Gulliver’s Travels

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Gulliver’s Travels

by Jonathan Swift


A satirical narrative set in various fictional kingdoms between 1699 and 1715; first published in 1726 as Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World.


Lemuel Gulliver, a young Englishman, takes sea journeys to Lilliput, where people are six inches tall; to Brobdingnag, where people are giants; to Laputa, a flying island of scientists and philosophers, and its neighboring kingdoms; and to the land of the Houyhnhnms, wise and rational horses who use humanlike brutes as domestic animals.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Jonathan Swift is generally recognized as the English language’s most accomplished prose satirist. Born of an Anglo-Irish family in Dublin, Ireland, in 1667, he worked in England for ten years (1689-99) as private secretary to the British statesman Sir William Temple, becoming ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in 1696. In 1704 Swift published his first major work, A Tale of a Tub, a sharp, ironic attack on corruption in religion and letters. Over the next several years, he published numerous shorter works—essays, articles, pamphlets—on political, religious, and social issues. In 1710, when the Tory party won political power from the Whigs, Tory leaders induced Swift to change sides (he had been a Whig), and for four years he was a leading propagandist for the Tory cause. His political influence ended when the Whigs regained control in 1714, and Swift returned to Ireland, where he became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. He wrote little for the next six years, beginning Gulliver’s Travels in 1721, while at the same time resuming work on other more overtly political subjects (as in The Drapier’s Letters and A Modest Proposal). It was Gulliver’s Travels, however, that won him his widest audience. The narrative has enjoyed an unusual double life—the entire work as a sophisticated satire of politics and human nature, and Part I alone as a time-less children’s fantasy.

Events in History at the Time of the Narrative

The Glorious Revolution

During the 1680s, the English political landscape experienced a series of upheavals that would determine its rough outlines for decades to come. This disruption culminated in 1688 with the “Bloodless” or “Glorious” Revolution, in which the English Parliament replaced James II, England’s last Catholic king, with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange, who became King William III of England. As in 1660 when Charles II had been restored to the throne, Parliament again asserted its right to decide the succession of the English throne, but this time it did so in a way that would have lasting constitutional implications. The offer of the crown to William and Mary was made on conditions—listed in a Bill of Rights—that limited the Crown’s power. Among other provisions, Catholics were barred from occupying the throne; the king was no longer allowed to suspend laws that banned non-Anglicans from filling government positions (including Parliament), nor was he allowed to impose levies or to keep a standing army without Parliament’s consent; and parliamentary elections and proceedings were to be free of interference by the Crown or the courts. Finally, should William and Mary remain childless, after their deaths the crown was to pass to Mary’s younger sister, Anne.

The party system: Whigs and Tories

A new and important factor in both the revolution itself and the constitutional settlement that followed it was the role of political parties. Two parties, the Whigs and the Tories, had emerged during the 1670s in a Parliament that was often divided over a set of related issues. By the turn of the century, these complex issues included the legal status of the Anglican Church, the constitutional position of the monarch, the direction of foreign policy, and management of the economy.

The revolution was largely the work of radical Whigs. Tory opposition sprang from a belief in the divine right of kings, the tenet that monarchs get their right to rule from God rather than from their subjects, which compelled support for the legitimate Stuart heir. Yet Tory unity was difficult, because many Tories also supported the supremacy of the Anglican Church, and James II was Catholic. The Tory party stood for tradition, but its political power was enfeebled when these two strong, contradictory traditions clashed.

In general, the Whigs wanted to limit the official role of the Anglican Church and the power of the Crown, pursue an aggressive war policy against France and Spain (England’s major colonial rivals), and encourage the development of colonialism’s potentially vast economic benefits. Accordingly, it was those who would benefit from such policies—merchants, bankers, businessmen, and others in the religiously diverse and increasingly wealthy middle class—who tended to make up the Whigs’ power base. Tory wealth, by contrast, generally came from land, not cash. Tories stood for the power of the king and the sanctity of legitimate royal succession, a sea-based military strategy rather than the Whigs’ expensive land campaigns, and a minimalist approach to risky colonial endeavors. The Tories also stood for the Anglican Church, particularly the High Church, or conservative branch, whose members championed traditional rites and church hierarchy. Members of the less conservative Low Church, which stressed instead a follower’s biblical faith and piety, tended to become Whigs, as did Dissenters (Protestants who refused to belong to the Anglican Church). The Tory and Whig parties became known as the High-Church and Low-Church parties, respectively, an association alluded to in Gulliver’s Travels: in Lilliput, there are more High Heels than Low Heels but the Low Heels have all the power, just as in England in 1726, there were more Tories than Whigs, but the Whigs had control of the government.

