Jonathan Swift is known as one of the greatest satirists in English Literature. His “Modest Proposal” which is frequently cited is the finest example of literary irony in English. In Gulliver’s Travels Swift turns his irony and satire on culture more generally. The novel takes a dim view of the pretensions to power and authority he saw in his own time. The novel is particularly critical of the pursuit of knowledge purely for its own sake without any consideration for real human life. The novel is takes the reader on a series of journeys to fictional lands made up of creatures which are monstrous, comic, and beautiful. In Gulliver’s Travels Swift does not shy away from the grotesque to make his point. In many ways, the novel is an example of the utopian novel now familiar in literature. It is a depiction of magical place which does not exist where all ideas can be explored without the bounds of conventional reality.
The story tells about the adventures of a straight-forward and practical doctor and ship’s captain. Lemuel Gulliver returns home after three and a half years at sea. He marries and sets up his practice. Since he cannot sustain himself from practicing medicine he returns to sea. He again comes home and sets up another medical practice, which also fails. He contemplates over-charging patients to maintain himself and his wife but he is an honest man and decides to return to sea. This time he leaves Bristol, England on May 4, 1699 aboard the Antelope and sails toward the South Seas.
While heading into the East Indies the ship encounters a storm. The ship sinks and Gulliver is the only survivor. He swims to a nearby island and falls asleep as soon as he reaches the shore. While he is sleeping he is bound by the inhabitants of the island: creatures no more than six inches tall. He wakes up to find his situation. At first they attack him with tiny arrows which are little more than pin pricks to Gulliver. The inhabitants eventually give him food and take him to their emperor.
He discovers he is on the island of Lilliput. The emperor is amazed and entertained by Gulliver and Gulliver is equally entertained by being so lavished by royalty. The emperor soon realizes the Gulliver, with his massive size, could be a resource for the Lilliputians.
Gulliver is enlisted into a war being wages between Lilltput and their enemies from Blefuscu. The war has been raging over a disagreement concerning how to properly crack and egg. In return for helping the Lilliputians defeat Blefescu, the emperor promises Gulliver full access to food and promises the entire staff of tailors to make him new clothes.
Blefescu mobilize 50 ships in order to invade Lilliput. Gulliver simply wades across the sea and breaks the entire navy of Blefescu, forcing them to surrender. In a well-intentioned attempt to help out further, Gulliver extinguishes a fire with his urine.
As much as he becomes a hero to the emperor, he is also a villain to the jealous and scheming admiral of the Lilliputian navy, Skyresh, who schemes against Gulliver. Skyresh manages to have Gulliver charged with treason after which he is sentenced to be blinded. Rather than destroy the Lilliputians, Gulliver decides to escape. He manages to escape to Blefescu where he repairs a boat and sets sail for England.
After being home in England with his wife for two months, Gulliver sets out again on another adventure. This time he reaches the land of the Giants, Brobdingnag. A worker in field discovers him. At first, the farmer thinks little of Gulliver and treats as something of a pet. Eventually, the farmer sells Gulliver to the Queen.
The queen is entertained by Gulliver and his musical talents. Gulliver in turn finds his place and privilege in the royal court fairly easy but he does not particularly like it. He finds the Brobdingnagians to be disgusting due to the fact that their enormous size amplifies all of their bodily functions. When allowed to dance on the naked bodies of the women, he finds their enormous pores to be repulsive and the sound of their torrential urinating is disgusting to him.
Everything about life with the Brobdingnagians is repulsive to Gulliver. Even his life becomes endangered by the enormous animals. The insects leave disgusting slime on food and he is unable to eat. What is more, he finds the Brobdingnagians to be ignorant. So much so that even the king is ignorant of politics. Eventually, on a trip to the country with the royals, his cage is picked up by an eagle and dropped into the sea. He is rescues by an English ship and returns again to England.
After ten days at home, Gulliver is again invited to sea by the captain of the Gladwell. On this voyage Gulliver finds himself in command of a sloop which encounters a storm. They are captured by pirates. With the help of one of the pirates Gulliver is allowed to paddle off in a canoe.
While wandering at sea, Gulliver encounters an island floating in the air. The inhabitants lower a chain and draw him up. The people of this island are described as looking very strange:
Their heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars; interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe.
He is escorted to the palace of the king located at the top of the island. The king addresses him in a language Gulliver does not know.
Gulliver discovers that the inhabitants are all scholars who study nothing but theoretical mathematics and music. Their language is based on these two disciplines and they know of nothing else. As a result, their homes, politics, and government are a mess. The people live in fear of their world being destroyed by the sun.
After a time, Gulliver asks to leave the island. He is eventually lowered onto the island of Balnibari. He enters the main city, Lagado, where he finds that the agriculture is in disarray, the people are dressed in ragged clothes, and all of the houses are in disrepair. Gulliver finds that the people of Balbinari learned some of the mathematics from the floating island. They attempted to recreate this system of learning and now have academies in every town.
