Book Review: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a famous satire that takes the form of a traveler’s tale. It tells the story of Lemuel Gulliver, who starts as a surgeon and later becomes a captain of several ships. The full title of the book is “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts.” Swift’s intention was to provoke and criticize human nature through his writing.

The book quickly gained popularity upon its publication and became a classic of English literature. According to a letter from John Gay to Swift in 1726, it was widely read by people of all ages and backgrounds.

If you’re still unsure whether you should read this book, this review will provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision. Let’s dive in without further delay.

Plot Summary

When his ship is repeatedly cast ashore in strange lands, a middle-class English doctor observes exotic cultures and reassesses his own belief.

Voyage 1: Lilliput

After being shipwrecked, Lemuel Gulliver, an English physician and ship’s surgeon, awakens to find himself tied to the ground and surrounded by six-inch-tall people, the Lilliputians. As he attempts to free himself, they pepper him with needlelike arrows, so he gives in to his captors.

Before long, they realize he is good-natured so they entertain him with games. It is a land where politicians balance on ropes to win public office. Courtiers win colored threads for leaping over or creeping under a bar which the Emperor controls, and the threads qualify them for favored positions. Gulliver is freed from his chains after he swears allegiance to the Emperor. But Skyresh Bolgolam, an admiral, dislikes Gulliver.

Gulliver explores their toylike city and observes its customs, a few of which he finds admirable though unfamiliar. For example, ingratitude is a serious crime; citizens are rewarded for keeping laws; both sexes are educated in much the same way. 

But Lilliput has problems. Political factions bitterly disagree on the subject of whether the ancient constitution calls for high or low heels on shoes. The Emperor’s ministers wear low heels, though high heels are more popular. Lilliput also has its religious controversy. 

Whereas traditional doctrine requires eggs to be broken at the larger end, recent Emperors have decreed that the smaller end is to be broken. Many thousands of believers have gone to their death rather than comply with the decree. The Empire of Blefuscu, a neighboring island and longtime enemy of Lilliput, supports the Big-Endians and threatens invasion.

Gulliver wades to Blefuscu and pulls its fleet across the channel to Lilliput. The delighted Emperor of Lilliput wishes to conquer Blefuscu, but Gulliver refuses to help enslave a free people. During the peace negotiations, he assists the Blefuscudian Ambassadors. Bolgolam and Flimnap, Lilliput’s prime minister, contend that Gulliver’s behavior is treacherous. 

Flimnap is jealous because of malicious gossip that Gulliver has become his wife’s lover. Gulliver increases his number of enemies when he offends the Empress by urinating on a fire in order to extinguish it. Bolgolam and Flimnap accuse Gulliver of treason, and the Emperor secretly decides to execute him. Gulliver escapes to Blefuscu and is rescued by an English merchant ship that takes him home to England.

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Voyage 2: Brobdingnag

Two months later, Gulliver returns to sea. A group of sailors seeking fresh water leave him behind on an unknown shore when they return to their ship. Seeing a 60-foot-tall man wading after him, Gulliver runs inland and is caught by another giant, who carries him between his thumb and forefinger to his master, a wealthy farmer, also a giant. 

After Gulliver is fed and rescued from the children’s rough treatment, he is left alone on a bed, where he fights off enormous rats with his sword. The farmer’s daughter, whom he calls Glumdalclitch, or “little nurse,” makes him a doll bed and takes care of him. Eager to profit from him, the farmer shows Gulliver throughout the kingdom of Brobdingnag, where everything is 12 times the size it is in Europe.

The Queen purchases him as a toy for herself and orders that a portable box be designed as his bedchamber. His life with the Queen and her ladies is pleasant, but being treated as a toy humiliates him. 

Gulliver entertains the King with accounts of Europe, proudly describing the government, customs, and history of England. The King, remarking that virtue and ability appear to have little to do with advancement there, says, “I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” 

Gulliver thinks the King is ignorant of the ways of the world, so he tells the King about European weapons.