The early political parties, however, were still new and had not yet developed the discipline and structure they would later possess. The divisions between them were often blurred. For example, to varying degrees many Tories acknowledged a need for reform, and the Glorious Revolution could not have occurred without their often reluctant cooperation. Similarly, a Whig who was also an ardent Anglican might support the Anglican Church’s monopoly on public life (so-called “Test Acts” theoretically excluded non-Anglicans from serving in public office). Indeed, staunch Anglican Jonathan Swift expressed just such support while writing on behalf of the Whigs during the first decade of the eighteenth century.

Scotland and Ireland

Along with helping to establish the party system, the Glorious Revolution also cemented England’s political control over her two Celtic neighbors, Scotland and Ireland. Groups in both kingdoms had offered support to the deposed Catholic monarch James II after his flight from England, Scotland out of loyalty to its own Stuart dynasty (to which James belonged), and largely Catholic Ireland out of religious sympathy. James’s supporters, in both places, were called Jacobites (from Jacobus, Latin for “James”). By the end of 1691, the English under William and Mary had subdued the Jacobite forces and had effectively taken over Scotland and Ireland. In 1707, the Act of Union united Scotland and England; the Scottish Parliament was abolished and Scottish members of Parliament were incorporated into the new Parliament of Great Britain in London.

England’s protectionist trade policies excluded non-English vessels and merchants from trade with the colonies, which had crippled the Irish colonial economy; the burden of similar exclusion was the major factor that drove Scotland into union. From the English viewpoint, union with Scotland was a strategic advantage, for an autonomous Scotland had been a continual threat to English interests. Lacking such strategic value in English eyes, Ireland fared less well, and her parliament’s appeal for union in 1703 was rejected by the English. Ireland would thus continue both to retain a degree of independence and to endure exploitation.

War with France

Jacobite rebellion in Scotland and especially in Ireland was supported by France, England’s long-time enemy, which was enjoying military ascendancy in Europe under its powerful king, Louis XIV. Between 1689 and 1697, England and its allies—the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain—faced France in the inconclusive “War of the Grand Alliance.” In 1700 the Spanish Hapsburg emperor Charles II died without an heir, and war again broke out over who would control Spain and its vast colonial empire, which France’s Louis claimed for his grandson Philip V. This “War of the Spanish Succession” (1701-14) took place on a much larger scale than the previous conflict, and again saw Britain allied with other powers against French might. Owing largely to the skilled generalship of John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, the allies won a series of land victories in Europe, most significantly at Blenheim (1704) and Ramillies (1706). Though Philip V controlled Spain and its colonies when the war was officially concluded at the Peace of Utrecht in 1714, French power was decisively curtailed. Some critics have seen these wars between France and Britain reflected in the struggle between Lilliput and its neighbor Blefescu in Gulliver’s Travels.

Queen Anne (1702-14)

Mary died in 1694, and when William died in 1702, the throne passed


Meeting in Dublin but subordinate to London, the Irish Parliament was entirely Protestant and represented the interests of the “Anglo-Irish,” the Protestant descendents of English immigrants to Ireland. As an Anglican, a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, and a frequent resident of England, Swift might be expected to have supported England’s policies in Ireland. Yet the Anglo-Irish often bridled at England’s exploitative economic measures, and while writing Gulliver’s Travels in Ireland in the 1720s, Swift also began penning protests against English rule that won him wide popularity as an Irish patriot. Best known are The Drapier’s Letters (1724-25) and A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick(1729), in which he ironically suggests ways for the rich to cook and eat the children of the poor, thus alleviating the problems of hunger and poverty all at once.

to Mary’s younger sister Anne, who would be the last of the Stuart monarchs. Though William III had brought Britain into the war, Anne pursued it vigorously. Determined to keep the Crown above the party strife that now dominated Parliament, Anne tried to steer clear of favoring either Whigs or Tories in choosing her ministers. In the end, however, this proved impossible; her very attempts often inflamed party passions.

