Summary of Gulliver's Travels

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Gulliver's Travels book summary

Literary Classic

  • Satire
  • Enlightenment

What It’s About

A Satire of Society

With Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, the Anglo-Irish cleric and writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) created one of the most absurdist pieces of literature of his (and maybe even all) time. On four consecutive journeys out to sea, surgeon and prospective ship captain Lemuel Gulliver finds himself in strange lands and civilizations. There he meets the tiny Lilliputians; the giants of Brobdingnag; the erudite Laputians, who are highly intelligent but unable to cope with life; and finally the monkey-like Yahoos and their wise and rational rulers, the Houyhnhnms, who look like horses. Many readers consider Swift’s novel a classic of young adult literature, but in fact it isn’t as harmless as many people think. Behind the facade of adventure story and travel writing lurks a biting satire on English society during Swift’s time, as well as a harsh reckoning of humanity as a whole and its doubtful development.

Take-Aways

  • Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World is a great work of English literature and one of the most widely read books in the world.
  • Surgeon and hobby seafarer Lemuel Gulliver becomes stranded in foreign lands during four sea voyages and while there meets people, creatures and cultures unlike anything he has ever seen before.
  • In the course of the story, the civilizations Gulliver encounters become more and more unbelievable until during his final voyage, when he meets the horse-like, highly rational and wise Houyhnhnms.
  • The Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift published the novel anonymously in 1726, but people quickly identified him as the author of the biting satire.
  • The novel mimics and at the same time parodies the then extremely popular genre of travel writing.
  • It was an instant success. Its first edition of 1,000 copies sold out within the first week.
  • Gulliver’s Travels underwent censorship due to some of its quite explicit descriptions of sexual and bodily aspects.
  • Throughout his life, Swift was actively involved in politics, writing many political and religious pamphlets – though most of them anonymously.
  • Brought up a staunch Whig supporter, Swift switched allegiance to the Tories in 1710 and became the editor of their journal, The Examiner.
  • “But, by what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, 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.” (the King of Brobdingnag to Gulliver)
 

Summary

The First Voyage: Lilliput

Trained surgeon and hopeful seafarer Lemuel Gulliver accepts a job as a surgeon on board a ship as he is struggling to make enough money as a doctor in London. A storm hits, and the ship sinks. Gulliver washes up on the shores of the island of Lilliput. When he awakes, he finds that a whole host of tiny people have tied him down with ropes. They shoot at him with arrows whenever he tries to move. Gulliver manages to convey to them that he means them no harm.

“I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: For as I happened to lie on my back, I found that my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner.”

An official of the Emperor arrives and explains to Gulliver that although he is a prisoner, he will receive food and drink. The Lilliputians transport Gulliver to an ancient temple, the only building big enough to house him. The next day, Gulliver receives a visit from the Emperor and the Empress, and soon he starts to learn the local language and customs. He continues to petition to be set free, but despite the huge strain his presence puts on the local economy, the Emperor and his council refuse to let him go.

Entertainment in Lilliput

Gulliver starts to gain insight into Lilliputian customs. He finds that artistic ability is critical to improving one’s station at the imperial court. If an important office becomes available in Lilliput, the candidates for the role must dance on a rope to show their artistic skill. The office will go to the one who jumps the highest and thereby displays the greatest skill. People come from all over the island to see Gulliver. He also receives regular visits from the Empress and the Emperor, and they are delighted with the entertainment he offers them.

“The natives came, by degrees, to be less apprehensive of any danger from me. I would sometimes lie down, and let five or six of them dance on my hand.”

One time, he constructs a training ground for the Royal Army and their horses, and the daily training becomes a new and popular diversion for the couple. In fact, the Emperor is so pleased that he finally decides to grant Gulliver his freedom. However, Gulliver has an enemy in the Emperor’s cabinet: Skyresh Bolgolam, the Admiral of the Realm, who convinces the Emperor to put limits on Gulliver’s freedom. Gulliver is allowed neither to enter the capital nor to leave the country, and he must help the Lilliputians with various projects and transport couriers. In exchange, he will receive a daily ration of food that would feed 1,724 Lilliputians.

