Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Part 3, Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

The floating island is called Laputa, and its inhabitants are singularly concerned with studying mathematics and music. They wear robes adorned with mathematical and musical figures. Because they spend so much time in thought, the custom for speaking is to use servants who gently strike people with flappers on sticks to indicate when they are to speak and listen. When Gulliver arrives at the king's court, he commits a social faux pas when he rejects this custom.

Despite their constant pondering of mathematical concepts, the Laputans live in homes that are poorly constructed, "without one right angle in any apartment." A tailor takes Gulliver's measurements using complex geometry and delivers an ill-fitting suit. The Laputans have no concept of imagination or creativity, and they spend much of their time studying celestial bodies. They live in perpetual anxiety about the earth's eventual destruction by a comet.

Analysis

Gulliver's previous adventures have amply taught him the importance of observing customs and respect while in a ruler's court, but he says he has no need for the flappers in order to speak and be spoken to. This causes mild offense, but it appears this misstep was an attempt on Gulliver's part to cause the servants less trouble. Luckily, the incident passes, and Gulliver is treated well by the Laputans.

While the Brobdingnagians were limited by their extreme practicality, the Laputans' great flaw is their profound impracticality. They spend their days so focused on thoughts of mathematics and other abstract ideas that they need a complex system to facilitate interpersonal communication. The example of the tailor shows that their focus on abstract mathematics and calculations causes them to complicate matters to a degree that defeats their purpose. The tailor's calculations are so complex that a minor error creates a terrible suit. It stands to reason this same level of overthinking has created the unstable architecture around the city as well. The Laputan example reads as a criticism of the Enlightenment philosophers who were Swift's contemporaries, showing how abstract ideas can be impressive but can also become too removed from real-world necessities.

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