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Literature / Gulliver's Travels

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"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 as 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 masterpiece 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 aerial 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 residents of Laputa 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 brutish, animalistic savages, 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 amicably send him away, 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 (and aren't too much better with the second — even today, many people don't actually realize there's more to Gulliver's story than just Lilliput). Often, a bowdlerised version of the voyage is printed as a children's book. Go here for the 1939 animated film version, here for the 1960 film with special effects by Ray Harryhausen, and here for the 2010 film starring Jack Black. In 1968, Hanna-Barbera produced a loosely-inspired animated adaptation The Adventures of Gulliver about teenaged Gary Gulliver.

In 1996, Hallmark Entertainment and Jim Henson Productions produced a TV mini-series for NBC starring Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, and a young Tom Sturridge. 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.

Humphry Carpenter made a Whole-Plot Reference to the book in "Mr. Majeika on the Internet", which includes modernized parallels to the lands of the Lilliputians, Brobdingnagians, Laputans and Houyhnhnms, as well as a mouse named Gulliver.

The actual story is a staple of the Public Domain, making it very easy to track down and read.

This book provides examples of:

  • Abridged for Children: Gulliver's Travels has appeared in children's abridgements, generally consisting only of the Lilliput and Brobdingnag sections, as tiny and gigantic people were thought to be easier for kids to relate to than scientific frauds, Blessed with Suck immortals, historical satire and out-and-out misanthropy. The Lilliputian-fire extinguishing scene is always naturally euphemized.
  • Absent-Minded Professor: Subverted; the Laputans are absent-minded all right, but none of them have any hidden intelligence to speak of.
  • Acquired Error at the Printer: According to Gulliver's letter, the name of the land of giants is properly 'Brobdingrag', but the publishers mistook the second R for an N. All later editions keep the spelling 'Brobdingnag' so that his complaint makes sense.
  • Age Without Youth: The Struldbruggs are built around this trope, as they were meant to Deconstruct the dreams of immortality people had in Swift's time.
  • All-Natural Fire Extinguisher: When the Lilliputians' castle is set alight, Gulliver solves the problem by peeing on the fire. This extinguishes the fire, but the Empress is too disgusted to be grateful.
  • All Women Are Lustful:
    • In Brobdingnag, Gulliver mentions many women liked undressing him and undressing in front of him, as well as doing other things which he hardly describes, but found unpleasant due to Gross-Up Close-Up.
    • The men of Laputa are so focused on mathematics and astronomy they probably can't remember women even exist. So whenever a visitor from another country comes up, the women of Laputa rush on the opportunity.
    • In the Houyhnhnm-land Gulliver is almost raped by a Yahoo preteen girl.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The Yahoos. It is noted the red-haired Yahoos take this up to eleven.
  • Always Lawful Good: Subverted with the Houyhnhnm, who seem to have an ideal society at first but are really more Bitch in Sheep's Clothing.
  • Ambiguously Human: The Yahoos' origin implies that the whole species are the descendants of a European couple who shipwrecked on Houyhnhnm-Land decades before Gulliver showed up, and just kept breeding and breeding, with each of their children breeding with each other and each generation becoming increasingly feral until they were nothing but a race of inbred savages roaming around the island. Which just confirmed Gulliver's belief that Humans Are Bastards.
  • 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.
  • And I Must Scream: Several residents of Luggnagg, notably the Struldbruggs, are born with immortality. However, their bodies never stop aging, most of them living for exceptionally long periods of time without the ability to do anything for themselves. They are unable to stand, walk, they suffer ailments such as losing their hair and eyesight and talking is nearly impossible, if not completely impossible for them. To make matters worse, as soon as they turn 80 years old, despite being immortal, they are considered dead by law and have no legal rights, not even being allowed to be witnesses in court and cannot be employed, buy or own lands, or take leases...
  • 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". (Though many people of Swift’s time considered dancing just as sinful.)
    • The title of the third voyage, going through several long and complicated countries' names before ending with Japan. 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.
  • Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction: Long before Asimov spelled his essay, Gulliver's Travels was making a satire of the social impacts of the mind-blowing technology that makes Floating Continent Laputa possible. In the third story about Laputa, its residents are revealed to be pretentious xenophobes that Feign Itelligence, waste money on useless gadgets, and oppress the people outside their city.
