Literature: Gulliver's Travels
"It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end [...] Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long continuance a those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent."
— Musings upon the Big/Little end heresy, Gulliver's Travels
One of the precursors of Speculative Fiction
, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships
was written by Jonathan Swift
as a parody of the now-dead genre
of traveller's tale, satirising 18th century follies, but is now, sadly, largely remembered as a children's tale, despite being Swift's Magnum Opus
and a heavily satirical and adult book
On Gulliver's first voyage he is shipwrecked in Lilliput, where everything is one-twelfth normal size. After many incidents (mainly getting entangled in a holy war over which end to open a hard-boiled egg
), he escapes on a raft, returning to England. His second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag, where everything is twelve times normal size. Gulliver is kept as a pet by the locals, and has many philosophical conversations with the king of Brobdingnag before being carried off by an eagle, which drops him where he can escape.
On Gulliver's third, and less well-known, voyage, his ship is attacked by pirates
, but he is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, home to a society of proto-TV Geniuses
. After various incidents, including the first description of bombing and a conversation with the ghosts of historical figures, Gulliver returns home via Japan. As mentioned below, a deleted section of this satire attacked the English for their treatment of Ireland, but for the most part it was intended as a scathing condemnation of the nascent European Enlightenment, with the TV Geniuses
representing the philosophers, scientists, and academics of his time.
On Gulliver's fourth and final voyage, his crew mutinies. He's marooned on the isle of the Houyhnhnms, where the horses are intelligent (the titular Houyhnhnm) and the humans are animals, called Yahoos. Gulliver soon decides the Houyhnhnm are superior to normal humans, who he comes to see as barely any better than the Yahoos. After the Houyhnhnms throw him out, Gulliver returns to England where he spends all his time talking to his horses as he finds all humans (including his own family) to be nothing more than Yahoos who happen to wear clothes.Gulliver's Travels
has been filmed
several times, but most of the adaptations omit the last two voyages. Often, a bowdlerised
version of the voyage is printed as a children's book. Go here
for the 1939
animated film version, and here
for the 2010 film starring Jack Black. In 1968 Hanna-Barbera
produced a loosely-inspired animated adaptation The Adventures of Gulliver
There also a TV mini-series starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. In this version Dr. Gulliver has returned to his family from a long absence. The action shifts back and forth between flashbacks of his travels and the present where he is telling the story of his travels and has been committed to an asylum. It is notable for being one of the very few adaptations to feature all four voyages, and is considered the closest adaptation to the book despite taking several liberties, such as Gulliver not returning home between each part.
And in 2011 The BBC
produced a Setting Update
for Radio 4 called Brian Gulliver's Travels
, which abandoned the original locations entirely in favour of ones that made satirical points about modern
Britain. Interestingly, it duplicates the Framing Story
above of Gulliver describing his stories from a mental institution.
Also, Robert A. Heinlein
wrote a scathing satire of the fourth journey in his YA novel Starman Jones
, stating that anyone who would prefer the anti-individualistic lifestyle of the Houyhnhnms over human free will doesn't deserve to be human to begin with. Swift would likely agree, given that the fourth journey was in part a scathing satire of the Enlightenment, which Swift loathed
The actual story is a staple of the Public Domain
, making it very easy to track down and read.
This book provides examples of:
- Amoral Attorney: Although there are no attorneys in the story, Gulliver's description of the profession to the Houyhnhnms implies that all lawyers are this.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
- Gulliver gives a Long List of various evil things and people that were absent in the country of the Houyhnhnms. After listing "gibers, censurers, backbiters, pickpockets, highwaymen, housebreakers" and "dungeon, axes, gibbets, whipping-posts, or pillories" among other things, he ends with "dancing-masters".
- The title of the third voyage, going through several long and complicated countries' names before ending with Japan. Though at the time, Japan might have been an imaginary country as far as most gaijin were concerned: the only foreign presence was a tiny colony of Dutch traders at Nagasaki, with all other nationalities being forbidden from the islands on pain of death.
- Bilingual Bonus: The flying city of Laputa is a harsh allegory of England and its colonial dominion over Ireland; the name means "the whore" in Spanish.
- Bowdlerisation: There have been numerous adaptations of the Lilliputian chapters into children's books with all the naughty stuff and political context stripped out. In one version, for instance, instead of peeing on Empress' palace, he uses an enema syringe.
- Can't Argue with Elves: The Houyhnhnms, and to a lesser extent, the Brobdingnagians, look down on Gulliver's society as pitiful. Arguably a subversion, however, in that neither of these societies is without significant problems obvious to readers (if not to Gulliver himself).