The most influential minister at the beginning of Anne’s reign was Sidney Godolphin, whose sympathies slowly shifted from the Tories to the Whigs as he worked to win from the Whigdominated Parliament the financial support necessary for John Churchill to pursue the expensive war against France. His informal partnership with Godolphin led Churchill, who similarly started with Tory leanings, to move also to the Whig side. A close friendship between the queen and Sarah Churchill, the duchess of Marlborough, combined with the duke of Marlborough’s military success and the war’s great popularity, ensured the ascendancy of Whig politicians during the first part of Anne’s reign.

By 1707, however, Queen Anne’s friendship with Sarah Churchill had begun to cool, and her


From the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, European nations explored the globe and established colonial outposts from China and India to the Caribbean and the Americas. The eighteenth century would see the rise of a global British Empire, consisting of colonies whose role was to send raw materials to Britain, where they would be turned into finished products. Among the people administering these colonies were Crown officials on behalf of private trading companies, and the corruption of both was legendary. Far from any official oversight, the officials were easily bribed in exchange for trading and other privileges. Near the end of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver delivers a polemic against the rapacity and corruption of colonial practices.

personal dislike of many of the Whig leaders started to undermine her willingness to cooperate with them. Over the next few years, as early successes in the war gave way to stalemate, popular support for the Whigs’ aggressive war aims also declined sharply. By 1710, the party divide had become clearer than at any time before: the Whigs were the party of war, the Tories the party of peace. In that year, with the war now highly unpopular, Queen Anne dismissed Godolphin and her other Whig ministers and replaced them with a group of moderates led by Robert Harley, soon to be made earl of Oxford. Though Harley tried to preserve his independence from party affiliation, partisan conflict forced him into the Tory camp, just as it had earlier forced Godolfin and Marlborough toward the Whigs.

The Tories’ separate peace

The Tories’ chief goal was to end the war, and accordingly Harley opened negotiations with the French almost immediately. These negotiations, kept secret from Britain’s allies, resulted in Britain and France’s signing a separate peace in 1711 under terms that were highly advantageous to Britain. British territorial gains included Gibraltar and Minorca in Spain; the Hudson Bay, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia in Canada; and the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean Sea. The new territory provided British merchants with greater access to Mediterranean and Caribbean trade, supplied the British Navy with ports from which to protect the merchant fleet, and allowed British fishermen to ply the rich fishing banks of the western North Atlantic Ocean; in addition, Britain gained a monopoly on the lucrative slave trade with South America. Britain thus emerged from the war as the leading colonial, commercial, and naval power in Europe. Britain’s allies, by contrast, felt betrayed by Britain’s withdrawal from the war, which dragged on until they too agreed on terms in the 1714 Peace of Utrecht.

George I, the Whig resurgence, and Robert Walpole

With the war over, the big question in British politics became the succession: who would follow the aging, ill, and Protestant Anne (none of whose 15 children had survived) as Britain’s monarch? Tories were bitterly divided on the issue, with some holding out for the Catholic Stuart, James III, but many more supporting another descendent of James I, the German Protestant Prince George of Hanover. (George’s mother, Sophia, had been designated to inherit the English throne by the 1701 Act of Settlement but she died a couple months before Anne, and George was her eldest son.) The Whigs, by contrast, were solidly united behind George, who duly succeeded to the British throne as George I on Anne’s death in 1714.

