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Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels (1726/1735) is a work of fiction pseudonymously authored by the British satirist Jonathan Swift. The first edition was published in 1726 with major changes by the publisher, since he was afraid the book in its original version would offend a lot of people. In 1735 the complete version was published.

Posing as "Dr. Lemuel Gulliver", Swift purported to report his travels to a series of strange cultures. This mimicked a style of travel reporting that was common at the time, including the outright invention of outlandish and "savage" cultures deliberately designed to give Englishmen a critical point of view of their own society and habits. Daniel Defoe's travel fantasy Robinson Crusoe, it is useful to recall, had been published only a few years previously, to universal acclaim.

"Travels into Several Remote nations of the World by 'English sea-captain Lemuel Gulliver'", or Gulliver's Travels is sometimes perceived as a story for children. It is generally thought to be concerned with Lemuel Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput and Blefuscu, where the protagonist is surrounded by people 6 inches tall (15 cm). This, however, is a supreme irony since this overlooks the fact that this is one of the most coruscating satires on morals and behaviour ever written. It still stands as one of the great and timeless satires of all time, and one of the best primers ever written on political science, such as it exists. It anticipated many current debates in law (versus precedent), philosophy of mathematics, the seeking of human immortality, personhood and animal rights.

Lilliput, the first part, is concerned with Gulliver's supposed adventure in a land where everyone is small, and their concerns very small and petty, but are relatively morally upright, God-fearing, and honest, like the stereotype of English country people of Swift's time.

The society and the political system in Lilliput represents that of the British Empire of the 18th century. As in England, there are two parties: The "High-Heels", representing the Tories, and the "Low-Heels", i.e. the Whigs.

Lilliput has been at war with its neighbouring island Blefuscu for two generations. As Blefuscu represents France, Swift shows the current international relations between the two countries at that time. The reason for the war between Lilliput and Blefusu is a difference of opinion about whether the right way to crack an egg is from the big or the small end. By giving this ridiculous reason as the cause of war, Swift satirizes the somewhat stupid reasons that caused wars.

The war between Lilliput and Blefuscu also stands for the war between the Anglican church and the Catholics in England, that started with Henry VIII and led to executions end exiles. The egg represents Christianity or christian belief (as a symbol of Easter, the highest catholic holiday). The "Big-Endians" are a depiction of the Catholics, the "Small-Endians" represent the Anglicans. By ridiculing the cause of the dipute Swift shows that there can be several different ways of interpretations to the Bible.

Although Gulliver is a giant to the small Lilliputians, he does not try to free himself or destroy the people. After being treated well, he feels obligated to protect the country, settling the war with Blefuscu by capturing their fleet. Some think that Swift was idealizing the role of Britain and its sea power in the world as it was then, in the 18th century, not very long after the beginnings of the British Empire.

When the Emperor of Lilliput wants to make Blefuscu a Lilliputian province, however, Gulliver refuses to destroy the Blefuscians. This and the fact, that he extinguishes a fire in the Royal Palace by urinating on it, are some of the reasons, why the Emperor of Lilliput wants to have Gulliver punished by blinding and starving him. When Gulliver learns about this, he flees to Blefuscu, where he finds a boat and returns to England.

In the second part, Gulliver lands in Brobdingnag, a realm of giants where everything is huge. Here the relations are now exactly opposite to Gulliver's adventure in Lilliput. Now he is the dwarf, while everyone else is huge. He is captured by a farmer who first shows him around like a circus attraction and later sells him to the Queen. She grows very fond of him and treats him very nicely, although always like some sort of pet or doll. She even gives him a wooden furnished box, much like a dollhouse, to live in. The King of Brobdingnag is also curious about this strange creature and has Gulliver tell him everything about English society, warfare, financial system and justice. By having the King ask detailed questions, Swift reveals the problems the British Empire has and criticises the way they are dealt with in England. The king of Brobdingnag is especially appalled by Gulliver's offer to show him how to make gun powder.

When taken on a trip to the country, an eagle snatches Gulliver's box and lets him fall into the ocean, where he's found by an English ship and taken back to England.

Laputa, Balnibarri, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan are all covered in the third book, which satirizes among other things academia and science. It is widely supposed that Laputa was a strict satire of the Royal Society, which Isaac Newton also despised. In Laputa everybody is a scientist. But science is done only for its own sake: Laputians who invent something that has actual practical value are expelled from Laputian society. With this, Swift criticises the scientific movement of the Enlightenment. He was not generally opposed to science, but was of the opinion that science should serve humanity.

Houyhnhnm, the final book, relates the story of the author among a race of noble and intelligent horses, whose society is peaceful and ideal and noble in every way.

This is by contrast to the dirty foul hairy creatures called Yahoos, who plague them, and who are a deliberate satire of the human race itself. The horses are astounded to find a Yahoo even as cultured as an Englishmen (lawyers and all), and entertain him until they realize that ultimately, he, too, is a Yahoo.

After this experience Gulliver returns to England a misanthrope with a deep disgust for mankind. He even prefers the company of his horses to that of his family.

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45