Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift


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Summary & Analysis (contains spoilers)

Gulliver’s Travels, before it is anything else, is a satire–both on human nature and travellers’ journals such as Robinson Crusoe–which means there is far more to it than meets the eye and nothing is as it seems.

The novel is divided into four “books” or four distinct adventures.

In the first voyage Gulliver is shipwrecked on an island of little people called Liliputians of which the tale is well known. Gulliver stays among them for a time, falls into and out of favor with the king there and eventually flees to avoid getting his eyes struck out. He is disgusted by their kingdom of fickle politicians. For example, it had always been the tradition for Liliputians to brake their boiled eggs on the larger end but a few generations before Gulliver arrived an Emperor of Lilliput had decreed that all eggs be broken on the smaller end due to an incident with his son getting his finger cut by one of them. The differences between Big-Endians (those who broke their eggs at the larger end) and Little-Endians gave rise to “six rebellions… wherein one Emperor lost his life, and another his crown”. Many commentators on the tale compare this to the dispute between the “High-Heels” (Tories) and “Low-Heels” (Whigs) of England. The Liliputians are beneath Gulliver both in stature and inherent worth.

In the second voyage Gulliver is abandoned by the ship he was sailing and stranded on an island inhabited by giants. A 72ft farmer finds him, takes him as a slave and drags him across the country as a show. He is eventually purchased by the King and befriends him. The King inquires into all the particulars of Gulliver’s country, it’s government, people, laws, warfare and so on. Gulliver, like a true Englishman proudly extols the virtues of his nation but the king far from being impressed as Gulliver expects, is puzzled how a nation could be in so much debt.

He wondered to hear me talk of such chargeable and expensive wars; “that certainly we must be a quarrelsome people, or live among very bad neighbours, and that our generals must needs be richer than our kings.” He asked, what business we had out of our own islands, unless upon the score of trade, or treaty, or to defend the coasts with our fleet?” Above all, he was amazed to hear me talk of a mercenary standing army, in the midst of peace, and among a free people. He said, “if we were governed by our own consent, in the persons of our representatives, he could not imagine of whom we were afraid, or against whom we were to fight; and would hear my opinion, whether a private man’s house might not be better defended by himself, his children, and family, than by half-a-dozen rascals, picked up at a venture in the streets for small wages, who might get a hundred times more by cutting their throats?””

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 142-143). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Gulliver expounds with great pride on the English’s methods of warfare and offers to tell the King how to make gunpowder for the defense of his kingdom.

But: “The king was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made. “He was amazed, how so impotent and grovelling an insect as I” (these were his expressions) “could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner, as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and desolation which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines; whereof,” he said, “some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver. As for himself, he protested, that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom, than be privy to such a secret; which he commanded me, as I valued any life, never to mention any more.””

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 147-148). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Gulliver-again, under the veil of satire–shrugs and dismisses the king’s words as being prejudiced by ignorance.

“But great allowances should be given to a king, who lives wholly secluded from the rest of the world, and must therefore be altogether unacquainted with the manners and customs that most prevail in other nations: the want of which knowledge will ever produce many prejudices, and a certain narrowness of thinking, from which we, and the politer countries of Europe, are wholly exempted.”

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (p. 146). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

But being Satire, the actual effect of Gulliver’s words is to cast doubt on England and all of Europe, who in turn, knowns nothing of the giants of Brobdingnag and pride themselves–infamously in England–of being superior in all the world.

In the Third Voyage (my favorite) Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates and he is marooned. He is rescued by a “floating Island”. The people there are wholly consumed by mathematics and music but to no practical purpose. Their head’s are askewed to one side, one eye points in and the other eye points to the Zenith. They are so wholly consumed with their philosophical, astronomical and mathematical musings that they must always keep a “flapper” nearby. Whenever they wish to speak or listen the flapper must strike them on either the mouth or ear as the case may be.

Their whole life “rotates” around the sun, moon and stars.

These people are under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minutes peace of mind; and their disturbances proceed from causes which very little affect the rest of mortals. Their apprehensions arise from several changes they dread in the celestial bodies: for instance, that the earth, by the continual approaches of the sun towards it, must, in course of time, be absorbed, or swallowed up; that the face of the sun, will, by degrees, be encrusted with its own effluvia, and give no more light to the world; that the earth very narrowly escaped a brush from the tail of the last comet, which would have infallibly reduced it to ashes; and that the next, which they have calculated for one-and-thirty years hence, will probably destroy us. For if, in its perihelion, it should approach within a certain degree of the sun (as by their calculations they have reason to dread) it will receive a degree of heat ten thousand times more intense than that of red hot glowing iron, and in its absence from the sun, carry a blazing tail ten hundred thousand and fourteen miles long, through which, if the earth should pass at the distance of one hundred thousand miles from the nucleus, or main body of the comet, it must in its passage be set on fire, and reduced to ashes: that the sun, daily spending its rays without any nutriment to supply them, will at last be wholly consumed and annihilated; which must be attended with the destruction of this earth, and of all the planets that receive their light from it. They are so perpetually alarmed with the apprehensions of these, and the like impending dangers, that they can neither sleep quietly in their beds, nor have any relish for the common pleasures and amusements of life. When they meet an acquaintance in the morning, the first question is about the sun’s health, how he looked at his setting and rising, and what hopes they have to avoid the stroke of the approaching comet.”

