Jonathan Swift was a caustic satirist. In the first two parts of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the satiric elements play second fiddle to absorbing narrative. In contrast, satire predominates in the third part, and narrative plays a minimal role.
Swift satirizes George I, king of Great Britain, and Walpole, his minister. He also directs his barbs at English scientists, especially Isaac Newton. Above all, he treats Dutch merchants with special severity.
After returning from Brobdingnag, Gulliver spent a couple months with his family in England. Then he embarked on a ship called the Hopewell. William Robinson was the captain of the ship.
The ship had no trouble reaching India. It arrived at Fort St. George in April, 1707. They subsequently sailed to Tonquin. Here Captain Robinson bought a sloop. He loaded it with some goods and put 14 men on board. They were to engage in trade while the captain transacted business in Tonquin. Gulliver was given command of the sloop.
A storm arose and blew the sloop eastward. Then pirates boarded the sloop and the sailors were at their mercy. A Dutch pirate wanted to kill Gulliver, but the Japanese captain spared him. Gulliver observed that the heathen captain was more merciful that a brother Christian.
Gulliver was set adrift in a small canoe. He sighted a number of small islands and headed for them. He visited five small islands on successive days. All were rocky, but he found eggs to eat and some combustible material with which to cook them.
Gulliver saw a large opaque object traveling through the sky. It was a mysterious island. From a gallery on the island, some people were fishing with long rods. Gulliver attracted their attention, and he was lifted up unto the island by a chair attached to a chain.
The island moved by magnetism. One side of the magnet caused it to rise. The other side caused it to descend. The island became stationary when the attracting end and the repelling end of the magnet were at an equal height above the ground. By proper positioning of the magnet, the island would move in any desired direction.
The name of the flying island was Laputa. The king and all the leading men on the island were intellectuals that tended to lose consciousness of their surroundings and become absorbed in intense speculation. Those with sufficient wealth hired a flapper whose job it was to keep his master focused on the business at hand. The flapper had a sort of bladder on a stick. The bladder was filled with small pebbles or peas. If the master was supposed to talk, the flapper tapped his mouth with the bladder. If he was supposed to listen, the flapper tapped him on his ears. If the master was in danger of falling off some precipice, the flapper tapped his eyes with the bladder.
When Gulliver first came into the presence of the king, the monarch was deeply involved in some problem. Gulliver had to wait an hour before the king could talk to him, assisted by his two flappers. A flapper also came to assist Gulliver, but Gulliver indicated by sign language that he did not need one. As a result, Gulliver’s intellectual capacity was despised because it was only the common people who did not need flappers.
Gulliver dined with the king. The viands bore the shape of mathematical or musical phenomena. For example, a shoulder of mutton was shaped like an equilateral triangle, and a breast of veal was shaped like a harp.
Mathematics and music were the two pursuits in which the inhabitants of Laputa were engrossed. The preoccupation with mathematics undoubtedly satirizes one or more English scientists. The first figure that comes to my mind is Sir Isaac Newton, who was one of the two men who invented calculus. According to Ian Higgins, who supplied notes to my edition of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the preoccupation with music satirizes the court of George I. You may recall that George I patronized George Frederick Handel, first in Hanover and later in England.
The king ordered someone to teach Gulliver the language of Laputa. The teacher was assisted by a flapper. Gulliver did not have too much trouble learning. Many terms were derived from mathematics and music, and Gulliver was acquainted with both disciplines.
The people worried about many things. They were afraid that the earth would eventually be swallowed up by the sun. They were afraid that a major catastrophe would occur if the earth passed through the tail of a comet.
Besides mathematics and music, Gulliver’s hosts had few skills. This was evident from their poorly constructed houses.
The king of Laputa owned the island of Balnibarbi below. If there was a rebellion, the king’s favorite measure was to position the island of Laputa over the offending city to deprive it of sun and rain. If that measure failed, they would drop heavy rocks on the rebels and destroy their houses. In extreme cases, they theoretically could make the island fall on the offenders. However, this measure usually was avoided. Laputan kings were afraid that this maneuver would damage the adamantine bottom of the floating island.
