The story is told from the point of view of Captain Gulliver. When the book begins he is an young man trying unsuccessfully to support himself and his family. Gulliver's medical practice finally folds and he is forced to find another form of employment, so he decides to become a surgeon on board a ship to the South Sea.
Some months into the voyage a violent storm drives the ship onto a rock destroying it completely. Gulliver and a few of his shipmates escape on the boat but it is quickly overturned by the storm and Gulliver is forced to swim for his life. Gulliver is washed ashore on a small island, where he falls asleep from fatigue.
Upon awakening, though, Gulliver receives a nasty surprise, for he finds that he is tied down to the ground by numerous small ropes and threads. Soon Gulliver discovers that the island that he landed upon is peopled by a diminutive race of people less than six inches in height. Thought Gulliver tries his best to escape the people shoot numerous arrows at him and this convinces him to cease his resistance.
The little people, who call themselves Lilliputians, give Gulliver some drugged wine which causes him to go to sleep and when he awakes he finds that they have transported him inland on a large machine of their making and chained one of his legs securely.
After some weeks during which Gulliver learns the language of the Lilliputians and proves that he is trustworthy the little people grant him his freedom provided that he help them on numerous public projects that could benefit from his vast strength.
One project that Gulliver takes on is conquering the Blefuscudians, another race of small people who live on a nearby island and who are determined to conquer the Lilliputians. Gulliver sneaks up on the island and steals all of their warships by tying cables to them and then pulling them back to Lilliput. This deed earns him the title of Nardac, a great honor in Lilliput.
However, another of Gulliver's helpful deeds is not appreciated quite as much. When a fire breaks out at the national palace Gulliver rushes to the aid only to find that there is little water available to put out the fire. Ever resourceful Gulliver uses his urine to extinguish the fire. This expedient saves the rest of the palace but causes great resentment among certain Lilliputians. They begin to use this as part of a weighty argument against Gulliver. They say that feeding Gulliver will soon starve everyone on the island. By referring to his disgraceful service to the palace and a pretended alliance with the Lilliputian's enemies the Blefuscudians they say that Gulliver should be killed and his body disposed of.
Gulliver learns of the plot through a friend, so he escapes to Blefuscu to save his life. There he finds the overturned boat washed ashore. After restoring it and building a store of provisions he leaves the Lilliputians and after a brief voyage meets up with a ship that takes him back to England.
This first part of “Gulliver's Travels” is pure political satire. Jonathan Swift uses the Lilliputians, the Blefuscudians and their miniature disputes and wars to make fun of real governments and conflicts of his time. For example, in Lilliputian society there are two rival political groups, the High-Heels and the Low-Heels. As there names would indicate these two rival groups are differentiated by the size of their heels. These represent the Tories and the Whigs, two rival English political parties of the 18th century. Jonathan Swift then criticizes George II, then prince, by portraying him in the book as inclined to both parties such that he hobbles along on heels of different sizes. In addition, Swift also religious disputes. A key event in the story of Gulliver's first voyage is the way between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians. According to the Lilliputian king this war began over which side of the egg it is proper to crack open first, either the large end or the small end. The two groups of people, the Big-Endians, and the Little-Endians stand for the Protestants and the Roman Catholics.
After a broad criticism of governmental and religious conflict by portraying it in the light of tiny people beneath a giant man, Jonathan Swift switches to a entirely different point of view. On the second voyage, Gulliver once again goes to sea. On this voyage he and a group of crew members stop off at a unknown foreign shore to search for water. However, when his crew mates see what they think to be a giant monster, actually a huge man, they take off in the long boat and leave Gulliver stranded. Gulliver explores inland and soon discovers that the land is inhabited by giants as tall as “an ordinary spire-steeple.” Gulliver attempts to hide in a field of giant corn put the reapers find him.
Soon Gulliver finds himself in the ownership of a giant farmer who informs him that Gulliver has found his way to Brobdingnag, the land of giants. The man cares for Gulliver fairly well. However he soon finds that he can make large amounts of money showing him from town to town. Soon he has Gulliver working all day to make a show for crowds of curious people. When he determines that Gulliver's death from being overworked is nigh he sells Gulliver to the king and queen.
At the court Gulliver finds slightly better conditions, but must still endure the persecutions of a dwarf who hates him and continual danger from various huge animals, from frogs, and insects, to fierce rats, and even a monkey.
