SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels [Part I]

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Part 1: A Voyage to Lilliput

  • Chapter 1: “The author gives some account of himself and family.  His first inducements to travel.  He is shipwrecked, and swims for his life.  Gets safe on shore in the country of Lilliput; is made a prisoner, and carried up the country.”

In the first chapter, we learn about Gulliver’s background. He studied medicine, and had been a ship-doctor several times before the fateful shipwreck that led him to the land of Lilliput. The Lilliputians take Gulliver as their prisoner, despite their diminutive stature – they are no taller than six inches. The difference in stature is likely representative of the difference in power between the Europeans and the natives of America. Although the Europeans are more powerful, the natives do possess admirable qualities such as fearlessness and ingenuity. Furthermore, the Europeans are beset by greater obligations than the natives because of their larger size. Gulliver requiring more food and drink than the Lilliputians is representative of the Europeans’ need for more resources to sustain their way of life. Yet another way to analyze this first chapter is to interpret it as a statement that everything is relative. To Gulliver, the Lilliputians are unnaturally small; to the Lilliputians, Gulliver is unnaturally large.

  • Chapter 2: “The emperor of Lilliput, attended by several of the nobility, comes to see the author in his confinement.  The emperor’s person and habit described.  Learned men appointed to teach the author their language.  He gains favour by his mild disposition.  His pockets are searched, and his sword and pistols taken from him.”

The most interesting part of chapter 2 is when the Emperor’s men search Gulliver for weapons. The men discover Gulliver’s watch and conjecture that the watch is Gulliver’s god; for Gulliver always consults it before he does anything, and it marks “the time for every action of his life.” I thought that this was a unique interpretation of time that has a vague impression of truth. Indeed, time is very important in modern life. We schedule dinners with friends, meetings at work, and nearly every activity of our life. Thus, time is a kind of oracle that we consult before doing anything.

  • Chapter 3: “The author diverts the emperor, and his nobility of both sexes, in a very uncommon manner.  The diversions of the court of Lilliput described.  The author has his liberty granted him upon certain conditions.”

In this chapter, Gulliver describes the process that the Lilliputians employ to elect government officials. Candidates perform a tight rope dance. The candidate who is most dexterous and can jump the highest earns the position. This election process seems arbitrary and even ridiculous, but there are similar arbitrary acts that modern candidates must perform to become elected officials. For example, they must be a certain age, live in a certain area, etc. Furthermore, people often vote based upon a candidate’s appearance and resume rather than upon political principles.

  • Chapter 4: “Mildendo, the metropolis of Lilliput, described, together with the emperor’s palace.  A conversation between the author and a principal secretary, concerning the affairs of that empire.  The author’s offers to serve the emperor in his wars.”

In this chapter, Swift satirizes religion. He writes that the kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu have warred with each other for a great number of years over one ideological difference – i.e. the Lilliputians believe that eggs ought to be broken at the small end while the people of Blefuscu believe that it should be broken on the smaller end. This difference of opinion arises from a statement in the two nations’ shared religious text. The sentence states that an egg should be broken at the convenient end. This ambiguity is commonly found in Holy Scriptures, and is often the cause of factions. Having just read Pascal’s interpretations of ambiguity in religious texts, and the feebleness of man’s reasoning capacity, it is not absurd that men should vehemently disagree with one another about seemingly trivial matters, such as the breaking of an egg.

  • Chapter 5: “The author, by an extraordinary stratagem, prevents an invasion.  A high title of honour is conferred upon him.  Ambassadors arrive from the emperor of Blefuscu, and sue for peace.  The empress’s apartment on fire by an accident; the author instrumental in saving the rest of the palace.”

In this chapter, we see the temptation of power overwhelm the virtues of the emperor of Lilliput. After Gulliver seizes the enemy fleet and brings it back to Lilliput, the emperor orders him to bring the entire Blefuscu Empire under his power. Gulliver refuses to enslave a noble race, which arouses resentment in the emperor. While reading this chapter, I remembered some of the principles outlined in Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli writes that a Prince ought to act in the best interest of the State, regardless of whether an action is contrary to moral principles. The emperor of Lilliput exhibits this characteristic.

  • Chapter 6: “Of the inhabitants of Lilliput; their learning, laws, and customs; the manner of educating their children.  The author’s way of living in that country.  His vindication of a great lady.”

The most interesting part of this chapter was the notion of rewarding people who forbear transgressing the law. In Lilliput, Justice is represented as a person holding a bag of gold in one hand and a sheathed sword in the other. This depiction relates the dual nature of Justice in Lilliput. Lilliputians who transgress the law are punished and Lilliputians who merely refrain from transgressing the law for a certain period are rewarded. This is different than our sense of Justice. Though there is a conception that the good ought to be rewarded and the evil punished, our system of justice is more inclined to dole out penalties than rewards. Perhaps the crime rates would decline if a Lilliputian policy of rewarding good behavior was instituted. However, this idea seems impracticable. I cannot think of an incentive that is both sufficient to induce good behavior and economically feasible for a government to implement.

It is also important to note that the Lilliputians accept their cultural norms without skepticism. This is typical of most societies. The majority of people do not question social norms, and consider anything to the contrary to be odd and absurd.

  • Chapter 7: “The author, being informed of a design to accuse him of high-treason, makes his escape to Blefuscu.  His reception there.”

The Emperor and the court of the Lilliputians resolve to put out Gulliver’s eyes because of the capital crimes that he committed – i.e. urinating within the premises of the palace, refusing to subject the people of Blefuscu to the Emperor’s authority, etc. The articles of indictment are written in very formal language. The contrast between the high sounding language and the absurd charges is particularly amusing, and also demonstrates the great lengths that people take to justify their actions; however irrational those acts might be.

  • Chapter 8: “The author, by a lucky accident, finds means to leave Blefuscu; and, after some difficulties, returns safe to his native country.”

By fortunate accident, Gulliver discovers a boat adrift that is big enough to carry him. He obtains leave from the Emperor of Blefuscu to leave. Although the Emperor promises that he will protect Gulliver if he chooses to remain in Blefuscu, Gulliver resolves never to trust princes when it is possible to avoid doing so. This sentiment reinforces the idea of power being a corrupting influence on those who possess it. Gulliver simply does not believe that people who possess authority can be trusted to exercise that power according to justice. On the other hand, Gulliver possessed significantly more power than the whole nation of Lilliput, and he chose to pursue virtue rather than exercise that power to his own personal advantage. Perhaps he was able to preserve his moral behavior because he possessed absolute power; and thus did not fear the loss of it.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift


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