Portions and Power in Gulliver’s Travels

In Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, food and excrement seem to have a great deal to do with the power relationships between the eponymous character and the various civilizations he encounters on his wide-ranging journeys. In the land of Lilliput, food plays into the idea that Gulliver essentially holds all of the power over his ‘captors,’ as the Lilliputians continue feeding him despite the fact that his significantly larger appetite “might cause a famine” (25). Once he biologically processes the food into excrement, it takes two Lilliputians to haul the “offensive matter” (23) away in wheelbarrows. The fact that he literally has servants to carry his poop away is a pretty obvious statement as to who is really in charge of whom. Towards the end of Gulliver’s time in Lilliput, he extinguishes a fire in the Lilliputian palace–an act that might usually be considered heroic if it were not accomplished through urinating all over the royal quarters. Gulliver’s pissing on the palace in some ways points to at least some degree of arrogance and perceived superiority on his part in the same way that those stickers of Bill Watterson’s Calvin peeing on all manner of things do today.

When Gulliver makes it to the land of the Brobdingnagians, however, he finds that the tables have turned, and their extreme size advantage puts him at the bottom of the power scale. The inhabitants of Brobdingnag cannot “imagine how [he] should be able to support [him]self” (95) without eating tiny animals such as bugs. One real example of food as being demonstrative of his powerlessness over these giants comes as the queen’s dwarf drops Gulliver into a bowl of creme. Though he is able to swim, he is no longer in a place where his consumption might lead to a famine for the other inhabitants. In fact, the portions of the Brobdingnagians’ meals are so large that they could kill Gulliver. The same dwarf also places Gulliver into a marrow bone where he is stuck until rescued. Clearly, food is not an actual factor as to whether Gulliver is superior to the Lilliputians or inferior to the Brobdingnagians in terms of either nation’s power structure; size, for one, is a much more important factor. Food and excrement do, however, help to illustrate the ways in which these power dynamics manifest and permeate even into less significant levels.


2 thoughts on “Portions and Power in Gulliver’s Travels

  1. I would have to agree that size in this case plays a bigger role in societal standings than food does. In the stories we see Gulliver either controlling the people through what he consumes or being controlled by it. In the first story he requires so much food the people have to work extra hard to sustain him. Then we see Gulliver’s role changed, in the second population he could very well be the next meal. Do you think Swift did this on purpose? In changing the setting he completely changes the amount of power Gulliver has purely based on size and situation. Allowing Gulliver to go from having a meal to being a meal could signify this idea of how class depends on which civilization you are a part of. Even today, a person with lots of power in one civilization could move and have none in another. I think it’s the idea that we earn our place in life, do you?

    wc 163

  2. I wrote about the same thing. I thought that the food was hinting at the social statuses of the different people and raising questions and awareness about what these roles mean and how they can be translated into modern day! Gulliver is either the man in charge or someone else’s one all be all. He either is controlling everything or being controlled by everything. We can still see this play out in modern day politics and just everyday life. Sometimes, everything in life is going great and you are completely controlling everything. Other times, everything is a downward spiral and there is nothing you can do to stop it, even though just last week this problem was completely under control.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s