  • 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.
  • Black Comedy: A specialty of Swift's. See, for example, the horrifically aged Struldbruggs, or the appalling, incestuously inbred Yahoos.
  • The Body Parts That Must Not Be Named: While Gulliver is not normally shy about discussing naughty things, when he talks about his private parts and not showing them to the Houyhnhnms, he calls them "the parts that nature taught us to conceal".
  • 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 the Empress's palace, he uses an enema syringe.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: See Ambiguously Human.
  • Bungling Inventor: Everyone in Balbinarbi is this.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Gulliver prides himself on his honesty, especially in the face of "dishonest" travelers’ tales.
  • 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 threaten to quash resistance in rebellious surface cities by landing their Floating Continent on them. Actually deconstructed, since such measures are almost never used, because they are liable to seriously harm or even destroy Laputa itself; in one case, the Laputans had to agree to the demands of a rebellious city whose inhabitants turned out to have a way of turning the landing into a crash.
  • 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 response, 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.
  • Decadent Court: Lilliput. The treasurer and general have the king wrapped around their fingers, and people are elected based off how well they do at limbo and tight-rope walking.
  • Diligent Draft Animal: Discussed, the titular character spends a lot of time espousing the virtues of the Houyhnhnms, including their industriousness. They, themselves, use feral humans as beasts of labor, but lately have been leaning toward exterminating the highly problematic animals and replacing them with the much more practical donkeys.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
  • Downer Ending: Gulliver loses faith in the human race and becomes a misanthrope. He can't even stand to be around his own family.
  • The Everyman: While a learned man and a surgeon, Gulliver is otherwise this.
  • Fan Disservice: An encounter with some of the young ladies of Brobdingnag has probably turned Gulliver off breasts for life, as every single imperfection in the skin texture is magnified to the same degree.
  • Fish out of Water: Gulliver everywhere, even in England after each voyage.
  • Floating Continent: Laputa is probably the Trope Maker. It utilizes a giant magnet which pushes towards/against the earth depending on which pole is pointing downwards. Strangely enough, it's the only one of their inventions that works.
  • For Science!: Seems to be the main motivation in the Academy of Lagado, whose half-baked ideas range from extracting sunbeams from cucumbersnote  to turning a dog inside out to cure its diarrhea.
  • Formerly Sapient Species: The Yahoos are inbred descendants of a stranded human couple without any signs of sapience.
  • Framing Device: 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.
  • From Bad to Worse: The causes of Gulliver's (mis)adventures gets worse with each part of the book. In the first part, he gets shipwrecked. In the second, he gets abandoned. In the third, he gets attacked by pirates. In the fourth, his own crew mutinies against him.
  • Giant's Droplet, Human's Shower: As with the Complaining About Rescues They Don't Like example above, Gulliver urinates on the Lilliputians' palace to extinguish the fire in the Empress's apartment. Though he succeeds, the Empress is less than pleased, not to mention disgusted.
  • Going Native: By the end of his journey, Gulliver considers the Houyhnhnms superior and starts calling himself a Yahoo. He seems prone to this, considering how quickly he acclimated to Lilliput and Brobdingnag and how much trouble he'd already had adjusting to normal after those two adventures.
  • Gulliver Tie-Down: The Trope Namer event occurs in Lilliput.
  • Handy Feet: The Houyhnhnms have them out of necessity:
    The Houyhnhnms use the hollow part, between the pastern and the hoof of their fore-foot, as we do our hands, and this with greater dexterity than I could at first imagine. I have seen a white mare of our family thread a needle (which I lent her on purpose) with that joint.
  • Hobbling the Giant: The six-inch tall Lilliputians attempt to restrain Gulliver by binding his arms and legs to keep him immobile. However, the restraints they use aren't nearly strong enough against Gulliver's full-size strength.
  • Hidden Elf Village: Brobdingnag and Houyhnhnm-Land, in contrast to Lilliput and Laputa; since the latter two countries are exposed to other nations, they can start wars with them almost automatically.
