Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

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selections from
Gulliver's Travels

(original title:] Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts.
By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships

by Jonathan Swift

1726, 1735

Instructor's note: The opening to Gulliver's Travels illustrates how Satire--etymologically a "mixed dish"--typically mixes with distinct styles of humor or comedy, or even with other genres altogether:

  • The Novel, esp. the picaresque novel which follows a wanderer from one set of adventures to another

  • Low or physical comedy or humor--body functions, also in other places mangled speech and malapropisms (in contrast to wit's or high comedy's knowing plays on language)

  • Fantasy

Elements of satire in Gulliver's Travels:

  • If satire comments on pre-existing texts or knowledge, Gulliver's Travels' opening scenario of family background, going to sea, and shipwreck appears to mimick the first realistic English novel, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which appeared seven years earlier. But is this imitation satirical?

  • Satire mixes with other styles or genres, such as fantasy and comedy, as do these passages.

  • Chapter 3's depiction of courtiers as tightrope-walkers most fits the definition of satire, which exploites an audience's pre-existing knowledge or sense of a text or reality and re-presents it in a comically distorted form.

Question or prompt:

Identify the most essentially satirical elements, but also how satire appears mixed with other generic or stylistic elements. 


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.

[1.1] My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire [cf. opening to Robinson Crusoe, 1718: “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York . . . .”]: I was the third of five sons. He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge at fourteen years old, where I resided three years, and applied myself close to my studies; but the charge of maintaining me, although I had a very scanty allowance, being too great for a narrow fortune, I was bound apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent surgeon in London [<realistic details; verisimilitude>], with whom I continued four years. My father now and then sending me small sums of money, I laid them out in learning navigation, and other parts of the mathematics, useful to those who intend to travel, as I always believed it would be, some time or other, my fortune to do. When I left Mr. Bates, I went down to my father: where, by the assistance of him and my uncle John, and some other relations, I got forty pounds, and a promise of thirty pounds a year to maintain me at Leyden [in the Netherlands, Crusoe’s father’s home]: there I studied physic two years and seven months, knowing it would be useful in long voyages.

[1.2] Soon after my return from Leyden, I was recommended by my good master, Mr. Bates, to be surgeon to the Swallow [a ship], Captain Abraham Pannel, commander; with whom I continued three years and a half, making a voyage or two into the Levant [Mediterranean], and some other parts. When I came back I resolved to settle in London; to which Mr. Bates, my master, encouraged me, and by him I was recommended to several patients. I took part of a small house in the Old Jewry [London street where Jews once settled]; and being advised to alter my condition, I married Mrs. Mary Burton, second daughter to Mr. Edmund Burton, hosier [stocking-maker], in Newgate-street [home to London prison of Newgate], with whom I received four hundred pounds for a portion [dowry].

[1.3] But my good master Bates dying in two years after, and I having few friends, my business began to fail; for my conscience would not suffer me to imitate the bad practice of too many among my brethren. [<satirical narrator / character is a naif, innocent and straightforward like Candide or Huck Finn] Having therefore consulted with my wife, and some of my acquaintance, I determined to go again to sea. I was surgeon successively in two ships, and made several voyages, for six years, to the East and West Indies [East Indies = SE Asia; West Indies = Caribbean], by which I got some addition to my fortune. My hours of leisure I spent in reading the best authors, ancient and modern, being always provided with a good number of books; and when I was ashore, in observing the manners and dispositions of the people, as well as learning their language; wherein I had a great facility, by the strength of my memory.

[1.4] The last of these voyages not proving very fortunate, I grew weary of the sea, and intended to stay at home with my wife and family. I removed from the Old Jewry to Fetter Lane, and from thence to Wapping [Docklands E of London], hoping to get business among the sailors; but it would not turn to account. After three years expectation that things would mend, I accepted an advantageous offer from Captain William Prichard, master of the Antelope, who was making a voyage to the South Sea [Pacific]. We set sail from Bristol, May 4, 1699, and our voyage was at first very prosperous.