Gulliver the Hero

With the permission of the Emperor, Gulliver visits the Lilliputian capital metropolis of Mildendo. One day, Redreseal the Principal Secretary of Private Affairs, who has become Gulliver’s friend, tells him that neighboring island Blefuscu is threatening Lilliput. The two islands have been enemies for a long time over the issue of whether to break an egg on its larger or smaller end. Gulliver offers his help and wades over to Blefuscu, hooks up all its warships and pulls the fleet back to Lilliput. The Emperor is delighted and confers upon Gulliver the Lilliputians’ highest title of honor, making him a “Nardac.”

Lilliputian Law

One night, a fire starts in the Empress’s quarters at the imperial palace, which Gulliver extinguishes by peeing on it. The Empress is deeply offended. Also, according to Lilliputian law, to “make water within the Precinct of the Palace” is a capital crime. Gulliver is puzzled by some of the laws and customs in Lilliput. For example, slander and ingratitude are punishable by death, and fraud has more severe legal consequences than theft.

“A wife should be always a reasonable and agreeable companion, because she cannot always be young.”

Whoever doesn’t break the law for 73 months gets a reward. Morals are more important than abilities when it comes to employing a person. Girls are educated similarly to boys. Parents aren’t allowed to bring up their own children: From age 20 months on, they live and be educated in public nurseries, each according to their gender and social status.

Intrigue Against Gulliver

Gulliver’s enemy Skyresh Bolgolam convinces the Emperor to punish Gulliver for urinating in the palace. When Gulliver finds out that he is to be blinded, he plans his escape. He goes to Blefuscu under the pretense of wanting to visit its emperor. After he has been there for a few days, he finds a human-sized rowing boat at the beach. With the help of the Blefuscuians, he repairs it, stocks the vessel with supplies as well as live cattle and sheep, and sets sail. Soon a trade ship picks him up, and he returns to England where he earns a decent return by selling the miniature animals from Blefuscu.

The Second Voyage: Brobdingnag

Only two months later, Gulliver is off to sea again. The crew lose their bearings when a storm hits. They row over to an island to find food and water, and Gulliver wanders off to explore. Suddenly he hears screaming and sees the crew rowing away from the island as quickly as they can while being chased by a giant. Gulliver panics and runs into a field, where he encounters more giants, who are harvesting the grain with their enormous scythes.

“Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

Gulliver narrowly escapes being trampled to death by a farmer, who picks him up and carries him back to his house and family. Life with the farmer and his family proves dangerous for Gulliver, who is tiny compared with everything around him. The baby of the family wants him as a toy to suck on, and Gulliver has to fight off two rats the size of mastiffs.

Gulliver Becomes an Attraction

The farmer decides to start charging people to see Gulliver. Together with the farmer’s daughter Glumdalclitch, who has become Gulliver’s friend and protector, they set off on a tour around various pubs where Gulliver has to perform in front of an audience of giants. The strain of traveling and performing is too much for him, and he rapidly loses weight. The farmer, thinking that Gulliver won’t survive much longer, sells him to the Queen, and Gulliver and Glumdalclitch stay at the royal court.

Life at Court

Gulliver gets his own little house, furniture, clothes and utensils and becomes the Queen’s regular companion. However, not everything is plain sailing. The dwarf at court is jealous of Gulliver and tries to drown him in a cream pot. A monkey belonging to one of the kitchen clerks kidnaps him and almost kills him by dropping him from the roof. Hail and falling apples threaten to squash him. Gulliver tries to explain English laws and customs to the King, who reaches the conclusion that the English must be the most corrupt and lazy people he has ever come across. Gulliver, on the other hand, sees Brobdingnag as backward and simplistic. The country teaches only morality, history, poetry and mathematics; its alphabet only has 22 letters; and he doesn’t understand why the King is horrified when Gulliver tells him about the use of firearms and gunpowder.