The Tories had realized with concern that George was a natural ally for the Whigs. As a Lutheran Protestant, he could be expected to oppose the Anglican grip on public life. As not only a British monarch but also a German ruler with interests abroad, he was likely to favor an activist foreign policy. Both of these attitudes reflected Whig, not Tory, values. Tory fears were realized when George dismissed the Tory administration and installed Whig ministers instead. Among them was a skilled and ruthless young politician named Robert Walpole, who became a junior minister and then left the administration to form a power base in Parliament. When Whig leaders were tainted by financial scandal in 1720, Walpole seized the opportunity to take control of the party.

Walpole showed financial prowess, extracting himself from scandal and then dominating the government. He flagrantly exercised patronage, gaining a reputation as an intriguer who bought off opponents with government positions. Critics lambasted him for promoting corruption. In the 1720s, Walpole became “the subject of a continuous campaign of opposition vilification, especially in the press. The newspapers, pamphlets and caricatures” compared him to “the Devil himself. He was caricatured as a highwayman, tartar chief, child murderer, dancing master, boot-licer, despoiler of Magna Carta, serpent, and a host of other unsavoury roles” (Hill, p. 11). Many were convinced that his policies promoted an unstable, unethical regime. Moreover, he was given to ostentation, and in relation to this trait, boasted a mansion and a collection of paintings envied through much of Europe.

Especially infuriating to Swift was the doctrine Walpole seemed to invoke that the government had the right to insure its own survival at the expense of its subjects’ freedom, property, and legal rights. Walpole showed particular disregard for the rights of artists, invoking a Stamp Act and a seditious libel law to censor publishers, and appealing also to the Lord Chamberlain to restrain theater performances that were hostile to him. Certainly he was a target of literary poets, such as Alexander Pope, and novelists, like Swift himself, who satirized Walpole in Gulliver’s Travels.

Despite the unceasing attacks, Walpole dominated British politics for over two decades, until his resignation in 1742. In retrospect, historians have pronounced him a deft administrator and politician. He developed the cabinet system in England and helped transform the House of Commons into the center of power. He is also credited with inventing the modern position of prime minister: that of majority party leader, head of government, and leading royal advisor with responsibilities to Parliament. But Walpole’s was a transitional time in government, and in the early eighteenth century, his achievements were not nearly as apparent as his violation of individual rights and promotion of corrupt politics.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Gulliver’s Travels is narrated by Gulliver and takes place in four parts, each purporting to recount one of his journeys. In Part 1, “A Voyage to Lilliput,” Gulliver, a young doctor, accepts a position as ship’s surgeon on a merchant vessel bound for the South Sea and sets sail in spring 1699. That fall, driven onto a rock by high winds, the ship is destroyed. Gulliver, the sole survivor, swims aimlessly until, just as his energy is spent, he touches bottom and finally struggles onto an unknown shore. Exhausted, he lies down and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself unable to move—his arms and legs are fastened to the ground, and his head is tied down by his long hair. Soon he feels something on his body, and glancing downward with difficulty he sees standing on his chest “a human creature not six inches high” who is soon followed by a small crowd of similar miniature people (Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, p. 16). Gulliver tries to get up, but is peppered with arrows that feel like needles. Subdued, he lies moaning in pain. After lying still for some time, he begins to communicate, signing that he is hungry and thirsty. The tiny people bring him food and drink: entire joints of roast meat smaller than larks’ wings, loaves of bread no bigger than bullets that he eats three at a time, whole casks of wine that he drains in one shot. Soon he feels the need to urinate: “which I very plentifully did, to the great astonishment of the people,” who flee


The early pages of Gulliver’s Travels would have reminded contemporary readers of the financial scandal that cleared Robert Walpole’s path to power: the bursting of the so-called “South Sea Bubble” in 1720. Founded in 1711 to reap the benefits of the peace settlement with France, the South Sea Company prospered from the African slave trade. Then in 1719 the company proposed that it take over much of the massive national debt held by the Bank of England (which the Whigs had founded in 1694 to fund war with France). Securing support from the Whig administration by bribing its leaders with gifts of stock, the company rode a wave of speculation that pushed its stock from £120 to £1,000 between January and August 1720. Then in September this investment bubble burst, creating a national crisis in which many wealthy families were ruined, the money supply dried up, and the bribed leaders were forced to resign in disgrace. A few months later, Swift began Gulliver’s Travels. Like Gulliver, Britain had been taken for a ride to the South Sea, a prosperous voyage—until it ended on the rocks.

