Comparing Lilliput’s Customs to Society

Despite the fact that a lot of Gulliver’s Travels is abstract and bizarre, beneath those layers is a satire that contains many comparisons to today’s society. One instance in which this is clear is the description of the Lilliput society, which is a legion of miniature humans, measuring six inches tall. There are many oddities within the Lilliputian government, one example being their selection of officials according to their skills at rope-dancing. This is bizarre to Gulliver, but perfectly logical to the Lilliputians, which could be a commentary on society’s tendency to value meaningless things, such as skin color or material possessions. Smith continues his commentary on materialism through the Lilliputians’ inventory of Gulliver’s possessions, which they take very seriously despite the fact that he does not have many significant possessions. Regardless of the aspects of Lilliput that may seem arbitrary or ridiculous, there are aspects worth admiring, many of which are lacking in today’s society. 

In his description of the Lilliputian crime and punishment system, Gulliver explains the logic behind their assignment of value to crimes, all of which have moral explanations. The Lilliputians view fraud as a more serious crime than theft and frequently punish it with death because “care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man’s goods from thieves, but honesty has no defense against superior cunning,” and “the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage” (Smith 44). It is possible that this is Smith expressing admiration for societies that greatly value honesty and trust, and that he notices a lack of those qualities in real life. Smith also seems to admire societies that value community over the individual, which is seen in the way children are raised. By raising children in public nurseries, they are shielded from the selfish tendencies of their parents, which could possibly help them better serve society.

The Tyranny of Monarchy in “A Voyage to Lilliput”

As I was reading “A Voyage to Lilliput,” I was struck by Gulliver’s easy acceptance of the world around him. The fact that he was surrounded by thousands of six-inch tall people did not seem to surprise him; he was merely curious about their way of life. However, this “go with the flow” attitude made more sense when I considered the story as an allegory for Jonathan Swift’s political feelings. The notes describing who each character was theorized to represent oriented me toward that interpretation. And in considering Gulliver’s travels as an indicator of Swift’s political feelings, I was struck by his initial approval turned uneasiness toward the monarch of Lilliput. At the beginning of the voyage (in chapter II), Gulliver takes great pains to describe the emperor of Lilliput, with a tone of admiration. Gulliver notes his fashionable helmet and his fair way of financing his empire (25-27). He seems impressed by the lengths they go to make Gulliver comfortable, feeding him six oxen, forty sheep, and more every morning. However, as he begins to understand the inner workings of the Lilliputian court, his perspective changes.

The first doubt we see in Gulliver’s mind appears when describing the rope-dancing. Gulliver writes: “ … for by contending to excel themselves and their Fellows, they strain so far, that there is hardly one of them who hath not received a Fall, and some of them two or three” (32). Evidently, the lengths one goes to prove himself to the emperor are extreme, and Gulliver begins to wonder if they are too extreme. But Gulliver does not seriously doubt the monarch’s power until his own loyalty is questioned. He believes that he has acted entirely justly—even when he is forced to pee on the royal estate to put out a fire—so the emperor’s distrust turns him away. However, Swift makes it plain that this is not a personal distaste for this particular emperor of Lilliput. Rather, it is an inevitable outcome of a too-powerful monarch. When Gulliver first disobeys the emperor, he notes that “Of so little weight are the greatest Services to Princes, when put into the Ballance with a Refusal to gratify their passions” (44). By the end of his voyage to Lilliput, it is clear that Gulliver finds fault in princes, i.e. those with royal authority, as a whole. This implies that Jonathan Swift is dubious of complete royal power; even the best royals, even the clever emperor of Lilliput, can be easily swayed by dubious ministers or their own self-indulgence.


