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Book Review: Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift

One-line summary: A satire, a children's story, and an early work of science fiction.



Published 1726, Approximately 104,680 words. Available for free at Project Gutenberg.


Gulliver's Travels is Jonathan Swift's satiric masterpiece, the fantastic tale of the four voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, an English ship's surgeon. First, he is shipwrecked in the land of Lilliput, where the alarmed residents are only six inches tall. His second voyage takes him to the land of Brobdingnag, where the people are sixty feet tall. Further adventures bring Gulliver to an island that floats in the sky, and a land where horses are endowed with reason and beasts are shaped like men.

Read by children as an adventure story and by adults as a devastating satire of society, Gulliver's Travels remains a fascinating blend of travelogue, realism, symbolism, and fantastic voyage--all with a serious philosophical content.




Cross-posted to bookish and books1001.

Most people know that Jonathan Swift was a satirist, yet of all his works, Gulliver's Travels is the one most often taken at face value. Because it's so full of entertaining fantasy, it's easy to miss everything else Swift was writing about. Like many classics, Gulliver's Travels has earned its place by being equally entertaining to children and adults.

The captain was very well satisfied with this plain relation I had given him, and said, "he hoped, when we returned to England, I would oblige the world by putting it on paper, and making it public." My answer was, "that we were overstocked with books of travels: that nothing could now pass which was not extraordinary; wherein I doubted some authors less consulted truth, than their own vanity, or interest, or the diversion of ignorant readers; that my story could contain little beside common events, without those ornamental descriptions of strange plants, trees, birds, and other animals; or of the barbarous customs and idolatry of savage people, with which most writers abound."


I remember reading this book when I was a child and enjoying Gulliver's fantastic tales: the tiny Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians, the flying island of Laputa, the noble talking horses, and the savage Yahoos. I was too young, of course, to recognize that Swift wasn't just writing a children's story. Rereading it as an adult, the satire is obvious.

It's similar in a lot of ways to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and like Alice, some of the humor consists of in-jokes that will go over the heads of modern readers. Swift was particularly targeting the Whigs of his day, as well as spoofing the "travelogue" genre that was highly popular at the time. (In nearly every chapter, Gulliver gives a fantastic account of his experiences and then ends with a comment like: "I shall not trouble my reader with all the curiosities I observed, being studious of brevity.")

Besides being one of the earliest English novels and a notable work of satire, I think Gulliver's Travels also deserves credit for pioneering the science fiction genre, having more in common with the novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne that followed a couple centuries later than the myths and fairy tales that preceded it. Swift writes about the Lilliputians, the Brobdingnagians, the Laputans, the Yahoos, and the Houyhnhnms with naturalistic detail, giving his story the tone of a stranger traveling through one alien civilization after another.

Several Remote Nations of the World



Lemuel Gulliver is a ship's surgeon who goes to sea hoping to improve his fortune. Four times in a row, he goes to sea, is stranded by one misfortune or another, spends months or years in some fantastic place (where he quickly learns to speak almost as well as a native, as he repeatedly reminds us of his facility for languages), and eventually finds his way home. Each time his wife begs him not to leave again, but he always convinces her he's going to bring back a fortune this time.

I'd guess that everyone who has heard of Gulliver's Travels knows about Lilliput, and probably most know about Brobdingnag; both "Lilliputian" and "Brobdingnagian" entered the English lexicon thanks to Swift. But Gulliver's Travels consists of four parts, of which Lilliput and Brobdingnag are only the first two.

Lilliput: Big-endian and Little-ending



On his first voyage, the one portrayed in every adaptation and abridgment, Gulliver washes ashore and finds himself lashed to the ground by a small army -- literally. The Lilliputians are six inches tall, and everything in Lilliput, from trees to cattle to birds, are scaled accordingly. Hence we get many descriptions of how many hundreds of tablecloths had to be stitched together to make clothes for Gulliver, how many barrels of wine he drinks, how many whole sheep and pigs and geese he consumes, etc.