“to avoid the torrent which fell with such noise and violence from me” (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 20). They transport him, still restrained, on a wheeled cart to their city and chain him inside a temple. There he is visited by the emperor of Lilliput, as he learns the place is called. Lilliputian scholars are assigned to teach him their language and customs, and he is soon able to communicate freely.

The satire emerges through aspects of Gulliver’s stay in Lilliput and of life in early 1700s England. Lilliput’s emperor (comparable to King George I) has ministers who are chosen by their ability to do acrobatic tricks on a tightrope or, from Gulliver’s perspective, a thread. The best of them is Flimnap, the Treasurer (often equated with Robert Walpole). Second best is Reldresal, who befriends Gulliver, even though the Lilliputans are repeatedly shown as fearful, awestruck, or revolted by Gulliver’s huge relative size. As Gulliver becomes more and more involved with the Lilliputian court circle and especially the emperor, we learn that Lilliputian politics are actually torn by a number of bitter party disputes. For example, those who wear high heels (comparable to the Tories) intransigently oppose those who wear low heels (comparable to the Whigs). The emperor has only low-heel ministers as his advisors; his son and heir wears one of each, which causes him to wobble when he walks. (In real life, King George I’s son was friendlier to the Tories than his father was.) Another rancorous dispute, which has acquired religious overtones, divides those who open their eggs at the small end and those who open them at the big end. Small-Endians (who are like English Protestants) currently prevail in Lilliput, forcing many Big-Endians (like English Catholics) to seek refuge on the nearby island of Blefescu (analogous to mostly Catholic France) and leading to a long-running war between the two kingdoms.

When the emperor reveals that Blefuscu is about to launch a great naval invasion against Lilliput, Gulliver volunteers to help. He wades to Blefuscu, attaches cables to the Blefuscudian ships, and hauls them back to Lilliput. Gulliver balks, however, when the Lilliputian emperor wants him to help conquer the Blefuscudians outright and force them to crack their eggs at the small end: “I plainly protested, that I would never be the instrument of bringing a free and brave people into slavery” (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 51). Soon afterward, when a violent fire breaks out in the royal palace and threatens the empress’s chambers, Gulliver extinguishes the fire by urinating on the flaming building. Urination within the palace walls is a capital offence, however, and the enraged empress (comparable to Queen Anne) vows revenge; the episode marks the beginning of Gulliver’s alienation from the Lilliputians. When he learns that the emperor and his advisors plan to starve him to death, Gulliver flees to Blefuscu. (The parallel here is that many Tories fled from England to France after George I and the Whigs took power.) A few days later, Gulliver finds a human-sized boat washed ashore and uses it to leave Blefuscu. Soon he is picked up by an English ship and returns home, arriving in April 1702.

Part 2, “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” begins two months later when, “condemned by nature and fortune to an active and restless life,” Gulliver again takes a position on a merchant vessel and leaves his wife and two children, bound for India (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 85). Blown off course by a storm, the ship wanders for a year, until land is spotted and a party sent ashore. Gulliver goes with them to explore on his own while the men look for water, but is stranded when he sees “a huge creature” chasing them back out to sea (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 87). After hiding in a field of giant wheat, Gulliver is captured by a gigantic laborer, who turns him over to his similarly colossal employer, a farmer. The situation is now reversed: Gulliver is the puny, awestruck witness of huge, frightening, often unattractive people, whose skin blemishes and gaping pores disgust him just as his frequently did the Lilliputians. Gulliver again rapidly picks up the language, learning that the place is called Brobdingnag. Cared for and befriended by the farmer’s nine-year-old daughter, Glumdalclitch, he is soon being taken around to nearby towns by the farmer, who is able to make a good living charging admission to view him as a freak of nature. Exhausted by the heavy schedule, he is relieved when the farmer takes him to the capital city and the queen offers to purchase him, letting Glumdalclitch remain as his caretaker. Gulliver proves a popular diversion at court, though he tangles repeatedly with the queen’s dwarf, who seems to feel that Gulliver threatens his own situation. The Brobdingnagian king inquires about England and Europe, and Gulliver tries to portray English customs and politics in a positive light. He has some difficulty, which is not eased by the king’s vast amusement at the presumption of such tiny creatures to take their affairs so seriously. Their conversations cloak a critique of English society:

He was perfectly astonished with the historical account I gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments; the very worst effects that avarice … cruelty … envy … ambition could produce.… “My little friend … you have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator. That laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding and eluding them.”

