Gulliver’s Travels

by: Jonathan Swift

Lemuel Gulliver

The last of these voyages not proving very fortunate, I grew weary of the sea, and intended to stay at home with my wife and family. I removed from the Old Jewry to Fetter Lane, and from thence to Wapping, hoping to get business among the sailors; but it would not turn to account. After three years’ expectation that things would mend, I accepted an advantageous offer from Captain William Prichard, master of the Antelope, who was making a voyage to the South Sea.

Gulliver, who has trained as a doctor, explains why he set off on yet another voyage: He needs the money. So far Gulliver’s career has been a series of failures, and the reader can infer that Gulliver might be escaping his financial problems. Throughout the book, Gulliver’s adventures to imaginary lands begin and end with real sea voyages, and here the mundane details of his planning introduce the narrator’s straightforward approach to life, lending credibility to his accounts.

After they were read, I was demanded to swear to the performance of them; first in the manner of my own country, and afterwards in the method prescribed by their laws; which was to hold my right foot in my left hand, to place the middle finger of my right hand on the crown of my head, and my thumb on the tip of my right ear.

Gulliver arrives at an agreement with the emperor of Lilliput about the terms of his freedom, and now he swears to the agreement. Gulliver respectfully performs the ceremony as required, a ridiculous ritual of bodily contortions. The reader laughs at the fictional scene and then recognizes the absurdity of real societal norms satirized in the rite.

A dish of their meat was a good mouthful, and a barrel of their liquor a reasonable draught. Their mutton yields to ours, but their beef is excellent. I have had a sirloin so large, that I have been forced to make three bites of it; but this is rare. My servants were astonished to see me eat it bones and all, as in our country we do the leg of a lark. Their geese and turkeys I usually ate at a mouthful, and I confess they far exceed ours. Of their smaller fowl I could take up twenty or thirty at the end of my knife.

Gulliver describes his diet in Lilliput. Wherever he travels, Gulliver thinks first about his own food and drink. The visual image of Gulliver eating reminds us how much of a drain he puts on his host’s resources. Yet Gulliver’s uncomplicated absorption with his own needs doesn’t include the self-awareness of being a burden. In Lilliput, he enjoys being, literally, the big man at every dinner party, and he regards all the extra attention as no more than his due.

I made all the sail I could, and in half an hour she spied me, then hung out her ancient, and discharged a gun. It is not easy to express the joy I was in, upon the unexpected hope of once more seeing my beloved country, and the dear pledges I left in it.

Gulliver describes the moment he spies another ship after spending days adrift in a small boat after leaving Lilliput and Blefuscu. As he signals the ship, Gulliver thinks again of his country and family. The first voyage has ended with Gulliver literally at sea. Remembering where he comes from restores Gulliver’s good spirits and gives the reader a respite as the story returns from fantasy to normalcy.

The short time I continued in England, I made a considerable profit by showing my cattle to many persons of quality and others: and before I began my second voyage, I sold them for six hundred pounds.

Gulliver describes the profits he made by selling the miniature animals that he acquired in Lilliput. He adds this accounting detail to support his claims. Gulliver relates with pride his success in society and in business resulting from his miniature livestock. The limited inherent value of pocket-size cattle portrays society’s fascination with novelty over utility.

Upon what I said in relation to our courts of justice, his Majesty desired to be satisfied in several points: and this I was the better able to do, having been formerly almost ruined by a long suit in chancery, which was decreed for me with costs.

Gulliver describes the laws and customs of England to the king of Brobdingnag, the land of giants. In the process, he drops a hint about his own unsuccessful career: He was once the victim of a lawsuit. This fact helps explain why Gulliver fails to hold on to his money, why he feels so bitter about English society, and perhaps even why he went to sea.

I was indeed treated with much kindness: I was the favourite of a great king and queen, and the delight of the whole court, but it was upon such a foot as ill became the dignity of humankind. I could never forget those domestic pledges I had left behind me. I wanted to be among people, with whom I could converse upon even terms, and walk about the streets and fields without being afraid of being trod to death like a frog or a young puppy.

Gulliver, a tiny person in a land of giants, describes being a pampered prisoner in the land of Brobdingnag. He feels that he has lost honor and dignity because he is regarded as a toy. As usual, Gulliver’s discontent with his present situation impels him to miss his family. He feels powerless.

I stayed three months in this country out of perfect obedience to his Majesty, who was pleased highly to favour me, and made me very honourable offers. But I thought it more consistent with prudence and justice to pass the remainder of my days with my wife and family.

As he nears the end of his third voyage, Gulliver explains why he decides to leave the country of Luggnagg. In every imaginary country, Gulliver boasts about enjoying the favors of the royal court. But he also witnesses the cruelty and arbitrary power of the king of Luggnagg and knows he cannot expect justice in return for his obedience. Gulliver’s new awareness reminds readers not to trust monarchs.

I told them, I was their prisoner, and would submit. This they made me swear to do, and then they unbound me, only fastening one of my legs with a chain near my bed, and placed a sentry at my door with his piece charged, who was commanded to shoot me dead if I attempted my liberty.

On his last voyage, Gulliver commands a ship, but the sailors mutiny and make Gulliver a prisoner. He submits without a fight, as he has done during all his previous captivities. Gulliver reveals himself to be not terribly bright, but he does have a strong sense of self-preservation. In this case, the sailors put him to sea in a small boat, which he manages to sail to the country of the Houyhnhnms.

Having thus answered the only objection that can ever be raised against me as a traveller, I here take a final leave of all my courteous readers, and return to enjoy my own speculations in my little garden at Redriff, to apply those excellent lessons of virtue which I learned among the Houyhnhnms; to instruct the Yahoos of my own family, as far as I shall find them docible animals; to behold my figure often in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature; to lament the brutality to Houyhnhnms in my own country, but always treat their persons with respect, for the sake of my noble master, his family, his friends, and the whole Houyhnhnm race, whom these of ours have the honour to resemble in all their lineaments, however their intellectuals came to degenerate.

Here, Gulliver sums up the lessons he has learned as he returns from his last voyage. He reveals that he now thinks of himself as a Houyhnhnm and of his family as intolerable Yahoos. The whole story of the Houyhnhnms functions as an elaborate joke on common sense. Their utopian society has captivated Gulliver to the point that he despises his own race. He sees human degeneracy when he looks in the mirror. His humorous final vow to treat horses with more respect functions also as a commentary on society’s intolerant stereotypes.