“A Voyage to Lilliput” demonstrates one of the main themes that we saw in Moon and the Mars: coexistence as a tool for survival. In “A Voyage to Lilliput”, Gulliver must learn how to live like a Lilliputian to avoid being killed (which might be impossible for people who are less than 6 inches tall, but they were able to capture him and take him to their capital city). Even though Gulliver has an enormous physical advantage on the Lilliputians given his size, he still takes efforts to learn about their culture to survive. He says “I made a great progress in learning their language” (Swift, Chapter 1) so he can try and get the emperor to liberate him. Once he is liberated, he starts to learn more about Lilliput and respects its people. Gulliver could have easily destroyed the city for capturing him as revenge and taken more efforts to return to England. However, he decides to discover the city and does it very carefully as to not destroy anything. He says he “walked with the utmost circumspection” (Swift, Chapter 2) which demonstrates that he now respects the people that once bound him up. He is learning to coexist in a society that is very different from Bristol because at this point, it is all he has. It is very similar to what we saw in Five Points in Moon and the Mars. For many Irish immigrants, they learned to coexist with Black people because they lived in the same neighborhoods, worked the same jobs, and shared many other aspects of life. Once this coexistence was disrupted with the building of Central Park and the Civil War, chaos ensued between the Irish and Black people. Once Gulliver loses the respect of the Lilliputians, he has to escape. Both works show us that coexistence is used as a survival tool to avoid civil conflict. When this coexistence dies, then each side tends to protect themselves even if it means attacking other people.

Irish Accepting their Whiteness

The whole process of the Irish becoming white in the United States sheds much light on how race is a fictional and fluid concept that was used to oppress certain groups in the name of advancing capitalism. There are many similarities between the oppression of the Irish and Africans but also many key differences, which allowed them to transform from the persecuted into the privileged. One key difference is the circumstance that brought them to America. The wave of Irish immigration in the 19th century was primarily due to the famine, while African immigration was primarily due to the transatlantic slave trade. Although both were very unfortunate circumstances, one was voluntary while the other was not. This already set the Irish up for greater freedom and potential to progress. In addition, according to the Lloyd reading, the Irish were discriminated against essentially because they refused to subscribe to capitalism and were content with being poor. It also did not help that they were Irish. The Africans on the other hand were not given a choice in the matter and were just assumed to be hopeless and always in “need” of white guidance. It is clear from this that race was never about inherent physical differences, but a tactic for controlling the labor supply and maintaining the current economic order. Once the Irish made themselves useful to this order, they began to move up the totem pole and gain status in society at the expense of their Black counterparts. Ironically, they didn’t have to change who they were fundamentally but just redirect their “mob” mentality elsewhere. The only thing standing in the way of their social mobility was themselves. Because of this, I argue that the Irish did not “become” white, but were always white and finally just chose to accept the space for them that was always there. In contrast, many Black people greatly desired to be a part of this capitalist system but were denied the opportunity to do so to ensure that there would always be a group at the bottom to handle all the menial work. The Irish never had any allegiance or loyalty to Black people because they were not struggling for the same reasons. All the degrading comparisons in the media that likened the Irish to Black people were done to bully them into fully transitioning into White Americanhood. Ultimately, they did what they had to do to thrive and that meant not just distancing themselves from Black people but also taking a lead role in their oppression.

Thoughts on Cultural Comparison in “A Voyage to Lilliput”

In the section of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift titled “A Voyage to Lilliput,” the main character, Gulliver, becomes shipwrecked on an island inhabited by what appears to be very tiny people, the Lilliputians, whom he estimates are about 6 inches tall. During this time, Gulliver is captured and brought to the emperor, and there is an exchange of culture for both parties. I noticed that Gulliver often compares Lilliputian ways to those with which he is more familiar. For example, he describes one Lilliputian as having “an Austrian Lip and arched Nose” (Swift 24). In another instance, Gulliver describes Lilliputian clothes by saying, “the Fashion of it between the Asiatick and the European” (Swift 25). These are only a few moments of cultural comparisons made by Gulliver.

Gulliver rarely passes judgment on cultural norms in Lilliput, with the exception of commenting on differences between his knowledge of home and this new territory. In fact, he often mentions the existence of laws and social customs in Lilliput, and he praises the work of the Lilliputians. When the Lilliputians mathematically determine how much food is necessary for Gulliver to not starve, he goes so far as to write, “By which, the Reader may conceive an Idea of the Ingenuity of that People” (Swift 37). This hints at the underlying respect that Gulliver seems to have for the people who took him in. However, there are instances where the actions and values of the Lilliputians seem ridiculous enough to be satirical, such as when divisions among citizens arise because of laws regarding the way in which they crack their eggs (Swift 41). 

This makes me wonder if Gulliver’s Travels is mocking the dynamic between Europeans and Native Americans, likening native traditions and customs to over exaggerated, fictional social norms. The fact that Gulliver is so much larger in size than the Lilliputians alone seems to suggest that any power that the Lilliputians believe they have over him is merely an illusion, and Gulliver is just playing along. Thus, although “A Voyage to Lilliput” has a significantly different ending than historical colonialism, it seems to model the European mentality at the time. 

