Gulliver's Travels (by Jonathan Swift) is divided into four books:
In Book 1 the hero, ship’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver, tells of his shipwreck off the island of Lilliput. The Lilliputians, he discovers, are a tiny people, only six inches high. During his stay on Lilliput he learns about the local customs and culture, and about the country’s political system. He offers to help the people in their war against another island, Blefuscu, after which he returns to England.
In Book 2 Gulliver sets off for India but after a series of misadventures finds himself abandoned on the island of Brobdingnag whose inhabitants are all giants. The situation of Book 1 is reversed, as Gulliver finds himself regarded as something like a living doll for children to play with. He is sold to the Queen and has some interesting discussions with the King about the political situation in Europe, before returning once again to England.
Book 3 sees Gulliver land on the amazing flying island of Laputa with its capital Lagado which is populated by philosophers and scientists, all involved in bizarre and ultimately futile scientific research and speculations.
From here he Journeys to another two islands, Glubdubdrib and Luggnag, each with their own absurdities.
Book 4 finds Gulliver in a land ruled by intelligent horses who call themselves the Houyhnhnms and who are served by a filthy, bestial, subhuman race called the Yahoos. Again Gulliver spends his time trying to learn the language and ways of the Houyhnhnms, and assimilates them so well that when he returns home to his wife and children he finds himself disgusted by their humanness.
Gulliver’s Travels has for a long time been considered a children’s classic because of the wonderfully absurd imagination of its images and the simplicity of its prose. But its dense mixture of fantasy, political satire and moral fable render it a highly complex work and there has been much debate among literary critics in the centuries alter its publication as to what Swift’s intentions in writing it actually were. Many have regarded it as a misanthropic hook, a vicious attack on the human race as a whole.
The hook’s defenders, on the other hand, say that the book is a satire of man’s hypocrisy, vanity and cruelty, his small-mindedness and absurd pretensions.
According to this last scheme the four voyages might be read as follows:
The diminutive Lilliputians, although a well-organised society, can be seen to represent cruelty, pettiness and provincialism (arguably the way Swift saw the England of his time). To their eyes Gulliver is like a giant baby, a huge body controlled by its physical needs. Their only use for him is as a weapon to destroy their enemies.
The giants of Brobdingnag represent human vanity and self-love. Gulliver’s descriptions of their bodies (which to him are enormous) reveal a mixture of fascination for, and disgust and repulsion towards the human body, which may be seen as an obstacle to spiritual growth. But here the diminished Gulliver is identified with the Lilliputians. This parallel is further emphasised by the King’s response to Gulliver’s account of England, when he says that the majority of the English appear to be ‘the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.’
The Laputans can be seen as a parody of the pretensions of abstract intellectual thinking, which has no connection to reality (the island flies above the ground), and also as a satire on Britain’s military and colonial ambitions (the king threatens to land the island on any dissenting subjects, literally crushing them to death).
The land of the Houyhnhnms where horses rule over a bestial subhuman race is one of the best examples of Swiftian reversal. We are made to see Gulliver from the perspective of the horses whose only experience of the human race is with the savage Yahoos. Gulliver tries to convince them that his own race dry not at all like the yahoos but from the horses’ point of view, the picture he portrays of the violent and vicious society he conies from merely confirms that underneath the masquerade of civilisation, humans are indeed lost like the Yahoos – only more sophisticated it their barbarism.
Source: Thomson – Maglioni, Literary Links. Literature in time and space, Cideb, an old Italian book 2000.