Gulliver's Travels (1726) is a satirical novel by Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). The book follows the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver as he ventures to unchartered regions of the world where he finds new civilizations and encounters fantastical beings. As one of Britain's leading satirists, Swift uses each new location to critique forms of government and human nature. A highly popular work, readers of all ages enjoy Gulliver's Travels, which has stayed in print since its publication almost three centuries ago. To learn more about the Characters, Themes, and more keep on reading.
Gulliver's Travels: Summary
Gulliver's Travels is the travelogue of an unsuccessful London surgeon called Lemuel Gulliver. He set off on a voyage to new and undiscovered lands.
Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput
Shortly into his voyage, Gulliver becomes shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput. The Lilliputians are a race of tiny people, twelve times smaller than normal humans. Though they're initially fearful of the giant Gulliver, he convinces them he poses no threat. He soon establishes himself as the favorite of the Lilliputian emperor, who uses Gulliver as a weapon of war against the kingdom's neighboring nation of Blefuscu.
In the land of Lilliput, Gulliver's giant size gives him an advantage over the tiny race.
When Gulliver learns that bloody conflict resulted from a debate over which side of an egg to crack, he begins to see the Lilliputians as small-minded people with grand ideas of themselves. They are obsessed with tiny details and trivial matters. The King displays tyrannical tendencies as he arbitrarily enforces rules and exerts his authority. As Gulliver's relationship with the royal court becomes more strained, he is charged with treason after urinating on the palace to extinguish a fire. He escapes to Blefuscu and builds a boat to return home to England.
Gulliver views the Lilliputians as small-minded and backward. Is this view influenced by his giant size or an accurate observation?
Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag
After staying with his family for two months, Gulliver again yearns to travel. He sets sail and is soon blown off course and to the land of Brobdingnag. The Brobdingnagians are a race of giants who tower over Gulliver. He is soon captured by a group of farmers and is forced to work. The farmers gift Gulliver to their Queen, who employs him as an entertainer.
Gulliver finds himself powerless and in constant danger in the land of giants.
In Brobdingnag, Gulliver is constantly threatened by rats, insects, and household pets. He becomes disgusted by the giants' everyday bodily functions, which are magnified by their size. When Gulliver describes the political nature of European kingdoms and the wars they engage in, the people of Brobdingnag are disgusted. When accompanying the royal couple on a trip, Gulliver's box is stolen by an eagle and dropped into the ocean. He is rescued by sailors and taken home to England.
Gulliver becomes disgusted by the magnified sights, sounds, and smells of bodily functions. What was Swift saying about human nature?
Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan
Gulliver's third voyage is attacked by pirates who abandon him on an island. He is soon discovered by the inhabitants of a floating island named Laputa. The Laputan society initially impresses Gulliver because it places great importance on scientific research and logic. However, when he tours Balnibarbi, a province controlled by Laputa, he finds the population engaged in endless experiments that serve little purpose. The Laputa and Balnibarbi spend most of their resources on pointless tests and studies at the expense of other essential aspects of life.
In Gulliver's Travels, Swift uses character and place names to satirize real-life figures and locations. Laputa comes from the Spanish insult "la puta," which means prostitute.
When Gulliver visits the province of Glubbdubdrib, he meets a magician who can conjure long-dead historical figures like Julius Caesar. But he finds this experience underwhelming as the figures often contradict their theories and writings. On the island of Luggnagg, Gulliver is similarly disappointed to meet an immortal race known as the Struldbrugs. While the Struldbrugs have been gifted eternal life, they do not have eternal youth and have grown old and senile.
Part IV: A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms
When Gulliver arrives in Japan, he changes his mind about returning to England and becomes a ship's captain instead. Soon into his voyage, the crew rebels against him. They eject him onto the first piece of land they find. Gulliver meets a savage race known as the Yahoos.
