Fiction Classic

Gullivers Travels Summary

Jonathan Swift
Rating: 7.2

“A wickedly clever satire uses comic inversions to offer telling insights into the nature of man and society. Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s”
— The Great American Read

Gulliver’s Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. Gulliver’s Travels describes the four voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s surgeon. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships is a 1726 prose satire by the Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift, satirizing both human nature and the “travelers’ tales” literary subgenre.

The First Voyage: Lilliput

Trained surgeon and hopeful seafarer Lemuel Gulliver accepts a job as a surgeon on board a ship as he is struggling to make enough money as a doctor in London. A storm hits, and the ship sinks. Gulliver washes up on the shores of the island of Lilliput. When he awakes, he finds that a whole host of tiny people have tied him down with ropes. They shoot at him with arrows whenever he tries to move. Gulliver manages to convey to them that he means them no harm.

“I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: For as I happened to lie on my back, I found that my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

An official of the Emperor arrives and explains to Gulliver that although he is a prisoner, he will receive food and drink. The Lilliputians transport Gulliver to an ancient temple, the only building big enough to house him. The next day, Gulliver receives a visit from the Emperor and the Empress, and soon he starts to learn the local language and customs. He continues to petition to be set free, but despite the huge strain his presence puts on the local economy, the Emperor and his council refuse to let him go.

“Every man desires to live long, but no man wishes to be old.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Entertainment in Lilliput

Gulliver starts to gain insight into Lilliputian customs. He finds that artistic ability is critical to improving one’s station at the imperial court. If an important office becomes available in Lilliput, the candidates for the role must dance on a rope to show their artistic skill. The office will go to the one who jumps the highest and thereby displays the greatest skill. People come from all over the island to see Gulliver. He also receives regular visits from the Empress and the Emperor, and they are delighted with the entertainment he offers them.

“The natives came, by degrees, to be less apprehensive of any danger from me. I would sometimes lie down, and let five or six of them dance on my hand.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

One time, he constructs a training ground for the Royal Army and their horses, and the daily training becomes a new and popular diversion for the couple. In fact, the Emperor is so pleased that he finally decides to grant Gulliver his freedom. However, Gulliver has an enemy in the Emperor’s cabinet: Skyresh Bolgolam, the Admiral of the Realm, who convinces the Emperor to put limits on Gulliver’s freedom. Gulliver is allowed neither to enter the capital nor to leave the country, and he must help the Lilliputians with various projects and transport couriers. In exchange, he will receive a daily ration of food that would feed 1,724 Lilliputians.

“I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Gulliver the Hero

With the permission of the Emperor, Gulliver visits the Lilliputian capital metropolis of Mildendo. One day, Redreseal the Principal Secretary of Private Affairs, who has become Gulliver’s friend, tells him that neighboring island Blefuscu is threatening Lilliput. The two islands have been enemies for a long time over the issue of whether to break an egg on its larger or smaller end. Gulliver offers his help and wades over to Blefuscu, hooks up all its warships and pulls the fleet back to Lilliput. The Emperor is delighted and confers upon Gulliver the Lilliputians’ highest title of honor, making him a “Nardac.”

“Undoubtedly, philosophers are in the right when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Lilliputian Law

One night, a fire starts in the Empress’s quarters at the imperial palace, which Gulliver extinguishes by peeing on it. The Empress is deeply offended. Also, according to Lilliputian law, to “make water within the Precinct of the Palace” is a capital crime. Gulliver is puzzled by some of the laws and customs in Lilliput. For example, slander and ingratitude are punishable by death, and fraud has more severe legal consequences than theft.

“A wife should be always a reasonable and agreeable companion, because she cannot always be young.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Whoever doesn’t break the law for 73 months gets a reward. Morals are more important than abilities when it comes to employing a person. Girls are educated similarly to boys. Parents aren’t allowed to bring up their own children: From age 20 months on, they live and be educated in public nurseries, each according to their gender and social status.

“The tiny Lilliputians surmise that Gulliver’s watch may be his god, because it is that which, he admits, he seldom does anything without consulting.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Intrigue Against Gulliver

Gulliver’s enemy Skyresh Bolgolam convinces the Emperor to punish Gulliver for urinating in the palace. When Gulliver finds out that he is to be blinded, he plans his escape. He goes to Blefuscu under the pretense of wanting to visit its emperor. After he has been there for a few days, he finds a human-sized rowing boat at the beach. With the help of the Blefuscuians, he repairs it, stocks the vessel with supplies as well as live cattle and sheep, and sets sail. Soon a trade ship picks him up, and he returns to England where he earns a decent return by selling the miniature animals from Blefuscu.

“Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

The Second Voyage: Brobdingnag

Only two months later, Gulliver is off to sea again. The crew lose their bearings when a storm hits. They row over to an island to find food and water, and Gulliver wanders off to explore. Suddenly he hears screaming and sees the crew rowing away from the island as quickly as they can while being chased by a giant. Gulliver panics and runs into a field, where he encounters more giants, who are harvesting the grain with their enormous scythes.

“Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Gulliver narrowly escapes being trampled to death by a farmer, who picks him up and carries him back to his house and family. Life with the farmer and his family proves dangerous for Gulliver, who is tiny compared with everything around him. The baby of the family wants him as a toy to suck on, and Gulliver has to fight off two rats the size of mastiffs.

“This made me reflect, how vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Gulliver Becomes an Attraction

The farmer decides to start charging people to see Gulliver. Together with the farmer’s daughter Glumdalclitch, who has become Gulliver’s friend and protector, they set off on a tour around various pubs where Gulliver has to perform in front of an audience of giants. The strain of traveling and performing is too much for him, and he rapidly loses weight. The farmer, thinking that Gulliver won’t survive much longer, sells him to the Queen, and Gulliver and Glumdalclitch stay at the royal court.

“A wife should be always a reasonable and agreeable companion, because she cannot always be young.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Life at Court

Gulliver gets his own little house, furniture, clothes and utensils and becomes the Queen’s regular companion. However, not everything is plain sailing. The dwarf at court is jealous of Gulliver and tries to drown him in a cream pot. A monkey belonging to one of the kitchen clerks kidnaps him and almost kills him by dropping him from the roof. Hail and falling apples threaten to squash him.

“I hid myself between two leaves of sorrel, and there discharged the necessities of nature.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Gulliver tries to explain English laws and customs to the King, who reaches the conclusion that the English must be the most corrupt and lazy people he has ever come across. Gulliver, on the other hand, sees Brobdingnag as backward and simplistic. The country teaches only morality, history, poetry, and mathematics; its alphabet only has 22 letters, and he doesn’t understand why the King is horrified when Gulliver tells him about the use of firearms and gunpowder.

“Of so little weight are the greatest services to princes, when put into the balance with a refusal to gratify their passions.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Escape

Two years after arriving in Brobdingnag, Gulliver travels with the King and Queen along the coast of the country. He asks to be taken to the seaside, and he is put on the beach in his traveling box. An eagle snatches up the box and drops it over the sea. A ship discovers it and rescues Gulliver, and he returns home to England and his family.

“Gulliver describes a royal personage inspiring awe among the tiny Lilliputians because he was taller than his brethren by the breadth of a human fingernail.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

The Third Voyage: Laputa

Only a short time later, Gulliver sets off again as a surgeon on board another ship. Pirates attack and leave Gulliver adrift. He manages to land his raft on a rocky island. Suddenly, he sees a flying island floating toward him. It stops just above him, and people pull him up. Laputa, as the floating island is called, has a magnet at its center, which allows the Laputians to move, lower, and raise the island. The island is the home of the Laputan king and his officials, whereas his subjects live on the mainland.

“I winked at my own littleness, as people do at their own faults.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

The inhabitants of Laputa are constantly engrossed in contemplation and need servants to flap at their ears, mouth, or eyes with a bladder to bring them back to reality and signal whether they are supposed to listen, speak or look. Gulliver is taken to the King, but they soon find that communication between them is impossible. Gulliver starts learning the language, which is based on music and mathematics. The Laputians use geometric concepts to describe things and are amazing mathematicians. However, they are incapable when it comes to daily life. Gulliver grows bored quickly and asks the king for permission to leave and explore the mainland.

“For they have no conception how a rational creature can be compelled, but only advised, or exhorted; because no person can disobey reason, without giving up his claim to be a rational creature.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

A Visit to Balnibarbi and the Academy of Lagado

A great lord acts as Gulliver’s tour guide on the mainland of Balnibarbi. As they drive past underused fields and houses sorely in need of repair, the lord explains to Gulliver that impractical and ineffective ideas thought up by the Laputians have replaced the ancient and trusted methods of building and agriculture. He takes Gulliver to the Academy of Lagado, where scientists are working on all sorts of useless experiments. One scientist tries to create sunlight from cucumbers, another one attempts to turn excrements back into food and a third works on breeding spiders that will produce colored yarn.