Instead of being delighted with the power such weapons can give, the King is horrified by their inhumanity. The intricacies of politics perplex the King since he governs by common sense and reason, not by force. 

The nation’s simple laws are not allowed to exceed 22 words. Learning in Brobdingnag is practical and their few books are written in a plain style. During a visit to the seashore, Gulliver is carried away in his portable box by an eagle, who drops him into the ocean. He is rescued and taken home by an English ship.

Voyage 3: Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, Japan

Again, Gulliver returns to sea as a ship’s surgeon. When pirates set him adrift in a canoe, he is rescued by the inhabitants of Laputa, a huge island that floats in the sky. The islanders—musicians and mathematicians—are constantly lost in speculative thought. 

Absorbed by philosophical abstractions, the Laputians are not curious about the rest of the world. Their houses have no right angles, practical geometry being regarded with contempt. Laputians control their island’s movements by shifting a huge magnet.

After Gulliver’s arrival, the magnet moves toward Lagado, the principal city of Balnibarbi, the King’s dominion on earth. To maintain authority over Balnibarbi, Laputa hovers over rebellious towns and blocks out the sun.

Lowered to Lagado, Gulliver finds ill-designed, rundown houses and ragged people. Nearby farmland is barren. Gulliver’s host, Munodi, a former governor who was discharged as an incompetent, has a pleasant, elegant palace and lush, productive farms, but his “unscientific” land management is ridiculed.

Bored with Balnibarbi, Gulliver goes to Glubbdubdrib, an island of magicians. The Governor conjures up dead people for Gulliver to speak with. Meeting famous people from all ages, he discovers that many heroes and statesmen were very corrupt or did not deserve their great reputations.

Gulliver sails on to Luggnagg and is received by the King, whom custom decrees that one must approach by crawling toward the throne, licking the floor before him. Gulliver is amazed and delighted to learn that some of the inhabitants of Luggnagg—called Struldbrugs—are immortal … until he discovers that Struldbrugs have eternal life without eternal youth and health.

From Luggnagg, Gulliver goes to Japan, passing himself off as a shipwrecked Dutchman. Because the Emperor is cordial, Gulliver requests exemption from the usual requirement that Dutchmen trample the crucifix. Soon afterward, he leaves for home on a Dutch ship.

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Voyage 4: Houyhnhnmland

On Gulliver’s next voyage, pirates in his crew maroon him on an unknown island. Filthy, deformed animals pester him, but a horse frightens them away. It converses with another horse, a gray one, by neighing. Gulliver concludes that they are magicians, so he speaks to them.

Puzzled, the Gray one leads Gulliver away. In a simple thatched house, horses—called Houyhnhnms—perform domestic chores. Several of the deformed creatures, the Yahoos, live in a barn nearby. 

Gulliver sees that they resemble naked, hairy human beings. When a servant, the sorrel nag, discovers that Gulliver’s clothing is removable, he is found to be a perfect Yahoo. After learning the language, Gulliver tells of his voyage. 

His master, the Gray one, is skeptical, knowing that no land could exist beyond the sea. Gulliver’s explanations of English life are difficult, since the Houyhnhnm language lacks words for ideas like power, government, lust, malice, and crime. 

Since Houyhnhnms live by reason and nature, accounts of warfare and weaponry shock the master, and the professions of law, medicine, and politics seem strange. Gulliver explains wealth to them and describes a few rich people living luxuriously from the labor of thousands of poor people. 

The master notes that class distinctions exist among the Houyhnhnms because of natural excellence, but Gulliver characterizes European noblemen as lazy, ignorant, and diseased.

The master recognizes in his own Yahoos many qualities found in Europeans. For example, they hoard worthless shining stones. Wholly governed by reason, the Houyhnhnms have no idea of controversy, opinion, or ambiguity. 

