The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Gulliver’s Travels, as the book is now known, first appeared anonymously. Capitalizing on the lively interest in voyages at the time, Jonathan Swift called it Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World and ascribed it to “Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.” Swift published the book anonymously partly because of the occasional scatological references but more pressingly because of the thinly veiled political satire of England’s powerful first prime minister, Whig party leader Sir Robert Walpole, whom Swift detested and whom contemporaries would have immediately recognized in the ridiculous figure of the tightrope dancer, Flimnap, the treasurer of Lilliput, in part 1.

The first two parts of Gulliver’s Travels form a nicely balanced pair. In Lilliput, where Gulliver first is shipwrecked, he is twelve times as tall as the diminutive local inhabitants. Everything is kept to this scale except for their senseless warring and hypocrisy, which are out of all proportion to their size and therefore seem the more alarming; one, illogically perhaps, expects decent conduct from tiny people. Flimnap, however, so inflated is his ego, accuses Gulliver of having an affair with his six-inch-tall wife.

On the second island on which Gulliver is marooned, the natives are twelve times as tall as he is. He displays all the moral blindness of the Lilliputians in his dealings with the reasonable and generous Brobdingnagians. Gulliver, from his own over-inflated notion of his six-foot self, is offended that the local women do not cover themselves when undressing in front of him. Evidently, like Flimnap in part 1, believes that he is at least their equal. After two years, Gulliver escapes to sea and returns to England.

Gulliver’s third voyage, actually written by Swift after the fourth, is the most scattered in its focus. It is largely political and for this reason is usually not as well received by critics. Gulliver travels to Laputa and encounters scientists and intellectuals whose work is, for the pragmatic parish priest in Swift, altogether too far removed from real life. Attempting to distill sunlight from cucumbers is one of their projects. The Laputan Projectors, in their flying island, tyrannize the inhabitants of Balnibarbi and waste this fertile land. Visiting nearby Luggnagg, Gulliver for a moment envies the Struldbrugs, who live forever, though he quickly changes his mind when he discovers that the immortals do age in the normal way.

His fourth voyage, to the land of the Houyhnhnms (named after the whinnying sound horses make), is the climax of Gulliver’s personal regression. That he cannot approach the level of rationality of the equine race who are in control drives him insane. His much closer resemblance to the bestial, greedy, bellicose, and irrational Yahoos, who are the other native inhabitants, depresses him severely. Viewing him as a possible subversive, the Houyhnhnms invite him to leave their rational world. Finally home again in England, he prefers the stable to his home and can no longer tolerate the company of other humans. Feeling oneself superior to the entire human race, as Gulliver does, is by most definitions a position of insane pride.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Bristol. Port town in southwestern England, where the down-on-his-luck, good-natured Lemuel Gulliver begins his travels. A solid English citizen, Gulliver represents England’s optimistic, rationalistic, and scientific philosophies, which Swift abhorred. A Church of England cleric, Swift maintained that England should look back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and to the Christian Church teachings for guidance and inspiration.


Lilliput (leel-lee-pewt). Island southwest of Sumatra that is the first strange land Gulliver visits after his first ship, the Antelope, is wrecked on its coast. Lilliput is Swift’s satirical representation of the pettiness and small-mindedness inherent in church and state; its inhabitants are barely six inches tall, and features of its landscape are correspondingly tiny. Because of his immense size relative to the Lilliputians, Gulliver feels like a king and becomes an important court minister. In the manner of England’s opposing political parties, two factions of Lilliputians—the Whigs and the Tories—govern the island’s capital city of Mildeno. Despite Gulliver’s enormous size, and his ability to see everything, his shortcomings and his inability to view human nature properly become clear. While attempting to explain England’s politics to the ruler of both Lilliput (and later Blefescu) Gulliver voices Swift’s hatred for humanity in general and England’s Whig Party in particular.


Blefescu (bleh-feh-skew). Island empire that is Lilliput’s northern neighbor and archenemy; its inhabitants, like Lilliput’s, are six inches tall. While Lilliput represents eighteenth century England, Blefescu represents eighteenth century France, England’s traditional enemy. By the eighteenth century, both England and France had been fighting wars on and off for centuries for both political and religious reasons. Reminiscent of the channel that separates England from France, a channel eight hundred yards wide separates Lilliput from Blefescu. Gulliver wades across this channel, captures Blefescu’s entire fleet of warships, and delivers them to Lilliput. He comes to understand the cruelty of the Lilliputians only after they begin using him as a war machine against Blefescu.


Brobdingnag (brohb-deeng-nag). Long peninsula off California in the North Pacific that is the second strange land visited by Gulliver. In book 2 he continues his satire on Enlightenment ideals and English society in Brobdingnag, a land that accentuates human grossness because of the inhabitants’ stupendous size. After a short return to England, Gulliver boards the ship Adventure bound for India, but it is blown off course and winds up on Brobdingnag, whose people are twelve times larger than ordinary human beings. Rats are the size of lions and eat grain that grows forty feet high. Gulliver becomes a sort of pet to the giant queen. Through their dialogues, Gulliver begins to see the foolhardiness of the English court and England in general which Brobdingnag represents.


Laputa (lah-pew-tah). Circular-shaped floating island about ten thousand acres in area that hovers over the terrestrial island of Balnibari; also called the Flying Island by Gulliver. His experience in this land makes obvious just how dangerous are his rationalistic, scientific, and progressive views. On another of his ocean voyages, pirates from a Chinese vessel attack his ship and place him on a rocky island, from which intellectuals who inhabit Laputa rescue him. In their free-floating domain, these scholars literally have their heads in the clouds and do not stand on solid ground.


