Gulliver's giant feet walking in the diminuative forest of the lilliputians

Gulliver's Travels

by Jonathan Swift

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Last Updated on June 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056


*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...

(This entire section contains 1056 words.)

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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.


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During Gulliver's stay in Lilliput, the work's most popular section, Swift depicts a common childhood fantasy—a world proportioned for very small people, the tallest being only about six inches. In Lilliput a child's fascination with dolls or toy soldiers comes to life as Gulliver plays the role of benevolent giant for a little people who have exaggerated ideas about their self-importance. In contrast, when Gulliver reaches the land of Brobdingnag he finds himself surrounded by a race of giants, making him feel like a Lilliputian. In both worlds, Gulliver finds that he must use his wits to survive. Not only does he manage to feed, clothe, and shelter himself—all of which, considering the circumstances, require ingenuity and courage—but he also learns the languages and customs and turns them to his advantage.

Gulliver's last two journeys are less popular and more disturbing than the first two. During these excursions, Swift becomes more critical of human nature, and the reader tends to lose faith in Gulliver as an anchor of reason. Even so, Swift's imagination and wit make reading these journeys fascinating and thought-provoking. For example, in the land of the Houyhnhnms, humans are subjugated by horses, a concept that turns eighteenth-century reality on its head, much like Planet of the Apes does for the twentieth century.

Through Gulliver's descriptions of these societies, Swift provides examples of a range of human traits from the contemptible to the admirable. He first presents these traits at a distance, enabling the reader to feel detached and laugh at the silly foibles of these Lilliputians or Brobdingnagians. Gradually, the reader comes to see that many of the contemptible traits of these strange races are human traits as well. Although Swift specifically satirizes eighteenth-century English society, his sweep is universal. A reader who understands the political history of England will certainly have a rich experience reading Gulliver's Travels. At the same time, an intelligent reader will understand what Swift is saying about human nature while enjoying the fantasy world he has created.

Literary Style

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Point of View

Lemuel Gulliver himself narrates the story of Gulliver's Travels, but this first-person narrator is not completely reliable. Though Gulliver is very exact with the details of his travels, and we know him to be honest, sometimes he doesn't see the forest for the trees. Swift deliberately makes Gulliver naive and sometimes even arrogant for two reasons. First, it makes the reader more skeptical about the ideas presented in the book. Second, it allows the reader to have a good laugh at Gulliver's expense when he doesn't realize the absurdity of his limited viewpoint. He certainly sounds foolish when extolling the qualities of gunpowder to the peaceful Brobdingnagians, for example. Also, at the end of the novel, the reader can see that Gulliver has turned into a misanthrope (hater of humanity), but can hear in his voice both here and in the introductory letter to his publisher that he is proud and arrogant in his belief that humans are Yahoos. Because by the end of the book readers are accustomed to being skeptical of Gulliver's perceptions, one can guess that his misanthropy has something to do with his arrogance. Humans simply can't be perfect, and if we hold ourselves to that ideal we will hate humanity, but Gulliver can't see this truth. Swift claimed that it was not he that was misanthropic, but Gulliver, the narrator he created.


Although the fantastic lands that provide the setting for Gulliver's Travels seem unreal today, modern readers should keep in mind that the settings would not have seemed so farfetched to Swift's contemporaries. The novel was written in the 1720s, and Gulliver travels to areas that were still unknown or little explored during this time. The book was written before the discovery of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, for example, where Brobdingnag is supposedly located. It was also before the discovery of an effective means of measuring latitude, which meant it was very difficult for sailors to navigate and explore new territory accurately. Travelogues, or accounts of journeys to foreign lands, were very popular at this time, so the reading public was accustomed to hearing of new geographical discoveries. Thus Gulliver's explorations to new lands, while unusual, would have seemed little different than the strange tales of "exotic" lands in America, Asia, and Africa. Like the travelogues it parodies, Gulliver's Travels even provides maps of Gulliver's journeys in the book to lend more truthfulness to the story.


Structurally, Gulliver's Travels is divided into four parts, with two introductory letters at the beginning of the book. These letters, from Gulliver and his editor Sympson, let us know that Gulliver is basically a good person who has been very much changed by the amazing journeys to follow. Part I follows Gulliver's journey to Lilliput and its tiny people; Part II to Brobdingnag and its giants; Part III to several islands and countries near Japan; Part IV follows Gulliver to the country of the Houyhnhnm. The first and second parts set up contrasts that allow Swift to satirize European politics and society. The third part satirizes human institutions and thinking and is subdivided into four sections that are set in Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, and Luggnagg. The first two sections are seen as a critique of sciences and scholars; the Glubbdubdrib section looks at history; and the Luggnagg section at Swift's fears about getting old. The final section moves from criticizing humanity's works to examining the flawed nature of humanity itself.


