Last Reviewed on May 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 805
Captain William Robinson, an old friend of Gulliver’s, offers him very attractive terms, including double pay and a share in the command, to undertake a voyage to the East Indies. The ship sets out in August 1706. The voyage begins well, but after many months at sea, they are attacked by pirates. Having taken the ship, the pirates set Gulliver adrift in a small canoe. He eventually lands on a rocky, uninhabited island, where he finds some eggs to eat.
Looking up, Gulliver perceives a huge opaque object hovering in the air between him and the sun. As this object draws closer, he sees people moving about on what appears to be a flying island. He manages to attract the attention of some of them, and they speak to him in a smooth, polite-sounding language, which resembles (but is not) Italian. Gulliver goes toward the shore of his rocky island, and the flying island hovers directly above him, while someone lets down a chain with a seat on the bottom and draws him up to it.
When he alights on the flying island, Gulliver is surrounded by a crowd of strange-looking people. Their heads all incline either to the left or the right, and each has one eye turned inward and the other upward. They wear clothes adorned with pictures of the sun, moon, and stars, and of musical instruments. Many of the servant class carry a bladder filled with dried peas, tied to the end of a stick, the use of which is to attract the attention of whoever is supposed to speak or listen, since these people are often lost in thought.
Gulliver proceeds to the palace and enters the throne room, where the king is surrounded by scientific instruments and is so deeply immersed in a mathematical problem that it is at least an hour before he can be brought to notice Gulliver. The king attempts to question Gulliver, but they have no language in common. He orders his servants to bring dinner for Gulliver, and when it arrives, all the food is cut up into mathematical figures or shaped like musical instruments. The king then sends a tutor who sits with Gulliver for four hours, attempting to teach him the language of Laputa, which is the name of the flying island.
The next morning, a tailor comes to make clothes for Gulliver. He takes the measurements with quadrant, rule, and compasses but makes a mistake in the calculations so that when the clothes arrive, they do not fit. This accords with the general attitude of the people in Laputa, who regard mathematics as a purely abstract subject and disdain its practical uses, such as geometry. Hence, everything there is very poorly made, and the houses are built “without one right angle in any apartment.” The Laputans have a great contempt for any application of knowledge and concern themselves only with theoretical disputes. The women of the island often long to leave it, along with their husbands, who pay very little attention to them. Gulliver relates that the wife of the prime minister, the richest subject on the island, left him for an old, deformed footman who would beat her every day.
Gulliver is given leave by the king of Laputa to explore the island and sets down a brief account of it here. The island is exactly circular and is about four and a half miles in diameter and three hundred yards thick, with iron underneath and soil on top. The island is made to rise and fall by means of a loadstone, which is magnetized to attract at one end and repel at the other, drawing the island toward or pushing it away from the earth beneath.
The loadstone is cared for by certain astronomers, who steer the island at the king’s direction, though they spend most of their time observing the celestial bodies. They have excellent telescopes and have made far more extensive discoveries than European astronomers, having compiled a catalogue of ten thousand fixed stars and observed ninety-three comets, along with much else.
The king of Laputa governs not only the flying island itself, but the land beneath it, called Balnibarbi, upon which the capital of Lagado is located. If the towns below rebel, he can either use the flying island to block out the sun and rain or, as a last resort, drop the island directly onto the offending town, crushing all the inhabitants to death. This very seldom happens, however, both because it would be a very drastic punishment for the town in question and because it might damage the flying island itself. The king himself is prevented by law from leaving the flying island, as are his two eldest sons and the queen, until she is past the age of childbearing.
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