Gulliver's Travels, or, as it was first published, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, is a novel by Jonathan Swift and was first published in 1726. It's a book I loved reading, but, of all the people I know who have read it, I always seem to be the one to take the least out of it! It is, shall we say, deceptively simple.
The book is, as the original title suggests, in four parts:
Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput.
Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag.
Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan.
Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms.
It is a satire, firstly, on travel literature, something the 17th and Century was not short on: Samuel Purchas' books of the 17th Century, Edward Terry's A Voyage to East-India (1655), Daniel Defoe's A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain (1724-1727), then later Fielding's Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755), Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D (1785), to name but a few. Then came the fictional accounts: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719), The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771), A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768), and, of course, Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift who, I dare say, got in quite early with his parody.
One can imagine, in the earlier days of travel writing, there were some tall tales told making the writer look rather brave and heroic, and mighty impressive to the reader. This is one the aspects of the travelogue Swift mocked. Our hero Lemuel Gulliver encounters some of the strangest sights and suffers some of the strangest incidents one could possibly imagine. First, to Lilliput, where he finds himself the prisoner of people a mere 6 inches tall, then to Brobdingnag where the inhabitants are some 72 feet tall. In Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan we see Gulliver at the mercy of scientists, and in the Country of the Houyhnhnms he was a surreal stay with the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms.
By satirising travel literature and presenting such bizarre scenarios Swift was also able to satirise those closer to home. The Liliputians are small both literally and figuratively and they represent petty and small-minded politics. Conversely the Brobdingnags make a dwarf out of Gulliver, and though they are an essentially moral and charitable race they tend to lack empathy - the tiny Gulliver becomes a toy, a figure of entertainment. Over to Laputa - this, the more obvious section of satire, is a warning against rational philosophy and science, and the view that just because it is possible to do something it does not necessarily follow that one ought to do it or feel any benefits from it. It is a soulless nation. Finally to Houyhnhnms, made up of Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, the latter of which are human but behave like depraved animals, which is contrast to the Houyhnhnms who are animals but behave like humans - good and decent humans.
From general satire to the specific, and here is where I am completely out of my depth so I have no choice but to be brief - regarding the first part, Lilliput and Blefuscu: these two nations represent England and France, and in Lilliput the two opposing political parties, the Tramecksan and the Slamecksan represent the Tories and the Whigs. The Emperor of Lilliput, a Slamecksan sympathiser, shares similarities with King George I. Then there are the religious wars, mirroring 16th Century England (I seem to have written a lot about this lately!) and the divisions between Protestants and Catholics (for my interpretation of the divisions see posts on Kynge Johan by John Bale and Book I of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer). Onwards to Brobdingnags - the King of Brobdingnag is said to be based on Sir William Steele (Lord Chancellor of Ireland). Finally the Houyhnhnms are perhaps a critique of the attitude of Britons to other races.
It is, I think, very easy to get lost in Gulliver's Travels. It is multi-layered and intensely complex and asks some of the greatest questions we can ask - the question of the individual within a society, and his rights and limitations, the nature of science and religion, and it's relationship with both society and the individual, and of course the question of the 'other', the unfamiliar territory and races. On a superficial level, though, as a straight novel on the travels of Lemuel Gulliver, it is very entertaining and enjoyable. Not understanding the deeper elements of Gulliver's Travels will perhaps do a disservice to the brilliance of Jonathan Swift, but that does not stop it being a fun experience.
To finish, here are some of the illustrations of Gulliver's Travels by Arthur Rackham (1899):