Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a celebrated satirical work in which Swift adopts the techniques of a standard travelogue to critique his own culture and its assumptions. The novel exaggerates the absurdity of the people and places the narrator describes, and in so doing mocks society. The novel’s first-person narrator, Lemuel Gulliver, is straightforward, bereft of inner emotion or reflection, and his initially gullible and naïve tone turns cynical and bitter by the end. Gulliver’s Travels criticizes various forms of knowledge—whether political, legal, naval, scientific, or rhetorical—that are more flashy than useful, and it questions claims to superiority based on assertions of physical power or moral righteousness. There are, the work insists, limits to human understanding.

The major conflicts are revealed as Gulliver struggles to understand the various civilizations he encounters and for them to understand him, yet the deeper conflict is Swift’s disillusionment with the English world he satirizes. Through Gulliver’s interactions with diverse cultures, Swift mocks English politics, customs, and attitudes that he finds contemptuous. For example, his portrayal of the Lilliputians—with their diminutive stature and politics—is intended to ridicule the Whigs, an English political party during Swift’s time.

Gulliver leaves for his first journey after his business fails, and the rising action comprises his various adventures. In the inciting incident, Gulliver is shipwrecked and swims to the island of Lilliput before passing out. He wakes to find himself bound by tiny threads made by tiny captors. The people’s miniature size represents the cultural differences of the civilizations that England encountered with its growing military and economic expansion. Further, the tiniest race is the vainest, symbolizing human tendency toward excessive pride in its own small existence—a misplaced human pride. 

As the rising action progresses, Gulliver is brought to the emperor in the capital by wagon, and he is used in the Lilliputians’ war against Blefuscu, whom they hate because of the different way that they crack their eggs. Here, Swift’s satirical wit criticizes the moral righteousness behind war and religious ritual, drawing an absurd parallel to England’s conflicts with France: European history is recast as a series of brutal wars over meaningless and arbitrary disagreements, including their religious perspectives. Gulliver is eventually convicted of treason for urinating to put out a fire in the royal palace. The motif of excrement surfaces throughout the novel, underscoring the idea that what can be crass and ignoble about the body—common filth—is also germane to society itself. Certain customs from Lilliput are good, specifically those that contribute to the good of the community or nation; however, Swift’s point is that size, power, and individual significance are all relative. 

As the rising action continues, Gulliver escapes to Blefuscu where he repairs a boat to set sail back to England. There, after a two-month stay, his next voyage is to the land of giants, Brobdingnag, where a farmer sells him to the queen. The same issues as in Lilliput are raised here, but in reverse, once again emphasizing the importance of size and the relativity of human culture. Gulliver is treated as a doll or plaything at court, where he is often repulsed by the Brobdignagians, whose ordinary flaws are magnified by their size. Here, Swift’s point is that anything—whether human skin or a political system—has imperfections which are revealed upon close scrutiny. He also discovers that the ignorant king knows nothing of politics. Gulliver leaves only when his cage is taken by an eagle and dropped into the sea.

After an attack by pirates on his third voyage, Gulliver lands in Laputa, a floating island inhabited by theoreticians and academics who oppress the land below them, Balnibarbi. Abstract research in Laputa is impractical and unrealistic, and power is exerted through technology. This is Swift’s critique of the Enlightenment’s excessive rationalism and heavy reliance on scientific theory, rather than practical application useful to human life. 

On his fourth journey, Gulliver, as captain, has a mutiny of his crew and ends up in a land populated by Houyhnhnms, rational horses, symbolic of common sense (“horse sense”) who rule, and Yahoos, the human brutes who serve them. Houyhnhnms are intelligent and rational, although their cruelty to the Yahoos is overt and disturbing. Gulliver, imbibing the biases of the Houyhnhnms, wishes to remain with them; however, he is banished because his body is too similar to that of the Yahoos.

The novel’s climax occurs when Gulliver rejects human society altogether. He is rescued by a Portuguese ship captain, Don Pedro, who is generous and empathetic. Still, Gulliver shuns him as vulgar, unable to view him and all humans as anything but shamefully Yahoolike. Don Pedro is the symbolic touchstone through which Swift shows that Gulliver has lost touch with reality and is no longer, if ever he has been, a reliable narrator.

In the falling action, Gulliver reluctantly returns to England and becomes further alienated. He can barely tolerate the presence of his family and retreats into madness by spending his days talking to the horses in an attempt to recreate Houyhnhnmland. However, what is missing in the dull and simple horses’ lives is what makes human society interesting and complex: rich language, love, emotion, and social interplay. For this reason, Gulliver’s Travels is considered one of the first novels expressing modern alienation, exploring an individual’s repeated failures to integrate into society. The novel’s resolution concludes with Gulliver’s claim that all the lands he has visited belong to England as her colonies, although he questions colonialism itself.