Gulliver's Travels By Jonathan Swift Summary and Analysis Part I: Chapter 3

Summary

The Lilliputian emperor is pleased that Gulliver is friendly and cooperative, so he rewards him with some court diversions. The diversions, however, prove to be quite different than one might expect. It is the Lilliputian court custom that men seeking political office demonstrate their agility in rope dancing, among other things. How long and how skillfully a candidate can dance upon a rope determines his tenure in office. Of the candidates, two are particularly adept: Reldresal, Gulliver's friend, and Flimnap, the treasurer. Other diversions include noblemen competing for official favor by crawling under or leaping over a stick, a feat for which they are then rewarded with various colored threads. Gulliver also reviews the Emperor's troops; he stands, legs apart, while the tiny men march through.

As a result of Gulliver's cooperation, a pact between Gulliver and the Emperor is agreed on. Gulliver is granted limited freedom on certain conditions. In return for abiding by the conditions, he will receive food sufficient for 1,728 Lilliputians. Gulliver swears to the articles in proper form, and the Emperor frees him.

Analysis

The jumping and crawling games that Gulliver describes sound innocent, like games children might play. Politically, however, their significance is far from innocent. The crawlers and jumpers perform for the amusement of the monarch and are rewarded with blue, red, or green threads. These threads represent the various orders of the Garter, the Bath, and the Thistle. George I used these orders as cheap ways of buying political support from social climbers. Politicians, Swift is saying, are always ready to debase themselves by performing humiliating games, hoping for colored ribbons, money, or titles.

Swift's model for Flimnap, the most dexterous of the rope dancers, was Robert Walpole, the leader of the Whigs. Walpole was England's first prime minister in the modern sense and an extremely wily politician. He resigned in 1717 but was restored to office four years later through the influence of the Duchess of Kendal. The Duchess was his mistress and, figuratively, is the cushion on which Flimnap breaks his fall. Walpole was not a pro-war Whig, but he did use war sentiment to retain power; privately, he believed that England prospered better under peace than war. Accordingly, Swift characterizes Flimnap's specialty as somersaults in mid-air. It is thought that Reldresal, the second most dexterous of the rope dancers, probably represents either Viscount Townshend or Lord Carteret. Both were political allies of Walpole.

The articles that Gulliver signs relate the political life of Lilliput to the political life of England. The first four articles seem to parallel the ancient position of the king of England. At one time, the king could not leave the country or enter London without permission. In addition, his writ was effective only on his royal domains and on the royal highways. It is possible that Swift is contrasting Gulliver, who is decent, with modern kings to suggest a contrast between antique virtue and modern degeneration.

The absurd and complicated method by which Gulliver must swear to the articles exemplifies another aspect of Whig politics: petty, red-tape harassing. The Whigs attacked the Tory's Treaty of Utrecht, maintaining that the peace treaty was invalid because the royal warranty was not properly countersigned. At the Lilliputian court, it is difficult for Gulliver to hold his right foot in his left hand and place the middle finger of his right hand on top of his head with the right thumb on the tip of his ear. Yet that is how he must "countersign" his agreement. If the thumb is not squarely on the ear, the sworn loyalty will be technically in question.

Glossary

summerset a somersault.

trencher a wooden board or platter on which to carve or serve meat.

colossus a gigantic statue.

pikes advanced a pike is a weapon used by foot soldiers, consisting of a metal spearhead on a long, wooden shaft; here, the weapons are held in an attacking position.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Gulliver’s visit to Lilliput allows Swift to satirize what sort of rulers?




Quiz