  • Humans Are Bastards: By the end of the book, Gulliver is fully convinced every human being on Earth is a filthy, savage Yahoo, including himself.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten!: Weary of his disappointing time in Luggnagg, Gulliver is finally able to secure passage on a boat bound for Japan, and he arrives at the port of Xamoschi on 21 March 1710. His stay in the island country is brief, however, as he finds himself in trouble once again. It seems the custom for Dutchmen in Japan is to trample the crucifix, in order to demonstrate that they are not Christians, and none have ever refused to do so. The Japanese Emperor excuses Gulliver from this tradition, but later, a Dutchman again tries to force Gulliver into trampling the cross, a sacrilegious act in his eyes. (This was an actual thing isolationist Japan did, called the fumi-e.)
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: Gulliver in Brobdingnag, a country of giants.
  • Intellectual Animal: The Houyhnhnms (again) are highly intelligent, thoughtful horses.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Every chapter begins with these descriptions.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: The inventions in the academy of Balnibarbi are so ridiculous they fall under this category, satirizing the "scientific advancements" of Swift's time.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The Laputans are an entire flying country of Know-Nothing-Know-It-Alls. They devote their entire lives to math, music, philosophy, astronomy, and politics, failing at each one spectacularly.
  • 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".
  • Large Runt: The court dwarf in Brobdingnag is stated to be the shortest local ever... at under thirty feet. For the locals, it's the same as a person below thirty inches for us, for Gulliver, that means a person who was looked down upon (literally) his entire life now has someone to take his frustration upon.
  • 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.
  • Legally Dead: In order to prevent the Struldbruggs from concentrating all wealth in their hands, they are made that at the age of eighty.
  • Lilliputians: The Trope Namer. The original Lilliputians are the little people in this story, who live in Lilliput.
  • 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".
  • The Mutiny: That's how the fourth adventure starts. Lemuel, as a captain, loses some of his crew to diseases, and hires some men who are down on their luck. Eventually, he gets enough for them to subvert the rest of the crew and take over.
  • Neologism: The origin of the words "yahoo", "lilliputian", and "brobdingnagian".
  • Nobody Poops: Averted with a vengeance. Along with the examples listed elsewhere on this page, while in Lilliput, a couple of luckless locals get stuck with the job of carting off Gulliver's solid waste every day.
  • Omniglot: Gulliver learns the languages of the places he visits with remarkable (and convenient) speed. Most adaptations have everyone speak English from the start.
  • Only Sane Man: Lord Munodi, Gulliver's Balnibarbian host who, in contrast to the rest of the Laputan nobility, lives on the land below and administers his estates competently.
  • Outside-Context Problem: Gulliver, in Lilliput and Houyhnhnm-Land. In Brobdingnag, the scientists are baffled at him, although they are careful to phrase it in a more technobabbly way.
  • Parody: Of the now mostly-forgotten genre of "traveler's tales", of which Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the most famous example today.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The Houyhnhnms (a race of sapient horses) at first appears to be this trope, until they get the bright idea of driving the Yahoos to extinction via castration.
  • Persecution Flip: The Houyhnhnms are horses in charge of humans inbred into mindless beasts, and have a strict caste system with the darker colors in charge.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: Gulliver becomes this in Lilliput, in which the inhabitants attempt to use him as a superweapon in their war against their bitter rival Blefuscu.
  • Planet of Hats: All the countries Gulliver visits tend to embody a single mindset or habit of thought, in order to satirise it.
    • In Lilliput, everyone is a petty-minded, minuscule warmonger who believes in cracking boiled eggs on the little end. Blefuscu is the same, except they believe eggs should be cracked on the big end.
    • In Brobdingnag, everyone is a giant, and seems to be generally good-hearted but judgmental.
    • In Laputa, everyone is a Know-Nothing Know-It-All; in Balnibarbi everyone is a crackpot inventor; and in Glubdubdrib everyone is a necromancer.
    • In Houyhnhnmland, all Houyhnhnms are Intellectual Animals (even the servant race), and the Yahoos are Always Chaotic Evil (redheads even more so).
  • Potty Emergency: A strange case occurs in Lilliput. Gulliver awakens after a hard evening of drinking to discover two things: The Palace is on fire (the emergency) and his bladder is full (the potty). So he combines the two and takes a leak on the palace to put out the fire.
  • Recursive Reality: The first part features Gulliver going to an island of tiny people and the second part features him going to an island of giant people who are as big to him as he was to the Lilliputians.
  • Royal Decree: The conditions the Lilliputian king gives Gulliver for his freedom.
  • Rule 34: There is an erotic comic book adaptation by Milo Manara (same guy who wrote "X-Women"), with a woman in Gulliver's place. The original method of extinguishing the fire in Lilliput is retained...
  • Sacred Scripture: The Lilliputians have "the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran)."