“The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity.  For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

At the School of Political Projectors, professors discuss ways to ensure that politicians work for the best of society, how to raise money without upsetting the island’s subjects and how to choose the best-qualified people for political offices. Their suggestions include taxing women according to their beauty and skill in dressing – and men depending on how popular they are with the other sex; causing senators pain by pinching or kicking them to counter forgetfulness, and distributing roles by raffle. Gulliver soon tires of these head-in-the-clouds philosophers and continues on to Glubbdubdrib, the Island of Sorcerers.

“They look upon fraud as a greater crime than theft, and therefore seldom fail to punish it with death.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Its ruler has the ability to bring back the dead, and Gulliver gets the chance to converse with and question some great figures of history. He talks to Alexander the Great, Homer, Hannibal, Caesar, and Brutus, among many others, and soon realizes that history is often inaccurate or simply false. During his time on Glubbdubdrib, Gulliver also learns about the immortal Struldbruggs, whose immortality he initially envies. However, he then learns that they still age, grow forgetful, and are disinherited when they grow old, thereby losing everything they have. Having seen enough, he returns to England via Japan.

“How vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

The Fourth Voyage: The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos

Five months after returning from Laputa, Gulliver sets off again, this time as captain of a ship. However, his crew stages a mutiny and leaves him on an island. He sets off to explore the island and soon comes across the Yahoos – uncivilized and violent ape-like creatures, who attack him immediately. Fortunately, two horses – Houyhnhnms – come along and rescue him.

“I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body, from my arm-pits to my thighs. I could only look upwards; the sun began to grow hot, and the light offended my eyes. I heard a confused noise about me; but in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

The Houyhnhnms are the rational and wise rulers of the island. They believe Gulliver to be a Yahoo, though more intelligent and refined in his appearance and manners. They are puzzled by his clothes and don’t understand how creatures like him can build boats and travel across water. They start teaching him their language. Yet, despite the progress he makes and the conversations he has with his Master (the Houyhnhnm who has taken him in), Gulliver can’t convince him and the other Houyhnhnms that he isn’t a Yahoo.

“The empress, and young princes of the blood of both sexes, attended by many ladies, sat at some distance in their chairs.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Humans and Animals

The Master asks Gulliver about English customs and life. Gulliver tells him about wars caused by envy or disagreements, about the corruption of governments and lawyers, and about people ruining their health by drinking alcohol and eating too much or the wrong things. The Master contemplates what Gulliver has told him and comes to the conclusion that the behavior of humans is very similar to that of the Yahoos who suck roots to become drunk, fight with each other for no particular reason and try to steal valueless colored stones from each other. The only difference between the Yahoos and humans, he concludes, is that humans are more intelligent and therefore even eviler.

“I could not sufficiently wonder at the intrepidity of these diminutive mortals.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Houyhnhnm Customs

The Houyhnhnms are a friendly and peaceful society. They never have disagreements and their language has no words for lies or evil. Each couple is allowed one male and one female foal to avoid overpopulation. However, they don’t form attachments to each other, and each Houyhnhnm – whether family or stranger – is treated in the same friendly way. Every four years, the Houyhnhnms hold a general assembly and send aid to areas where there is famine or need.

“Friendship and benevolence are the two principal virtues among the Houyhnhnms, and these not confined to particular objects, but universal to the whole race.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

Gulliver builds himself a small house and sews some clothes from animal skins. He is so comfortable with the rational and wise Houyhnhnms that he doesn’t want to return to England. He starts seeing himself as a Yahoo and tries to imitate the Houyhnhnms to become worthy of their company. One day his Master tells him that the assembly has agreed that it is not suitable to have a Yahoo as part of a Houyhnhnm family.

“Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

There are fears that Gulliver might incite the other Yahoos, and he is asked to leave the country. He builds himself a small boat and sets sail. Soon after, a Portuguese ship picks him up. The captain is friendly, but after his time with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver now sees all humans as Yahoos and therefore mistrusts them. When he arrives home, even his family repulses him, so he buys himself two horses – the only creatures whose company he can bear.

“The reader may remember, that when I signed those articles upon which I recovered my liberty, there were some which I disliked, upon account of their being too servile.”

― Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift, Classic Fiction Summary by Make Me Read

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