(Gulliver’s Travels, pp. 139-40)

Gulliver has several close calls on this trip. He is taken up to a high rooftop by a pet monkey, for example, and nearly drowned in a pitcher of cream by the jealous dwarf. Finally, the little box he lives in is picked up by a giant eagle and dropped in the ocean, where an English ship happens by and brings him on board. He reaches England in June 1706, where he has great difficulty readjusting to human scale.

Part 3, “A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan,” begins as Gulliver accepts another position as ship’s surgeon, though


In Brobdingnag Gulliver inspires great curiosity among his giant hosts, who exhibit him as a sort of circus sideshow. Midgets and human freaks, as well as monkeys and puppets, were common entertainments for the English in the eighteenth century. Gulliver fears that the Brobdingnagians will find him a mate to bear his children; in fact, such a family was put on display in 1712 in London. The exhibit, which became known as the “Little Family,” featured a man who was only three feet tall, his pregnant wife, and their little horse.

he has trouble persuading his neglected wife and children to let him take the job. Setting out in August 1706 for the East Indies, the ship arrives in Asian waters the following April. There it is attacked and boarded by Dutch pirates, who cast Gulliver adrift in a small boat with just a few days’ provisions. Spotting some islands in the distance, Gulliver makes for them, ending up on the farthest one, which is rocky and almost barren. Suddenly he is amazed to see “a vast opake [opaque] body” blotting out the sun, a circular “island in the air” (in some respects, analogous to England) that floats slowly along, and on which he can make out human inhabitants who seem able to guide its course (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 167). They let down a chain and pull him up. He is immediately struck by their bizarre appearance: their heads lean to the side, one eye looks up and the other “inward,” and their clothes are “adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars, interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guittars, harpsicords, and many more instruments of musick, unknown to us in Europe” (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 169). He learns that the island is called Laputa, and that its inhabitants’ lives are dominated by astronomy, mathematics, and music. They spend their time in abstract musings, being so lost in thought that they must be attended by “flappers,” whose job it is to tap their mouths and ears


In Swift’s day, literary men especially laughed at what they saw as the antics of the institution known in England as the Royal Society. The society, formed in 1660, dedicated itself to experiments that would promote knowledge. The problem, from the point of view of Swift and his contemporaries, was its emphasis on seemingly impractical inventions and on the study of the trivial or obvious. The society gave rise to experiments to determine that air was necessary for life, for example, and to discover the anatomy of a flea. That learned men should spend valuable time on such concerns inspired ridicule. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele “derided the Fellows [of the Royal Society] as being of little wit, dull and without learning, kept out of the real world, that is the political world, because they were distracted by playing with such toys as scientific instruments, more interested in insects … than in man, society and God” (Hall, p. 167). The derision was lodged publicly in the journals the Tatler and the Spectator (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and its Times). It became fashionable to laugh at the Fellows, though this did not suggest a complete dismissal of the value of experiment. Swift “would have agreed wholeheartedly with the King of Brobdingnag, who “gave it for his Opinion; that whoever could make two Ears of corn, or two Blades of Gras to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before; would … do more essential Service to his Country, than the whole Race of Politicians put together” (Downie and Swift in Downie, p. 281).

lightly with special sticks in order to keep their minds on what they’re saying or hearing.

