Classic Books

In which I read Gulliver’s Travels and am vexed

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, first published in 1726, satirizes human society and the “traveler’s tales” genre popular in the pre-Google Maps era. Apparently, he wrote the book “to vex the world.” I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I felt quite vexed upon reading the last page.

In which I read Gulliver's Travels and am vexedThe novel’s full title tells you what’s up: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. And here I thought academics had unwieldy subtitles.

Translation: This isn’t a book to read for its beginning-to-end plot. Still, I’m going to keep my discussion as spoiler-free as possible. For anyone who doesn’t plan to read it and is curious, I’ve included a summary of the novel at the end. Just for fun.

The narrative is divided into four major parts, each corresponding to a place where Gulliver becomes stranded after a ship voyage gone wrong. Each section follows this pattern: 1) he’s stranded, 2) he’s adopted into the society, and 3) he leaves. Gulliver describes the societies he encounters, their customs and ways of life, how he is treated, and how he returns home. The larger arc holding the four parts together is the travel frame, the mystery of what he’ll discover at each destination, and Gulliver’s evolution (or devolution, depending on how you look at it) through his journeys.

For modern, non-scholarly readers, one challenge of reading Gulliver’s Travels is how deeply it’s in conversation with its time. The text has footnotes like Manhattan has Starbucks. They reveal how Swift uses satire to critique specific events, people, and social and political institutions of his time. But they won’t necessarily mean much to readers who know little about the period, so don’t let them put you off reading the book, if you’re so inclined. I mean, does it help to know that a fictional event in the story represents anxiety about the War of Spanish Succession resuming or the threat of a Jacobite rebellion if the reader’s grasp of these historical events is tenuous, at best? Only in that they illuminate Swift’s satiric intentions.

Gulliver’s Travels is sometimes categorized as a children’s book, which really only makes sense in reference to parts one and two. Even if you’ve never read the novel, you might be familiar with them. In part one, Gulliver is a humongous man-mountain among the tiny Lilliputians. In part two, he’s a tiny man-doll among the giants of Brobdingnag. I can see how children in particular might relate to how it feels to be small and vulnerable. Also, many of the descriptions, especially in the second part, can be poignant and somewhat whimsical.

These first two sections allow us to see the world through two opposing lenses – being powerful and being vulnerable. Gulliver can’t *fix* this: He can’t shrink down to Lilliputian size or grow as big as a Brobdingnag. He can only be the size that he is. To survive, he must learn to compensate for the ways he differs. He must learn to work the system. These parts feel like an opportunity to get inside the other’s body and experience the world in and through that body. These parts show how it’s hard to have a mutually trusting relationship when power is so markedly unequal. The less powerful know, even when they don’t want to, that they’re at the mercy of the powerful’s whims. That’s definitely an insight that travels across time and culture.

Where the first and second parts can feel like an exercise in empathy, the third – where Gulliver visits islands ruled by a kingdom that privileges astronomy, math, and music – feels like fairly bald criticism of theory – knowledge for the sake of it rather than for being applied to improve humanity – as well as of bureaucracy. In a broader sense, this section also feels like a commentary on the problem of taking things to extremes … while taking things to extremes (because satire). 

The fourth and final section, where Swift visits a society run by highly reasonable horses who have to deal with pestilential humanoids, is where criticism becomes most savage, unforgiving, and hopeless. The takeaway seems to be that humans suck. We are literally the worst. There is no redeeming us. This is why I felt vexed. I mean, what’s the point of carrying on if we don’t have hope? 

And that, my friends, is the story of how my feelings transformed from intrigued and enchanted to utterly, utterly vexed. Much like Gulliver’s journeys transform him from sanguine and curious to disillusioned and hopeless. So at least we’re running parallel.

To put more of my thoughts into context with the specific plot developments…

Reading Gulliver's Travels while eating a cheese and onion pastie.
The cheese and onion pastie did not vex me.