Escape

Two years after arriving in Brobdingnag, Gulliver travels with the King and Queen along the coast of the country. He asks to be taken to the seaside, and he is put on the beach in his traveling box. An eagle snatches up the box and drops it over the sea. A ship discovers it and rescues Gulliver, and he returns home to England and his family.

The Third Voyage: Laputa

Only a short time later, Gulliver sets off again as surgeon on board another ship. Pirates attack and leave Gulliver adrift. He manages to land his raft on a rocky island. Suddenly, he sees a flying island floating toward him. It stops just above him, and people pull him up. Laputa, as the floating island is called, has a magnet at its center, which allows the Laputians to move, lower and raise the island. The island is the home of the Laputian king and his officials, whereas his subjects live on the mainland. The inhabitants of Laputa are constantly engrossed in contemplation and need servants to flap at their ears, mouth or eyes with a bladder to bring them back to reality and signal whether they are supposed to listen, speak or look. Gulliver is taken to the King, but they soon find that communication between them is impossible. Gulliver starts learning the language, which is based on music and mathematics. The Laputians use geometric concepts to describe things and are amazing mathematicians. However, they are incapable when it comes to daily life. Gulliver grows bored quickly, and asks the king for permission to leave and explore the mainland.

A Visit to Balnibarbi and the Academy of Lagado

A great lord acts as Gulliver’s tour guide on the mainland of Balnibarbi. As they drive past underused fields and houses sorely in need of repair, the lord explains to Gulliver that impractical and ineffective ideas thought up by the Laputians have replaced the ancient and trusted methods of building and agriculture. He takes Gulliver to the Academy of Lagado, where scientists are working on all sorts of useless experiments. One scientist tries to create sunlight from cucumbers, another one attempts to turn excrements back into food and a third works on breeding spiders that will produce colored yarn.

“The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity.  For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives.”

At the School of Political Projectors, professors discuss ways to ensure that politicians work for the best of society, how to raise money without upsetting the island’s subjects and how to choose the best qualified people for political offices. Their suggestions include taxing women according to their beauty and skill in dressing – and men depending on how popular they are with the other sex; causing senators pain by pinching or kicking them to counter forgetfulness; and distributing roles by raffle. Gulliver soon tires of these head-in-the-clouds philosophers and continues on to Glubbdubdrib, the Island of Sorcerers. Its ruler has the ability to bring back the dead, and Gulliver gets the chance to converse with and question some great figures of history. He talks to Alexander the Great, Homer, Hannibal, Caesar and Brutus, among many others, and soon realizes that history is often inaccurate or simply false. During his time on Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver also learns about the immortal Struldbruggs, whose immortality he initially envies. However, he then learns that they still age, grow forgetful and are disinherited when they grow old, thereby losing everything they have. Having seen enough, he returns to England via Japan.

The Fourth Voyage: The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos

Five months after returning from Laputa, Gulliver sets off again, this time as captain of a ship. However, his crew stages a mutiny and leaves him on an island. He sets off to explore the island, and soon comes across the Yahoos – uncivilized and violent ape-like creatures, who attack him immediately. Fortunately, two horses – Houyhnhnms – come along and rescue him. The Houyhnhnms are the rational and wise rulers of the island. They believe Gulliver to be a Yahoo, though more intelligent and refined in his appearance and manners. They are puzzled by his clothes and don’t understand how creatures like him can build boats and travel across water. They start teaching him their language. Yet, despite the progress he makes and the conversations he has with his Master (the Houyhnhnm who has taken him in), Gulliver can’t convince him and the other Houyhnhnms that he isn’t a Yahoo.

Humans and Animals

The Master asks Gulliver about English customs and life. Gulliver tells him about wars caused by envy or disagreements, about the corruption of governments and lawyers, and about people ruining their health by drinking alcohol and eating too much or the wrong things. The Master contemplates what Gulliver has told him and comes to the conclusion that the behavior of humans is very similar to that of the Yahoos who suck roots to become drunk, fight with each other for no particular reason and try to steal valueless colored stones from each other. The only difference between the Yahoos and humans, he concludes, is that humans are more intelligent and therefore even more evil.

