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Book of the Month

January 2006

Travels into several remote nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver

Jonathan Swift

London: 1726

Sp Coll Bk3-f.18-19

The book featured this month is Jonathan Swift's Travels into several remote nations of the world by Lemuel Gulliver. More commonly known as Gulliver's Travels, this book is regarded as one of the most important satirical works in the English language.  Described as 'Hans Christian Andersen for children, Boccaccio for adults', Gulliver's Travels appeals on at least two obvious levels. It is both a fantastical narrative of giants, flying islands and talking horses and a trenchant allegorical critique of politics and projects in early Eighteenth Century Europe.

In keeping with other travelogues of the period, a portrait frontispiece of the (spurious) author is provided by Swift to help establish the work as a genuine account.

First published in October of 1726, Gulliver's Travels probably took at least five years to write. From the day of publication it was popular with both adults and children; indeed, Swift's friend, John Gay, remarked in correspondence between the two that it was, 'universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery'.  Many different editions of the work have since been published including (even in the Eighteenth Century) many significantly abridged children's imprints. Some modern critics view the existence of these bowdlerised editions (often Book I alone) as a demeaning betrayal of Swift's true intentions, however an equally valid counter claim can be articulated in support of maintaining the book's wide ranging appeal.

Owing to its immediate popularity, booksellers quickly sold out of the work necessitating several re-prints in the first few months. On each occasion minor variations to the text and page layouts have given later bibliographers the difficult task of identifying each edition by tracing the textual and bibliographic minutiae. The copy featured this month can be described as a variation of the 'A' edition. It is a first edition printed as an octavo on royal paper and according to some bibliographers (Teerink et al. ) could represent the first printing of the first edition. Published by Benjamin Motte in London, our four books are bound in two volumes with mint-condition 18th Century bindings.

Title page from Volume One of the Travels.  Note that the work was published anonymously with no mention of the real author, Jonathan Swift.

This manuscript note from the head of the title page of Volume two indicates that this two volume work was accessioned in 1728, just two years after The Travels were first published.

According to a manuscript note on the title page, the work has been in Glasgow University since 1728. It probably arrived in accordance with the 1709 Copyright Act, which permitted the University to lay claim to a copy of any work entered at Stationer's Hall. We are fortunate enough to hold copies of several early editions of Gulliver's Travels in the Special Collections Department to complement the fine edition featured here.

Also from (Sp Coll Bh13-c.28), Gulliver is ship wrecked off Lilliput before being discovered by the locals.

Gulliver's Travels comprises four different books, each detailing accounts from a different voyage undertaken by the putative author, Lemuel Gulliver. Published anonymously by Swift, it was ostensibly just another travelogue, describing the new territories emerging as a result of progress made in technology and commerce. Swift helps establish this ruse by describing the author as 'Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of many ships'. He provides a fictional biography of Gulliver in the prefatory dedication and provides maps of the territories discussed.

It is only when Gulliver is ship-wrecked and awakens on a beach with 'arms and legs strongly fastened on each side to the ground', captured by creatures 'not six inches high' (p.8) that the reader begins to question the veracity of the account. This is, of course, a description of Gulliver's encounter with the Lilliputians, a race of people no larger than his middle finger. Following assurances to the little people of his good intentions, Gulliver soon becomes a favourite. At their request, he helps the Lilliputians vanquish their nearby rivals, the Blefescudans, by wading across the sea to steal the enemy fleet. Despite this helpful act, his subsequent refusal to force the Blefescudans into Lilliputian subservience enrages his hosts who sentence him to be blinded as punishment. Fortunately, Gulliver makes good his escape when a correctly proportioned rowing boat washes up on the Lilliputian shoreline.

In contrast to this experience, Gulliver's second voyage sees him arrive in Brobdingnag, populated by a race of giants 'As tall as an ordinary spire-steeple' who take 'ten yards for every stride' (p.8 part2). Between fighting off a giant wasp and being abducted by an eagle, he passes the time attempting, unsuccessfully, to impress the king by describing the workings of the English political system.