Gulliver’s Difficult Decision to Return Home

In my opinion, Gulliver’s decision to return home to England showed his commitment not only for Blefuscu, but Lilliput as well. Once the emperor of Lilliput had sent an envoy to the court of Blefuscu demanding his return to Lilliput to be punished as a traitor, the monarch knew he had a tough decision to make. Even so, he decided to offer his protection to Gulliver if he stayed in his service, mainly because he felt indebted to Gulliver because he did a great job at maintaining the peace between the two nations. However, Gulliver made up his mind to venture out on the ocean. This is significant because the monarch certainly would have gave his all to assist him, as evidenced by sending hundreds of workers to prepare his boat and the royal family personally seeing him off. Regardless, he still took the riskier route. Additionally, Gulliver explained that he begged to be excused from the nation and told the emperor that he was resolved to venture once again. Although some would argue that Gulliver mostly viewed this as an opportunity to get back to England and rejoin his family, I think there was more to it than that. Firstly, there is no guarantee that he would make it back to England even with the boat. Secondly, I believe he mainly chose to leave Blefuscu because he genuinely cared about the two kingdoms and wanted to see them flourish. This emphasizes that he did not want to be the cause of a conflict between two powerful empires.

The Drive of Hunger: How the Irish Became White

material that we have studied and discussed in this class to pull together a somewhat comprehensible answer about how the Irish as a people “became white.” 

In order to answer this question, one must first define whiteness as to determine in which ways the Irish became white. As I mentioned in class, I have never really attempted to define whiteness as anything other than one of many races that a person can self-identify as, however, the more I read, the more I started to see how the definition of whiteness can be subjective and fluctuating. 

In terms of the 19th century (for the sake of this blog post I am honing in on this time period), whiteness was more so a word associated with and defined as power rather than as a race. In America specifically, white men dominated every aspect of life—familial, social, political, and economical—while people of color were dehumanized to the point where their lack of whiteness alone deemed them inferior. Because of the positioning of the white man in society through the means of this deeply-rooted systemic racism, the only way that immigrants of other races (in this case, the Irish immigrants) were able to make lives for themselves in America was to essentially adopt whiteness in order to position themselves in a place where they are able to gain power and wealth. 

An interesting contrast to the Irish peoples’ racial transformation in America is in David Lloyd’s article when he discusses that even though the Irish lived poor lives in Ireland, they still found fulfillment and contentment in their lives and even resisted any colonizers who tried to improve their society. Despite this contentment, however, famine broke out and caused many Irish families to immigrate to America, which was dominated by a very white, capitalistic society that automatically deemed them unable to succeed. The horrific experiences that the Irish faced during the Irish potato famine were a driving factor which forced the Irish to do whatever they needed in order to make lives for themselves in America, including sacrificing their Irish heritage and identity for that of whiteness. 

There are few things that drive change quite like hunger and famine. Therefore, I think it makes sense why the Irish became white out of a sense of necessity and survival instinct. What I think would be an interesting thing to consider is had the famine not happened, would there still be oppression against Irish-Americans today? Would the lack of famine have caused a lack of immigration and therefore prevented these Irish-Americans from having to adopt whiteness?

Pulling Out the Reverse Card!

Towards the end of “Moon and the Mars”, we rstart to see how the Civil War incited civil conflict in diverse communities. In the beginning of the book, we see Irish and Black people coexisting in Five Points. They worked together, lived together, and even danced together as we saw with Auntie Siobhan and Auntie Eunice. But as the Civil War developed through 1862 and 1863, we see the termination of this coexistence. In particular, a lot of Irish men were drafted to fight for the Union. However, as the Irish saw that their people were getting killed or wounded in large numbers, they started questioning their roles in the Civil War. One officer noted that he “did not come out to fight for the n*gger or the abolition of slavery” (Corthron, 475) and another said that he has no encouragement “to fight for a lot of N*gger lovers at home” (Corthron, 476). These two statements demonstrate that although New York was a free state and had diverse neighborhoods, racism was still inescapable and would be used to propel one community over the other when needed.

