My Father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the Third of five Sons.
The novel begins with Lemuel Gulliver recounting the story of his life, beginning with his family history. He is born to a family in Nottinghamshire, the third of five sons. Although he studies at Cambridge as a teenager, his family is too poor to keep him there, so he is sent to London to be a surgeon’s apprentice. There, under a man named James Bates, he learns mathematics and navigation with the hope of traveling. When his apprenticeship ends, he studies physics at Leyden.
He then becomes a surgeon aboard a ship called the Swallow for three years. Afterward, he settles in London, working as a doctor, and marries a woman named Mary Burton. His business begins to fail when his patron dies, so he decides to go to sea again and travels for six years. Although he has planned to return home at the end of this time, he decides to accept one last job on a ship called the Antelope.
In the East Indies, the Antelope encounters a violent storm in which twelve crewmen die. Six of the crewmembers, including Gulliver, board a small rowboat to escape. Soon the rowboat capsizes, and Gulliver loses track of his companions. They are never seen again. Gulliver, however, swims safely to shore.
Gulliver lies down on the grass to rest, and soon he falls asleep. When he wakes up, he finds that his arms, legs, and long hair have been tied to the ground with pieces of thread. He can only look up, and the bright sun prevents him from seeing anything. He feels something move across his leg and over his chest. He looks down and sees, to his surprise, a six-inch-tall human carrying a bow and arrow. At least forty more little people climb onto his body. He is surprised and shouts loudly, frightening the little people away. They return, however, and one of the little men cries out, “Hekinah Degul.”
Gulliver struggles to get loose and finally succeeds in breaking the strings binding his left arm. He loosens the ropes tying his hair so he can turn to the left. In response, the little people fire a volley of arrows into his hand and violently attack his body and face. He decides that the safest thing to do is to lie still until nightfall. The noise increases as the little people build a stage next to Gulliver about a foot and a half off the ground. One of them climbs onto it and makes a speech in a language that Gulliver does not understand.
Gulliver indicates that he is hungry, and the little people bring him baskets of meat. He devours it all and then shows that he is thirsty, so they bring him two large barrels of wine. Gulliver is tempted to pick up forty or fifty of the little people and throw them against the ground, but he decides that he has made them a promise of goodwill and is grateful for their hospitality. He is also struck by their bravery, since they climb onto his body despite his great size.
An official climbs onto Gulliver’s body and tells him that he is to be carried to the capital city. Gulliver wants to walk, but they tell him that that will not be permitted. Instead, they bring a frame of wood raised three inches off the ground and carried by twenty-two wheels. Nine hundred men pull this cart about half a mile to the city. Gulliver’s left leg is then padlocked to a large temple, giving him only enough freedom to walk around the building in a semicircle and lie down inside the temple.
Gulliver’s narrative begins much like other travel records of his time. The description of his youth and education provides background knowledge, establishes Gulliver’s position in English society, and causes the novel to resemble true-life accounts of travels at sea published during Swift’s lifetime. Swift imitates the style of a standard travelogue throughout the novel to heighten the satire. Here he creates a set of expectations in our minds, namely a short-lived belief in the truth of Gulliver’s observations. Later in the novel, Swift uses the style of the travelogue to exaggerate the absurdity of the people and places with which Gulliver comes into contact. A fantastical style—one that made no attempt to seem truthful, accurate, or traditional—would have weakened the satire by making it irrelevant, but the factual, reportorial style of Gulliver’s Travels does the opposite.
Gulliver is surprised to discover the Lilliputians but is not particularly shocked. This encounter is only the first of many in the novel in which we are asked to accept Gulliver’s extraordinary experiences as merely unusual. Seeing the world through Gulliver’s eyes, we also adopt, for a moment, Gulliver’s view of the world. But at the same time, we can step back and recognize that the Lilliputians are nothing but a figment of Swift’s imagination. The distance between these two stances—the gullible Gulliver and the skeptical reader—is where the narrative’s multiple levels of meaning are created: on one level, we have a true-life story of adventure; on another, a purely fictional fairy tale; and on a third level, transcending the first two and closest to Swift’s original intention, a satirical critique of European pretensions to rationality and goodwill.
Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels at a time when Europe was the world’s dominant power, and when England, despite its small size, was rising in power on the basis of its formidable fleet. England’s growing military and economic power brought it into contact with a wide variety of new animals, plants, places, and things, but the most significant change wrought by European expansion was the encounter with previously unknown people—like the inhabitants of the Americas—with radically different modes of existence. The miniature stature of the Lilliputians can be interpreted as a physical incarnation of exactly these kinds of cultural differences.
The choice of physical size as the way of manifesting cultural differences has a number of important consequences. The main consequence is the radical difference in power between Gulliver and the Lilliputian nation. His physical size and strength put Gulliver in a unique position within Lilliputian society and give him obligations and capabilities far beyond those of the people who keep him prisoner. Despite Gulliver’s fear of the Lilliputians’ arrows, there is an element of condescension in his willingness to be held prisoner by them. The power differential may represent England’s position with respect to the people it was in the process of colonizing. It may also be a way for Swift to reveal the importance of might in a society supposedly guided by right. Finally, it may be a way of destabilizing humanity’s position at the center of the universe by demonstrating that size, power, and significance are all relative. Although the Lilliputians are almost pitifully small in Gulliver’s eyes, they are unwilling to see themselves that way; rather, they think of themselves as normal and of Gulliver as a freakish giant. That Gulliver may himself be the Lilliputian to some other nation’s Englishman—a notion elaborated fully in Part II—is already implied in the first chapter.