Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels (1726, amended 1735) is a work of fiction 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 1735 edition (see the Composition and History section below) contains an additional piece purporting to be a letter from Gulliver to his cousin Sympson, complaining of the emendations made to the first edition.

The book proper 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. After giving assurances of his good behaviour he is given a residence 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 and taken thence 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. He also encounters the Struldbruggs, unfortunates who are both immortal and very, very old. He also 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 favored pet, and both admires and emulates 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 civilisation 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.

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, 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.


In 1735 an Irish publisher, George Faulkner, printed a complete set of Swift's works to date. It is widely believed that these editions were published with Swift's co-operation and approval and the edition of GT printed included the new Letter referred to above as well as correcting and removing most of Motte's alterations and misprints. Generally, this is regarded as the Editio Princeps of GT with one small exception.


The short (three-paragraph) story 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. As an Irish publisher, Faulkner had felt unable to include the passage even 10 years after the events allegorised, so he omitted it. It wasn't until 1899 that the passage was finally included in a new edition of the Collected Works. Modern editions 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 Mennipean 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 optomist 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 part.

Cultural Influences

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.

In Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, the nadsat term for 'head' is 'Gulliver', which appears to be a pun on 'Gulliver' and голова (Golova) meaning 'head' in Russian.

The film Castle In The Sky features a flying island called Laputa. Hayao Miyazaki has stated the name comes from Swift's book.

Current Editions

A listing of all editions would be impractical. 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.

  • 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. This version is widely considered to be the best and most accurate adaption of the novel to date.
  • Gulliver's Travels (2005): 3-D IMAX film still in production.
  • The character of Gulliver appears in the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber, played by Bernard Horsfall

External links

de:Gullivers Reisen es:Los viajes de Gulliver fr:Les Voyages de Gulliver ja:ガリヴァー旅行記 sv:Gullivers resor


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