The Yahoos do not wear clothes, are only interested in base physical pleasures, and are ruled by a hyperintelligent race of horses known as the Houyhnhnms. Disgusted by the human Yahoos, Gulliver admires the Houyhnhnms for their reasoned and enlightened thinking.
The human-like race known as the Yahoos shocks and disgusts Gulliver.
While the Houyhnhnms have a peaceful society, they view humans as savage and dangerous. By learning their language, Gulliver can convince the Houyhnhnms that he is not human. However, his naked body exposes his proper form, and the horses' rule declares he is an enlightened Yahoo and, therefore, a threat to their society.
Forced to leave, Gulliver builds a canoe and sets off for England. He is picked up by a Portuguese ship but struggles to be around the humans on board, seeing them only as savages. Back in England, Gulliver cannot adjust to life in human society and rejects his wife and children to spend most of his day in the stable talking to horses.
Is Gulliver ultimately a tragic or comic figure at the end of the book?
Gulliver's Travels: Characters
As Gulliver voyages to strange new lands, he encounters new civilizations. Here is a look at the most important characters in Gulliver's Travels.
The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Lemuel Gulliver, is a bored Englishman who seeks adventure. Having grown up in a respectable middle-class family, he aspires to do something great that would set him apart from the crowd and abandons his family and business to set off on a voyage of discovery. Despite this drive for adventure, Swift never depicts Gulliver as heroic; he often goes along with the flow and attempts to fit into the lands he visits.
Gulliver is shown to be well-read and open-minded. He begins the story as interested in other people and cultures. Still, as he encounters broken political systems and corrupt leaders, he becomes increasingly cynical and skeptical of human beings.
The Lilliputians represent the worst aspects of the English political scene. They are a race of tiny humans with big ideas about themselves. Ruled by a tyrannical emperor, the Lilliputians are petty, dishonest, and obsessed with ritual instead of accomplishing anything. Swift presents the Lilliputians as easily divided internally and eager to engage in a pointless and costly war with their neighbors in Blefuscu.
A race of giants, the Brobdingnagians live in an isolated land and never engage with the outside world. This isolation results in a generally peaceful society. When Gulliver offers to teach them how to develop gunpowder, the Brobdingnagians have no interest in such a destructive element. When Gulliver explains the culture and politics of England, the Brobdingnagians are disgusted by the petty wars and sinister manipulation of politicians. The Brobdingnagians highlight Gulliver's ignorance in his approach to the Lilliputians.
The Laputans are a highly advanced civilization that emphasizes science and logic. They have been able to construct a floating island that keeps them detached and distant from the rest of the world. Their focus on experimentation and research comes at the cost of practical skills like building and basic housekeeping. While the population carries out pointless experiments, like trying to turn excrement back into food, they lose sight of other aspects of the human experience.
Like the Brobdingnag, the Houyhnhnms live on an isolated island that outsiders have never visited. The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses who have created a peaceful and logical society. Their language has no words for negative human behaviors like lying and murder because they do not have these concepts. The Houyhnhnms are the race Gulliver grows most attached to and wishes to emulate.
Gulliver's Travels: Themes
As a satire, Gulliver's Travels uses a fictional story to highlight the problems of Swift's contemporary society.
Power and Society
As Gulliver travels through different cultures, he experiences various perspectives on power. In Lilliput, he is a giant and enjoys having physical control over the locals. In Brobdingnag, he is minuscule and comes to understand why the citizens of Lilliput must have felt scared of him.
A different form of government rules each land Gulliver visits. Some of the societies he visits have positive aspects of government. In Brobdingnag, the King is disgusted by the idea of gunpowder and waging wars, and the Houyhnhnms enjoy a peaceful society based on reason. However, all the societies take their strengths to an illogical conclusion.
The Laputa kingdom dedicates itself to scientific research to the extent it loses sight of anything else, and the essential elements of its society begin to unravel. Swift presents this broken system to critique the idea that humans can build a perfect community. To Swift, Utopian visions neglect the inherent human flaws in all man-made systems.