In class today, we talked about how Irish-Americans started to break away from the Black community and identify more as White Americans. As discussed earlier today, a lot of Irish-Americans used this as a means of social survival. They thought that disassociating themselves with Black people would give them social benefits (more jobs, more political positions, etc). We see that they participated in the idea of “masters and slaves”, where the Irish were once “slaves” in this case (not actual slaves like Black people were) and had a lower social position that other White people. They became “masters” after the Civil War once they decided to use their race (not their ethnicity) to gain social status. This decision that was made in the 1860s has almost been reversed in today’s society. Nowadays, many Americans with Irish ancestry want to claim this part of themselves to show that their ancestors also experienced oppression. They want to disassociate themselves from White people with British ancestry so they do not seem like the “masters” that their ancestors once were. In today’s society it’s almost “cool” to be part of a marginalized group when it was the exact opposite during Theo’s time in Moon and the Mars. It’s interesting to see how such positions have been reversed yet remained the same since the Civil War.

Comparing Race and Gender Identity

Today in class we discussed multiple historical perspectives on racial identity and the concept of “becoming white”. “Becoming white” is the concept that when people immigrate to America, they lose their old cultural identity and align themselves with the “white standard”. Historically, this was advantageous for immigrants so they could attempt to avoid discrimination from the white ruling class in America. However, it was easier for certain ethnicities to “become white” than others. For example, an Irish immigrant would have a much easier time than a freed slave when trying to blend in with the majority white, American population. This trend of becoming white has led many people to lose their old cultural and ethnic identity, although in modern times there is a resurgence of ancestral cultural identity. For example, many white Americans claim to “be Irish” because they have or believe they have Irish ancestry. A surge in the popularity of Irish culture has also become prevalent in modern America as many people claim Irish ancestry. This leads to a more extensive discussion of racial identity and the concept of race itself. Historically, racial identity has differed across the world. For example, in some parts of the world, you were considered black if you had any African blood even if you were majority white. In other parts of the world, even a small amount of European blood in a majority black person would make them European according to societal standards of the time. In modern times, there are those who believe racial identity is completely subjective and up to the individual, while others believe racial identity is more concrete. The concept of gender identity has some similar points. The common consensus today is that gender identity is not necessarily aligned with sex and is up to the individual person. It is interesting to compare the Western response to gender identity and transgenderism to the concept of “becoming white”. We discussed in class how some European immigrants to America were able to blend into the ruling white class because of their skin tone, even though their original ethnic identity was not “American”. The ability to “whitewash” or remove a cultural or ethnic identity in order to transition to a white American identity was seen as a way to avoid discrimination and gain power, as being a white nonimmigrant meant you would face less discrimination. What is interesting is how this differs from gender and sex changes. Many would argue that we still live in a patriarchal society, and historically society has been patriarchal. Men historically have had more rights and power than women. Despite this, transgender men have not inherited the power or benefits of the patriarchy. In fact, they have received more discrimination and harassment when becoming transgender. It seems that transitioning from identifying as one gender to the other does not come with the same benefits as changing one’s ethnic identity has historically had.

Irish Immigrants Becoming ‘White’

The concept of ‘becoming white’ is an intriguing one. The idea is that Irish immigrants in America were able to gain access to certain privileges and rights by distancing themselves from their Irish heritage and assimilating into the dominant culture. Clearly, America began to reject its thinking that Whiteness was exclusively a person whose family left England to escape religious persecution. Hence, it became more open to allowing other people to be ‘one of them.’ I think there is a very important message in this process: in the American sense, White is European, and Black is African. In other words, the idea of Whiteness is applicable to any individual that has European descent, regardless of ethnicity, language, or culture. Considering that this was even a possibility, I believe the integration of Irish people into the White community reiterates the idea that Europeans are superior to Africans or African descendants. Additionally, I think allowing Irish people to become white was a way to undermine the growing population of Black people in the 19th century in the United States to ensure that their political power was reduced, essentially emphasizing the belief that there is ‘strength in numbers.’ This allowed white Americans to maintain power and privilege over non-white people by creating a hierarchical system. In other words, although there was the inclusion of Irish people into higher society, this cemented that Black people would continue to be at the bottom of the social pyramid. Thus, allowing Irish immigrants to ‘become white’ had the effect of marginalizing and oppressing Black people, while simultaneously maintaining existing power structures.