Gulliver’s Travels: Summary
Many of the critics who have critiqued Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s
Travels have used the word extraneous more then once. Swift was viewed as an
insane person who was a failure in life. But this is far from the truth. Swift
wrote Gulliver’s Travels, a book that has been assigned to students for years,
and it is written from experience. Swift’s experience with the Tories and their
conflicts with the Whigs caused him to write books that mock religious beliefs,
government, or people with views differing from his own. In one of these books,
Gulliver’s Travels, Swift criticizes the corruption of the English government,
society, science, religion, and man in general.
In Gulliver’s first travel, in which he visited Lilliput, Gulliver is
faced with the minute people, called Lilliputians. Now while this is the
premise for a fantasy story, Swift uses the events within to make severe
criticisms of England between reigns of Queen Anne and George the first. The
people of Lilliput are about six inches tall, and there size signifies that
their motives, acts, and humanity are in the same, dwarfish (Long 276). In this
section, the royal palace is accidentally set on fire, containing the empress
inside. Instead of making his way across town, to the ocean, squashing the
people of Lilliput as he goes, Gulliver makes use of his urine to save the
palace. While this vulgar episode was a display of bravery, it infuriated the
emperor, causing revenge to be vowed on Gulliver. Rather then be happy that
both the emperor and the palace are not in ruin, the littleness of the
government and the people in general is displayed in this act. Another display
of this is the fact that Gulliver is used as the Emperor’s absolute weapon, but
the emperor only uses him to conquer his world of two islands. This makes the
emperor’s ambition seem extremely low (Bloom, Interpretations 84-5).
Swift also criticizes the religious beliefs of the Lilliputians and
England in the first story. In Lilliput, Ministers were chosen strictly on
agility, or their ability to walk a tightrope or stick jumping. They were able
to maintain their rank of minister as long as they could keep these defeating
these tasks (Swift, Writings 89).
The political parties of the English government are represented by the
conservative High Heels who depict the Tories, and the progressive Low Heels, or
Whigs. As per their names, the distinguishing mark of the parties is the height
of their heels. Within these two parties, Swift criticizes the English
political parties, and the Prince of Wales (Brady 21). Swift also mocks the
religion war that was going on in England, through the use of the war between
Lilliput, and its nearest neighbor, Blefuscu. Swift’s use of the terms High
Heels and Low Heels to compare the meaningless battles of the Whigs and Tories,
such as the height of heels (Swift, Writings 81).
With Gulliver’s next travel, we find him in Brobdingnag. His voyage
shows us the filthy mental and physical characteristics of man. Here, Gulliver
is confronted with an adult nurse. The nurse’s repulsive action of revealing
her breasts to Gulliver. This reminds him of how the Lilliputians found his
skin full of crater like pores, and stumps of hair growing from them. The odor
of the immense creatures is offending, and it caused Gulliver to recall the fact
that the Lilliputians were also offended of his body odor (Bloom,
In Laputa, Gulliver is confronted with the old age Struldbuggs, which
look utterly hideous resulting from old age, and the deterioration of their
bodies. The Yahoos from the land of Houyhnhnms are filthy, uncivilized
creatures, who use their own dung as a weapon. In these descriptions, Swift
criticizes both the moral and physical corruption of man (Bloom, Critical Views
Gulliver’s first owner in Brobdingnag represents the selfishness of man.
Gulliver is constantly displayed in public, abused for the profit of the owner.
When his owner finds out that Gulliver is weakening, he sells him immediately,
at a high price in order to milk every last penny out of Gulliver.
Gulliver’s third voyage, to the floating island of Laputa is one of the
most satirical of the whole book. In this voyage Swift criticizes the Royal
Society of England, in which he says is composed of useless philosophers,
inventors, and scientists. The floating island signifies that the inhabitants
are composed of the same airy constitution as the environment (Long 276).
Projects done by such people are summed up by “the Universal Artist,” who
directs his followers to turn useful things into the exact opposite, which
results in useless achievements. Some of the experiments held were to create
tangible air, wool-less sheep, and horses with stone hooves. The flying island
itself expresses not only the desertion on the common earth of reality but their
conversion of the universe to a mechanism and of living to a mechanical process
(Bloom, Interpretations 53).
Finally, Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. After he
reaches land, Gulliver comes across a pack of Yahoos and is instantly appalled
by them. There he quotes, “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so
disagreeable and animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an
antipathy” (Swift, Text 215). This statement is at best ironic, because
Gulliver never saw the resemblances between the Yahoos, and himself. Afterwards,
he encounters the rational Houyhnhnms and he immediately realizes the common
characteristics he has in common with the Yahoos. He states, “my horror and
astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abdominal animal,
a perfect human figure” (Swift, Text 220).
Gulliver is amazed to see rational figures acting in such brutal figures,
but he later realizes that they regarded him as the brutal beast. The
Houyhnhnms compare Gulliver and the Yahoos and find many similarities between
the two. The only difference was that Gulliver, and mankind, had learned the
benefits of clothing, and he, at times could be a rational creature.
Swift portrays the Yahoos as savage animals with human characteristics,
which is the biggest mockery of mankind in the whole book. The Yahoos were so
greedy, that they would fight over enough food to feed an entire army of fifty
soldiers, just to keep it to themselves. They would poison their own bodies, by
sucking a root, similar to alcohol, to reach a high. The female population of
the Yahoos are also given characteristics of the ladies of the royal stature.
Their gestures of hiding behind bushes and trees, looking at the passing by
males, gives the impression of a woman hiding her face behind a fan, while
looking flirtatiously over her shoulder. The smell associated with the female
Yahoos, is similar to the perfume ladies wear to attract men (Brady 108). By
the time Gulliver is returned to England, he becomes a complete antisocial, who
is disgusted by the sight of his own wife and children. Gulliver’s desire to
become a Houyhnhnm gives the reader the impression that he is a pathetic man,
who strives to become someone he can never be.
Through Gulliver, Jonathan Swift travels to four different foreign
countries, each representing a corrupt part of England. Swift criticizes the
corruption of these parts, and focuses on the government, society, science,
religion, and man. Not only does swift criticize the customs of each country, he
mocks the naive man who has the inability to figure out the double meaning of
things. Gulliver, being gullible himself, believes everything he is told, which
symbolizes the irony of the English system.
Harold, Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Views, Jonathan Swift. New York: Chelsea
House Publishers, 1986.
Brady, Frank, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretation of Gulliver’s Travels.
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels, and other Writings. New York: Bantam
Books, Inc., 1962.
Harold, Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations of Gulliver’s Travels. New
York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Long, William J. “Jonathan Swift,” English Literature. Boston, Mass.: Ginn and
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels, An Annotated Text with Critical Essays.
United States: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1961.