The idea of a perfect society, with institutions such as government, school, and churches that are flawless in design, began with the ancient Greeks and was explored by Thomas More's Utopia (1516). Many writers before and since Jonathan Swift have toyed with the idea of utopia, and some contemporary writers have even written novels about antiutopias (properly known as dystopias), in which utopian visions have gone terribly wrong—for example, George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Both of these authors were fans of Gulliver's Travels.

Gulliver finds a near-utopia in the land of Brobdingnag, where war and oppression are unheard of. In this section, Swift incorporated many of the ideas of the social engineers of his day. Swift's impatience with utopian theories is also evident, however. Because the Brobdingnagians are humanlike, their utopia is not completely perfect. They can be insensitive, treating Gulliver as some sort of pet or toy, and their society includes poor beggars. In Luggnagg, Gulliver is told of a race of men who are immortal, and he imagines that their wisdom must be great, making their society well-ordered and their people happy and content. Unfortunately, everlasting life does not combat the effects of old age, and the immortals are objects of pity and disgust. Swift comes close to creating a perfect utopia with the Houyhnhnm, but suggests that man can never really fit in a perfect society, because he is by his nature flawed. Therefore, he can only strive for the ideal, and never reach it.

But would we want to? The Brobdingnagian society is imperfect, but the people are wise and humane. While the Houyhnhnm society does not have grief, lying or deceit, greed or lust, ambition or opinion, it also doesn't have love as we know it. All the Houyhnhnm love each other equally. They choose their mates according to genetics rather than love or passion, and they raise their children communally, because they love all the children equally. Gulliver wants to rise above the human condition and be a Houyhnhnm, but Swift implies that this is neither possible nor necessarily desirable.


An allegory is when characters or events in a work of fiction represent something from reality, such as actual people, places, events, or even ideas. In Gulliver's Travels, and especially in Part I, many of the things Gulliver experiences can be linked to actual historical events of Swift's time. For instance, the religious/political controversy between the Big Enders and Little Enders corresponds to actual conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that led to several wars. Lilliput stands for England, while Blefuscu stands for England's longtime enemy, France. The two-faced Treasurer Flimnap corresponds to the Whig leader Sir Robert Walpole, while the Empress's outrage at Gulliver's extinguishing a palace fire with his urine mirrors the complaints Queen Anne had about Swift's "vulgar" writings. The numerous allegories to be found in the novel added to satire Swift's readers would have enjoyed. They have also provided critics throughout the years with valuable material for analysis.

Literary Qualities

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Swift's masterful use of satire is what has made Gulliver's Travels the delightfully enduring work that it is. Satire has the advantage of allowing the readers to feel that the ridicule is aimed at everyone but themselves. What normally would be tedious and uncomfortable as a lesson can be enjoyable and satisfying when dished out as satire. This is not to say that Gulliver's Travels is a completely comfortable literary work; readers will most likely be disturbed when they see their own flaws subject to ridicule. Swift's use of the literary genre of a travelogue is well suited to his satirical observations. Travel accounts were especially popular during the eighteenth century when parts of the world were still unexplored and could conceivably be inhabited by the exotic creatures and cultures that Gulliver encounters. Thus, Swift was free to intermingle reality, fantasy, and satire with relative impunity.

The first two books of Gulliver's Travels are tightly structured, as Gulliver first looks through the wrong end of a telescope at humanity and then finds himself the subject of microscopic scrutiny. The third book, however, is rambling and episodic, bearing no obvious relationship to the other three. Even though Gulliver is among his own race in this book, he is more the observer and less of a participant than in the other three books. The fourth book, while the most disturbing, follows the pattern of the first two in that Gulliver must adapt to and live within a strange culture.

The conclusion of Gulliver's Travels presents problems. Gulliver returns from his first three voyages and resumes his life with no apparent effects from what he has experienced. After returning from the land of the Houyhnhnms, though, he is a changed man, refusing to acknowledge his connection with the human race. At this stage in his life, he supposedly writes of his travels—after he has come to despise all humans as despicable Yahoos. But the warm, personable Gulliver who describes the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, and the people of Laputa is not the same Gulliver who despises people. The reader's last picture of Gulliver is a sad one. He is now a man who spurns contact with humanity because of his blind worship of a race of horses.


Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context