I love me some Jonathan Swift, so the last few posts have been focused on his life and writings, and this post is no different, as we are going to be looking at the four-part prose piece Gulliver’s Travels. At least, it’ll be a brief overview if you haven’t read it in a while. And, if you haven’t read it, I suggest that you do! Because it’s full of adventure, satire, and wit, and what more could lovers of literature ask for?
Surgeon and sea captain Lemuel Gulliver survives a shipwreck and finds himself a captive of Lilliput, which has very small inhabitants that stand about about six inches in height. Gulliver learns all about their strange customs and the odd way they go about politics, including rope dancing and deciding one’s party affiliation based upon the type of shoes one wears. After defending the Lilliputions from an invading Blefuscu fleet (a battle that was to be fought over how an egg should be cracked), Gulliver turns down the option to invade and enslave the Blefuscu nation. He flees from the Lilliputians and finds a human-sized boat that allows him to sail back to England.
Venturing out once again as a ship’s surgeon, Gulliver finds himself in Brobdingnag, where there lives a race of giant people. After being discovered and taken to a farm, Gulliver is sold to the Queen of the Brobdingnags but does well by impressing the court with his antics. However, after Gulliver describes his homeland, the king comes to the conclusion that England is a disgusting place to live filled with disgusting people. Moreover, the king of Brobdingnag becomes disturbed by Gulliver after he claims to be able to make cannons and gunpowder because it would enable unnecessary violence. Later, while Gulliver looks out over the sea from his portable room, he is picked up by an eagle. The bird drops him into the sea where a ship spots him and rescues him, thus ending his second voyage.
While on route to Levant, Gulliver’s ship is beset by pirates and he is left in a small boat to survive on his own. Here, set adrift, Gulliver discovers Laputa, a flying island that is dominated by people who have one eye looking inwards and one eye looking upwards. They are lost in thought, though excellent at music and math. What they lack is practical application of these skills. The Laputans also have flappers that have to keep them focused on the present because the Laputans get lost in their thoughts.
Gulliver then travels to Lagado, the capital city of Balnibarbri and finds the people living in ruin—the reason for this is because the most learned of them use science for the most inane practical application. He then travels to Glubbdubdrib, and learns the real history of the world from conjured historians of his own civilization and then he travels to Luggnagg where he meets the Struldbrugs, who are people who have attained immortality but are despondent because they age as mortals, which adds a certain amount of distress to their lives. He leaves for England the way of Japan to end his third journey.
For Gullivers fourth and final voyage, he travels to Houyhnhnm after being stranded by pirates and a mutinous crew once again. He is discovered by Yahoos (ugly humans) who assail him. After he is saved by horse creature (a Houyhnhnm), he discovers that they are intelligent, rational, and kind. The Yahoos, Gulliver finds, stand in contrast, as they are wanton degenerates. The Houyhnhnms act as the masters of the Yahoos, who do their bidding as a horse would in Gulliver’s world (pulling carriages, etc.). The Houyhnhnms eventually discover that Gulliver must be a Yahoo because of how disgusting humans are and their similarities to the Yahoos. Gulliver is sent away, venturing home in a canoe and is again discovered by another ship. Having experienced a great deal of revelations and upset throughout his journeys, Gulliver realizes that he can’t stand to be around civilized Yahoos as he finds them disgusting and instead chooses to buy and care for some horses. His new life away from grossly immoral human creatures ends the book.
Why this Book is Important
Well, for starters, it’s one of the books that helped kick off the novel craze (remember: neoclassical era). It’s also a heavy satire piece that mocks customs, laws, knowledge, opinions, and culture. Each travel deals with a different part of society, from the inane arguments of politicians, to the way we as humans view ourselves in the scope of intellectual thought. It can be a vicious, pessimistic look at humanity, but it’s just too damn imaginative to ignore!