In the end Gulliver is carried out to sea in a box by a giant eagle who then drops the box into the sea. A passing sea captain picks up Gulliver and takes him home, but Gulliver's mind is affected by the experience:
“My wife ran out to embrace me, but I stooped lower than her knees, thinking she could otherwise never be able to reach my mouth. My daughter kneeled to ask my blessing but I count not see her till she arose, having been so long used to stand with my head and eyes rest to above sixty foot.”Gulliver's second voyage is about the futility and the frustration of human life and fighting against powers larger than yourself. At the same time, though, Jonathan Swift explores other interesting lines of thought. For example, in one passage Gulliver is talking to the king of the giant Brobdingnags. Gulliver tells the king about English tools of war such as muskets, gunpowder, cannons, and shells. Then he offers to tell the King about how to make gunpowder and other tools of war. The giant King's response is very interesting:
“The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of those terrible engines, and the proposal I had made. He was amazed how so impotent and groveling an insect as I (those were his expressions) could entertain such inhuman ideas, and in so familiar a manner as to appear wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and destruction, which I had painted as the common effects of those destructive machines; whereof he said some evil genius, enemy to mankind, must have been the first contriver. As for himself, he protested that although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art of in nature; yet he would rather lose half of his kingdom than be privy to such a secret; which he commanded me as I valued my life never to mention any more.”In “Gulliver's Travels” Jonathan Swift portrays Gulliver as critical of the king's stand. Gulliver feels that the King is narrow minded and shouldn't have passed such an opportunity. However, it is obvious from Swift's tone that Swift himself wishes that the kings of Europe would be similarly enlightened. What I wonder would Swift think of modern times, when airplanes, incendiary weapons and atomic weapons have made mere weapons of gunpowder seem harmless? What about the many people who when watching movies or playing video games are “wholly unmoved at all the scenes of blood and destruction”?
Gulliver's third voyage takes an obvious poke at science and higher learning. This time Gulliver's ship is pursued by pirates. Knowing that there is no hope to resist them, Gulliver orders his men to give up without a fight. The pirates imprison the men without killing them, but they have considerably less pity for Gulliver. Gulliver is put out to sea on a small lifeboat with a few supplies.
Soon Gulliver ends up on a remote island where he must live on birds eggs and what food he can find. But then one day he sees a strange sight. A huge island covered in buildings and terraces and floating in the air approaches Gulliver's island. Gulliver hails them and soon they take pity on him and haul him up onto their island.
In this way Gulliver meets the Laputians. According to Gulliver these people are great learners, constantly thinking about problems of astronomy and mathematics. In fact the higher Laputians are always in such deep thought that they have to employ special servants to alert them when there is something worth seeing or hearing or when a response is needed. This servant, called a flapper, has a special tool with which he lightly taps his servants ears, eyes, or mouth:
“This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap upon the 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 jostling others, or being jostled himself into the kennel.”This humorous passage reminded me of stories of Albert Einstein who was said to take long walks and often appear distracted because he was so deep in thought that he wouldn't notice his surroundings.
A little later on during Gulliver's third voyage he gets the Laputians to drop him off on Lagado, where there is a great Academy of higher learning. Jonathan Swift portrays Gulliver as he explores the Academy and meets some its very eccentric and downright insane professors and philosophers. Speaking of one Gulliver says:
“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 tinctures which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva.”Another of the Academy's thinkers had “contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the rood, and working downwards to the foundation, which he justified to me by the like practice of those two prudent insects, the bee and the spider.”
In addition to poking fun at learning and science, Gulliver's third voyage also has political connotations, with the Flying Island of Laputa representing England, and the Laputians dominion, Ireland. Even as the Flying Island demanded that the grounded cities below give tribute or the Flying Island would descend to crush them, likewise England demanded taxes and dues from Ireland.
Gulliver's fourth voyage is without a doubt the strangest of all. Once again Gulliver is captain of his own ship, but his men conspire against him, and after confining him within his cabin for a long period of time they then set him ashore in a distant land.
One of the first things that Gulliver sees in this new land is a very disagreeable sort of animal. Gulliver describes them as being highly grotesque, but at the same time they have all the characteristics of humans, except that they are brute animals, with long claws on their hands and feet.
Soon Gulliver discovers that horses are the sentient beings of this new land. They call themselves Huoyhnhnms, while they call their human-like slaves Yahoos. When these intelligent horses first discover Gulliver they think that he is some strange new breed of Yahoo, but soon Gulliver learns the language of the Huoyhnhnms and begins to understand their customs.
Throughout Gulliver's fourth voyage, Jonathan Swift focuses on drawing similarities between humans and the grotesque Yahoos that are the Huoyhnhnms' slaves. According to Swift the warlike nature, base cruelties, and disgusting lust of humans make them no better than the Yahoos that he depicts as wild animals. Gulliver uses none but the strongest words when he describes the Yahoos as “cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful... insolent, abject, and cruel.”
When Gulliver finally returns from the land of the Huoyhnhnms he finds the presence of other humans very distasteful. He faints at the very idea of touching on, and stops up his nose with rue or tobacco to avoid their “odious” scent. Gulliver spends his last days in the stable with two common horses which he buys so that he can enjoy some decent company.
When Jonathan Swift wrote the fourth voyage of Gulliver he was slowly descending into madness, and would spend the last part of his own life in a manner similar to that of his main character Gulliver. Jonathan Swift's hate of humans and gradual dissatisfaction with life and with society are evident throughout “Gulliver's Travels.”
“Gulliver's Travels” is a very interesting satirical novel. Its biting wit and sarcastic examination of human nature are just as interesting as its highly imaginative plot and characters. As a piece of classic literature I would highly recommend that everyone read “Gulliver's Travels” at least once.