SUMMARY (spoilers ahead)

Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput

Washed ashore after a shipwreck, Gulliver wakes up to find himself on an island populated by tiny people (around six inches tall). While he was sleeping off his dramatic adventure, the Lilliputians tied him up and declared him their prisoner. He could wrench himself free easily but chooses to cooperate and gain his freedom through their government’s channels.

He eventually endears himself to the king after performing services for him, including swimming to a neighboring frenemy kingdom, Blefuscu, and divesting them of their naval ships. The Lilliputian king then wants to subjugate them, but Gulliver won’t go for it. This annoys the king and emboldens Gulliver’s enemies. Plus, he puts out a fire in the Queen’s chambers by urinating on it.  Plus, it costs a fortune to feed and maintain the man-mountain, as the Lilliputians call him. Plus, he’s humongous, and they’re teeny. It’s problematic.

After being warned by a sympathetic Lilliputian that his enemies are scheming to assassinate him, Gulliver escapes to Blefuscu. They help him build a ship, and he escapes.

Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

Gulliver’s ship is blown off course by a storm, and the crew stops on a random island to get fresh water. As the seamen are heading back to their ship, they’re chased by a beastie. Really, it’s just a giant human. Result: Gulliver is left behind on this island of giants. A 70-odd foot tall farmer finds Gulliver and takes him home, where he becomes the plaything of the farmer’s daughter, Glumdalclitch.

The giants are amused by Gulliver. He’s a cute, harmless oddity. Realizing he can make some coin displaying Gulliver as an curiosity, the farmer takes him on a tour of the kingdom. Putting on show after show exhausts Gulliver to the point of near death. The savvy farmer sells Gulliver to the Brobdingnag queen, who keeps Glumdalclitch on as his keeper. Gulliver’s situation improves, but he’s at constant risk of being devoured by rats, birds, and other animals.

One day, he’s set on the beach in his box to gaze longingly at the sea. A giant eagle picks up his box, drops it in the sea, and Gulliver is set adrift. Luckily, a passing ship rescues him, and he returns home.

Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan

Gulliver, apparently undaunted by his previous near misses, sets off on yet another sea journey. This time, the ship he’s traveling on is attacked by pirates. He ends up marooned on (surprise!) an island. While he’s lying there contemplating his bad luck, a flying island hovers over him. It’s the kingdom of Laputa, which values math, astronomy, and music above all else.

Gulliver visits Balnibarbi, a kingdom ruled by Laputa. There, pie-in-the sky experiments that have no practical applications are conducted. (My favorites were how to mix paint by smell and how to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.) He also visits Glubbdubdrib, where he has a chat with the ghosts of famous historical figures, among them Homer, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, and Descartes. He also visits Luggnagg, where he meets a group of immortals. Turns out, being immortal has no benefits. The immortals continue to age, becoming a drain on society. The mortals resent them. Also, immortals are declared legally dead around 80.

Eventually, Gulliver pretends to be a Dutch trader to gain passage to Japan. From there, he returns home, determined never to leave again.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms

Even though he said he’d quit traveling, Gulliver gets bored. Off he goes again, this time as the captain of his own ship. Wouldn’t you know it? Issues arise. In need of additional crew members, he picks up a bunch of shady characters. A mutiny ensues, and the crew dumps Gulliver on – what else? – another island.

The first creatures Gulliver encounters on this island are “savage” humanoids covered in hair of different colors. They don’t seem to have language, depth of human feeling, or social bonds. Fleeing from them in horror, Gulliver meets a breed of super intelligent horses, called Houyhnhnms. They’ve developed their own language, customs, and social structure around pure reason*, which Gulliver admires. He wants to live among the Houyhnhnms forever and ever.

Except … there’s a problem: The Houyhnhnms call the so-beneath-them humanoids Yahoos. They believe Gulliver is one of them, though he strives to distinguish himself. They sort of buy it and sort of don’t. Though Gulliver connects with some of the Houyhnhnms, eventually, they decide he needs to leave and send him out to sea. He finds his way home distraught and disenchanted with humanity.

Have you read Gulliver’s Travels? What did you think?

*Personally, I found it a little creepy, maybe because it reminded of the chapter on Lycurgus’ Sparta in Plutarch’s Lives.