In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift satirizes all of English society of his time. More than any other group, it seems clear that the Lilliputians who capture and "control" Gulliver are representative of the politicians who ran England in Swift's time. In attempting to control Gulliver, the Lilliputians exhibit the characteristics of arrogance, greed, and ambition. Each of these traits, while perhaps necessary for political mobility, are given a negative connotation. Moreover, they seem to instill in Gulliver an inclination toward submission. In Swift's satire, this is a commentary on the attitudes and actions of the English nobility and the effect on the average English citizen.
According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, arrogance is "that species of pride which... exalts the worth of importance of the person to an undue degree." The first instance of such arrogance in Chapter 2 is in the description of the Emperor on page 981. In naming specifically those features that can be identified as "royal," Swift satirizes the ideal English man, so to speak. The Prince is tall, "strong and masculine, with an Austrian lip, and arched nose, his complexion olive, his countenance erect." Additionally, he has well proportioned body and limbs, graceful motions and a majestic deportment. Swift also comments on the prime age of an absolute monarch, which lies somewhere after 21 and before "twenty-eight years and three quarters." The importance of such features of a ruling monarch is greatly exaggerated, which implies arrogance.
It is possible that one reason the Emperor maintains power even "past his prime" is that he is also the ideal Lilliputian. There is, on page 989, another description of the Emperor of Lilliput. Although written by Skyresh Bolgolam, a courtier, it seems to describe the Emperor's view of himself. The Emperor is "delight,"terror,"pleasant,"comfortable,"fruitful," and "dreadful." It seems as if he is more than a little taken with himself and his power. This passage contains other evidence of Lilliputian arrogance, as well. Although it is a document discussing Gulliver's release, the articles don't even call him by name.
To the Lilliputians, he is still "Man-Mountain," even after he has "earned" his release. He is a monster in their custody. A final indication of arrogance in Lilliput is in the structure of society. There is, as in England, a system of ranked nobility. Additionally, there are servants. Throughout Chapters 2 and 3, Gulliver himself seems to be affected by the Lilliputians' power.
He submits to them, even going so far as to sign a treaty of sorts regarding his responsibility after being set free. On page 990, he mentions that the Emperor hoped that Gulliver himself "should prove a useful servant." The idea that the Lilliputians really had such control over Gulliver, or "Man-Mountain," as they referred to him, may seem absurd, but the fact is that Gulliver himself subscribed to the idea. This is yet another example of the arrogance of the Lilliputians, and its effect on a man prepared to accept the role of a commoner in a noble society. The second vice evident in Swift's satire is greed. Greed is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as "an excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves." On page 985, after having taken an inventory of Gulliver's possessions, the Emperor has his men seize his scimitar, pocket pistols, and money pouch. It is difficult to identify what uses the Lilliputians could possibly have for weapons they could not lift and money they could not spend.
However, they seem to be aware that in some society, these articles have value, and desire the goods for that reason. The greed of the Lilliputians, or at least of their nobility, is also evident in their attire. When the Emperor first approaches Gulliver, he wore on his head "a light helmet of gold, adorned with jewels, and a plume on the crest." (981). This helmet, which couldn't have been any use in battle, is merely for show.
Similarly, the hilt and scabbard of the Emperor's sword were "gold enriched with diamonds." Like the treasured weapons and armor of most nobility, these are simply evidence of wealth. Although the Emperor's reign had been "generally victorious," Gulliver says on page 982 that the subjects of Lilliput "are bound to attend him [the Emperor] in his wars at their own expense." It may be assumed that this expense includes not only monetary cost but also the expense of life. Each of these facts seems to parallel the role of a monarch in any society, according to Swift. The final vice identified by Swift in his satire of English society is ambition. In fact, it is not widely accepted that ambition is a bad trait. This characteristic is actually portrayed in the most comical way and is more of a commentary on the circus that is the political world than on the negative aspects of ambition.
The first instance of the games played by ambitious politicians is in the rope-dancing on page 986. Feats on the tightrope are performed only by "those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favor, at court." While the persons who participate are not always of noble birth, it is most commonly the nobles who compete for positions at court. One important line on page 986 indicates that the these rope-dancing contests take place "when a great office is vacant either by death or disgrace (which often happens)." Evidently, in Lilliputian society, it doesn't take much to lose your place in the hierarchy of power and in order to regain such power, you must be a performer. More than any other part of Chapters 2 and 3, Swift's description of the rope-dancing is a satire of the English political arena.
A second example of ambition in Lilliputian politics is found on page 987. In order to claim the Emperor's favor, nobles must "undergo a trial of dexterity very different than the former." Gulliver refers to this as "leaping and creeping" and describes it as a "trial of dexterity." This exercise is not used to award political power, but to identify nobles according to the Emperor's favor in the public eye, through the use of colored sashes. In English society, this might represent the vast difference in the dress of the nobles and peasants, all according to power awarded indiscriminately by the absolute monarch. Throughout Gulliver's Travels, there is satire. In his description of the Lilliputian nobility, Swift satirizes the personality traits of arrogance, greed and ambition. Additionally, he finds humor in the actions of these nobles.
What makes this satire ring most true is that Gulliver immediately falls into the role of commoner. It seems as if the Lilliputian nobility most closely resemble the ruling powers of the society from whence he came. For this reason, Gulliver accepts the restrictions the Emperor placed on him and even seems to be impressed by the political acrobatics he witnesses at court. Lemuel Gulliver is representative of the typical English commoner just as the nobles of the court of Lilliput are representative of the English nobility of Swift's day.