Houyhnhnm Customs

The Houyhnhnms are a friendly and peaceful society. They never have disagreements and their language has no words for lies or evil. Each couple is allowed one male and one female foal to avoid overpopulation. However, they don’t form attachments to each other, and each Houyhnhnm – whether family or stranger – is treated in the same friendly way. Every four years, the Houyhnhnms hold a general assembly and send aid to areas where there is famine or need.

“Friendship and benevolence are the two principal virtues among the Houyhnhnms, and these not confined to particular objects, but universal to the whole race.”

Gulliver builds himself a small house and sews some clothes from animal skins. He is so comfortable with the rational and wise Houyhnhnms that he doesn’t want to return to England. He starts seeing himself as a Yahoo and tries to imitate the Houyhnhnms to become worthy of their company. One day his Master tells him that the assembly has agreed that it is not suitable to have a Yahoo as part of a Houyhnhnm family. There are fears that Gulliver might incite the other Yahoos, and he is asked to leave the country. He builds himself a small boat and sets sail. Soon after, a Portuguese ship picks him up. The captain is friendly, but after his time with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver now sees all humans as Yahoos and therefore mistrusts them. When he arrives home, even his family repulses him, so he buys himself two horses – the only creatures whose company he can bear.

About the Text

Structure and Style

While often considered an adventure story, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World is actually a biting satire. Disguised as travel writing and ostensibly intended to educate and inform its reader, Swift’s story is full of sharp criticism of England and its customs. The travel writing format allowed him to describe different cultures, customs and laws and to compare them with those of his home country.

Gulliver is a first-person narrator, although Swift often presents him as a gullible hero and thereby undermines his tale. Throughout the course of the story, the cultures Gulliver encounters become more and more unbelievable. While it is possible to accept the tiny Lilliputians and the giants of Brobdingnag, the strange-looking Laputians with their otherworldly behavior and the horse-like Houyhnhnms and their Yahoo monkeys are much harder to swallow. Throughout, Swift is in pursuit of one main goal: to suggest authenticity where there is none. He prefaces Gulliver’s accounts with letters to and from the publisher, and assures the reader that the manuscripts he received had “an air of truth” about them. The writing style is entertaining and self-effacing but at times highly detailed and a bit long-winded.

Interpretation

  • Gulliver’s Travels takes on the form of travel writing, a literary genre that was quite popular in Swift’s time. However, the novel at the same time parodies this genre.
  • The novel shows elements of an odyssey, and it’s possible to draw parallels between Swift’s main character and narrator Gulliver and Homer’s Odysseus vis-á-vis Gulliver’s wife and Penelope, both of whom had to wait at home for the return of their husbands.  
  • Gulliver’s Travels is first and foremost a satire of English society, politics and customs. Swift caricatures many high-profile personalities of his historical age, including King George I as the tyrannical emperor of Lilliput and the English prime minister and one of Swift’s sworn enemies Robert Walpole as the scheming treasurer.
  • The society of rational and peaceful Houyhnhnms represents the ideal state, and Gulliver reveres their way of life as the best and most desirable.
  • There are times in the book where Swift makes a clear connection between himself as the author and Gulliver as the narrator – for example, in the “Letter from Captain Gulliver to His Cousin Sympson,” which prefaces the novel.
  • The Yahoos are a picture of humans at their worst – corrupt, violent, selfish and driven solely by their base appetites. Since its introduction by Swift, the noun “yahoo” has come to mean a boorish, crass or stupid person.

Historical Background

Politics and Literature in 18th-Century England

The descriptions of the politics and customs in the countries Gulliver visits reflect the turbulent times in Swift’s England. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had established the constitutional monarchy in England, gotten rid of the hated Catholic sympathizer King James II and given the throne to the Protestant King William III of Orange. The king was now controlled by parliament. One of its chambers, the House of Commons, comprised representatives of the people split into two big parties: the Whigs and the Tories. The Tories were the conservative party, keen on a strong monarchy and the Anglican Church. They viewed the rising middle classes with skepticism. The Whigs, in contrast, supported the parliamentarian aspect of government, were more tolerant concerning faith and recruited their followers mainly from the economic middle classes. Jonathan Swift himself was initially a Whig but became a Tory in 1710.

