Gulliver's Travels (1726, amended 1735) is a novel by Jonathan Swift that is both a satire on human nature and a parody of the "travellers' tales" literary sub-genre. Swift's masterpiece, it is his most celebrated work and one of the indisputable classics of the English language.
The book was tremendously popular immediately after it was published (Alexander Pope stated that "it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery") and it is likely that it has never been out of print since then. George Orwell declared it amongst the six most indispensable books in world literature.
Plot and Structure
The book presents itself as a simple traveller's narrative with the disingenuous title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, its authorship assigned only to "Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, then a captain of several ships". Different editions contain different versions of the prefatory material which are basically the same as forewords in modern books.
The book proper then is divided into four parts, which are as follows.
Part I : A Voyage To Lilliput
The book begins with a short preamble in which Gulliver, in the style of books of the time, gives a brief outline of his life and history prior to his voyages. We learn he is middle-aged and middle-class, with a talent for medicine and languages and that he enjoys travelling. This turns out to be fortunate.
On his first voyage, Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and awakes to find himself a prisoner of a race of six-inch high people, inhabitants of the neighboring and rival countries of Lilliput and Blefuscu. After giving assurances of his good behaviour he is given a residence in Lilliput and becomes a favourite of the court. There follows Gulliver's observations on the Court of Lilliput which is intended to satirise the court of then King George I. After he assists the Lilliputians to subdue their neighbours the Blefuscudans (by stealing their fleet) but refuses to reduce the country to a province of Lilliput, he is charged with treason and sentenced to be blinded. Fortunately, a Gulliver-sized boat washes up on the far shore of the country and he makes his escape.
Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag
While exploring a new country, Gulliver is abandoned by his companions and found by a farmer who is 72 feet tall (the scale of Lilliput is approximately 12:1, of Brobdingnag 1:12) who treats him as a curiosity and exhibits him for money. He is then bought by the King of Brobdingnag and kept as a favourite at court. In between small adventures such as fighting giant wasps and being carried to the roof by a monkey he discusses the state of Europe with the King, who is not impressed. On a trip to the seaside, his "travelling box" is seized by a giant eagle and dropped into the sea where he is picked up by sailors and returned to England.
Part III : A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubdubdribb, Luggnagg and Japan
Gulliver's ship is attacked by pirates and he is abandoned on a desolate rocky island. Fortunately he is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts of music and mathematics but utterly unable to use these for practical ends. The device described simply as The Engine is possibly the first description of something resembling a computer in history. He is then taken to to Balnibarbi to await a Dutch trader that can take him on to Japan and thence to England. While there, he tours the country as the guest of a low-ranking courtier and sees the ruin brought about by blind pursuit of science without practical results in a satire on the Royal Society and its experiments. He also encounters the struldbrugs, unfortunates who are both immortal and very, very old. He travels to a magician's dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, the most obvious restatement of the "ancients v moderns" theme in the book. The trip is otherwise reasonably free of incident and Gulliver returns home, determined to stay a homebody for the rest of his days.
Part IV : A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms
After foolishly disregarding his intentions at the end of the third part, Gulliver returns to sea where his crew mutiny to turn pirate. He is abandoned ashore and comes upon first a race of (apparently) hideous deformed creatures to which he conceives a violent antipathy. Shortly thereafter he meets a horse and comes to understand that the horses (in their language Houyhnhnm or "the perfection of nature") are the rulers and the deformed creatures ("Yahoos") are human beings at their most base. Gulliver becomes a member of the horse's household, treated almost as a favoured pet, and comes to both admire and emulate the Houyhnhnms and their lifestyle, rejecting human beings as merely Yahoos endowed with some semblance of reason. However, an Assembly of the Houyhnhnms rules that Gulliver, as a Yahoo with some semblance of reason, is a danger to their civilization and he is expelled. He is then rescued, against his will, by a Portuguese ship that returns him to his home in England. He is, however, unable to reconcile himself to living among Yahoos and lives instead in his stables. The book finishes with a peroration against Pride that is ironically boastful and seems to be intended to show that Gulliver's reason may have turned. However, no definite answer is forthcoming from the text and critics have argued this point for years.