Since the people of Balbinari learned only a little, everything is mistaken and wrong. They are attempting to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and turn feces into food. They have lost their ability to do anything practical or useful.
Gulliver takes a short trip to nearby islands. He visits Glubbdubdrib and Luggnagg. On Glubbdubdrib he finds magicians who are able to conjure famous historical figures. He meets and speaks with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Brutus. The magicians conjure the entire Roman Senate.
When he visits Luggnagg, Gulliver meets Strulbrugs: people who live forever. Some live on in eternal youth, while others grow old and infirm. Eventually Gulliver finds his way all the way to Japan where he encounters a Dutch ship which takes him home again to England.
On Gulliver’s fourth journey he sets sail as a ship’s captain on the merchant ship The Adventurer. After several months sailing to the South Seas the men on board mutiny and set Gulliver adrift on a longboat. He drifts to a land inhabited by the Houyhnhmns, creatures which are intelligent horses.
The island is also inhabited by Yahoos, creatures with human faces but which walk on all fours and are partially covered with hair.
Gulliver is soon surrounded by Yahoos. Some of the Yahoos climb a nearby tree and begin defecating on him but he is rescued by two Houyhnhmns. They take Gullvier back to their house where Gulliver sees cows working as domestic servants. Behind the house there are several Yahoos tied by their necks who are feeding on dead dogs and other animals.
Gulliver eventually learns the language and customs of the Houyhnhmns. He admires the gentle nature and civilized ways of the Houyhnhmns, but over time they become suspicious of him. They fear he will blend in with the Yahoos and lead them to rebellion. He builds a canoe and makes a sail from Yahoo skins and sails to a nearby rocky island. He is eventually rescued by a Portugese ship, which takes him all the way to Lisbon. Gulliver then makes his way back to England for the last time.
An unremarkable and average man who lacks imagination. He is morally upright and has his heart in the right place, but he is gullible (his name is something of a play on the word “gullible”) and somewhat foolish.
Tiny people of no more than six inches. Full of self-importance and small minded ideas. They are petty and greedy, motivated by hypocrisy and selfishness. The Lilliputians are central to Swiftian satire. Humans are filled with self-importance and see themselves as the pinnacle of creation when in fact they are small and insignificant in the great scheme of things. Yet, the self-importance of human endeavor is capable of driving schemes which are dangerous and even deadly. This is also part of Swift’s satire of the politics of his time. The corruption of justice seen in the Lilliputians is analogous to the same corruption in the ruling elites at the time. Lord Walpole and his court who seek justice in the blind cruelty of the court.
The Emperor of Lilliput
The name of the Emperor is of Golbasto Momaren Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue. This huge and bombastic name assigned to a tiny person represents Swift’s satire of the threats of political tyranny and abuse of power. The point is that the small rulers, cloaked in grand titles and pedigrees, are only powerful by virtue of their ruthless cruelty and reckless abuse of authority. In reality, they are small men of no substance.
The Principal Secretary of Private Affairs for Lilliput. His plan to “save” Gulliver by blinding him and starving him to death shows the misguided “mercy” of political expediency.
The Lord High Admiral of the Lilliput Navy. He becomes jealous of Gulliver after his defeat of Blefescu. Not concerned with what is best, he is motivated by his own ambitions.
Slamcksan and Tramecksan
The two ruling political parties of Lilliput. They argue over the proper size of the heels of their shoes. These are the pointless and senseless politicians which comprise political power.
The race of giants from the second adventure. These people are in every way morally and ethically superior. They guide everything in well-founded morality. As Gulliver attempts to misrepresent his own people in England, the Brobdingnagians see through his misguided patriotic depiction and declare the English to be loathesome people. Gullever is disgusted by the bodily details of the Brobdingnagians mainly because their size amplifies everything about their bodily functions. This is part of Swift’s satire in which the human condition is represented in its physical realities while the emphasis should be on morality and conduct. The hypocrisy of the age in which mere physical appearance seemed to trump real virtue.
A people so engaged in abstractions and theoretical modes of thought that they have lost touch with all practical considerations. Their houses are in ruins and their clothes do not properly fit. This is Swift’s satire of the abstract thought and philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment.
The King of Laputa
This character is utterly and completely preoccupied with abstract and theoretical ideas.
The Academy Projectors
These are Balnibarbian reformers who base all of their ideas on abstract thought and theories, which have no connection to real life. These represent the professors of The Royal Academy Society for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, a body which still exists in England. Swift saw them as projectors of abstract thought without regard for the real effects of their theories and schemes.
The Governor of the town of Lagado. Gulliver meets him in one of his minor travels. Lord Munodi rejects the ideas of the Balnibarians and remains a traditionalist. He maintains a well-ordered estate and his people flourish.
