Part I Chapters I-III
Gulliver summarizes the story of his life before the main plot begins with his arrival in the country of Lilliput. He is the third of five sons of the owner of an estate in Nottinghamshire, England. He is educated at Cambridge University and serves an apprenticeship with a surgeon. After marrying a woman called Mary Burton, he takes up a post as surgeon aboard a ship traveling to the South Seas. On the way to the East Indies, the ship is blown onto rocks and wrecked. Gulliver manages to swim to land and falls asleep from exhaustion. When he awakes, he finds that he is tied to the ground and surrounded by tiny human beings of six inches high. He tries to escape his bonds, but they fire arrows at him, causing him pain. One makes a speech in a language he does not understand. He signals that he is hungry, and the little people feed him with baskets of food. He is tempted to crush them, but resists because he fears that they could harm him and because he feels that he has made them a promise of honor by his submissive behavior.
An emissary from the Emperor climbs onto Gulliver's body and makes clear that he is to be conveyed to the capital city. There, they give him a disused temple to live in and tether him to it with a chain.
Gulliver describes in detail the difficult process of defecation, with the aim of defending himself against accusations of uncleanliness. The first time, he relieves himself inside his house, but thereafter he does so outside the house, and his excrement is taken away by servants.
The Emperor arrives and makes a speech. Afterwards, some people in the crowd shoot arrows at Gulliver. The colonel delivers them to Gulliver for punishment, but he sets them free. The Lilliputians are impressed by this show of mercy.
The Emperor holds a council to debate what to do with Gulliver. His advisors are concerned that he will cause a famine because he eats so much, and that if they kill him, his carcass might cause a plague. The debate is interrupted by the arrival of army officers, who report Gulliver's mercy to his attackers. The Emperor and his advisors are so pleased that they arrange for him to be fed, clothed, and taught their language.
Gulliver receives many visits from the Emperor and repeatedly asks for his freedom. The Emperor refuses, saying that Gulliver must first swear to honor a peace treaty.
Gulliver describes two diversions which are practiced by people seeking positions and honors at court. The first is rope-dancing, whereby candidates for office at court dance on a rope. Whoever jumps highest without falling is given the job. Sometimes, existing ministers are expected to show that they still possess this skill. The rivalry is such that often there are fatal accidents, as ministers strain too far and fall. In the second activity, candidates for honors at court must leap over, and creep under, a stick held out by the Emperor. Whoever shows most agility at "leaping and creeping" is awarded a piece of colored silk.
The people begin to trust Gulliver, and he arranges for the Emperor to organize military exercises on his handkerchief.
At last, the Emperor allows the subject of Gulliver's freedom to be debated in his council. The only one to oppose it is Skyresh Bolgolam, the Admiral, who has made himself Gulliver's enemy. Bolgolam is overruled, but he draws up a list of conditions to which Gulliver must agree. These include not leaving the country without the Emperor's permission, not trampling on the people, and helping the Lilliputians fight their enemies from the Island of Belfescu, who are about the invade. In return, the Lilliputians promise to feed him. Gulliver agrees and is released from his chains.
Swift goes to some lengths to portray his protagonist, Gulliver, and his travels with an air of realism. Gulliver's background is described in credible detail, and his journey to Lilliput is presented in the style of a travelogue, including references to actual places such as the West Indies. When he reaches Lilliput, details about the country and its people are given which are aimed at painting a believable picture of real human beings in a real society. This serves Swift's satirical purpose, as the implication is that the Lilliputians are sufficiently like the reader for the reader to apply what is said about them to his or her own society.
The only far-fetched aspect of Lilliput is the minuscule size of the people, but this too makes an important satirical point. Though the average Lilliputian adult is about six inches tall, the Lilliputians think of themselves as important and impressive, and of their affairs as highly significant. Gulliver reports of the Emperor, "He is taller by almost the breadth of my nail than any of his court, which alone is enough to strike an awe into the beholders" (Chapter II). In Skyresh Bolgolam's document listing the conditions of Gulliver's freedom, the Emperor is addressed by his long name and is called the "delight and terror of the universe . . . whose feet press down to the centre, and whose head strikes against the sun ." (Chapter III). This is ludicrous exaggeration for the purpose of flattery, as the Emperor is tiny in comparison to Gulliver. The effect of Swift's satire is to puncture the pomposity of human beings - those of Gulliver's size as much as that of the Lilliputians. After all, who is to say that there is not some Gulliver who dwarfs human society on Earth? Size is relative, and, Swift suggests that in the greater scheme of things, the human race may be less awe-inspiring than it believes.
The Lilliputians' smallness also draws attention to their moral limitations. They (particularly their leaders) are morally diminished people in comparison to Gulliver, who is a fairly honest and well-meaning man.
Swift satirizes the system of appointments and honors in contemporary European courts in his description of the Lilliputian diversions of rope-dancing and "leaping and creeping" (Chapter III). Positions at court are given to those who can dance highest on the rope without falling. Similarly, honors (the pieces of colored silk awarded to Lilliputian favorites accurately describe some of the real honors given by real monarchs) are given to those who leap over, and creep under, a stick held by the Emperor with most agility. In both cases, Swift means that people at court are promoted not because of worth but because they please the monarch in some way, perhaps with elaborate flattery.
European society's obsession with time is satirized in the Lilliputians' assumption that Gulliver's watch is a god that he worships, since "he seldom did any thing without consulting it" (Chapter II).
Many critics have noted Swift's preoccupation with bodily functions (called scatology). This section of Gulliver's Travels is an example. Gulliver's habits of defecation and urination are detailed, along with an episode in which the Emperor has Gulliver stand with his legs apart and marches his army march underneath them, whereupon they cannot resist looking up. It is probable that such material reflects Swift's own preoccupations, but it also serves his satirical purpose. The eighteenth century, when Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels, was called "the Age of Enlightenment" when writers and thinkers emphasized the power of man's reason to lift him above the lower kingdom of animals. Reason was thought to be the basis of ethics, aesthetics, and proper government, as well as the way in which man could obtain knowledge of the truth. Some commentators believed it to be a divine faculty that brought man close to God. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift celebrates reason in the form of the Houyhnhynms, who appear in Part IV (though significantly, he makes his reason-based characters horses, not people).
But he was also convinced that man is an animal, complete with base appetites. His emphasis on bodily functions is a way of never letting his reader forget this.
It is noteworthy that Gulliver seldom gives his own views of what he sees and hears on his travels. He is drawn as an objective and, indeed, naive, observer. This is another tactic that reinforces Swift's satirical purpose, as any satirical conclusions drawn belong to the reader, while Swift and his protagonist hide behind a veneer of innocence and impartiality.