Places: Gulliver’s Travels

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1726

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: 1699-1713

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Bristol

*Bristol. Gulliver’s TravelsPort town in southwestern England, where the down-on-his-luck, good-natured Lemuel Gulliver begins his travels. A solid English citizen, Gulliver represents England’s optimistic, rationalistic, and scientific philosophies, which Swift abhorred. A Church of England cleric, Swift maintained that England should look back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and to the Christian Church teachings for guidance and inspiration.


Lilliput (leel-lee-pewt). Island southwest of Sumatra that is the first strange land Gulliver visits after his first ship, the Antelope, is wrecked on its coast. Lilliput is Swift’s satirical representation of the pettiness and small-mindedness inherent in church and state; its inhabitants are barely six inches tall, and features of its landscape are correspondingly tiny. Because of his immense size relative to the Lilliputians, Gulliver feels like a king and becomes an important court minister. In the manner of England’s opposing political parties, two factions of Lilliputians–the Whigs and the Tories–govern the island’s capital city of Mildeno. Despite Gulliver’s enormous size, and his ability to see everything, his shortcomings and his inability to view human nature properly become clear. While attempting to explain England’s politics to the ruler of both Lilliput (and later Blefescu) Gulliver voices Swift’s hatred for humanity in general and England’s Whig Party in particular.


Blefescu (bleh-feh-skew). Island empire that is Lilliput’s northern neighbor and archenemy; its inhabitants, like Lilliput’s, are six inches tall. While Lilliput represents eighteenth century England, Blefescu represents eighteenth century France, England’s traditional enemy. By the eighteenth century, both England and France had been fighting wars on and off for centuries for both political and religious reasons. Reminiscent of the channel that separates England from France, a channel eight hundred yards wide separates Lilliput from Blefescu. Gulliver wades across this channel, captures Blefescu’s entire fleet of warships, and delivers them to Lilliput. He comes to understand the cruelty of the Lilliputians only after they begin using him as a war machine against Blefescu.


Brobdingnag (brohb-deeng-nag). Long peninsula off California in the North Pacific that is the second strange land visited by Gulliver. In book 2 he continues his satire on Enlightenment ideals and English society in Brobdingnag, a land that accentuates human grossness because of the inhabitants’ stupendous size. After a short return to England, Gulliver boards the ship Adventure bound for India, but it is blown off course and winds up on Brobdingnag, whose people are twelve times larger than ordinary human beings. Rats are the size of lions and eat grain that grows forty feet high. Gulliver becomes a sort of pet to the giant queen. Through their dialogues, Gulliver begins to see the foolhardiness of the English court and England in general which Brobdingnag represents.


Laputa (lah-pew-tah). Circular-shaped floating island about ten thousand acres in area that hovers over the terrestrial island of Balnibari; also called the Flying Island by Gulliver. His experience in this land makes obvious just how dangerous are his rationalistic, scientific, and progressive views. On another of his ocean voyages, pirates from a Chinese vessel attack his ship and place him on a rocky island, from which intellectuals who inhabit Laputa rescue him. In their free-floating domain, these scholars literally have their heads in the clouds and do not stand on solid ground.


Balnibari (bal-nee-BAR-ee). Island between Japan and California in the North Pacific over which Laputa floats. It is ruled by an absent-minded king who endorses impractical projects put forth by his Grand Academy.


Glubbdubdrib (glahb-DUHB-drehb). Also known as the Island of Sorcerers, a small island, about fifteen hundred miles southwest of Balnibari, that Gulliver reaches by boat. The island is ruled by magicians, who have the power to bring back the dead. There a magician introduces Gulliver to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.


Luggnagg (lahg-nag). Large island located about three miles southeast of Japan, with which its people conduct trade. This island’s king shows Gulliver the immortal Struldbrugs, who represent the ultimate outcome of the Enlightenment’s theory of the perfectibility of man. After a short trip to Japan–another real land then little known in Europe–Gulliver heads home to England.


Houyhnhnm-land (wheen-num-land). Island in the South Seas on which Gulliver is marooned by the crew of the ship that he captains. Swift’s satire, established in the land of the little people and the giant people in books 1 and 2, is continued in the land of the Houyhnhnms in book 4, in which the author demonstrates the eventual results of the rationalistic philosophy that permeated English thought during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

While everything in Houyhnhnm-land is in correct human proportions, the setting is that of the familiar English countryside. Thus, its impact on the English reader was greater. After Gulliver leaves Portsmouth in 1710, destined for the South Seas, he is cast adrift during a mutiny and washes up on a land where intelligent horses–the Houyhnhnms–are the masters, and slow-witted silent humans–Yahoos–the beasts of burden.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is presented as a utopia with decency, benevolence, and civility ruling every horse’s actions. Here, Gulliver finds no wars and no courts and passes his time in contemplation and light labor. However, love of family is also unknown because the Houyhnhnms regard it as unnecessary, though marriage is regarded as rational, necessary purely to maintain the population. The birth rate is maintained impeccably and scientifically so there is no poverty, but the Houyhnhnms’ overwhelmingly rationalistic ethos results in life being dull and meaningless.

The land of the horses exemplifies the eighteenth century philosopher John Locke’s philosophy that argues that the human mind is a blank slate controlled and developed entirely by impressions made by the environment. Ashamed of being thought a Yahoo, the rational-minded Gulliver lives in perfect contentment among the Houyhnhnms until his master, a horse, throws him out: Gulliver is, after all, in the horses’ estimation, nothing but a filthy Yahoo, and his existence as a talking, thinking human among them is entirely irrational. By now a miserable and bitterly disillusioned misanthrope, Gulliver sails back to England, where he has no chance of ever finding a truly rational man. He lives out the rest of his life in misery, forced forever, he believes, to live among filthy Yahoos.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of criticism from the second half of the twentieth century, arranged in chronological order. Essays range from investigations of philosophical context and literary genre to psychoanalytic and deconstructionist approaches.Brady, Frank, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Gulliver’s Travels”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. A selection of essays examining the philosophical, religious, and scientific background of the work. Examines the literary sources and traditions the book reflects.Carnochan, W. B. Lemuel Gulliver’s Mirror for Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Relates Swift’s satiric intention to the epistemology of John Locke to illustrate his theory of Augustan satire. An epilogue examines how Gulliver’s Travels anticipates later satirists Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and Vladimir Nabokov.Erskine-Hill, Howard. Jonathan Swift: “Gulliver’s Travels.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A concise, accessible introduction. Final chapter surveys the work’s influence on fiction from Herman Melville to Nathaniel West.Smith, Frederik N., ed. The Genres of “Gulliver’s Travels.” Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1990. A collection of previously unpublished essays, each taking the standpoint of a different literary genre. An afterword suggests how the reader might navigate the work, given the multiplicity of genres it represents. Assumed is the basic indeterminacy of texts.
Categories: Places