A race of immortals. They live in despair of their relentless advancing age. This is Swift’s moral lesson on immortality.
The race of rational horses. Their superior ways give rise to a society of reason and virtue. They work toward the good of the whole as opposed to selfish motives. The Houyhnhnms keep the Yahoos as subservient. These are the epitome of a rational class of beings.
The Houyhnhnm who serves as Gulliver’s master
Though never named, the master represents a compassionate, wise, and just ruler. Because he has the best interest of his own kind in mind, he eventually feels the need to force Gulliver to leave because he resembles a more advanced Yahoo.
Beast-like creatures who inhabit the land of the Houyhnhnms and act as servants and slaves to the Houyhnhnms. They represent everything that is base and grotesque about humanity.
“My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons. . . . I was bound Apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent Surgeon in London . . . my Father now and then sending me small Sums of Money. . . . When I left Mr. Bates, I went down to my Father; where, by the Assistance of him and my Uncle John . . . I got Forty Pounds, and a Promise of Thirty Pounds a Year.”
This comes at the beginning of the novel and appears to be a simple statement of biographical information. However, the reader can discern several things. First, Gulliver is the third born which means he will not inherit enough money to sustain himself. He must make a living and the drive for money is the only motivation for all of Gulliver’s travels. Second, his description of his father, his life, and his world reveal no emotional attachments. He has no inner life at all. He is a shallow and unreflective man.
“He said, he knew no Reason, why those who entertain Opinions prejudicial to the Publick, should be obliged to change, or should not be obliged to conceal them. And, as it was Tyranny in any Government to require the first, so it was Weakness not to enforce the second.”
Coming in Part II of the novel, this apparent speech on free speech and opinion is questionable in Swift’s satire. It is not clear if Swift means to say that people are entitled to their opinions and should be free to express those opinions since the words here come from a foreign and strange land. What is more, these words are brought to us form Gulliver who offers no reflection or even real understanding.
“My little Friend Grildrig . . . I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”
This is the denunciation of England by king of Brobdingnag after Gulliver attempts to portray England as a noble place filled with fine and noble people. The king comes to the opposite conclusion based entirely on Gulliver’s own words. The misanthropy of Swift’s satire becomes evident here as the portrayal of England by the English people shows such a self-evidently debased and corrupt culture.
“My Reconcilement to the Yahoo-kind in general might not be so difficult, if they would be content with those Vices and Follies only which Nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the Sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, a Colonel. . . . This is all according to the due Course of Things: But, when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience; neither shall I ever be able to comprehend how such an Animal and such a Vice could tally together.”
Gulliver’s final statement on the nature of humanity at the end of the novel. After all that he has seen in his travels, his final conclusion is that humanity is little more than a vicious and corrupt beast equipped with just enough knowledge to be dangerous. Swift’s satire becomes cruel at the end with no happy judgment on the human condition.
Might versus Right
Throughout the novel the reader is confronted with images of brute strength in contest with what is right. Gulliver can defeat the Blefuscudian because of his immense size but there is little indication what the correct course of action might be. He defeats them simply because he is big. Later, in Brobdingnag, he is relentlessly oppressed by how huge everything is compared to him. Even insects are source of struggle and disgust.
Yet, the domination of the Houhynhnms over the Yahoos is one of moral superiority. Though the Yahoos are figures of brute strength and bestial will, it is the Houhynhnms who hold superiority due to their civilized ways and moral high ground.
The Individual versus Society
Throughout the travels, there is a tension between individual will and the collective good of society. The Lilliputians operate as a unit but only in the face of a collective enemy. Gulliver stands out amid them because he is uniquely singular, being the only example of his kind that is known. He defeats their collective enemy as an individual. What is more, even though the Lilliputians seem to operate as a collective, they are torn by individual jealousies and conflicts. The individual will tears away at the fabric of the social good.
The Houyhnhnms operate collectively. In fact, they are the only characters in the novel who do not have proper names. The raise their young collectively. Gulliver operates as a singular individual who is cast away into a strange world. His grief at being forced to leave the Houyhnhnms seems to signal his desire to belong to a collective — to a cohesive society.
The Limits of Human Knowledge
Swift is obviously critical of the notion that humans are the measure of all things. Throughout the novel, Swift satirizes the idea that a profound scholarly devotion to knowledge is valuable. The Laputans are the best example. Though they are masters of all theoretical knowledge, they are an absolute failure at anything practical or meaningful. They fail at making clothes. The Balnabarbi are equally foolish. They are a race of learned philosophers who try to extract sunlight from cucumbers. In the end, it is the simple but virtuous Houyhnhnms in their world of simplicity and attention to practical daily life who emerge as not just the most successful but also the most harmonious creatures in the travels.
Written between 1712-1726 in Dublin and London. First published in 1726.
Has never been out of print since its publication.
The novel was an enormous success in its time.
Swift is listed as the first person to use the word “cowboy.”