Truth and Perspective
Gulliver's Travels opens with a note from Gulliver's publisher, which describes the author as an honest man. However, throughout the novel, he lies and manipulates the truth to his advantage. When the horses of Houyhnhnm first encounter Gulliver, they assume his clothes are part of his body, making him a different species from the naked human Yahoos. Hoping to fit in, Gulliver does nothing to correct this error. While the less developed society of Lilliput sees lying and fraud as the worst crime, the highly developed Houyhnhnms have created a perfect society where no word for "lie" exists in their vocabulary. Meanwhile, the scientific society of Laputa is so obsessed with the objective truth that it ignores humanity's true nature.
Swift also uses Gulliver's experiences to show the importance of perspective. As a giant, Gulliver sees the needs and concerns of the Lilliputians as petty and meaningless. When he is tiny compared to the people of Brobdingnag, he tries to hide his faults and mistakes to maintain his dignity. Viewing the giants up close, he begins to recognize the disgusting nature of human bodies and graphically describes their functions. Gulliver's view of these strange foreign lands is always influenced by his perspective as an Englishman.
His view of reality is informed and constructed by what he considers normal and proper. As Gulliver travels, he encounters new viewpoints and experiences that make him question his thinking on important matters. After experiencing the peace of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver is forced to return home, where he finds English society and human beings disgusting and savage, just like the Yahoos he'd encountered.
Swift uses the Lilliputians to satirize a society that lacks political knowledge. Compared to the European cultures of Gulliver's time, Lilliput seems less developed. While the people are welcoming, they are also quick to violence. Their war breaks out over an egg. The Laputans have a wealth of scientific knowledge but have become isolated, spending most of their lives on pointless experiments and studies. Similarly, the Houyhnhnms have the logical ability that helps them build a peaceful and ordered society. However, this logic is taken to the extreme with their breeding system, which is only based on reason and therefore negates the idea of love or passion.
In all of the societies Gulliver encounters, the people are unable or unwilling to consider a different approach to living. They are steadfast in their commitment that their system is the only way to run things. Gulliver's journey takes him across the world and away from his family. He sets off to encounter new cultures and meet people, but ultimately ends up isolated and only talking to horses.
Gulliver's Travels: Literary Devices
Gulliver's Travels is a satire that mocks the contemporary political scene in England and makes more significant observations and criticisms of both governments and human nature.
Satire is a literary device that uses humor to emphasize an individual's or institution's hypocrisy or failings. By making powerful targets appear ridiculous, satire helps readers to think differently about established social orders.
With Gulliver's Travels, Swift satirized the political turmoil in which he lived. The 17th and 18th centuries were in constant conflict throughout Europe as neighboring kingdoms fought over politics, religion, and power issues. Even internally, nations fought bloody civil wars and petty political skirmishes over various social issues. This was particularly true in England's political scene where Swift worked as an advisor.
The land of Lilliput acts as Swift's satirical stand-in for England, with the authoritarian leader symbolizing the then-King of England, George I. The King of Lilliput is closely allied with his High Treasurer, representing the British politician Sir Robert Walpole, a man Swift intensely disliked. The Lilliputian political scene is bitterly split between the party that wears high heels and those who wear low heels. This petty feud symbolizes the fractious split in English politics between the Whig and Tory parties.
The emperor of Lilliput shows favors the low-heel party, which results in an unfair and corrupt society. This favoritism critiques King George's bias towards the pro-monarchy Tory party. Gulliver falls out of favor with the Lilliputian monarchy when he urinates on the Royal Palace to extinguish a fire. This is a reference to Swift's early satirical work A Tale of the Tub (1704), which lampooned the idea of structures of power and is said to have deeply offended Queen Anne.
The conflict between Lilliput and its neighbor, Blefuscu, starts over a trivial argument about which side of an egg someone should crack. Swift uses Blefuscu to represent France and the trivial argument to symbolize the split in Christianity between Catholics and Protestants. Both minor disagreements resulted in many bloody and costly conflicts.