Feeling friendship and benevolence for all their kind, they choose mates for the good of the species and love all colts and foals as much as their own. Since death is a part of nature, the Houyhnhnms do not mourn.

With the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver enjoys perfect health and peace of mind. Grateful to be distinguished from the human species, he loathes his own values and decides never to return to humankind. However, after considering the problems a rational Yahoo might cause, the Houyhnhnms banish Gulliver. 

Grief-stricken, he builds a boat and leaves. Portuguese sailors discover him and take him aboard their ship. Their benevolent captain, Don Pedro de Mendez, is kind to him, but Gulliver cannot conceal his disgust and loathing for “Yahoos” (i.e., human beings). In Lisbon, Don Pedro shelters, clothes, and cares for Gulliver.

When Gulliver returns home, his wife’s embrace makes him faint with loathing. He contemptuously avoids his family, preferring the society of horses. Eventually, he is reconciled with his wife, but Gulliver cannot be reconciled with the human race.

Key Characters

Lemuel Gulliver – Ship’s doctor, later captain. Born 1660, age 39 at the beginning of travels. Middle-class family man, honest, adaptable to unusual circumstances. Tolerant of cultural differences. Good linguist, clever with hands, mechanical, scientific. Well educated, curious. Notices details but not perceptive of their meaning. Name suggests “gullible.” Accepts things at face value, uncritical. Throughout most of the book, blindly patriotic. But with time, grows dissatisfied with traditional values. At the end, a complete misanthrope (hater of mankind), loathes Western “civilization.”

Characters in Voyage 1:

Emperor of Lilliput – Elegant, royal, equally capable of big-heartedness and cruelty; political, ambitious, dictatorial.

Flimnap – Lord High Treasurer. Hypocritical, jealous, scheming, ambitious, vengeful.

Skyresh Bolgolam – Admiral. Malicious, jealous.

Characters in Voyage 2:

Farmer – Greedy, insensitive, opportunistic.

Glumdalclitch – Farmer’s daughter; Gulliver’s nurse. Gentle, loving, clever, careful, mature for her age.

King of Brobdingnag – Simple, kindly, rational.

Characters in Voyage 3:

King of Laputa – Ruthless ruler, tyrant. Preoccupied with abstract ideas; hates practical matters.

Munodi – Competent, reasonable nobleman; tolerant of his oppressors, who dislike him because he rejects their “scientific” ways.

King of Luggnagg – Hospitable, generous to friends; ruthless with enemies.

Characters in Voyage 4:

Gray Horse – Gulliver’s master. Rational, kind, unemotional, benevolent, unimaginative.

Sorrel Nag – Servant. Kindly, helpful, humble. Loves Gulliver.

Don Pedro de Mendez – Ship’s captain. Tolerant, generous, good-natured, perceptive, forgiving.

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Themes and Ideas

1. Nature and Humans

For Swift, life is dominated by the negative forces of vice, corruption, vanity, pride, and irrational behavior. But rational behavior (reason, common sense, sound judgment) is the basis for decent, intelligent, and benevolent life (King of Brobdingnag, Don Pedro de Mendez).

Critics disagree whether Swift intended this positive view as a viable alternative to irrational living, or merely as a yardstick for measuring the natural faults of human beings.

2. Degeneration

Simple, worthy institutions become overly refined, then degenerate into corruption. In Lilliput, the original idea of honest government, in which people earned positions through integrity and virtue, has developed into a situation where people win positions through petty politics unrelated to talent or ability.

Swift favors the 18th-century idea of returning to the basics, keeping things simple, and eliminating the wasteful, destructive forces that corrupt the system.

3. Reason

Rational characters are presented in the most positive light, with human failings being shown to result from a lack of reason. The King of Brobdingnag, who governs by common sense and reason, avoids the political intrigues of Lilliputian government.