It's easy to understand why this is the part that appeals most to young readers, the idea of being a giant in a toy-like world. But as Gulliver learns about the Lilliputians, he finds that they are divided by a bitter schism between Little-endians and Big-endians: rival kingdoms have gone to war over which side of an egg should be properly broken before eating. Even without knowing exactly which real-life counterparts Swift had in mind, it's obvious the sort of mentality he was skewering. Nor does he stop there; this part was, according to the Wikipedia article, actually left out of the first printing, for fear that certain people would find it a little too satirical and have Swift and his publisher arrested:


This diversion is only practised by those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favour at court. They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office. Very often the chief ministers themselves are commanded to show their skill, and to convince the emperor that they have not lost their faculty. Flimnap, the treasurer, is allowed to cut a caper on the straight rope, at least an inch higher than any other lord in the whole empire. I have seen him do the summerset several times together, upon a trencher fixed on a rope which is no thicker than a common packthread in England.


Gulliver goes into great detail about the foolishness of the Lilliputian court and their silly political games and absurd intrigues, but he relates all of it with an earnest seriousness; you can see the author, Swift, winking at the reader, but never Gulliver himself.

Gulliver eventually has to flee Lilliput after annoying the Emperor by capturing an enemy fleet but refusing to destroy the enemy entirely, and annoying the Empress by putting out a fire in her palace by pissing on it. Thus he learns a lesson (and Swift delivers one) about the ingratitude of rulers. When Gulliver first begins narrating his story, his tone when referring to princes and ministers is almost obsequious, but you can see him change over the course of the book to a more jaded and (by the end) downright cynical traveler.

Brobdingnag: Giant nipples



On his second voyage, Gulliver is stranded in Brobdingnag. Here, people are sixty feet tall and everything else is scaled accordingly, from insects to livestock. Gulliver is initially captured by a farmer, who turns his diminutive find into a traveling road show, until he finally sells Gulliver to the queen, who keeps him (along with the farmer's daughter, Glumdalclitch) at court. For the most part, the Brobdingnagians are the opposite of the Lilliputians; they are serious, learned, and peaceful. After Gulliver tries to extoll the virtues of his country, the king of Brobdingnag concludes that they are "the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."

Gulliver tries to improve the king's opinion by offering him the secret of gunpowder. Horrified, the king refuses. Gulliver concludes:


The learning of this people is very defective, consisting only in morality, history, poetry, and mathematics, wherein they must be allowed to excel. But the last of these is wholly applied to what may be useful in life, to the improvement of agriculture, and all mechanical arts; so that among us, it would be little esteemed. And as to ideas, entities, abstractions, and transcendentals, I could never drive the least conception into their heads.

No law in that country must exceed in words the number of letters in their alphabet, which consists only of two and twenty. But indeed few of them extend even to that length. They are expressed in the most plain and simple terms, wherein those people are not mercurial enough to discover above one interpretation: and to write a comment upon any law, is a capital crime. As to the decision of civil causes, or proceedings against criminals, their precedents are so few, that they have little reason to boast of any extraordinary skill in either.


Hee hee.

Not that his time in Brobdingnag is entirely made up of lampooning British political theory. There is also a fair amount of bawdy humor (as there was in Lilliput), with Gulliver describing what giant boobs look like close up.

Laputa, Lagado, Glubbdubdrib: Flying Islands and Necromancy



On his third journey, Gulliver is stranded by pirates, and is picked up by the residents of a passing flying island. This is Laputa, which (in its suppression of rebellious cities by dropping rocks on them or landing on them and crushing them) is a rather unsubtle allegory for Britain's colonial policy. Swift also takes shots at certain "high-minded" intellectuals, as the policy-makers of Laputa literally and figuratively have their heads in the clouds:


It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper (the original is climenole) in their family, as one of their domestics; nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him. And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of justling others, or being justled himself into the kennel.


When Gulliver leaves Laputa, he visits several other countries. Among the sights he sees is the grand academy of Lagado, full of "projectors" whose job it is to come up with new ideas and inventions.


The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.

I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper “to give no offence, which would be highly resented;” and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.

I saw another at work to calcine ice into gunpowder; who likewise showed me a treatise he had written concerning the malleability of fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation; which he justified to me, by the like practice of those two prudent insects, the bee and the spider.