Swift wrote his novel at a golden time of literature in England. This high period of neoclassicism lasted from circa 1700–1744 and is often called the Augustan Age. It saw a return to the ideals of the Roman and Greek poets. At the same time, satire became the preferred mode of expression, and Swift, together with his good friend Alexander Pope, was one of the central figures in this development. Similarly popular during that time was travel literature, which Swift used and parodied in his novel.

Development

Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World is probably the world’s most famous homework assignment. Swift was a member of the Scriblerus Club, which focused in particular on satires of modern society. Other illustrious members included writers and poets Alexander Pope, John Gay, William Congreve and John Arbuthnot. Swift was tasked with writing a satire and parody of the then popular genre of travel writing. Gulliver’s Travels is based on the drafts for this assignment.

Swift started writing the novel in 1720 and finished parts one and two within a year. In 1723, he worked on the last voyage, and in 1724 and 1725 he penned the story about the erudite inhabitants of Laputa. The novel came out in 1726, and it was the only publication for which he ever received any payment. Fearing censorship for the novel, he published it anonymously and even included a letter from his friend John Gay signed “Richard Sympson” to the publisher Benjamin Motte. The manuscript itself was delivered in great secrecy to the publisher’s house for printing. Motte extensively edited some of Swift’s more offensive passages – something to which Swift objected and revised in later editions of the book.

Reviews and Legacy

In 1726, Gulliver’s Travels became an instant bestseller. The 1,000 copies of the first edition were sold within the first week. Two further editions were published that same year. Initially, people found the satire amusing, but then newspapers started to venture guesses which real-life figures Swift’s fictional characters represented. Soon authors such as Walter Scott and William Thackeray accused Swift of expressing his hatred of people in general through his description of the Yahoos.

The novel was also popular on screen. Probably the best-known film adaptations are George Méliès’s 1902 version Le Voyage de Gulliver and Jack Sher’s 1960 version The Three Worlds of Gulliver, which took some artistic license with the source material. More recently, a modernized version of Gulliver’s Travels appeared in 2010, starring Jack Black.

About the Author

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, to English parents. His father, after whom he was named, died shortly before he was born, and his mother, Abigail Erick, sent him to live with his uncle Godwin Swift in England. Jonathan Swift returned to Ireland to attend Trinity College in Dublin. After finishing his studies in 1686, his mother found him a position as secretary and personal assistant to the English diplomat Sir William Temple. There, Swift met Esther Johnson, whom he nicknamed “Stella.” His relationship with her, as well as with another woman, Esther Vanhomrigh, whom he called “Vanessa,” is unclear. Under Temple’s influence, Swift published several political and religious essays and pamphlets, most of them anonymously under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. His best-known work of this time is A Tale of a Tub, a satire against “the numerous and gross corruptions in religion and learning,” published in 1704. Other works include the critical poem A Description of a City Shower in 1710 and satires such as The Battle of the Books (1704) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). Swift was ordained a priest in Ireland in 1695 and was appointed vicar of Kilroot. Initially a staunch Whig supporter, Swift switched over to the Tories in 1710 as he couldn’t agree with the Whig stand on the situation in Ireland. He became editor of the Tory journal, The Examiner. Later, he was appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, as a reward for his services. He continued writing throughout the 1720s and early 1730s, including poems as well as political pamphlets. He started working in earnest on his greatest and best-known satire Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in 1721 and finished it by August 1725. Its success was immediate. During this time, Swift had close friendships with the poet Alexander Pope and the poet and dramatist John Gay. Throughout his life, Swift suffered from a form of vertigo, known today as Ménière’s disease. He was declared of “unsound mind” in 1742 due to his increasing dementia, and he died on October 19, 1745, in Dublin.


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