It is interesting that this fourth voyage seems to have been the one that has most engaged literary critics over the years. Some readers chose to see it as proof of Swift's incipient mental deterioration (he died insane some 20 years after the publication of GT) and, most famously, William Thackeray described it as "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging and obscene" (1853).
Composition and History
It is uncertain exactly when Swift started writing Gulliver's Travels but some sources suggest as early as 1713 when Swift, Gay, Pope, Arbuthnott and others formed The Scriblerus Club, with the aim of satirising then-popular literary genres. Swift, runs the theory, was charged with writing the memoirs of the club's imaginary author, Martinus Scriblerus. It is known from Swift's correspondence that the composition proper began in 1720 with the mirror-themed parts I and II written first, Part IV next in 1723 and Part III written in 1724, but amendments were made even while Swift was writing The Drapier's Letters. By 1725 the book was completed and Swift travelled to London to have it published.
The book was a transparently anti-Whig satire and it is likely that Swift had the manuscript recopied so his handwriting could not be used as evidence if a prosecution should arise (as had happened in the case of some of his Irish pamphlets) and the manuscript was secretly delivered to the publisher Benjamin Motte. Motte, fearing prosecution and recognising a bestseller when he had one, simply cut or altered the worst offending passages (such as the descriptions of the court contests in Lilliput or the rebellion of Lindalino) added some material in defence of Queen Anne to book II, and published it anyway. The book was an instant sensation and sold out its first run in less than a month and continued to be published for a long while afterwards.
Motte published Gulliver's Travels anonymously and, as is often the way with fashionable works, a slew of follow-ups (eg Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput), parodies (eg Two Lilliputian Odes, The firs on the Famous Engine With Which Captain Gulliver extiguish'd the Palace Fire...) and "keys" (eg Gulliver Decypher'd and Lemuel Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Regions of the World Compendiously Methodiz'd, the second by Edmund Curll who had similarly written a "key" to Swift's Tale of a Tub in 1705) were produced over the next few years. These were mostly printed anonymously (or occasionally pseudonymously) and were quickly forgotten. Swift had nothing to do with any of these and specifically disavowed them in Faulkner's edition of 1735. However, Swift's friend Alexander Pope wrote a set of five Verses on Gulliver's Travels which Swift liked so much that he added them to the second edition of the book, though they are not nowadays generally included.
In 1735 an Irish publisher, George Faulkner, printed a complete set of Swift's works to date, Volume III of which was Gulliver's Travels. As revealed in Faulkner's "Advertisement to the Reader", Faulkner had access to an annotated copy of Motte's work by "a friend of the author" (generally believed to be Swift's friend Charles Ford) which reproduced most of the manuscript free of Motte's amendments, the original manuscript having been destroyed. It is also believed that Swift at least reviewed proofs of Faulkner's edition before printing but this cannot be proved. Generally, this is regarded as the Editio Princeps of Gulliver's Travels with one small exception, discussed below.
This edition had an added piece by Swift, A letter from Capt. Gulliver to his Cousin Sympson which complained of Motte's alterations to the original text, saying he had so much altered it that "I do hardly know mine own work" and repudiating all of Motte's changes as well as all the keys, libels, parodies, second parts and continuations that had appeared in the intervening years. This letter now forms part of the standard text.
The short (five paragraph) episode in Part III, telling of the rebellion of the surface city of Lindalino against the flying island of Laputa, was an obvious allegory to the affair of The Drapier's Letters of which Swift was (justifiably) proud. Lindalino was Dublin (Lin-da-lin = Double-lin = Dublin) and the impositions of Laputa represented the British imposition of Wood's poor-quality currency. For uncertain reasons Faulkner had omitted this passage, either because of political sensitivities raised by being an Irish publisher printing an anti-English satire or possibly because the text he worked from didn't include the passage either. It wasn't until 1899 that the passage was finally included in a new edition of the Collected Works. Modern editions thus derive from the Faulkner edition with the inclusion of this 1899 addendum.
Analysis and Overview
Gulliver's Travels has been called a lot of things from Menippean Satire to a children's story, from proto-Science Fiction to a forerunner of the modern novel. Possibly one of the reasons for the book's classic status is that it can be seen as many things to many people. It is even funny. Broadly the book has three themes:
- a satirical view of the state of European government
- an inquiry into whether man is inherently corrupt or whether men are corrupted
- a restatement of the older "ancients v. moderns" controversy previously addressed by Swift in the Battle of the Books.