- Cloud Cuckoo Land: Laputa, the citizens of which devote their lives to math, music, science and philosophy but are utterly ignorant of everyday practicalities.
- Colony Drop: A proto-example; the rulers of Laputa quash resistance in rebellious surface cities by landing their Floating Continent on top of them.
- Colossus Climb: The Lilliputians on Gulliver; later Gulliver on the Brobdingnagians.
- Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like:
- When the Empress's apartment is on fire, Gulliver saves her by urinating on it. The Empress, in return, refuses to live there again.
- Gulliver himself when he is rescued at the end of the book by the Portuguese captain. He wanted to stay a hermit on some island, and detested being taken back home again.
- Downer Ending: Gulliver loses hope with the human race. He even hates his own family.
- The Everyman: While a learned man and a surgeon, Gulliver is otherwise this.
- Fish out of Water: Gulliver everywhere, even in England after each voyage.
- Language Equals Thought: The Houyhnhnms, lacking many common human vices, have no words for them in their language and have to resort to roundabout euphemisms to describe them, e.g. "to lie" becomes "to say a thing which is not".
- Last Name Basis: Gulliver. Due to the book being written in first person and mostly known to modern audiences through Pop Culture Osmosis, many people aren't aware he even has a first name. It's Lemuel.
- Literary Agent Hypothesis: The novel opens with a letter ostensibly written by Gulliver to his "cousin Sympson" in which he complains that the story of his travels as it has been printed contains numerous misprintings and factual errors, and bemoans the fact that it has as yet produced no noticeable improvement in the moral character of the human race, on account of which Gulliver has resolved to stop writing. This is followed by a short note from Sympson to the readers in which he explains that certain duller passages were removed so as not to bore the reader and expresses his hope that they will enjoy the story anyway.
- The Longitude Problem: On the one hand, Gulliver carefully reports both the latitude and longitude of all the various fictional places he visits. On the other, when he's in Laputa fantasizing about what he could do if he were immortal, one of the problems he imagines being able to solve is "the discovery of the longitude". The effect is to create the impression that either Gulliver or Swift himself isn't entirely clear on what "the discovery of longitudes" actually means.note
- Meaningful Name: La Puta. Also Lindalino, which is a pun on Swift's hometown - it has double 'lin's'. Get it?
- Monkeys on a Typewriter: One of the absurd inventions created by the Laputan intellectuals is a device for randomly combining words so that "the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study".
- Moral Dissonance: The Houyhnhnms preach of their own superiority but have incredibly hypocritical beliefs about the Yahoos and refuse to be persuaded otherwise when presented evidence to the contrary. Whether the reader is supposed to acknowledge this or not has been debated for centuries.
- Neologism: The origin of the words "yahoo", "lilliputian", and "brobdingnagian".
- Sacred Scripture: The Lilliputians have "the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran)."
- Satire: Considered by many people the greatest work of Juvenalian satire in the English language.
- Serious Business: The Lilliputians are at war... over which end of an egg to break open. This was meant to satirize religious disputes over seemingly petty differences like the Doctrine of Transubstantiation, which had caused (and continued to cause) vast amounts of war and bloodshed in Swift's day.
- Small Town Rivalry: Lilliput and Blefuscu are at war with each other over which end of an egg one should open.
- Significant Anagram:
- Many critics have pointed out that the Lilliputian capital "Mildendo" is an anagram of "dildo men."
- Swift's description of the Conversational Machine in the third book hints that it is actually a complex cryptogram, which some people since claim they have cracked. This was apparently the reason Swift was so upset when a few letters in his made up words were altered for the original printing.
- "...in the kingdom of Tribnia, by the natives called Langdon ... the bulk of the people consist in a manner wholly of discoverers, witnesses, informers, accusers, prosecutors, evidences, swearers, together with their several subservient and subaltern instruments..."
- Society Marches On: Of a sort. The extensive and insulting portrayal Gulliver gives of medicine in the fourth book seems very strange coming from a surgeon. But in Swift's time, surgery was not considered a branch of medicine. Surgeons were second-tier craftsmen at best, and Gulliver is a ship's surgeon, who tended to be the worst of their profession.
- Sole Survivor: Gulliver is the only survivor of the shipwreck in the first voyage.
- Sterility Plague: The Houyhnhnms decide the best way of wiping out the Yahoos is to castrate them all. They got the inspiration for this from Gulliver's description of how horses are treated in England (male horses were castrated to break their spirits and control the population).
- Straw Vulcan: The Houynhnms, who use logic to dictate everything and look down on one when it forms an emotional bond with Gulliver.