Gulliver's subsequent adventures are far too numerous to describe in detail but highlights include his being rescued by the flying island of Laputa following a pirate attack, meeting the immortal and ancient Struldbruggs and being abandoned in a land where horses (Houyhnhnms) rule over un-civilised human-like creatures (Yahoos).

An illustration from an early Nineteenth Century chap book (Sp Coll Bh13-c.28) depicts Gulliver entertaining and being entertained by the tiny Lilliputians.  This chap book is a good example of the significantly abridged  editions of The Travels so popular with children.

Literary critics and book lovers have debated the various metaphors and allusions found in Gulliver's Travels from the very outset. Opinion has diverged over many aspects, most connected with the true intentions of the author. The personal politics of Swift seem inseparably tied up as allegory in Gulliver's experiences. Quite to what extent Swift intended individual characters and events in the narrative to directly satirise real people and contemporary events is still hotly debated. Most modern critics agree that Swift's satire takes various forms and targets different institutions and people.

A portrait of Jonathan Swift from his 1735 Works.

It has been argued that to truly appreciate Gulliver's Travels it is first necessary to understand the political and social landscape in which the book was first conceived and written. Born in Dublin in 1667, the son of an English immigrant, Swift was educated in Trinity College. He spent a period of time working as a secretary for Sir William Temple in England before returning to Ireland to be ordained as an Anglican minister. During Queen Anne's reign, (1702-1714) he frequently travelled back and forth between Dublin and London. Despite initially becoming active in Whig politics, the party's perceived opposition to the Anglican Church led Swift to change allegiance to the Tory cause. With the accession of George I, the political landscape changed; the Whig party gained power and Swift lost his political influence. This personal blow to his career, exacerbated by Whig policy towards Ireland, fuelled Swift's anger at the government in London. In addition to this setback other aspects of society began to anger Swift. Substantial changes in attitudes, outlooks, fashions and social trends were taking place during this period; the nascent Enlightenment movement, building on the empirical foundations laid by Newton, Locke and Bacon, affected all areas of society. Modish theories of individualism and commercialism championed by the Whig press were anathema to classically minded conservatives like Swift. Indeed, these theories may well have seemed a direct attack on the morals and values underpinning Swift's notion of civilisation. Arguably Gulliver's Travels was conceived as a challenge to this new wave thinking.


It would though, be far too simple to describe this as Swift's sole agenda, for his critique was far more wide ranging. Bloom (Greenberg et al) describes the Travels as 'a discussion of human nature, particularly of political man' while Samuel Holt Monk describes them as 'a satire on four aspects of man: the physical, the political, the intellectual and the moral'. Swift seems to use different methods of realising his satire from direct allegory of people and places to intentionally structuring the narrative to best highlight contrast. For example Bloom argues that both Books I and III of the Travels can be read as roman clef : 'Lilliput is full of characters clearly identifiable as personages in British politics, and Laputa is peopled largely by modern philosophers and members of the Royal Academy'. Bloom further argues that both Lilliput and Laputa are direct allegories of contemporary England: 'When he is in Lilliput and Laputa, he tells nothing of his world or native country. He need not for the reader should recognise it; Gulliver is alien and the interesting thing is the world seen through his eyes'. The analysis concludes that in contrast to this situation, Gulliver's voyage to Brobdingnag and the land of the Houyhnhnms see him take up the role of weak Englishman, a foil to the idealised world of classical values he inhabits. By structuring the Travels in this contrasting fashion and using specific narrative devices such as the projection of moral and intellectual differences as physical dimensions, Swift creates a nuanced satire of contemporary life. Not all critics agree with such a precise reading however: F. P. Lock argues that Swift's primary agenda in Gulliver's Travels was to 'record in an imaginative creation for posterity a vision of political wisdom he had been denied the opportunity of using in the service of his own time and country'.

It is clear to see from the manuscript notes in the margins of p.135, Book 2 that attempts to analyse hidden meanings within the text are not a new phenomenon. 