[1.5] It would not be proper, for some reasons, to trouble the reader with the particulars of our adventures in those seas; let it suffice to inform him, that in our passage from thence to the East Indies, we were driven by a violent storm to the north-west of Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania, island S of Australia]. By an observation, we found ourselves in the latitude of 30 degrees 2 minutes south. Twelve of our crew were dead by immoderate labor and ill food; the rest were in a very weak condition. On the 5th of November, which was the beginning of summer in those parts, the weather being very hazy, the seamen spied a rock within half a cable’s length of the ship; but the wind was so strong, that we were driven directly upon it, and immediately split. Six of the crew, of whom I was one, having let down the boat into the sea, made a shift to get clear of the ship and the rock. We rowed, by my computation, about three leagues, till we were able to work no longer, being already spent with labor while we were in the ship. We therefore trusted ourselves to the mercy of the waves, and in about half an hour the boat was overset by a sudden flurry from the north. What became of my companions in the boat, as well as of those who escaped on the rock, or were left in the vessel, I cannot tell; but conclude they were all lost. [<details & locale differ, but shipwreck superficially resembles Robinson Crusoe’s>]

[1.6] For my own part, I swam as fortune directed me, and was pushed forward by wind and tide. I often let my legs drop, and could feel no bottom; but when I was almost gone, and able to struggle no longer, I found myself within my depth; and by this time the storm was much abated. The declivity [rise or ascent] was so small, that I walked near a mile before I got to the shore, which I conjectured was about eight o’clock in the evening. I then advanced forward near half a mile, but could not discover any sign of houses or inhabitants; at least I was in so weak a condition, that I did not observe them. I was extremely tired, and with that, and the heat of the weather, and about half a pint of brandy that I drank as I left the ship, I found myself much inclined to sleep. I lay down on the grass, which was very short and soft, where I slept sounder than ever I remembered to have done in my life, and, as I reckoned, about nine hours; for when I awaked, it was just day-light.

[Following scene is not so much satire as physical or low comedy, though politely told.]

Jack Black can be witty, but his physicality
makes him mostly play low or physical comedy

[1.7] I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: for, as I happened to lie on my back, I found my arms and legs were strongly fastened on each side to the ground; and my hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender ligatures across my body . . . . I heard a confused noise about me; but in the posture I lay, could see nothing except the sky. In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which . . . came almost up to my chin; when, bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and a quiver at his back. [<cute! distortion of size as comic] In the mean time, I felt at least forty more of the same kind (as I conjectured) following the first. I was in the utmost astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a fright . . . . However, they soon returned . . . .

[1.8] I lay all this while, as the reader may believe, in great uneasiness. At length, struggling to get loose, . . . I discovered the methods they had taken to bind me, and at the same time with a violent pull, which gave me excessive pain, I a little loosened the strings that tied down my hair on the left side . . . . [I]n an instant I felt above a hundred arrows discharged on my left hand, which, pricked me like so many needles; and besides, they shot another flight into the air, as we do bombs [cannonballs] in Europe, whereof many, I suppose, fell on my body, (though I felt them not) . . . . [Comedy or humor frequently depicts violence without injury, as when someone falls and gets up without stopping action. Cf. Aristotle, Poetics, V: Comedy is . . . an imitation of characters of a lower type . . . .  It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.  To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.]

[1.9] [>Representations of food and body functions are almost invariably comic>]  . . . I found the demands of nature so strong upon me, that I could not forbear showing my impatience (perhaps against the strict rules of decency) by putting my finger frequently to my mouth, to signify that I wanted food. The hurgo (for so they call a great lord, as I afterwards learnt) understood me very well. He descended from the stage, and commanded that several ladders should be applied to my sides, on which above a hundred of the inhabitants mounted and walked towards my mouth, laden with baskets full of meat, which had been provided and sent thither by the king’s orders, upon the first intelligence he received of me. I observed there was the flesh of several animals, but could not distinguish them by the taste. There were shoulders, legs, and loins, shaped like those of mutton, and very well dressed, but smaller than the wings of a lark. I ate them by two or three at a mouthful, and took three loaves at a time, about the bigness of musket bullets. [<distortion of size as comic] They supplied me as fast as they could, showing a thousand marks of wonder and astonishment at my bulk and appetite. . . .

