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Plot and Major Characters

Written in the form of a travel journal, Gulliver's Travels is the fictional account of four extraordinary voyages made by Lemuel Gulliver, a physician who signs on to serve as a ship's surgeon when he is unable to provide his family with a sufficient income

in London. After being shipwrecked Gulliver first arrives at Lilliput, an island whose inhabitants are just six inches tall and where the pettiness of the political system is mirrored in the diminutive size of its citizens.

Gulliver is referred to as the "Man-Mountain" by the Lilliputians and is eventually pressed into service by the King in a nonsensical war with the neighboring island of Blefuscu. Gulliver finally escapes Lilliput and returns briefly to England before a second voyage takes him to Brobdingnag. There he finds himself dwarfed by inhabitants who are sixty feet tall. Gulliver's comparatively tiny size now makes him wholly dependent on the protection and solicitude of others, and he is imperiled by dangerous encounters with huge rats and a curious toddler. Gulliver, however, incurs the disdain of the kindly and virtuous Brobdingnagian rulers when his gunpowder display, intended to impress his hosts as an exemplary product of European civilization, proves disastrous. An address Gulliver delivers to the Brobdingnagians describing English political practices of the day is also met with much scorn. Housed in a miniature box, Gulliver abruptly departs Brobdingnag when a giant eagle flies off with him and drops him in the ocean. He soon embarks on his third voyage to the flying island of Laputa, a mysterious land inhabited by scientists, magicians, and sorcerers who engage in abstract theorizing and conduct ill-advised experiments based on flawed calculations. Here Gulliver also visits Glubbdubdrib where it is possible to summon the dead and to converse with such figures as Aristotle and Julius Caesar. He also travels to Luggnagg, where he encounters the Struldbrugs, a group of people who are given immortality, yet are condemned to live out their eternal existence trapped in feeble and decrepit bodies. Once again Gulliver returns to England before a final journey, to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who are a superior race of intelligent horses. But the region is also home to the Yahoos, a vile and depraved race of ape-like creatures. Gulliver is eventually exiled from Houyhnhnm society when the horses gently insist that Gulliver must return to live among his own kind. After this fourth and final voyage, he returns to England, where he has great difficulty adjusting to everyday life. All people everywhere remind him of the Yahoos.

Major Themes

Each of the four voyages in Gulliver's Travels serves as a vehicle for Swift to expose and excoriate some aspect of human folly. The first voyage has been interpreted as an allegorical satire of the political events of the early eighteenth century, a commentary on the moral state of England, a general satire on the pettiness of human desires for wealth and power, and a depiction of the effects of unwarranted pride and self-promotion. The war with the tiny neighboring island of Blefuscu represents England's rivalry with France. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver's diminutive status serves as a reminder of how perspective and viewpoint alter one's condition and claims to power in society. The imperfect, yet highly moral Brobdingnagians represent, according to many critics, Swift's conception of ethical rulers. The voyage to Laputa, the flying island, is a scathing attack upon science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and reveals Swift's thorough acquaintance with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the leading publication of the scientific community of his day. The third voyage unequivocally manifests Swift's contempt and disdain for abstract theory and ideology that is not of practical service to humans. But it is the voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms that reveals Swift's ultimate satiric object—man's inability to come to terms with his true nature. In particular, the Houyhnhnms are interpreted as symbols and examples of a human order that, although unattainable, deserves to remain an ideal, while the Yahoos are found to be the representatives of the depths of humanity's potential fall if that ideal is abandoned.

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