Three years before Gulliver came to Laputa, the city of Lindalino had revolted. They had built four strong towers at the four corners of the city, and there was a high pointed rock in the center of the city. The citizens had built underground vaults and other strong buildings. As a result, the king’s attempts to quell the rebellion were not successful.
Moreover, the people of Lindalino had put strong magnets on the pointed rock and the four towers. If the island had come too close to the city, it would not have been able to rise again. As a result, the king had to grant the city various immunities and the right to choose its own governor. (There was no rebellion while Gulliver was in Laputa, and Gulliver did not have to save the island from crashing into the earth.)
Gulliver wanted to visit Balnibarbi. With the help of a kinsman of the king, he obtained permission to leave Laputa. This kinsman had become a friend of Gulliver. He was different from the other leading gentlemen of the island. He used his flapper at court for the sake of appearances but dispensed with his services in his normal daily life.
This kinsman of the king gave Gulliver a letter of recommendation to his friend Munodi, who lived in Lagado, the metropolis of Balnibarbi.
When Gulliver had been lowered to terra firma, he walked to Lagado and visited Munodi. The next day Munodi took Gulliver to his estate. On the way, Gulliver noticed that the fields were poorly cultivated. It was hard to find a single ear of grain. Moreover, the buildings had an absurd appearance.
When they arrived at Munodi’s estate, the fields were fruitful and the buildings were artistically designed.
Munodi explained that 40 years before Gulliver came to the land, someone had gone to the island of Laputa and learned a little mathematics. When he returned, he founded an Academy of Projectors in Lagado. In the course of time, similar academies were founded in other cities of Balnibarbi.
The projectors embarked on all kinds of new projects: new methods of agriculture and building. However, none of the projects were ever completed, so that land lay in ruins. Munodi himself resisted the changes advocated by the projectors, so his lands were still fruitful. (According to a note by Ian Higgins, the Academy of Projectors refers to the Royal Society, which was founded in 1662.)
The next day, Gulliver visited the academy. A friend of Munodi went with him. Munodi himself did not go because he was not liked by the people in the academy.
At the academy, Gulliver witnessed various innovations. For example, three professors advocated brevity in speech. In one project, it was suggested that the use of verbs and participles be discontinued, since all things imaginable are nouns. Another project banned the use of words altogether. Since nouns are things, it was suggested that people carry with them all the things about which they were about to speak. They would then communicate by displaying these things instead of speaking the corresponding words. If someone could not carry all the things that he needed for his discourse, one or two strong servants could assist him.
The mathematics department had another interesting innovation. Students could learn mathematics without study. The student would fast and then swallow a wafer on which a mathematical proposition was written in ink. Then he would not eat anything except bread and water for three days. As the wafer digested, the tincture would mount to his brain. The student would then know the mathematical proposition.
So far, this innovation had not worked.
Two professors disagreed about an innovation on taxation. One professor suggested that people pay taxes on their vices. It would be easy to find out what vices a person had by consulting his neighbors. The other professor wanted to tax the virtues of people. It would be easy to find out a person’s virtues by asking him what he thought about himself. Women were to be taxed in proportion to their beauty and their skill in dressing, according to their own opinion.
Gulliver went to the coastal town of Maldonada. He wanted to travel to Luggnagg, but since the next boat left in a month, he sailed to Glubbdubdrib first.
Glubbdubdrib was governed by the head of a certain tribe of sorcerers or magicians. The chief could summon or dismiss the spirits of the dead at will. He offered to raise any spirit whom Gulliver wished to see.
Gulliver consequently saw Alexander the Great just after the battle of Arbela. He saw Hannibal crossing the Alps. He saw Caesar, Brutus, and Pompey, as well as many other dignitaries, both ancient and modern.
Some of the spirits showed him that current knowledge was incorrect. Homer was not blind, but his eyes were quick and piercing. Moreover, Aristotle did not approve of the opinions expressed in commentaries on his works. Gulliver even found that some people whom history had branded as rogues and traitors had actually done great services to princes and states.
