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.