Samuel Johnson famously said of Gulliver’s Travels: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest.” It is a flippant verdict, yet it’s true that most people lose interest interest in Swift’s tale after the second voyage (to Brobdinag, land of giants). That said, I have always been most captivated by the third voyage (to Laputa).
According to literary critics, the journey to Laputa was originally a separate work written many years earlier and stitched into the main narrative. The experiences and the satirical idiom employed by Swift differ from the rest of the tale. Also this section is concerned less with the grotesqueness of human vanity than it is with intellectual and spiritual pride. Swift’s skepticism is primarily directed toward the grand promises held out by the rationalists and empiricists of his day. For example, the Laputans are devoted to mathematics but in an entirely impractical manner. One of the most hilarious passages is the account of the man who had “been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.”
After leaving the flying island of Laputa and its incompetent scientists, Gulliver encounters the immortal Struldbrugs of Luggnagg. The Englishman at first feels “inexpressible delight” at the notion of a long-lived race. Gulliver’s host must disillusion him, however, since the Struldbrugs “had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying.” Over time they lose their hair, teeth, eyesight and even their sense of taste, while the pleasures of social intercourse eventually become impossible to them. They are viewed as outcasts and the birth of a Struldbrug is treated as an ominous event. This prompts Gulliver to request that he might send some of the hideous immortals to England “to arm our people against the fear of death.”
Often overlooked is the scene near the end of the third voyage where Gulliver is dealing with some Dutch traders in Japan. In general Swift didn’t think much of the “Hollanders.” At one point the English captain insists on forgoing the extreme Protestant practice of “trampling upon the crucifix” to prove to the Dutch that he isn’t a “papist.” Swift was a Tory Anglican, which means that he was as critical of Catholicism as he was of Low Church Dissent. Yet this passage is significant, as is the fact that the author of Gulliver’s Travels was unusually outspoken about the British ill-treatment of the Irish.