SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels [Part III]

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Part 3: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan.

  • Chapter 1: “The author sets out on his third voyage.  Is taken by pirates.  The malice of a Dutchman.  His arrival at an island.  He is received into Laputa.”

When pirates attack Gulliver, he asks for mercy. A Dutch pirate, who is a Christian, treats Gulliver inhumanly, but the Japanese pirate assures Gulliver that they will not kill him. Gulliver tells the Dutch pirate that he is surprised to receive greater mercy at the hands of a heathen than a fellow-Christian. By this interaction, Swift demonstrates that there are good and bad people in every sect of the world, and that it is not wise to form encompassing value judgments about all the individuals of a particular group.

  • Chapter 2: “The humours and dispositions of the Laputians described.  An account of their learning.  Of the king and his court.  The author’s reception there.  The inhabitants subject to fear and disquietudes.  An account of the women.”

The Laputians are constantly occupied in intense consideration of mathematics, music, and astrology. Because of their perpetual cogitation, they lack the practical skills which enable ordinary people to communicate with one another. For example, the Laputians require another person, called a flapper, to gently flap them on the ear, mouth, or eyes to alert them that it is time to listen, speak, or watch out for hazards. Swift is criticizing the people who value transcendental ideas more than practical ones. There must be a balance.

I also thought that Swift’s comment upon the caprices of women was interesting. After relating a story of a female Laputian who willingly left her very wealthy and loving husband and children for a poor man who beats her, Swift says that this is a story that might be mistaken for a European woman; for “the caprices of womankind are not limited by any climate or nation, and that they are much more uniform, than can be easily imagined.” Indeed, women often choose a partner who is unkind to her, and will remain with them despite the cruel treatment. When asked why, they simply respond that they love their partner.

  • Chapter 3: “A phenomenon solved by modern philosophy and astronomy.  The Laputians’ great improvements in the latter.  The king’s method of suppressing insurrections.”

Gulliver describes the method which allows the island to hover and move through the air by a magnet. He uses language similar to geometric proofs – i.e. point A to B, C to D, etc. – but he uses so much of this language that it becomes incomprehensible and meaningless. Swift is clearly criticizing the jargon and confounding language utilized by mathematicians rather than concrete examples. The floating island of Laputa can be interpreted as representative of the distance between the ideals of politicians and scientists and the practical needs and desires of the people of the kingdom who live on the earth.

  • Chapter 4: “The author leaves Laputa; is conveyed to Balnibarbi; arrives at the metropolis.  A description of the metropolis, and the country adjoining.  The author hospitably received by a great lord.  His conversation with that lord.”

In this chapter, Swift satirizes the Reformation’s notion that advances in technology would increase the quality of life. With the advent of machines came also the sweat shops in which workers, many times even children, worked in unhealthy conditions for upwards of 16 hours a day. Advances in technology certainly do affect the quality of life for people, but the effect is both negative and positive.

  • Chapter 5: “The author permitted to see the grand academy of Lagado.  The academy largely described.  The arts wherein the professors employ themselves.”

Most of the professors at the academy employ themselves in tasks that will improve the quality of life for mankind. However, the methods that they contrive to achieve this are utterly absurd and impractical. One professor endeavors to extract sunbeams from cucumbers so that the kingdom can be warmed during abnormally cold summers. Another professor attempts to teach his students by writing certain propositions and demonstrations on edible wafers and giving them to his students to eat. Swift is clearly satirizing those people in society who devote their lives to impractical speculation. Though their goals might be admirable and worthwhile, the means by which they hope to achieve these ends are entirely unrealistic; and therefore wasteful. Indeed, the whole kingdom is squalid.

  • Chapter 6: “A further account of the academy.  The author proposes some improvements, which are honourably received.”

Gulliver continues his tour of the academy, and discovers that their political notions are just as impractical as the other arts. For example, the professors teach that administrators ought to consult the public good, and that officials ought to be elected based upon their wisdom, ability, and virtue. Gulliver dismisses these notions as those of visionaries. Another interesting and amusing part of this chapter is the one in which Gulliver describes some proposed methods of taxation. The Laputians tax women based upon a woman’s judgment about her own beauty. If she believes that she is very beautiful, then she must pay more taxes. The Laputians do not tax based upon the opinions people have of their own virtues because then they would never raise any money; for men will not believe that others have virtues and never value their own virtues: “as to honour, justice, wisdom, and learning, they should not be taxed at all; because they are qualifications of so singular a kind, that no man will either allow them in his neighbour or value them in himself.”

  • Chapter 7: “The author leaves Lagado: arrives at Maldonada.  No ship ready.  He takes a short voyage to Glubbdubdrib.  His reception by the governor.”

At Glubbdubdrib, he meets the governor, who is a necromancer and can raise the dead. Gulliver asks the governor to summon the heroes of antiquity so that he may converse with them. Gulliver speaks to Alexander the Great, who tells Gulliver that he was not poisoned, but died of a fever contracted from too much drink. Gulliver also speaks to Brutus, whom he greatly admires. After comparing the Roman Senate with modern representatives, Gulliver concludes that the Senate was composed of heroes and demi-gods while the modern assembly is composed of crooks and frauds.

  • Chapter 8: “A further account of Glubbdubdrib.  Ancient and modern history corrected.”

After conversing with several of the dead, Gulliver realizes that historians are greatly mistaken in their accounts of past events. Those people who are honored as heroes and great princes, were actually the vilest of mankind, and those who were regarded as villains and criminals were the most virtuous and law-abiding citizens. Gulliver also notes that the lineage of royalty is fraught with lowly persons.

  • Chapter 9: “The author returns to Maldonada.  Sails to the kingdom of Luggnagg.  The author confined.  He is sent for to court.  The manner of his admittance.  The king’s great lenity to his subjects.”

In this chapter, Swift mocks the ceremony and respect shown to royalty. Any person who wishes to gain admittance to the king of Luggnagg must literally lick the floor of the king’s chamber. Though this custom seems entirely ridiculous, our customs of showing deference are not much more logical.

  • Chapter 10: “The Luggnaggians commended.  A particular description of the Struldbrugs, with many conversations between the author and some eminent persons upon that subject.”

The Struldbrugs are immortal. Gulliver describes how enjoyable an immortal life would be, but is quickly corrected by the people of Luggnagg. Indeed, the Struldbrugs are immortal, but they are not immune to the defects of old age. After they reach the age of 80, they cannot remember much of anything, they lose the ability to taste, they lose their teeth, hair, etc. Gulliver concludes that he would happily accept the worst possible death than such an immortal life. It is interesting to consider the possibilities of living forever, what one would do, etc. However, even if one possessed both eternal life and eternal youth, one would still be subject to ennui. Eventually, all activities will become quotidian and insipid. Death, rather than the greatest evil, is perhaps the greatest good because it saves us from the everlasting torment of boredom.

  • Chapter 11: “The author leaves Luggnagg, and sails to Japan.  From thence he returns in a Dutch ship to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to England.”

Swift alludes to the Japanese custom of requiring people to trample on the crucifix in order to prove that they are not Christians. This is a factual anecdote. The images upon which people were required to step are called fumi-e.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift


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