Gulliver’s Travels (First Edition) by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver’s Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships is a novel by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). The first edition of this work was published in 1726 by Benjamin Motte, London. Background
It is speculated that Swift may have begun writing Gulliver’s Travels as early as 1713, when he and the other members of the Scriblerus club decided to satirise then popular literary genres, in this case, that of the adventure travel narrative. Correspondence indicates that the composition began in earnest in 1720, and the book was completed in 1725.
Due to the book’s profound anti-Whig sentiments, Swift and his publisher were careful about anonymity of both author and publishing house, and used five different printing houses. Motte even cut or altered the most controversial passages.
The first edition was released on the 26th October 1726, in two volumes. It sold out in less than a week.
Plot, Characters, Themes
The novel is a satire of human nature and of Whig politics, and a parody of the travel adventure narratives popular at the time.
The narrator and protagonist, Lemuel Gulliver, outlines his life up until embarking upon the travels of the title. His love of travel results in a journey and a shipwreck. He is washed up on the shores of Liliput, an island country inhabited by tiny people less than 6 inches tall. They make him, now a giant, their prisoner, but he is gradually allowed more freedom and observes the ways of Liliput. This adventure is a particularly topical contemporary political satire of the pettiness of the European governments.
Gulliver escapes Liliput after being sentenced to be blinded, but his ship is steered off course and he is forced to land on Brobdingnag for fresh water. He is found by a giant man, 72 feet tall, who exhibits him for money. He is then bought by the giant Queen of Brobdingnag, and kept as her court jester. A small dolls house is built for him. He fights giant wasps and discusses Europe with the King. He is picked up by a giant eagle and dropped into the sea, and picked up by sailors who return him to England.
The ship is attacked by pirates and he is marooned close to a rocky island. He is rescued by a flying island called Laputa. This kingdom is devoted to music and mathematics, but wholly unwise and foolish. Gulliver observes the ruin caused by pursuit of science without aim or for no good reason, as experiments are conducted on Laputa such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers and mixing paint by smell, a satire of the Royal Society.
Gulliver then visits a magician’s dwelling, filled with the ghosts of famous historical figures. He also meets immortals who are unfortunately forever old. He then returns to England.
Despite intended to remain in England, Gulliver’s urge to travel leads him to sail out once again as a captain. His crew mutiny against him, and strand him in a boat. He is washed up on a land inhabited by savage and deformed human creatures called Yahoos. He later meets the ruling race, the Houyhnhnms, who are much like horses. Gulliver admires them, and begins to think all humans are like the Yahoos but with reason, used only to pursue vice. But the Houyhnhnms decide Gulliver is a Yahoo with reason, and thus dangerous, and expel him. He is rescued by a Portugese ship and returns to England a broken and reclusive man, avoiding humans as Yahoos and talking to his horses.
Jonathan Swift is one of the most widely admired political satirist in English literature. His parodies are legendary.
See main article: Jonathan Swift rare books and memorabilia
Notable auction sales and collecting tips
First editions of Gulliver’s Travels (1726, Benjamin Motte, London) read as their title: ‘Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships’ and do not list Swift’s authorship, due to the controversial nature of the political satire. They come in two volumes, which usually will have been rebound at some point in their history.
First editions were sold by Bonhams for $24,400 in December 2010, by Christie’s for $13,200 in June 2005, $45,600 in December 2005 and $116,000 in October 2001, and by Sothebys for $48,000 in March 2005, $84,000 in December 2004, and $108,000 in April 2005.