  • Satire: The book is considered by many people the greatest work of Juvenalian satire in the English language.
  • Science Is Bad: Balnibarbi. Mostly because none of their inventions are practical or even make sense and end up just ruining the environment.
  • Scienceville: Parodied and played for laughs the case of Laputa, a Floating Continent dominated by wildly eccentric, hopelessly-impractical scientists - created as satires of Britain's Royal Society. As a whole, their inventions are almost invariably useless, pointless, or just plain nonsensical. Their one big success lies in the artificial magnetism their city uses to fly, which allows them to dominate the land below: if anyone rebels, they can either hover in place above them and blot out the sun, drop boulders from on high, or — in extreme cases — land Laputa right on top of them. In keeping with the Awesome, but Impractical nature of the place, this doesn't always work out for them.
  • 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.
  • Shipwreck Start: Gulliver being shipwrecked is how he starts the story in the land of Lilliput.
  • 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 voyage 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.
    • " the kingdom of Tribnia, by the natives called Langdon (most commonly assumed to be a misspelled anagram of England) ... 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..."
  • Silly Reason for War: The Little-Endians (Lillput) and the Big-Endians (Blefuscu) are at war over which end one should crack a boiled egg on. Like everything else in the book, it's a political allegory for Protestant-Catholic wars between England and France.
  • Sole Survivor: Gulliver is the only survivor of the shipwreck in the first voyage.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: The second part is this to the first part. Lilliput is a land of tiny militant people who go to war for the silliest reasons, while Brobdingnag is a country of giants who are much more peaceful and enlightened.
  • Spoiler Title: The chapter titles tend to give away everything that happens in said chapter.
  • 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 Houyhnhnms, who use logic to dictate everything and look down on one when it forms an emotional bond with Gulliver.
  • Superior Species: The Houyhnhnms are considered this by Gulliver and themselves (the word "Houyhnhnm" in their language even means "perfection of nature").
  • Toilet Humor: In addition to all the high-minded satire, the book has plenty of this as well, Gulliver putting out the Lilliputian castle fire by pissing on it, the lengthy descriptions of Brobdingnagian breasts, Gulliver getting covered in Yahoo feces.
  • Tomorrowland: In his third voyage, Gulliver visits Laputa: a flying city powered by magnetic levitation. Laputa's population consists mainly of an educated elite, who are fond of mathematics, astronomy, music and technology, but fail to make practical use of their knowledge. Servants make up the rest of the population. Gulliver's visit occurs in 1706.
  • Unified Naming System: There are the Big Endians and the Little Endians. Which actually refers to the reason for the conflict: how to eat eggs.
  • Unmourned Death: This is how Houyhnhnm society functions. A member who feels their death is approaching will go to say farewell to his neighbors, but the concept of mourning is beyond them. One case described by Gulliver is a family who was supposed to come over to his master's house. Only the wife with the children showed up, and a few hours late, explaining that her husband died and she was busy looking for a proper place to lay the body.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Gulliver goes on and on about how the Houyhnhnms are the most magnificent creatures to walk God's green earth, despite their willingness to exterminate other species. Meanwhile, people like his own family and the Portuguese captain who show him nothing but kindness are disgusting, sinful monsters.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The Struldbruggs, who just get more senile and decrepit as they age.
  • World of Dumbass: Played with in the third book, which concerns Gulliver's adventures in Laputa and several other lands. Laputa itself is portrayed as a civilization on a Floating Continent that's magnetically suspended, which is possible due to the fact that Laputans have made massive advancements in astronomy, science and mathematics... but its citizens fail to use this knowledge in any practical manner, having architecture that's unstable and clothing that doesn't fit, in part because they take all their measurements with cartographic tools as opposed to something more practical such as a tape measure.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: The Houyhnhnms are fully capable of saying basic lies like "Black is white", but they cannot comprehend the point of using speech for miscommunication rather than communication.
  • You Are a Credit to Your Race: Gulliver considers the Portuguese captain who rescued him as this, as well as the English Queen Anne whom Swift was fond of.
  • Zeerust: Laputa is very much what a pre-industrial society would think advanced technology is like. None of the inventions make a lick of sense, though that is intentional on Swift’s part.

Alternative Title(s): Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World