Guided by its king, who controls the island’s flight through magnetic forces, Laputa floats over an island called Balnibarbi. There, influenced by the Laputans, the people have been seized by a mania for “projecting,” which (the reader soon realizes) means coming up with intricate, unfinished schemes for doing useless things with a maximum of wasted effort. At a special academy one “projector,” for example, has a plan to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and store it in vials, to help the king’s garden during cloudy weather. One hopes to take human excrement and turn it back into food; another works on “a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof” and working down, taking as his model the bee and the spider (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 192). There is a complex machine for grinding out words at random in order to make new books on science, philosophy, and other subjects.

Gulliver then visits two more islands: Glubbdubdrib, where the people are sorcerers and conjure up famous figures from history for him to meet; and Luggnagg, where he encounters the wretched Struldbruggs, who have immortality without lasting youth, so that their bodies and minds simply become more and more decrepit. Leaving Luggnagg, Gulliver makes a brief visit to Japan before returning to England in April 1710.

Part 4, “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” is Gulliver’s final journey, which he undertakes in September 1710. This time he is made captain of his own ship, but his disaffected crew mutiny and put him ashore and leave him as soon as they can. Moving inland, he comes upon some grotesque and ugly Yahoos, which surround him threateningly until a horse approaches and they flee. The horse examines him curiously; another arrives and Gulliver soon realizes that they are conversing in a manner that seems highly “orderly and rational” (Gulliver’s Travels, p. 240). The two gentle horses escort him to a house, which Gulliver slowly realizes belongs to the first horse, a dapple-grey, to whom the other horses seem to defer. Out in the yard are a number of the grotesque creatures, which a shocked Gulliver believes to be humans—wild, dirty, unclothed, and dumb, but still recognizable. The first word he learns is the horses’ name for these humanlike beings, whom they call “Yahoos” and use in the some of the same ways that Europeans use horses. The horses themselves are Houyhnhnms, and it is in their calm, well ordered society that Gulliver, whom they see as a uniquely intelligent Yahoo, finds true happiness. Like the Brobdingnagians, the Houyhnhnms are curious about European ways, and particularly about English politics, which Gulliver again finds himself uncomfortable explaining. As in Brobdingnag, the conversation here constitutes a critique of English society.

He asked me what were the usual causes or motives, that made one country go to war with another.... Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern: sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration.... 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.... I was going on to more particulars, when my master commanded me silence … He said … when a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty, might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that instead of reason, we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices.…

(Gulliver’sTravels, pp. 261-64)

Gulliver begins to adopt the Houyhnhnms’ outlook and to think of Europeans as savage Yahoos. Having lived among the Houyhnhnms for five years, he is heartbroken when their General Council orders him to leave. Considering a plan to exterminate the Yahoos, they fear that Gulliver might incite a rebellion. He sets out in a small boat and is picked up by a Portuguese ship, whose generous and kindly captain looks after the unhappy and disgusted traveler. In December 1715 he finally returns to England and his family, but five years later, as he begins to write his account of his voyages, he still cannot stand to be touched by his wife or children, whom he continues to see as Yahoos. Instead, he buys two horses and spends hours every day talking to them. He ends his account with a diatribe against human pride.

Perspective and reason

Among Gulliver’s most useful qualities at the start of his adventures is his openness to the language and customs of the people he encounters, a flexibility that helps him adapt to strange situations with often surprising ease. Yet each new perspective he adopts seems to chip away at his own, so that he appears less and less able to evaluate the behavior that he encounters. Instead, he simply accepts it uncritically. In Lilliput, for example, while taking the Lilliputians more seriously than the reader knows he should, he does at least refuse the emperor’s request to vanquish the Blefuscudians; later he admires the obviously nonsensical schemes of the “projectors” and still later is undisturbed by the Houyhnhnms’ plans to exterminate the Yahoos. His long, self-inflicted ordeal changes him from a seemingly well-adjusted, if already credulous, young man to a ranting misanthrope who is clearly mentally unbalanced. Gulliver loses his prodigious elasticity: stretching too easily, he can no longer snap back.