[1.10] [>low or physical humor, softened by polite language>] I felt great numbers of people on my left side relaxing the cords to such a degree, that I was able to turn upon my right, and to ease myself with making water [urinating]; which I very plentifully did, to the great astonishment of the people; who, conjecturing by my motion what I was going to do, immediately opened to the right and left on that side, to avoid the torrent, which fell with such noise and violence from me. . . .

[1.11] It seems, that upon the first moment I was discovered sleeping on the ground, after my landing, the emperor had early notice of it by an express; and determined in council, that I should be tied in the manner I have related, (which was done in the night while I slept;) that plenty of meat and drink should be sent to me, and a machine prepared to carry me to the capital city. [the description of this great machine and its building resemble fantasy]

[1.12] [excellence in mathematics and engineering may refer to the highest values or principles of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution] . . . These people are most excellent mathematicians, and arrived to a great perfection in mechanics [engineering], by the countenance and encouragement of the emperor, who is a renowned patron of learning. [cf. King Charles II of English Restoration, who supported the Royal Society . . . for Improving Natural Knowledge]  This prince has several machines fixed on wheels, for the carriage of trees and other great weights. [fantasy] He often builds his largest men of war, whereof some are nine feet long, in the woods where the timber grows, and has them carried on these engines three or four hundred yards to the sea. Five hundred carpenters and engineers were immediately set at work to prepare the greatest engine they had. [fantasy; cf. hordes & great constructions in Lord of the Rings] It was a frame of wood raised three inches from the ground, about seven feet long, and four wide, moving upon twenty-two wheels. . . . Nine hundred of the strongest men were employed to draw up these cords, by many pulleys fastened on the poles; and thus, in less than three hours, I was raised and slung into the engine, and there tied fast. . . . Fifteen hundred of the emperor’s largest horses, each about four inches and a half high, were employed to draw me towards the metropolis, which, as I said, was half a mile distant. . . .


[from CHAPTER III. The following descriptions of courtiers (civil servants, bureaucrats, political wannabes) as rope-dancers or tightrope-walkers is typical of satire. The action is amusing or entertaining enough as comedy or humor on its own terms, but gains significance as satire when the reader applies the action metaphorically to the convolutions, balancing acts, and rises and falls of European courtiers.]


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.

[3.1] My gentleness and good behavior had gained so far on the emperor and his court, and indeed upon the army and people in general, that I began to conceive hopes of getting my liberty in a short time. I took all possible methods to cultivate this favorable disposition. The natives came, by degrees, to be less apprehensive of any danger from me. I would sometimes lie down, and let five or six of them dance on my hand; and at last the boys and girls would venture to come and play at hide-and-seek in my hair. [fantasy] I had now made a good progress in understanding and speaking the language. The emperor had a mind one day to entertain me with several of the country shows, wherein they exceed all nations I have known, both for dexterity and magnificence. I was diverted with none so much as that of the rope-dancers [tightrope-walkers], performed upon a slender white thread, extended about two feet, and twelve inches from the ground. Upon which I shall desire liberty, with the reader’s patience, to enlarge [expand] a little.

[3.2] This diversion is only practiced by those persons who are candidates for great employments [appointments], and high favor at court. They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office. Very often the chief ministers themselves are commanded to show their skill, and to convince the emperor that they have not lost their faculty. Flimnap, the treasurer, is allowed to cut a caper on the straight rope, at least an inch higher than any other lord in the whole empire. I have seen him do the summerset [somersault] several times together, upon a trencher [academic cap or mortarboard?] fixed on a rope which is no thicker than a common packthread in England. . . .

[3.3] These diversions are often attended with fatal accidents, whereof great numbers are on record. I myself have seen two or three candidates break a limb. But the danger is much greater, when the ministers themselves are commanded to show their dexterity; for, by contending to excel themselves and their fellows, they strain so far that there is hardly one of them who has not received a fall, and some of them two or three. I was assured that, a year or two before my arrival, Flimnap [the royal treasurer] would infallibly have broke his neck, if one of the king’s cushions, that accidentally lay on the ground, had not weakened the force of his fall. . . .




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