Maps of voyages one and three, to Lilliput and Lugnagg.  Swift situates these apocryphal places in relation to real countries to create the illusion that the Travels are accounts of real journeys.  Lilliput and Blefescu (left hand map) are situated in what is now known as the Indian Ocean, South East of Sumatra.  Notice the incomplete outline of (Van) Diemens Land in the lower right hand corner of the map.  This is the original name for Tasmania.  Australia was not mapped until James Cook described the East Coast in his 1770 voyage.

Book four of Gulliver's Travels, it is now commonly agreed, is one of the most important. In this voyage Gulliver meets the 'wise and virtuous' Houyhnhnms who rule over the depraved human-like Yahoos. This encounter in conjunction with experiences from his other voyages lead Gulliver, on his return to England, to reject human society and sleep in a horse's stable. The voyage builds on the contrasting experiences of previous books and raises a number of important metaphysical questions. Although often cited as evidence of a strong misanthropic streak in the author, many modern critics argue that Gulliver's rejection of humanity is a strategic device to underline an important point. What that point might be is up for debate. Bloom suggests that Swift is attempting to illustrate the tension between conflicting aspects of human nature. The Yahoos and Houyhnhnms represent the two extremes of the natural state separated - 'part god, part beast': humanity as depicted by Plato v. humanity as depicted by Hobbes. This interpretation has been questioned by other critics arguing that the Houyhnhnms are not, in fact a representation of a Platonic ideal but an allegorical critique of Deism: Houyhnhnm behaviour illustrating the 'inadequacy and negativity of a life of pure rationality' (Williams as discussed by Tippett).
Perhaps some of the divisions over Swift's true intentions might be cleared up if it were not for the confusion and mystery surrounding the initial publication of Gulliver's Travels. The original manuscript was delivered to the publisher anonymously thereby denying Swift access to the final proof. In subsequent correspondence he complains of the 'mangled and murdered pages' found in Motte's edition: seemingly an accusation that the publisher had amended or altered the text. Modern opinion once again diverges on the truth of Swift's assertion. The publication in 1735 of a new edition apparently approved by Swift includes some very conspicuous allegory not found in the 1726 editions. Since the original manuscript is no longer extant, it is debateable whether this allegory represents Swift's original intention or a later addition to the original text . Orthodox academic opinion holds that the 1735 edition is the more authoritative version of Swift's text; therefore all modern publications are transcribed from this later proof.

This 'doodle' apparently dating from 1790 depicting Gulliver dwarfing a Lilliputian house on page 67 of Vol.1 is evidence of how Swift successfully captures the imagination of his readers.

An impressed reader evidently felt obliged to comment "Nothing but what is pure is contained in this rich volume" (Vol. 2, p.199)- resounding evidence of the book's enduring appeal.

The fact that academics are still arguing over what Jonathan Swift was really trying to say in this significant book is testament to the important place it holds in the literary canon. Undoubtedly a classic, this work certainly debunks Mark Twain's droll assertion that "'A classic' is a book that people praise but don't read"! Gulliver's Travels has thrilled and frustrated its readers in equal measure for the last 280 years and will most likely continue to do so for the next!

Bloom, Allan "An outline of Gulliver's Travels" in Greenberg et al. Gulliver's Travels: An authoritative text New York; London: c1970,  Level 9 Main Lib  English LS344.G8 1970-G ; (quote likening Gulliver's Travels to Hans Christian Andersen and Boccaccio comes from this source)

Downie, J. A. "The political significance of Gulliver's Travels" in Fischer et al. Swift and his contexts New York: c1989, Level 9 Main Lib English LS346 FIS;

Lock, F. P. The politics of Gulliver's Travels Oxford: 1980, Level 9 Main Lib  English LS346 LOC

Rogers, Pat. Introduction to Gulliver's Travels [London]: [1991], Level 9 Main Lib English LS344.G8 1991-S

Teerink, H. A bibliography of the writings of Jonathan Swift Philadelphia: 1963, Level 9 Main Lib English Bibliog LS346 1963-T

Tippett, Brian Gulliver's Travels Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: 1989, Level 9 Main Lib English LS344.G8 1989-


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Robert MacLean January 2006