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 182-183). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition

Hmm…sound anything like the scientific community today?

From the island the King of Luputa rules the land below. One day Gulliver decides to visit the land below. He is perplexed why such an intelligent people live in poverty. Their houses are in ruins, their clothing rags, their tables empty. As his traveling companion informed him:

“…About forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 199-200). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Again, sound familiar? Gulliver eventually visits one of these famous academies and walks from room to room where he is shown the hilarious inventions. Wikipedia describes as follows:

At The Grand Academy of Lagado great resources and manpower are employed on researching completely preposterous and unnecessary schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marble for use in pillows, learning how to mix paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons.”

I laughed all the way through that chapter partly because the schemes were so absurd and partly because they don’t seem so different than today–like making artificial wombs to propagate cattle. This is exactly the intended effect of the chapter of course. When Gulliver heard the scientist’s method for uncovering political conspiracies he explained his country’s method. When comparing the two they don’t seem so different:

The plots, in that kingdom, are usually the workmanship of those persons who desire to raise their own characters of profound politicians; to restore new vigour to a crazy administration; to stifle or divert general discontents; to fill their coffers with forfeitures; and raise, or sink the opinion of public credit, as either shall best answer their private advantage. It is first agreed and settled among them, what suspected persons shall be accused of a plot; then, effectual care is taken to secure all their letters and papers, and put the owners in chains. These papers are delivered to a set of artists, very dexterous in finding out the mysterious meanings of words, syllables, and letters: for instance, they can discover a close stool, to signify a privy council; a flock of geese, a senate; a lame dog, an invader; the plague, a standing army; a buzzard, a prime minister; the gout, a high priest; a gibbet, a secretary of state; a chamber pot, a committee of grandees; a sieve, a court lady; a broom, a revolution; a mouse-trap, an employment; a bottomless pit, a treasury; a sink, a court; a cap and bells, a favourite; a broken reed, a court of justice; an empty tun, a general; a running sore, the administration. {5} “When this method fails, they have two others more effectual, which the learned among them call acrostics and anagrams. First, they can decipher all initial letters into political meanings. Thus N, shall signify a plot; B, a regiment of horse; L, a fleet at sea; or, secondly, by transposing the letters of the alphabet in any suspected paper, they can lay open the deepest designs of a discontented party. So, for example, if I should say, in a letter to a friend, ‘Our brother Tom has just got the piles,’ a skilful decipherer would discover, that the same letters which compose that sentence, may be analysed into the following words, ‘Resist -, a plot is brought home – The tour.’ And this is the anagrammatic method.””

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 215-217). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Equally absurd, but Gulliver is in dead ernest–the power and beauty of satire.

Among other absurdities, the scientists of Lagado, try to propagate a breed of naked sheep, due away completely with words and write great books on art and science by randomly generated combinations of words eerily foreshadowing the computer.

Next, Gulliver visits the Glubbdubdrib who are magicians. For servants they call up the dead. They can use a person for 24 hours then cannot summon that person again for three months unless under dire circumstances. The king there gave Gulliver leave to name any person of history he wanted to talk to. so Gulliver conversed with Julius Caesar, Brutus, Pompeii, Alexander the Great and so on. He traced the lineage of the many of the nobility of England but came in time to be disappointed. He saw the degeneration of mankind physically and morally. He heard from the lips of dead men–who cannot lie he was told–of treachery and injustice to honorable persons and of “heroes” who were actually traitors. Instead of viewing mankind as ascending to unprecedented heights, Gulliver came to recognize mankind as falling to its depth.

In Luggnagg Gulliver hears of the struldbrugs who never die. At first he rejoices at the thought of immortality and boasts of all the wonderful things that could be accomplished if one never died. But the people of Luggnagg soon disenchant him. The Strulbrugs are prisoners to earth, they grow old and have no hope of respite. At eighty years old they are declared legally dead.

In Gulliver’s Fourth and Final Voyage he is betrayed by his own crew and marooned on an island inhabited by intelligent horses governed solely by reason and who have no word for lying. The island is also occupied by a race of horrible and savage beasts called Yahoos. Gulliver is abhorred by the sight of them and doubly so when the horses (Houyhnhnms) mistake him for a Yahoo. In time, Gulliver is made to see that mankind is of the same race as the savage yahoos; their appetites, desires, barbarity, uncleanliness the same except that man seemed to possess a higher degree of reason. The lead houyhnhn takes Gulliver under his roof, teaches him the language and converses with him. The horse asks Gulliver about his country and all it’s practices. Here, the tone of the novel grows increasingly sarcastic.