The few rational characters in Balnibarbi are not victims of the country’s misery. The ideal Houyhnhnms are entirely rational; they enjoy peace, health, and harmony.

4. Utopianism (A state of political or social perfection)

The few admirable customs of Lilliput and the government of Brobdingnag contain some Utopian elements. But the most developed Utopia is the land of the Houyhnhnms, governed entirely by reason and benevolence.

Even in this ideal society, the Houyhnhnms may seem cold, narrow-minded, and unimaginative due to the rigid, defined rules by which they govern themselves. Critics are uncertain if Swift intentionally created shortcomings in the Houyhnhnms to show that even reason can be taken to absurd extremes.

5. Government

Shown to be either rational or tyrannical. In Lilliput, Laputa, and Luggnagg, power is misused, people are oppressed, and there is much political scheming. The Houyhnhnms’ representative assembly meets only once every four years since rational creatures need a minimum of social organization.

6. Great Chain of Being

This concept reflects the popular 18th-century idea that human beings exist in a natural hierarchy, as links in a chain, and that no two humans are equal (i.e., there’s always someone superior and inferior). Swift believes in class structure (but not privilege due to birth), since not everyone is born equal.

The Houyhnhnms’ class structure is based on natural excellence; the Lilliputian educational system, which Swift believes is excellent, gives different training to different classes of people. (The idea is, why overeducate someone who will work in the fields?) But Swift criticizes (a) the extreme inequality between the rich and the poor and (b) class distinctions not based on excellence.

7. Anti-Intellectualism

A high value is placed on common sense, practical knowledge, and reason. Scientific theories, vague abstractions, and ponderous speculations are the objects of Swift’s biting satire. In virtuous Brobdingnag, learning is simple and practical; books are few.

The Houyhnhnms have only an oral tradition, no writing. But Laputa and Balnibarbi are shown to be barren and absurd because of their emphasis on theoretical, nonpractical matters.

8. War

Swift satirizes war’s stupidity and inhumanity through the example of the Lilliputian war with Blefuscu, and in Gulliver’s accounts of Europe. The gray horse and the King of Brobdingnag share a horror of European weapons; their peaceful, rational nations have no military forces. When Gulliver lists motives for war, the Houyhnhnms see it as useless and destructive.

9. Professions

Most professions are satirized by Swift. Favorite targets: lawyers, politicians, doctors. Politicians and lawyers are seen as professional perverters of the truth; doctors as charlatans (quacks) and potential murderers.

10. Women’s Education

Both the Lilliputians and Houyhnhnms provide equal education for women. The Houyhnhnms think it “monstrous to give the females a different kind of education from the males.”

11. Benevolence (Good will)

Rational characters are almost always benevolent; irrational characters are usually self-centered and hateful of others. Examples of benevolence: the King of Brobdingnag, the Houyhnhnms, Don Pedro de Mendez.

12. Civilization

Swift praises simplicity without rejecting civilization. Even the Utopian society of the Houyhnhnms has a social organization with customs and institutions. But the best societies are civilizations that are not overly complex, that have not lost sight of their original goals.

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Praise

1. The Unpredictable Linguistic Journey

One of the most engaging aspects of “Gulliver’s Travels” is the colorful tapestry of made-up languages that Jonathan Swift weaves into the narrative. From Lilliputian to Laputian, these languages are so rich and complex that one could spend hours trying to decipher their meanings. Even renowned author and scientist Isaac Asimov speculated about the origins and meanings of these languages.

The word ‘Lilliput’, for instance, could be interpreted as a corruption of “little bit,” “little part,” or “little pint.” Swift’s languages also carry a distinct Italian flair, suggesting a possible admiration or familiarity with the Italian language. While these languages may be viewed as a playful element of the novel, they also serve as veiled satire on England and its governance of Ireland, possibly even poking fun at the Italian states.

