Gulliver's Travels consists of four voyages, each of which involves Gulliver ending up on a distant shore where he encounters its strange and wonderful inhabitants. The first voyage finds Gulliver stranded on Lilliput after a shipwreck. Here, he is neatly captured by the famous Lilliputians, "human Creature[s] not six inches high" (5). Gulliver is a source of fear and awe to them, and participates somewhat helpfully in the Lilliputian war against Blefuscu, a lengthy conflict that has arisen between the big-enders and little-enders (depending upon which side of a boiled egg one must crack in order to eat it). Court intrigue and resentments, including the accusation of adultery with a Lilliputian, soon require of him that he escape an assassination attempt.

He returns to England, only to set off again on another voyage. A storm, a longboat journey to fetch water, and abandonment by a terrified crew, leaves him in Brobdingnag where he is captured by giants "as Tall as an ordinary Spire-steeple." (65). Gulliver becomes something of a pet, amusing and entertaining the Brobdingnagians with his exploits and size, competing with the royal dwarf and endearing himself to these massive people. While in transit to the Frontiers, a giant eagle captures him in his travel-box (imagine a carrier with holes punctured in the top to transport a small pet) and drops him into the ocean, where he is rescued by more familiarly-sized humans.

The third voyage finds Gulliver captaining a ship until conquered by pirates, who set him off on a longboat, where he makes his way to Laputa, Balnibari, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg and Japan. He encounters the flying island of Laputa, the never-dying Struldbrugs (who nevertheless age and become decrepit), and the Academy of Lagado, with its - to use modern vernacular - "fringe scientists". After returning to England by way of Japan, and somehow still restless, he commences a fourth voyage, again as a captain but this time a mutinous crew abandons him in the Land of the Houyhnhnms, populated by the rational race of horses and the putrid yahoos.


This great adventure story, fable and satire has entertained and confounded readers for the better part of three centuries. It is at once a parodic treatment of travel writing and a satirical exploration of politics, colonialism, human characteristics and human ideals. Of interest to the medical reader, Lemuel Gulliver is a ship's surgeon, although readers seeking detailed medical descriptions of scurvy and amputations might be disappointed.

Those readers who enjoy lavish and bawdy descriptions of bodies will not, however, be disappointed: urination, defecation, aging bodies, sick bodies as well as detailed depictions of the human form on a variety of scales all earn Gulliver's careful scrutiny. By the end, Gulliver no more identifies himself as a surgeon than he does as a Yahoo: "I am not in the least provoked at the Sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-Pocket, a Whoremunger [sic], a Physician, an Evidence, a Suborner, an Attorney, a Traytor [sic], or the like." (260)

The third voyage is in many ways the least memorable. The tiny, proud Lilliputians, the gentle giants of the Brobdingnag, and the dignified but constricted rationality of the Houyhnhnms, have popped up in popular culture more than the wild-eyed Laputians, the decaying Struldbrugs, or the professors of Lagado. The satire of science has, if anything, dated less than the specific political satires of Swift's era. It may be a matter of style.

The first two books, with their absurd rearrangement of scale, and the fourth book, with its clear comparison between the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, fit Gulliver's modest and gullible style better, allowing Swift to capture both a wide-eyed appreciation for these fantastical worlds and a comic tension between what is said by Gulliver and what the reader understands. Even Gulliver, though, is not much impressed by the caricatures he meets in Book III. Still, Book III contains amusing parodies of science, engineering and intellectual idealism, which historians of science and medicine should enjoy.


First published in 1726; revised edition 1735


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York


Norton Critical Edition, 1970

Page Count