Gulliver's Travels

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Gulliver's Travels
Title page of first edition
Original Title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships
Written by: Jonathan Swift
Central Theme: Humanity, on the whole, is made up of fools and/or savages.
Synopsis: Man goes on trips to some very strange places.
Genre(s): Satire, fantasy
First published: October 28, 1726
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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 (better known simply as Gulliver's Travels) 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.

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 story.

Gulliver's Travels is the Trope Namer for:
Tropes used in Gulliver's Travels include:
  • Age Without Youth: The Struldbrugs
  • Exclusively Evil: The Yahoos.
  • 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.
  • Black Humor: Along with Dead Baby Comedy, a specialty of Swift's.
  • Bowdlerisation: There have been numerous adaptations of the Lilliputian chapters into children's books with all the naughty stuff and political context stripped out. Similarly, there is a passage in the second voyage where Gulliver describes how because of the size differential he served several Brobdingnagian women as a dildo; one can usually only find this sequence in academic or explicitly "unexpurgated" editions.
  • 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).
  • Cloudcuckooland: 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.
  • Creator Breakdown: If you indulge Swift's Literary Agent Hypothesis and think of the work as a travelogue written by Gulliver himself, the ending definitely counts.
  • Disneyfication: Adaptations of the novel most often go this route, going along with Bowdlerisation.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: One passage from the third voyage was cut when the book was first published because it was such a transparent pro-Irish allegory of Britain's conquest and oppression of that country. Swift was Anglo-Irish, born in Dublin to ancestrally English parents, but knew and sympathized with the plight of the Catholic majority; he wrote the original A Modest Proposal as a direct attack on English methods in Ireland.
  • 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.
  • Floating Continent: Laputa is probably the Trope Maker.
  • For Science!: Seems to be the main motivation in the Academy of Lagado, with predictably poor results.
  • Forgotten Trope: The book is a Parody of the now mostly-forgotten genre of "traveler's tales".
  • Gag Boobs: 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.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: By the bucketful, beginning with the opening paragraphs in which Gulliver describes his apprenticeship under "My Good Master Bates".
  • Hidden Elf Village: The country of the Houyhnhnms.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Arguably the whole point of the novel, though it's rather debatable whether the reader is supposed to love or hate the Houyhnhnms and Gulliver is shown deliberately ignoring any evidence to the contrary at the end of the story. Is the message that Humans Are Bastards and that horses are great, or is it that All Sentient Lifeforms Are Bastards?
    • It's not even clear that Swift thought all sentient lifeforms are bastards - the Portuguese captain who rescues Gulliver after his fourth voyage treats him kindly, and his wife seems to be a decent person. Thus it's quite possible that Gulliver has become deranged by his hardships and descended into Unreliable Narrator territory by the time he starts asserting this.
    • It's possible that Swift was critiquing humans through the supernatural human beings he created just as much as the humans in the book. The Houyhnhnms arguably represent the Enlightenment, who in Swift's view were an ancient day Hipster, thinking themselves morally superior to anyone else, but maybe not as perfect as they seem.
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: Gulliver in Brobdingnag.
  • Intellectual Animal: The Houyhnhnms again.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described.
  • It Runs on Nonsensoleum: Balnibarbi; sort of the point, as none of these crazy inventions actually work.
  • 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".
    • Swift was not exactly consistent about this, either—the Houyhnhnms are stated to have no word for opinions because they can't grasp the idea of two rational creatures not using their perfect Reason to find the same right answer, and a few pages later, they gather for their annual argument. How exactly do you debate if everyone knows the correct answer, with no room for disagreement? Maybe it's easier if you're a horse.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: La Puta. Also Lindalino, which is a pun on Swift's hometown - it has double 'lin's'. Get it?
    • As noted below some scholars are convinced all the made up words follow a complicated cryptogram of Swift's own design.
  • 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".
  • Nobody Poops: Very much averted, with frequent incidents mostly being used for Toilet Humor.
  • Omniglot: Gulliver learns the languages of the places he visits with remarkable (and convenient) speed.
  • Parody: Of the now mostly-forgotten genre of "traveler's tales", of which Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is the most famous example today.
  • 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, but especially Laputa.
  • 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.
  • Royal Decree: In the first part.
  • Satire: Considered by many people the greatest work of Juvenalian satire in the English language.
  • Science Is Bad: Balnibarbi.
  • Science Marches On
  • 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 naming system seems to be more complicated than that. It's hinted at when he describes the Conversational Machine in the third book that it's actually a complex cryptogram, which some people have since managed to crack. Or at least claim they have. This was apparently the reason Swift was so upset when a few letters in his made up words were altered for the original printing.
  • Silly Reason for War: A political allegory for Catholic-Protestant war.
  • 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.)
  • Superior Species: The Houyhnhnms.
  • Take That: It's Johnathan Swift. The book is a giant Take That at various aspects of English society and, by extension, pretty much all of humanity. Much of Part IV even reaches into "The Reason You Suck" territory as he explains war, law, alcohol, politics and so on to his master Houyhnhnm.
    • He was also not what you'd call fond of Humanism and other enlightenment values.
  • Toilet Humor: In addition to all the high-minded satire, the book has plenty of this as well; Swift likely would have gotten along well with Matt Stone and Trey Parker.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Gulliver will gleefully adopt any society he lands in as his own and worship its matter how backwards, hypocritical, or unpractical it is.
    • To be fair he spends most of the second book arguing with the king in favor of Europe, and seems to dislike Brobdingnag in general due to the many gigantic horrors, and general ugliness, that the place visits upon him.
    • Also to be fair, this was a parody of a travelogue, and no matter how silly Gulliver may have thought some of the cultures were he had the subtlety not to say it outright.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The Struldbruggs, who just get more senile and decrepit as they age.
  • Zeerust: Laputa.