2. An Immersive Reading Experience

Swift’s narrative, beginning with Gulliver’s love for sea travel and quickly shifting to the peculiar land of Lilliput, is intriguing and filled with humor. His satirical portrayal of various aspects of human nature, explored through the different societies Gulliver encounters, is thought-provoking. Each voyage is a critique of a different facet of society, be it politics, frailty, philosophical distraction, or the dichotomy between our rational and primal sides.

While the pace of the narrative might occasionally slow down due to minute detailing, it’s these very details that add depth and richness to the story. Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” is undoubtedly a work of art, a stimulating and captivating journey through a fantastical world that mirrors our own in unexpected ways.

3. The Rich Imagination

Swift paints a vivid picture of the floating island of Laputa and its eccentric inhabitants, drawing the reader into a world filled with fascinating peculiarities.

What I find particularly intriguing is Swift’s meticulous attempt to explain the extraordinary phenomena in the book from a scientific perspective. This unique approach blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction and offers a fresh take on the genre. Swift’s depiction of Laputa is so accurate that he even predicts the existence of Mars’ two moons, a fact that was unknown during his time.

Swift’s uncanny ability to echo our modern-day fears through the anxieties of Laputa’s inhabitants is another aspect that makes this book stand out. Their worries about comets and asteroids mirror our own concerns about potential cosmic catastrophes. This timeless relevance and prescience make “Gulliver’s Travels” an ever-engaging read.

Criticism

1. The Challenging Language and Unnecessary Rants

As someone who enjoys clear and concise storytelling, I found the language used in “Gulliver’s Travels” to be quite challenging. The 18th-century English prose is often dense and hard to follow, especially for modern readers.

Moreover, the book often veers off into irrelevant rants that don’t contribute much to the plot or the overall enjoyment of the story. While I understand that these rants were likely a deliberate stylistic choice on Swift’s part to enhance the satirical tone of the book, they made the reading experience a bit grueling for me.

2. Impractical and Unsustainable Societies

Another aspect that bothered me about the book was the depiction of the four major civilizations that Gulliver encounters on his journeys. Each of these societies—the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, Laputians, and Houyhnhnms—operate in ways that seem ridiculous and entirely unsustainable. While I understand that this absurdity was likely intentional on Swift’s part to provoke critical thinking, it often felt more frustrating than enlightening.

3. A Social Commentary Out of Context

Perhaps the most significant issue I have with “Gulliver’s Travels” is that its social commentary is largely rooted in the time it was written. As a result, much of its meaning and impact are lost to modern readers who lack the historical context to fully appreciate it. If you approach the book thinking it’s just about a man traveling to strange lands, you’ll miss the whole point, which is to critique and satirize the societal issues of Swift’s time.

Besides, Swift’s commentary on Georgian England, while insightful for its time, doesn’t carry as much weight as he might have intended. His grievances—ranging from national debt and political dishonesty to academic idiocy and sexual immorality—are veiled in allegory in the early parts of the novel and eventually devolve into overt rants. As a result, the satirical critique tends to lose its subtlety and impact.

Conclusion

To wrap this up, “Gulliver’s Travels” is a wild ride that’s absolutely dripping with wit and humor. Even centuries after its original publication, the political satire holds up remarkably well and still manages to land a punch. And let’s be real here, folks, there’s so much more to the story than just the Lilliputians that the cartoon version would have you believe.

So, if you’re looking for a read that’s chock-full of laughs and sharp societal commentary, or you just want to know what the fuss is about those ‘Lilliputians’, I’d say “Gulliver’s Travels” is well worth a go. It’s not every day you find a book that keeps the whole family entertained while also making you think. A splendid read, indeed!

About The Author

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was born in Dublin, Ireland. Poet, political pamphleteer, satirist. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He was ordained as a Protestant minister and supported the Irish cause against English oppression. 

Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin; extremely popular with his parishioners. The last few years of his life, he suffered from senility, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease. He is the author of A Tale of a Tub (1704) and “A Modest Proposal” (1729).

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