This process provides the narrative framework for Swift’s caustically ironic treatment of his main two satirical targets, human nature and human politics. It also provides the common bull’s-eye that these targets share, which is the belief in reason as our defining characteristic. Starting in the seventeenth century, philosophers such as René Descartes (1596-1650) and John Locke (1632-1704) had ushered in what is commonly called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. We are rational animals, claimed these and other Enlightenment figures: reason plays the central role in determining both our nature and our political institutions. By contrast, in an often quoted letter, Swift gives a clear summary of his overall aim in writing Gulliver’s Travels: “proving the falsity of the definition animale rationale; and to show that it should only be rationis capax” (Gulliver’s Travels, p. xxxi). In other words, Swift wished to show that man was not a “rational animal,” as the Enlightenment writers would have it, but simply “capable of reason” at moments. Significantly, it is after visiting the most superhumanly (or, as some critics have argued, inhumanly) rational beings on his itinerary, the Houyhnhnms, that Gulliver has the most trouble snapping back to a human existence and a human perspective. It is part of the irony that too heavy an exposure to reason makes Gulliver lose his own; he is least rational when he thinks himself most, and has lost his perspective just when he is most certain of it.

Sources and literary context

While Swift was writing for the Tories in London, he and his friends Gay and Pope (along with a few others) founded the Scriblerus Club, in which the idea was to create a collaborative work of satire. Tenuous evidence suggests that Swift may have used some of this material for Gulliver’s Travels. More certain is that Swift drew on an array of models in choosing the form his work would take. Swift and other satirists of his day looked to classical forerunners, such as the Greek Menippus (third century b.c.e.) and the Roman Lucian (second century c.e.). In their works and those of their followers could be found devices such as fantastic journeys, utopian parodies, and conversations with the spirits of famous figures in history. For Lilliput and Brobdingnag, the most obvious inspiration is the masterpiece of the French writer Frangois Rabelais (c. 1494-1553), Gargantua and Pantagruel, which features giants and comic inversions of scale, along with much scatological humor and sharp irony. Cyrano de Bergerac’s satirical fantasies Comic History of the Estates and Empires of the Moon(1656) and Comic History of the Estates and Empires of the Sun(1657) have the hero being exhibited for money by a race of giants; the hero also encounters a race of birds on the sun who judge humanity and find it wanting, much like Swift’s Houyhnhnms. A growing number of travel books (about which Gulliver complains) had appeared by the time Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation(1589) to William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World(1697). Maps were also increasingly available in this age of commercial exploration, and Swift (who never traveled further than Ireland) is careful to keep his geography accurate, which heightens the effect of his fictional settings. Finally, there were popular ship wreck tales: a true account by Alexander Selkirk, who in 1704 was left on a deserted island by pirates and was not rescued for five years; and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe(1719), based on Selkirk’s book.


The success of Gulliver’s Travels was immediate and lasting, with a reported 10,000 copies sold in its first week and a steady readership ever since. As John Gay reported in a letter from London to Swift in Ireland:

About ten days ago a book was published here of the travels of one Gulliver, which hath been the conversation of the whole town ever since: the whole impression sold in a week; and nothing is more diverting than to hear the different opinions people give of it, though all agree in liking it extremely…. From the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.

(Gay in Bellamy, p. 10)

Samuel Johnson wrote that “it was received with such avidity, that the price of the first edition was raised before the second could be made; it was read by the high and the low, the learned and the illiterate” (Johnson in Bellamy, p. 12). Despite its huge popular success, some critics were shocked by the portrayal of the Yahoos—a word which, like “Lilliputian,” has entered standard English. Ironically, this is the section that has become the favorite of modern scholars.

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Bellamy, Liz. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. London: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Black, Jeremy. The Politics of Britain, 1688-1800. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1993.

Downie, J. A. Jonathan Swift Political Writer. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

Hall, Marie Boas. Promoting Experimental Learning: Experiment and the Royal Society 1660-1727. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hill, Brian W. Sir Robert Walpole: Sole and Prime Minister. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989.

Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Black, Jeremy. Robert Walpole and the Nature of Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Erskine-Hill, Howard. Swift: Gulliver’s Travels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lockyer, Roger. Tudor & Stuart Britain 1471-1714. Harlow, England: Longman, 1964.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Knopf, 1991.

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Gulliver’s Travels

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