Gulliver says of a lawyers:

“there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that white is black, and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves. For example, if my neighbour has a mind to my cow, he has a lawyer to prove that he ought to have my cow from me. I must then hire another to defend my right, it being against all rules of law that any man should be allowed to speak for himself. Now, in this case, I, who am the right owner, lie under two great disadvantages: first, my lawyer, being practised almost from his cradle in defending falsehood, is quite out of his element when he would be an advocate for justice, which is an unnatural office he always attempts with great awkwardness, if not with ill-will. The second disadvantage is, that my lawyer must proceed with great caution, or else he will be reprimanded by the judges, and abhorred by his brethren, as one that would lessen the practice of the law.”

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (p. 285). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

It is likewise to be observed, that this society has a peculiar cant and jargon of their own, that no other mortal can understand, and wherein all their laws are written, which they take special care to multiply; whereby they have wholly confounded the very essence of truth and falsehood, of right and wrong; so that it will take thirty years to decide, whether the field left me by my ancestors for six generations belongs to me, or to a stranger three hundred miles off.

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 286-287). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Of state officials:

I told him, “that a first or chief minister of state, who was the person I intended to describe, was the creature wholly exempt from joy and grief, love and hatred, pity and anger; at least, makes use of no other passions, but a violent desire of wealth, power, and titles; that he applies his words to all uses, except to the indication of his mind; that he never tells a truth but with an intent that you should take it for a lie; nor a lie, but with a design that you should take it for a truth; that those he speaks worst of behind their backs are in the surest way of preferment; and whenever he begins to praise you to others, or to yourself, you are from that day forlorn. The worst mark you can receive is a promise, especially when it is confirmed with an oath; after which, every wise man retires, and gives over all hopes. “There are three methods, by which a man may rise to be chief minister. The first is, by knowing how, with prudence, to dispose of a wife, a daughter, or a sister; the second, by betraying or undermining his predecessor; and the third is, by a furious zeal, in public assemblies, against the corruption’s of the court.”

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (p. 293). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Two themes in particular struck me in Gulliver’s Travels. One was perspective and the other pride.

Perspective

The book follows several patterns in it’s construction. Gulliver is first big then little, wise then ignorant, the countries are complex then simple, scientific then natural, forms of government are worse/better/worse/better than England’s. Gulliver’s perspective of the tiny Liliputians is that they are vicious, unscrupulous and fickle then the Giant King of Brobdingnag sees Europe in exactly the same light. Gulliver sees the enlightened Laputians as unreasonable and Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master sees humanity as equally so. Upon returning home from the land of the giants Gulliver is struck by how little everything is. England seemed the Queen of the world but when compared with other nations was she? Her wars seemed of the utmost significance when viewed from ground level but when viewed from a 72ft giant they become the senseless quarrels of ants. The buildings were once so tall, the people and her rulers so preeminent; before his fourth journey Gulliver thought his race at the height of civilization but when he returns he is offended by the sight of a fellow “yahoo” and would not suffer to even be near one for the stench. It all depends on perspective.

Pride

To a nation renown for it’s pride Jonathan Swift concludes, in the pseudonym of Gulliver:

when I behold a lump of deformity and diseases, both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience; neither shall I be ever able to comprehend how such an animal, and such a vice, could tally together. The wise and virtuous Houyhnhnms, who abound in all excellences that can adorn a rational creature, have no name for this vice in their language, which has no terms to express any thing that is evil, except those whereby they describe the detestable qualities of their Yahoos, among which they were not able to distinguish this of pride, for want of thoroughly understanding human nature, as it shows itself in other countries where that animal presides. But I, who had more experience, could plainly observe some rudiments of it among the wild Yahoos. But the Houyhnhnms, who live under the government of reason, are no more proud of the good qualities they possess, than I should be for not wanting a leg or an arm; which no man in his wits would boast of, although he must be miserable without them. I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.”

Swift, Jonathan (1997-02-01). Gulliver’s Travels (Classic Starts™) (pp. 344-345). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

By degrees Gulliver, and therefore the reader, is brought to understand that mankind are yahoos. Man has but a pretense of civilization, a mask and clever names for immorality. When Gulliver leaves the island the Hueyhnhns are contemplating the extermination of the yahoo race which the narrator sympathizes with. Here the author, Jonathan Swift, is both right and wrong. He rightly identifies the source of all the world’s evil as man–well, sort of. It would be more accurate to say all the world’s evil and brokenness are a result of man’s CHOICE not man’s ontology, his essence. Man was originally a glorious being capable of great goodness but he forfeited his goodness in the fall when he chose to be an animal. So is the problem man or sin? Depending on how one answers that question will determine our solution. Is man irredeemable? If so, the only solution is extermination. The groaning creation is better off without her cruel husband. I’m beginning to see where the oh-no-man’s-leaving-a-carbon-footprint thinking comes from. That sector of the environmentalist movement may actually have a better handling on man’s fallen state than the rest of the culture. They see that the world is not as it should be and they blame man–rightly. But it is also only through a man that creation will be redeemed. They only have half the picture and therefore–half the answer.

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One thought on “Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

  1. Pingback: Six Month Anniversary | Living In Heavens shadow

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