in Book I, in the characters of the Lord High Treasurer of Lilliput Flimnap and High Admiral Skyresh Bolgolam. Flimnap wrongly believes that Gulliver is having an inappropriate relationship with his wife. Bolgolam despises Gulliver because of his single-handed victory over the rival country of Blefuscu. Because of their suspicion and jealousy, Flimnap and Bolgolam attempt to convince the Emperor to charge Gulliver with treason. The Emperor, who admired Gulliver initially, agrees to this charge, merely because Gulliver disagreed with him over treatment of the conquered Blefuscu.

The charge of treason against Gulliver is ludicrous; Gulliver has been nothing but an asset to Lilliput since he was shipwrecked there. He brought the Lilliputian navy to victory against Blefuscu, and saved the life of the Lilliputian princess in a palace fire. Yet, because of their feelings of envy and inadequacy, Flimnap, Bolgolam, and the Emperor are all willing to put him to death.

In addition, the specific charge of treason they put against Gulliver-urinating on a royal estate- is doubly ridiculous, because in urinating on the burning royal palace, Gulliver was saving the life of the princess. The pettiness and absurdity of this charge, and the reasons for it, support the King of Brobdingnag's low opinion of humanity.

This opinion is further supported by the behavior and actions of the farmer Gulliver lives and travels with in Brobdingnag. Gulliver is shipwrecked on this island, where he is the size of an insect in a civilization of giants. He is taken in by a farmer and his family, who at first treat him reasonably well. They feed him, clothe him, and give him a place to sleep.

But when Gulliver becomes popular in the town because of his small size, the cruelty begins. The farmer decides to make Gulliver the center of a traveling show for profit. The farmer's only thought is the amount of money he can gain by displaying Gulliver as a circus freak. He pays no heed to Gulliver's physical well-being or personal wishes. Exhibited at up to ten shows a week, Gulliver begins to starve to death– but the farmer's only thought is to make as much money off of Gulliver as possible before he dies. In his blatant disregard for another life, the farmer is a prime example of someone whose actions lend credence to the King's low view of humanity.

However, not everyone Gulliver encounters in Brobdingnag acts in a vermin-like manner. The farmer's nine-year old daughter, whom Gulliver names Glumdalclitch ("little nurse"), provides a stark contrast to her father's greed and callousness. Glumdalclitch treats Gulliver with dignity. She sews him clothing, tries to make him comfortable, and protects him as best she can. She gives him a name, Grildrig, and teaches him the native language and the customs of Brobdingnag. Gulliver becomes fond of her, and appreciates her kindness to the point that he insists she stay with him when he comes to live in the royal palace. Her actions, and her regard for Gulliver, are an indication that the King's words may be an over-generalization.

Despite encountering a kind figure in Glumdalclitch, Gulliver continues to meet the sort of people that fit the King of Brobdingnag's description throughout his travels. Upon being stranded at sea by pirates, Gulliver discovers the floating island of Laputa. The people of this island are extremely introspective. They rarely speak, preferring to spend all their time in contemplation of mathematics and music. The wealthier members of society have "flappers" to alert them when they are being spoken to. The few citizens who do not have any music or math skills are considered inferior.

The people of Laputa are arrogant and self-centered. They do not take kindly to suggestions for improvements in their society, and rarely concede that they are wrong in any matter. Moreover, each person is so concerned with his or her own thoughts that few practical activities are completed, and when they are completed they are done poorly. The clothes made for Gulliver are far too large for him because of a mistake made in calculations. The houses constructed are flimsy, because of the society's hatred for right angles. The people are so focused on abstract thinking that they have practically ceased to live in reality, and they are so arrogant that outsiders such as Gulliver cannot show them the errors of their ways.

A similar problem plagues Lagado, the country below the floating island. Upon visiting, Gulliver observes that the country is a barren wasteland. No crops grow in the fields, while the people dress in rags and walk with ferocious expressions on their faces. The people of Lagado have become obsessed with improving society in every way. But, with the exception of establishing an academy, they never seem to get anything done. Momentous projects are started and then abandoned. The academy focuses on meaningless subjects, such as the possibility of discerning a person's personality by examining his or her excrement. In wasting their potential, and neglecting their well-being, the Lagado people provide further support for the King of Brobdingnag's generalization about humanity.

By highlighting grave weaknesses in so many of his characters, Swift suggests that he shares the King's view that humanity is generally contemptible. However, in my view, the kindness of Glumdalclitch is not something that can be disregarded. She shows humanity's worth in her love for Gulliver.


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