In terms of storytelling and construction the parts follow a pattern :
- The cause of Gulliver's misadventures becomes more malignant as time goes on - he is first shipwrecked, then abandoned or lost, then attacked by strangers then attacked by his own crew.
- Gulliver's attitude hardens as the book progresses — he is genuinely surprised by the viciousness and politicking of the Lilliputians but finds the behaviour of the Yahoos in the fourth part reflective of the behaviour of "civilised" people
- Each part is the reverse of the preceding part — Gulliver is big/small/sensible/ignorant, the countries are sophisticated/simple/scientific/natural, forms of Government are worse/better/worse/better than England's and so on
- Gulliver's view between parts contrasts with the other "matching" part — Gulliver sees the tiny Lilliputians as being vicious and unscrupulous and then the king of Brobdningnag sees Europe in exactly the same light and so on
- No form of government is ideal — the simplistic Brobingnagians enjoy public executions and have streets infested with beggars, the honest and upright Houyhnhnms who have no word for lying are happy to suppress the true nature of Gulliver as a Yahoo and equally unconcerned about his reaction to being expelled
- Specific individuals may be good even where the race is bad — Gulliver finds a friend in all his travels and, despite Gulliver's rejection and horror of all Yahoos, is treated very well by the Portuguese captain who returns him to England at the novel's end.
Of equal interest is the character of Gulliver himself — he progresses from a cheery optimist at the start of the first part to the pompous misanthrope of the book's conclusion and we may well have to filter our understanding of the work if we are to believe the final misanthrope wrote the whole work. In this sense GT is a very modern and complex novel. There are subtle shifts throughout the book, such as when Gulliver begins to see all humans, not just those in Houyhnhnm-land, as Yahoos.
Despite the depth and subtlety of the book, it is often derided as a children's story because of the popularity of the Lilliput section (frequently bowdlerised) as a book for children. It is still possible to buy books entitled Gulliver's Travels which contain only parts of the Lilliput voyage.
The popularity of Gulliver is such that the term Lilliputian has entered the language as an adjective meaning "small and delicate". There is even a brand of cigar called Lilliput which is, obviously, small.
In like vein, the term Yahoo is often encountered as a synonym for ruffian or thug. Brobdingnagian also can be occasionally found as a synonym for 'very large' or 'gigantic'.
A listing of all editions would be impractical. Almost any modern edition is suitably footnoted and detailed to allow specific points of the satire to be appreciated. One shortfall is that no convenient modern edition of the 1726 text is available for study. An edition claiming to be the 1726 text was published by Oxford University Press but inspection revealed this to include all the changes made by Faulkner for the 1735 text and the 1899 addition. The edition is no longer in print. The Norton Critical Edition (ISBN 0393957241) is very reasonably priced and includes some excellent critical overviews and contemporary documents.
Gulliver's Travels has been adapted several times for film and television.
- Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902): A French short silent adaption directed by Georges Méliès.
- Gulliver's Travels (1939): animated feature produced by Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures as a response to the success of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, directed by Dave Fleischer. The film is generally considered one of the best from The Golden Age of Hollywood animation, although it varies widely from the original novel. Fleischer used the rotoscope to animate the character of Gulliver, tracing from footage of a live actor. The film was a moderate success, and its Lilliputian characters appeared in their own cartoon short subjects. With the expiration of its copyright, this film has entered the public domain, and can be downloaded at no charge from the Prelinger Archive.
- The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960): The first live action adaption of Gulliver's Travels, but also incorporating the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. It was directed by Jack Sher and starred Kerwin Mathews.
- Gulliver's Travels (1977): Live action/animated musical film directed by Peter R. Hunt and starring Richard Harris featuring the Lilliput voyage only.
- Gulliver's Travels (1996): Live-action television mini-series starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. In this version Dr. Gulliver has returned to his family from a long absence. The action shifts back and forth between flashbacks of his travels and the present where he is telling the story of his travel and has been committed to an asylum. It is notable for being one of the very few adaptations to feature all four voyages.
- The character of Gulliver appears in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber, played by Bernard Horsfall
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