Gulliver has been home in England only ten days when a visitor comes to his house, asking him to sail aboard his ship in two months’ time. Gulliver agrees and prepares to set out for the East Indies. On the voyage, pirates attack the ship. Gulliver hears a Dutch voice among them and speaks to the pirate in Dutch, begging to be set free since he and the pirate are both Christians. A Japanese pirate tells them they will not die, and Gulliver tells the Dutchman that he is surprised to find more mercy in a heathen than in a Christian. The Dutchman grows angry and punishes Gulliver by sending him out to sea in a small boat with only four days’ worth of food.
Gulliver finds some islands and goes ashore on one of them. He sets up camp but then notices something strange: the sun is mysteriously obscured for some time. He then sees a landmass dropping down from the sky and notices that it is crawling with people. He is baffled by this floating island and shouts up to its inhabitants. They lower the island and send down a chain by which he is drawn up.
Gulliver is immediately surrounded by people and notices that they are all quite odd. Their heads are all tilted to one side or the other, with one eye turned inward and the other looking up. Their clothes are adorned with images of celestial bodies and musical instruments. Some of the people are servants, and each of them carries a “flapper” made of a stick with a pouch tied to the end. Their job is to aid conversation by striking the ear of the listener and the mouth of the speaker at the appropriate times to prevent their masters’ minds from wandering off.
Gulliver is conveyed to the king, who sits behind a table loaded with mathematical instruments. They wait an hour before there is some opportunity to arouse the king from his thoughts, at which point he is struck with the flapper. The king says something, and Gulliver’s ear is struck with the flapper as well, even though he tries to explain that he does not require such actions. It becomes clear that he and the king cannot speak any of the same languages, so Gulliver is taken to an apartment and served dinner.
A teacher is sent to instruct Gulliver in the language of the island, and he is able to learn several sentences. He discovers that the name of the island is Laputa, which in their language means “floating island.” A tailor is also sent to provide him with new clothes, and while he is waiting for these clothes, the king orders the island to be moved. It is taken to a point above the capital city of the kingdom, Lagado, passing villages along the way and collecting petitions from the king’s subjects by means of ropes sent down to the lands below.
The language of the Laputans relies heavily on mathematical and musical concepts, as they value these theoretical disciplines above everything. The Laputans despise practical geometry, thinking it vulgar—so much so that they make sure that there are no right angles in their buildings. They are very good with charts and figures but very clumsy in practical matters. They practice astrology and dread changes in the celestial bodies.
The island is exactly circular and consists of 10,000 acres of land. At the center there is a cave for astronomers, containing all their instruments and a lodestone six yards long. It moves the island with its magnetic force, since it has two charges that can be reversed by means of an attached control. The mineral that acts upon the magnet is large enough to allow it to move only over the country directly beneath it. When the king wants to punish a particular region of the country, he can keep the island above it, depriving the lands below of sun and rain. Such measures failed to work in one town, where the rebellious inhabitants had stored provisions of food in advance. They planned to force the island to come so low that it would be trapped forever and to kill the king and his officials in order to take over the government. Instead, the king ordered the island to stop descending and gave in to the town’s demands. The king is not allowed to leave the floating island, nor is his family.
Gulliver’s third voyage is more scattered than the others, involving stops at Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan. Swift completed the account of this voyage after that of the fourth voyage was already written, and there are hints that it was assembled from notes that Swift had made for an earlier satire of abstract knowledge. Nonetheless, it plays a crucial role in the novel as a whole. Whereas the first two voyages are mostly satires of politics and ethics, the third voyage extends Swift’s attack to science, learning, and abstract thought, offering a critique of excessive rationalism, or reliance on theory, during the Enlightenment.
Laputa is more complex than Lilliput or Brobdingnag because its strangeness is not based on differences of size but, instead, on the primacy of abstract theoretical concerns over concrete practical concerns in Laputan culture. Nonetheless, physical power is just as important in Laputa as it is in Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Here, power is exercised not through physical size but through technology. The government floats over the rest of the kingdom, using technology to gain advantage over its subjects. The floating island is both a formidable weapon and an allegorical image that represents the distance between the government and the people it governs. The king is oblivious to the real concerns of the people below—indeed, he has never even been below. The nobility and scientific thinkers of the island are similarly far removed from the people and their concerns, so much so that they need to be aroused from their thoughts and daydreams by their servants. The need to regulate when people listen and when they talk by means of such intermediaries as the servants with their flappers is absurd, and the mechanized quality of this system demonstrates how nonhuman these people are. Indeed, abstract theory dominates all aspects of Laputan life, from language to architecture to geography. We are compelled to wonder whether the Laputans’ rigid adherence to such principles—their disdain for practical geometry, for example, leads them to renounce right angles—limits their society.
Swift continues to satirize specialized language in his description of the technique used to move the island from one place to another. The method of assigning letters to parts of a mechanism and then describing the movement of these parts from one point to another resembles the mechanistic philosophical and scientific descriptions of Swift’s time. The use of this technique does nothing but obscure what Gulliver is trying to say, but he is so enamored of its supposed geometrical rigor that he uses it to excess, as he does earlier with naval language.