Generations of schoolchildren raised on the first Book of “Gulliver’s Travels” have loved it as a delightful visit to a fantasy kingdom full of creatures they can relate to-little creatures, like themselves. Few casual readers look deeply enough to recognize the satire just below the surface. But Jonathan Swift was one of the great satirists of his or any other age, and “Gulliver’s Travels” is surely the apex of his art.
“Gulliver’s Travels” tells the story of Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s surgeon who has a number of rather extraordinary adventures, comprising four sections or “Books.” In Book I, his ship is blown off course and Gulliver is shipwrecked. He wakes up flat on his back on the shore, and discovers that he cannot move; he has been bound to the earth by thousands of tiny crisscrossing threads. He soon discovers that his captors are tiny men about six inches high, natives of the land of Lilliput. He is released from his prone position only to be confined in a ruined temple by ninety-one tiny but unbreakable chains. In spite of his predicament, Gulliver is at first impressed by the intelligence and organizational abilities of the Lilliputians.
In this section, Swift introduces us to the essential conflict of Book I: the naive, ordinary, but compassionate “Everyman” at the mercy of an army of people with “small minds”. Because they are technologically adept, Gulliver does not yet see how small-minded the Lilliputians are.
In Chapter II, the Emperor of Lilliput arrives to take a look at the “giant”, and Gulliver is equally impressed by the Emperor and his courtiers. They are handsome and richly dressed, and the Emperor attempts to speak to Gulliver civilly (although they are unable to understand one another). The Emperor decrees that every morning Gulliver is to be delivered “six beeves, forty sheep, and other victuals,” along with as much bread and wine as he needs, his basic needs are to be attended to, and six scholars are to teach Gulliver the language of his new compatriots.
Again, in this chapter, Gulliver is won over by the fact that the Lilliputians are well-dressed and articulate (despite the fact that they speak a language he cannot understand). He is still held captive by these people, both metaphorically, as in being entranced by them, and literally. It is in this chapter that Gulliver first asks to be freed and is refused.
As Chapter III opens, Gulliver and his captors have become great friends. Much in the style of a travelogue, Gulliver describes for the reader some of the unusual forms of entertainment practiced by the Lilliputians. For instance, anyone desiring a high position at court is required to jump up and down on a tightrope stretched six inches above the floor (and remember, Lilliputians are only six inches high). Only those who are able to do it win the office, and anyone wishing to remain in office may be asked to do it again. If he fails, he’s out the door, and a successful rope-dancer takes his place. Gulliver remarks that it would seem that noble birth or a fine educational background would seem to be better predictors of one’s ability to govern than dancing on a rope, but the Lilliputians find no sense in that. A similar “trial” requires office-seekers to jump over or crawl under a stick, sort of a combination vault and limbo exercise. The Emperor, who holds the stick, raises or lowers the stick suddenly and without warning, so the performer is obliged to change tactics midstream. Winners receive a snippet of colored thread, which they wear on their clothing with great pride. Gulliver delights the Emperor by inventing some new forms of entertainment, also; one involves making the calvary perform military maneuvers on the drum-taut surface of his handkerchief, stretched above the ground, but when a rider is thrown, Gulliver stops the game. At the end of this chapter, Gulliver is freed after agreeing to nine silly conditions.
Chapter III is where it really gets interesting. Look at the types of entertainment the Lilliputians engage in, and why they do so. Swift makes a point of telling us that the only people who perform the rope dance are people seeking to acquire or maintain a high position at court, so this is actually not a form of “entertainment” at all; it’s a form of political selection. And, Swift implies, it makes as much sense as the way many political appointments in his day were made-which is to say it makes no sense at all. The exercise in which the Emperor raises and lowers the stick for performers to jump over or crawl under is actually not a test of jumping or crawling; it’s a test of one’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions brought about by a monarch’s whim-and the prize is nothing more than a snippet of thread. And, most importantly, note that Gulliver stopped his game when someone got hurt. The Emperor’s exercises go on until somebody loses.
The first thing Gulliver does in Chapter IV is visit the capital city, Mildendo. Again, he is tremendously impressed by the Lilliputian’s technological and organizational skill, as evidenced by the beauty of their city. Now that he is an “insider”, Gulliver is told of the political problems besetting the country, both from the inside and from the outside. The domestic problem is an intense feud between people who wear low heels (such as the Emperor) and people who wear high heels, whom the Emperor would like to see out of power. Unfortunately, however, the Emperor’s son has a fancy for high heels himself, but his fear of his father causes him to wear a low-heeled shoe on one foot and a high-heeled shoe on the other; this is why he limps. Lilliput is also under threat of invasion from a neighboring country, Blefuscu; the nature of their aggression seems to be religious. Apparently the current Emperor’s grandfather initiated a new religion which demanded that believers break their eggs on the smaller end. Man
y Lilliputians refused to do so, as since time immemorial their creed had been to break their eggs on the larger end, and they insisted on their right to do so. This caused them to emigrate to Blefuscu, and now that country, bolstered by its new angry citizens, is planning an invasion against Lilliput.
Obviously Swift is saying that the argument between the Low-Heels and the High-Heels is ridiculous-almost as silly as the jihad between the Big-Enders and the Little-Enders. During Swift’s lifetime, an equally high level of animosity existed between the various English sects which considered themselves Protestant, and between the English Protestants collectively and the Catholics on the Continent. Swift, an Anglican clergyman himself, is clearly showing how ridiculous such dissention is among people who all profess to be followers of the same path.
And pity the poor Emperor’s son, who has to hobble along the middle of the road in pain. Like any good satire, “Gulliver’s Travels” cannot be read purely as an analogy, as some scholars have tried to do. You cannot say that the Emperor “is” George I, or Filimap “is” Robert Walpole. The Emperor is the Emperor and Filimap is himself. But by making the political and religious situations of the eighteenth century seem even more ridiculous than they already were, Swift he was able to make people view their actual life choices more rationally.