Gulliver returned to Maldonada and took the boat to Luggnagg. When he had an audience with the monarch of the land, he had to lick the floor with his tongue until he came close enough to talk to the monarch. Since Gulliver was a stranger, the floor was carefully cleaned so that not too much dust would get into his mouth.
Since Gulliver did not understand the language of Luggnagg, the king gave him an interpreter. Gulliver was pretending to be a Dutchman because he was going to Japan. Gulliver thought that Englishmen were not allowed to visit that country.
A few citizens of Luggnagg were Strulbrugs. They were immortal and never tasted death. Gulliver thought that the Strulbrugs were indeed fortunate.
However, Gulliver learned that the lot of the Strulbrugs was not a happy one. They became more and more decrepit as time went on. Moreover, they were considered legally dead when they reached the age of 80. When a Strulbrug reached that venerable age, his heir heirs received his property, and the Strulbrug had only a small pittance to live on for the rest of his interminable existence. Strulbrugs were not well liked because they tended to become morose.
The King of Luggnagg gave Gulliver a letter of recommendation to the emperor of Japan. The ship took him to a small Japanese port town called Xamoschi.
Gulliver was taken to Yedo (now Tokyo) where he was granted an audience with the emperor. He was given an interpreter who spoke Dutch.
He claimed that he was a Dutch trader who suffered shipwreck. He knew that his fellow countrymen often traded in Japan, so he had come here hoping to find transportation back to Europe. Since he had not come to trade but came here as a result of misfortune, he asked to be excused from the ceremony of trampling on the crucifix.
The emperor was surprised at the request, since no Hollander had ever shown any scruples about trampling on the crucifix. He wondered if Gulliver was really a Hollander. However, to gratify the king of Luggnagg, he granted Gulliver’s request.
The interpreter did not want the Dutch to find out that Gulliver had not trampled on the crucifix. He was afraid that the Dutch would kill him if they knew. Some of the sailors did ask him if he had performed the ceremony. Gulliver always answered evasively.
Gulliver traveled to Amsterdam in the Amboina. From there he took a boat to England and found his family in good health.
A Few Comments
Some of Swift’s comments concerning Japan do not agree with what I remember from my study of Japanese history. Since my study took place long ago, I checked my memory by surfing the internet, and my recollections were confirmed by the Ohio State webpage cited below.
The emperor of Japan did not live in Edo during the Tokugawa era. His residence was Kyoto. The Tokugawa shogun, who was the de facto ruler of Japan, lived in Edo. I consider it improbable that someone like Gulliver could have obtained an interview with the Japanese emperor or even the shogun in the early eighteenth century. More likely, he would have been summarily executed.
It is a fact that the Dutch had to trample on the crucifix in order to trade with Japan. However, I am not prepared to verify or refute Swift’s contention that the Dutch themselves suggested this practice. Ian Higgins calls the practice “yefumi” and cites other writers who claimed that a Dutch suggestion was responsible for its adoption by the shoguns. However, I am not convinced.
If the Dutch did suggest this practice, they certainly pulled a clever trick on the Tokugawas. If the shoguns thought that no Christian would be willing to trample on the crucifix, they were grievously mistaken. The Dutch were Calvinists, and many Calvinists were iconoclasts. They not only trampled on crucifixes and other images, but even destroyed them. I doubt whether too many Dutch Calvinists would have had any scruples about treading upon an object that they considered idolatrous.
In contrast, the Roman Catholics of Spain and Portugal venerated images. They reserved the highest worship called latria for God alone, but Mary and the saints were accorded lesser forms of worship called hyperdulia and dulia. So they would never trample upon a crucifix or a representation of Mary.
Lutherans did not worship the crucifix or statues of the saints, but they treated them with respect. Luther rebuked some of his followers who had exhibited iconoclastic tendencies. So Lutherans would have refused to trample on any Christian symbol. I believe that members of the Church of England would have had a similar attitude.
So whether or not the Dutch merchants suggested the practice, yefumi prevented most Christian nations from trading with Japan.
“Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift; Claude Rawson, editor; Notes by Ian Higgins
Ohio State University: Japanese History