Power in Gulliver’s Travels


Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is actually a fantastic blend of adventure fantasy and social satire. It’s probably the type of book I’ll pick up later in life once I’ve seen more of the world and think it’s twice as funny/good as I do now.

In a nutshell, the book describes the journeys of Lemuel Gulliver, the most unfortunate man in the world. Over the span of 16 years, he is shipwrecked, forgotten onshore of a mysterious island, and marooned twice. After each catastrophe, he finds himself in an unknown land filled with strange inhabitants. He learns their language, adopts their customs, and reports on how their society differs from his own.

The discussion below is a suggestive summary of key parts with my analysis at the end. There are spoilers, so leave if you want to keep the surprises for yourself.

Gulliver is first shipwrecked in Lilliput, an island where everything is in miniature. Its human inhabitants are six inches tall, and their surroundings are scaled accordingly. Lilliputian cows can fit in our pockets, and their greatest metropolis is smaller than a football field.

Gulliver is an average-sized human, but a giant in their land. He is more than ten times as tall as a Lilliputian and has prodigious strength by this accord. The Emperor of Lilliput feeds and cloths Gulliver out of his own expense, and then compels him into public service. As part of this deal, Gulliver has to capture the navy of a rival empire of miniature humans, called the Blefuscans, and deliver it to Lilliputian ports. The Blesfuscans were preparing a violent invasion of Lilliput, so Gulliver justifies capturing their fleet as an act of self-defense for his adopted home.

The Emperor is overjoyed when the fleet is delivered. He confers the highest honors on Gulliver and entreats him to capture more Blefuscan vessels and even aid in a violent counter-invasion. Gulliver flatly refuses. He is content to defend Lilliput but will play no role in subjugating innocent people. The majority of the Lilliputian royal court backs this decision, but the Emperor is incensed. This begins Gulliver’s political downfall. His enemies take advantage of his disfavor with the Emperor and conspire to blind Gulliver in his sleep or kill him. Upon hearing of their plans, Gulliver flees to Blefuscu and eventually escapes to England.

Contrast this to what happens in Brobdingnag. There, Gulliver is to the Brobdingnagians what the Lilliputians were to Gulliver. The people there are more than 50 feet tall, and their buildings and animals are also scaled appropriately. Everything is incredibly dangerous to a person of Gulliver’s size, so he must be on constant guard against being crushed by a careless Brobodingnagian or carried away by a crow.

Accordingly, Gulliver is a novelty. He is exhibited as a living curiosity and toured across the country before being purchased by the queen and finding residence in her court. There, he is universally loved, but not respected, by the Brobdingnagians. They see Gulliver as a coward because he is afraid of (to them) meager heights and household flies (which are as large as birds to him). When he attempts to give the King a brief account of England, he is laughed at and stroked condescendingly for trying to make grand the history of “little people.” Nonetheless, all his needs are met by royal servants and the nobles are entertained by his company.

Comparing Gulliver’s experiences in both nations, it appears power and affection are inversely related. When he has the capacity to single-handedly defeat armies in Lilliput, Gulliver is asked to behave immorally. If he declines, he loses favor with the Emperor. If he accepts, he is seen as monstrous by the more humane members of the Lilliputian court. Gulliver loses status no matter his course of action. His power causes others to put him under conflicting obligations that are impossible to simultaneously fulfill. The result is he loses popularity and is forced to flee.

Notice Gulliver has no such worries in Brobdingnag. He’s the size of a Brobdingnagian mouse and is incapable of doing anything useful. The King, Queen, and nobles expect nothing of him except to be small and pleasant, which is easily accomplished. His obligations there are few. They are less likely to be contradictory, so he’s able to meet all of them without offending anybody. If he suddenly developed some power or faculty useful to the Brobdingnagians, I suspect Gulliver would be inundated with conflicting expectations to do this or that, and then inevitably run afoul of the group he chooses to ignore.

I’ve heard about people deliberately using this principle. A CFO I know asks salespeople to blame decisions that would upset customers on him. Conflict seems to arise when the customer wants something and the salesperson won’t provide it. If the salesperson is bound by an “evil” CFO, the customer has no reason to criticize them. The CFO understands that by appearing powerless, you preserve affection.

The major suggestion is universal love goes hand in hand with uselessness. The only certain way to avoid censure is to make sure nothing is asked of you, and the only way to make sure nothing is asked of you is to be incapable.