Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951
Lemuel Gulliver, the protagonist and first-person narrator, briefly introduces himself. His father was a minor landowner in Northamptonshire, and Gulliver was educated at Emanuel College, Cambridge, and the University of Leiden. He studied medicine and became a surgeon, working from time to time on board various ships. In 1699, having failed to make a success of his medical practice in London, Gulliver again accepted a position as ship’s surgeon on board the Antelope and set sail from Bristol for the South Seas.
Sailing from the South Seas to the East Indies, the Antelope is struck by a violent storm. The ship is wrecked, but Gulliver escapes and finally manages to swim to land, where he soon falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself unable to move, as he is tied down to the ground. He feels something moving on his leg, and this creature then advances across his body to his chin. It turns out to be a human figure less than six inches high, armed with a bow and arrow. Gulliver perceives that there are at least forty other similar figures behind the first. He gives a loud roar, frightening the little people, but they soon return and try to communicate with him in a language he does not understand. When this fails, and he attempts to free himself, they shoot at him with arrows, which are painful but not dangerous, until he lies still. At this point, a great lord, or hurgo, makes a long speech to him, which he does not understand. The people give him food and wine, after which he sleeps again.
Using a system of pulleys, the little people (who are known as Lilliputians, after their country, Lilliput) raise Gulliver onto a frame on wheels, and fifteen hundred horses pull him to the capital city. They give him a huge abandoned temple in which to stay, and the emperor, the principal lords of the court, and over 100,000 other people come out to see him.
The emperor comes out on horseback to inspect the captive Gulliver. They attempt to communicate, and Gulliver tries various languages, including Dutch, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, but to no avail. Hundreds of beds, sheets, and blankets are provided for Gulliver to sleep in the temple, which he calls his “house.”
Gulliver later discovers that at this time, the emperor and his court held frequent meetings to determine what they should do with him. They were concerned about the possibility of his escaping and thought that the burden of feeding him might cause a famine. However, the court is impressed upon hearing that when six men tried shooting arrows at Gulliver, he merely put them in his pocket, then let them go. This demonstration of clemency leads the emperor to favor Gulliver and continue to provide food and servants for him. Having taken an inventory of his possessions, however, the Lilliputians confiscate Gulliver’s scimitar, pistols, and supply of gunpowder.
Gulliver quickly becomes a favorite of the emperor, who commands performances to be put on for his amusement. One of these is a rope-dancing display, which particularly intrigues Gulliver. Candidates for high office, as well as existing lords of the court, dance upon a slender white thread, which is supposed to demonstrate their suitability to wield power. Another game of a similar kind involves the emperor holding out a stick, which competitors must either leap over or crawl under. Gulliver enjoys these games and even devises a new one for exercising the horses. The emperor later orders Gulliver to stand with his legs apart so that troops consisting of a thousand cavalry and three thousand foot-soldiers can march beneath him. Some of them look up, and Gulliver admits that the condition of his breeches causes “some opportunities for laughter and admiration.”
Shortly after this, the emperor grants Gulliver his liberty, in which he is supported by everyone at court except Admiral Skyresh Bolgolam, who has decided, without provocation, to be Gulliver’s enemy. Gulliver has to swear a solemn oath, including various provisions. He must not leave Lilliput or come into the capital without permission. He will do his best to avoid harming any Lilliputians. He will also be their ally in the forthcoming battle against the neighboring island of Blefuscu, which is now preparing to invade Lilliput. Having agreed to all these conditions, Gulliver is released from his chains.
Having been freed, Gulliver makes a special request to be allowed to see Mildendo, the Lilliputian capital. He describes the city and the emperor’s palace, giving many precise dimensions, from a courtyard forty feet square to gates eighteen inches high. He announces his intention of someday composing a greater work which will contain a much fuller description of Lilliput than he is able to give here.
About a fortnight after his liberation, Gulliver receives a visit from Reldresal, one of the emperor’s ministers. Reldresal explains to him that Lilliput is plagued by factionalism, as well as by threats from outside. The greatest danger is from Blefuscu, with which they have been engaged in a war for the last three years. This war began with a dispute about the correct end of an egg to break before eating it. Many Lilliputians who prefer to break the big end of the egg (“Big-endians”) have found refuge at the court of Blefuscu and encouraged the emperor of that island to invade Lilliput. The conflict has so far claimed eleven thousand lives of Big-endian martyrs, who have died rather than consent to break their eggs at the smaller end. Gulliver assures Reldresal that, despite being a foreigner, he will loyally defend Lilliput and its emperor against all enemies.