There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.

In another apartment I was highly pleased with a projector who had found a device of ploughing the ground with hogs, to save the charges of ploughs, cattle, and labour. The method is this: in an acre of ground you bury, at six inches distance and eight deep, a quantity of acorns, dates, chestnuts, and other mast or vegetables, whereof these animals are fondest; then you drive six hundred or more of them into the field, where, in a few days, they will root up the whole ground in search of their food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their dung: it is true, upon experiment, they found the charge and trouble very great, and they had little or no crop. However it is not doubted, that this invention may be capable of great improvement.


One suspects that Swift did not particularly hold his fellow academics in the highest esteem...

Gulliver then visits Glubbdubdrib, where they practice necromancy and summon ghosts of famous people for Gulliver to question, and for Swift to do a little more lampooning of sacred icons.

He eventually makes his way to Japan (where he has an improbable personal audience with the Emperor and manages to convince a bunch of Dutchmen that he's Dutch) and then back to England.

Houyhnhnms and Yahoos: The thing that is not



On his fourth and last voyage, Gulliver experiences his greatest inversion yet, as the people here are Yahoos -- dirty, disgusting, unintelligent savages. The rulers of this land are the Houyhnhnms: intelligent, talking horses. Here, the satirical misanthropy comes around full circle; the Houyhnhnms are noble, rational creatures who have no vices and don't even have a word for untruth (the closest they can come to the concept is "the thing that is not"). Gulliver begins to wish he could become a Houyhnhnm, and is filled with self-loathing. When he finally returns to England, he can barely stand the presence of his fellow Yahoos.

For a book written almost 300 years ago, Gulliver's Travels still works surprisingly well, both as an adventure tale (as mentioned above, I prefer to see it as an example of early sci-fi) and as social and political satire. Swift was scathing for his time, and he's still entertaining to read. If taken at face value, Gulliver's observation below might be read as nothing more than the proud statement of a patriotic Englishman.


But this description, I confess, does by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; their liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning; their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity; their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversations from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption; and, to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors, who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside, and the honour of the king their master.


Hint: You shouldn't take much of anything Swift writes at face value.

Note on the Project Gutenberg Edition

Some parts of Swift's original manuscript were omitted from early printings of Gulliver's Travels, due to "political sensitivity." I read the electronic version available at Project Gutenberg, but found that it was missing the section on Lindalino.

The problem with 18th century satire is that it doesn't adapt well to a 20th century audience



There have of course been many movie and TV adaptations of Gulliver's Travels. The majority of them treat the novel as a children's story, and most of them focus entirely on the Lilliputians. I haven't seen the 2010 Jack Black version, but I did watch the two animated features available on Netflix.

1939 Max Fleischer cartoon version2005 animated feature


The 1939 Max Fleischer cartoon is very similar to Disney animated features of the era, complete with singing bluebirds. The story has little to do with the novel; Gulliver shows up, makes friends with the Lilliputians, ends the war with Blefescu, and sails away. I remember seeing this in the theater when I was child (not in 1939! I'm not that old!) and finding it much more dramatic than I did rewatching it as an adult. Still, it's a charming animation, unlike the 2006 computer animated-version which consists of CGI figures jerking around a badly-rendered screen.

1996 Ted Danson version

The 1996 TV miniseries starred Ted Danson and a lot of other A-listers from the 90s. It focused mostly on visuals -- the special effects of Gulliver among the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians -- and the costume sets -- but unlike most film versions, it actually featured all four of Gulliver's travels, and didn't cast it entirely as a children's story. It's as imaginative as the source material, but much of the story was not part of the original, so it's a semi-faithful adaptation which preserves the spirit of Swift's tale (and most of the names and plot elements) while freely changing things to make a better movie.


Verdict: Definitely a book that deserves its place on the 1001 books list. Everyone should read it. It's biting, it's funny, and it's fun, and it's indisputably a landmark in English literature, one of those books that is full of references that English writers have been using ever since. Read this as a kid, then read it again as an adult to see what you missed.

This was my seventh assignment for the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, jonathan swift, movies, reviews
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