One of the recurring ideas that Swift satirizes is the Utopian belief that man can create a perfect society or form of government. Many of the leaders Gulliver encounters on his travels are presented as corrupt or inept. In the 18th century, the quest for scientific knowledge and reason was considered noble. With the Laputa society, Swift satirizes the dangers of the singular focus of many scientific thinkers. The rulers are so concerned with the quest for knowledge they become blinded to all other aspects of the human experience. The Laputa Royal Academy satirizes the collective of scientists known as the Royal Society, which formed in London during Swift's time in the city.
Ultimately, Swift uses satire to point out that all forms of government are man-made and will therefore contain human error and cause human suffering. Obvious symbols of this are the giants of Brobdingnag. They exert their power over the tiny Gulliver as a reflection of how powerful governments can become tyrants against the population. More subtle examples are Laputa's subjection of its neighbor, Balnibarbi. In this case, Swift satirizes England's colonization and exploitation of Ireland. Similarly, the subjection of the Yahoo people as savages who must be ruled is Swift's ridicule of English colonial projects around the world.
As well as satirizing political and philosophical ideas, Swift uses Gulliver's Travels to satirize a literary genre known as travel writing, or travelogues. In Swift's period, there was increased exploration and voyages worldwide. As European explorers and sailors began interacting with other cultures, a new form of literature presented these journeys as tales of brave adventurers who risked life and limb to explore new lands.
Travelogues presented other countries and cultures as savage and underdeveloped compared to European societies. Often these tales would be embellished or wholly fabricated to promote sales.
Swift uses Gulliver's Travels to mock the pompous travel writing of his day. He creates a real satirical work that looks like a standard travelogue. The novel's original title was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.
Gulliver's Travels is a more cynical and pessimistic take on human nature in response to the shiny optimism of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), which was published seven years before Swift's novel. In Gulliver's third voyage, he encounters a sea captain named Robinson.
Gulliver's Travels: Quotes
Written in the 18th century, Gulliver's Travels is presented as the journal of an explorer's adventures. In each part of the book, Gulliver records his encounters and thoughts on these strange new cultures in the contemporary writing style.
"Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them." - (Part II, Ch. VI)
As Gulliver explains the system of the English government to the Brobdingnagians, he is unsparingly critical of the corrupt politicians who manipulate the rules for their gain. However, the Brobdingnagians are presented as a slightly more straightforward and brutal race. They are also shown to be less deceitful and power-hungry than the politicians of Gulliver's homeland.
"Nothing angered and mortified me so much as the Queen's dwarf; who being of the lowest stature that was ever in that country (for I verily think he was not full thirty feet high), became so insolent at seeing a creature so much beneath him, that he would always affect to swagger and look big as he passed by me in the Queen's antechamber. "- (Part II, Ch. 3)
While Gulliver enjoyed his status as a giant in the land of Lilliput, he finds the tables turned in Brobdingnag. Suddenly he finds himself at the bottom of the royal pecking order; even the lowliest member of the royal party looks down on him. Swift uses this shift in perspective to comment on the abuse of power. As Gulliver travels through various lands, he is forced to see things differently and question his beliefs.
"A soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can." - (Part IV, ch. 5)
Gulliver explains the brutal ways of man to the gentle Houyhnhnms race. Just as Gulliver had looked down upon other less-developed societies he encountered, he realizes that his home is backward compared to Houyhnhnm land. This realization profoundly affects Gulliver as he begins to see his fellow humans as nothing more than savage Yahoos.
Gulliver's Travels - Key takeaways
- Gulliver's Travels is a satirical travelogue by Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift.
- Narrated by Lemuel Gulliver, the story follows his voyages to new and mysterious lands.
- As Gulliver encounters new societies, he gains a different perspective on his beliefs.
- Swift uses the travel writing format to satirize contemporary politics and human nature.
- An immensely popular book upon publication, Gulliver's Travels has never gone out of print in the three centuries since its first pressing.