Balnibari (bal-nee-BAR-ee). Island between Japan and California in the North Pacific over which Laputa floats. It is ruled by an absent-minded king who endorses impractical projects put forth by his Grand Academy.


Glubbdubdrib (glahb-DUHB-drehb). Also known as the Island of Sorcerers, a small island, about fifteen hundred miles southwest of Balnibari, that Gulliver reaches by boat. The island is ruled by magicians, who have the power to bring back the dead. There a magician introduces Gulliver to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.


Luggnagg (lahg-nag). Large island located about three miles southeast of Japan, with which its people conduct trade. This island’s king shows Gulliver the immortal Struldbrugs, who represent the ultimate outcome of the Enlightenment’s theory of the perfectibility of man. After a short trip to Japan—another real land then little known in Europe—Gulliver heads home to England.


Houyhnhnm-land (wheen-num-land). Island in the South Seas on which Gulliver is marooned by the crew of the ship that he captains. Swift’s satire, established in the land of the little people and the giant people in books 1 and 2, is continued in the land of the Houyhnhnms in book 4, in which the author demonstrates the eventual results of the rationalistic philosophy that permeated English thought during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

While everything in Houyhnhnm-land is in correct human proportions, the setting is that of the familiar English countryside. Thus, its impact on the English reader was greater. After Gulliver leaves Portsmouth in 1710, destined for the South Seas, he is cast adrift during a mutiny and washes up on a land where intelligent horses—the Houyhnhnms—are the masters, and slow-witted silent humans—Yahoos—the beasts of burden.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is presented as a utopia with decency, benevolence, and civility ruling every horse’s actions. Here, Gulliver finds no wars and no courts and passes his time in contemplation and light labor. However, love of family is also unknown because the Houyhnhnms regard it as unnecessary, though marriage is regarded as rational, necessary purely to maintain the population. The birth rate is maintained impeccably and scientifically so there is no poverty, but the Houyhnhnms’ overwhelmingly rationalistic ethos results in life being dull and meaningless.

The land of the horses exemplifies the eighteenth century philosopher John Locke’s philosophy that argues that the human mind is a blank slate controlled and developed entirely by impressions made by the environment. Ashamed of being thought a Yahoo, the rational-minded Gulliver lives in perfect contentment among the Houyhnhnms until his master, a horse, throws him out: Gulliver is, after all, in the horses’ estimation, nothing but a filthy Yahoo, and his existence as a talking, thinking human among them is entirely irrational. By now a miserable and bitterly disillusioned misanthrope, Gulliver sails back to England, where he has no chance of ever finding a truly rational man. He lives out the rest of his life in misery, forced forever, he believes, to live among filthy Yahoos.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

England in the 1720s
While Swift was writing Gulliver's Travels in the 1720s, England was undergoing a lot of political...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

During Gulliver's stay in Lilliput, the work's most popular section, Swift depicts a common childhood fantasy—a world proportioned for very...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Lemuel Gulliver himself narrates the story of Gulliver's Travels, but this first-person narrator is not...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Swift's masterful use of satire is what has made Gulliver's Travels the delightfully enduring work that it is. Satire has the...

(The entire section is 373 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Since any attack on human nature can be disturbing, some readers may have problems with Swift's pessimistic view of humankind. Only a few...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1720s: Robert Walpole is England's first prime minister, and German-born King George I gives him a great deal of authority to run the...

(The entire section is 117 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What characteristics of the Lilliputians and their society does Swift present for ridicule?

2. In what ways does Gulliver act...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Even though Gulliver is an accurate and honest reporter, he is not a reliable narrator. In what ways is he unreliable, and how do readers...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Discuss how Gulliver's Travels change him and the way he perceives his fellow man.

Research actual historical explorers of...

(The entire section is 130 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There are no other prose works by Swift that are actually connected with Gulliver's Travels. Both A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of...

(The entire section is 68 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

A live-action miniseries Gulliver's Travels was made for television in 1996 by Charles Sturridge from a screenplay by Simon Moore. The...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Many have said that A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729) is the best satirical essay ever written. In it, he suggests that the...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Case, A. E. Four Essays on "Gulliver's Travel's." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945. This informative collection is a good...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Erskine-Hill, Howard. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels. (Landmarks of World Literature) Cambridge: Cambridge...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of criticism from the second half of the twentieth century, arranged in chronological order. Essays range from investigations of philosophical context and literary genre to psychoanalytic and deconstructionist approaches.

Brady, Frank, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Gulliver’s Travels”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. A selection of essays examining the philosophical, religious, and scientific background of the work. Examines the literary sources and traditions the book reflects.

Carnochan, W. B. Lemuel Gulliver’s Mirror for Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Relates Swift’s satiric intention to the epistemology of John Locke to illustrate his theory of Augustan satire. An epilogue examines how Gulliver’s Travels anticipates later satirists Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Erskine-Hill, Howard. Jonathan Swift: “Gulliver’s Travels.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A concise, accessible introduction. Final chapter surveys the work’s influence on fiction from Herman Melville to Nathaniel West.

Smith, Frederik N., ed. The Genres of “Gulliver’s Travels.” Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1990. A collection of previously unpublished essays, each taking the standpoint of a different literary genre. An afterword suggests how the reader might navigate the work, given the multiplicity of genres it represents. Assumed is the basic indeterminacy of texts.