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Art and Images in Psychiatry
March 2005

Gulliver’s Travels: The Struldbruggs

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005;62(3):243-244. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.3.243

Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World(Gulliver’s Travels) is Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) best-known satirical work. It was written, as he confided to Alexander Pope, to vex the world rather than divert it.1(pviii)The story, published under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver, follows Gulliver’s return home after his final voyage around the world; it is divided into 4 parts, each describing a different journey. First published on October 28, 1726, Gulliver’s Travels was an immediate success and was reprinted twice, in November and December of the year of its publication, to meet popular demand. Within a year it was translated into Dutch, French, and German. It remains popular 3 centuries after its first publication and has been illustrated many times.

J. J. Grandville (1803-1847), French. Cover: frontispiece of Voyages de Gulliver, 1838. Courtesy of University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, Chicago, Ill.

J. J. Grandville (1803-1847), French. Cover: frontispiece of Voyages de Gulliver, 1838. Courtesy of University of Chicago Library, Special Collections Research Center, Chicago, Ill.

Perhaps the best-known illustrator is J. J. Grandville (1803-1847),2,3 the pseudonym of Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, whom William Makepeace Thackeray referred to as Swift with a pencil. Grandville was a caricaturist, lithographer, and illustrator who was born in Nancy, France, and moved to Paris in the late 1820s. He drew political satires that harshly criticized the new French government that followed the 1830 revolution as being no better than the government of Charles X that it replaced, consuming gold, snuffing out liberty, and making a farce of justice. When increasingly draconian censorship laws caused the closure of La Caricature in 1835, Grandville turned his talents to illustrating books.3(p95)He was attracted to Swift’s narrative pattern of logical development from impossible premises. Grandville’s usage of strange proportions and anthropomorphic animals was well suited to Gulliver’s Travels, and he created 450 wood engravings for the 1838 French edition, Voyages de Gulliver.

A parody of 18th-century travel books, Gulliver’s Travels provides political and social satirical commentary on the institutions and politics of the time. Particular scorn is reserved for academics, scientists, and Enlightenment thinkers who valued rationalism above all else. Swift decries intellectual and moral failings, corruption, vanity, class and sex differences, and the pursuit of immortality. His satire on immortality described in the third journey was prescient and pertinent to his own life. On the third voyage, Gulliver is taken prisoner by pirates and eventually arrives at the floating Island of Laputa. The story about Laputa is thought to parody papers delivered to the Royal Society in London, England, that had no practical application, with an exclusive focus on abstract reasoning. Later, Gulliver sails to the land of the Luggnuggians, where he hears a surprising tale about some of their inhabitants:

I was asked by a person of quality whether I had seen any of their Struldbruggs, or Immortals(Figure). I said I had not; and desired he would explain to me what he meant by such an Appellation applied to a mortal Creature. He told me, that sometimes, though very rarely, a Child happened to be born in a Family with a red circular Spot in the Forehead, directly over the left Eyebrow, which was an infallible mark that it should never dye [die].2(p336)

Figure. The Struldbruggs.

Figure. The Struldbruggs.

The spot grew larger over time and changed its color. When the person was 12 years of age, the spot was green; at 25 years, it turned to a deep blue; at 45 years, it grew coal black and was as large as an English Shilling, and it subsequently remained that color. The children of the Struldbruggs were mortal like others in their society. Immortality was not peculiar to any family but occurred by chance.

On hearing about their immortality, Gulliver writes, “I Freely own myself to have been struck with inexpressible Delight upon hearing this Account. . . . I cryed out as in a Rapture; Happy Nation where every Child hath at least a Chance for being immortal!”2(p337)He goes on to enthusiastically describe what he would do himself if granted immortality, how he would become the wealthiest person in the kingdom in about 200 years, study the arts and sciences until he excelled all others in learning, and become a living treasury of knowledge and wisdom and a wise and generous man who would instruct the youth and witness all manner of progress over time. “[I] would become the Oracle of the Nation.”2(p340)But the Luggnuggians respond

That the System of Living contrived by me was unreasonable and unjust, because it supposed a Perpetuity of Youth, Health, and Vigour, which no Man could be so foolish to hope, however extravagant he may be in his wishes. That the Question therefore was not whether a Man would chuse [choose] to be always in the Prime of Youth, attended with Prosperity and Health; but how he would pass a perpetual Life under all the usual Disadvantages which old age brings along with it.2(p342-343)

They went on to provide a true account of the life of the Struldbruggs among them. The Struldbruggs commonly

acted like Mortals, till about Thirty Years old, after which by Degrees they grew melancholy and dejected, increasing in both till they came to Four-score Years . . . which is reckoned the Extremity of living in this Country, they had not only all the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful Prospect of never dying. They were not only Opinionative, Peevish, Covetous, Morose, Vain, Talkative, but uncapable of Friendship, and dead to all natural Affection, which never descended below their Grand-children. Envy and impotent Desires, are their prevailing Passions. . . . They have no Remembrance of anything but what they learned and observed in their Youth and middle Age, and even that is very imperfect. . . . As soon as they have completed the Term of Eighty Years, they are looked on as dead in Law; their heirs immediately succeed to their Estates. . . . At Ninety . . . In talking they forgot the common Appellation of Things, and the Names of Persons, even of those who are their nearest Friends and Relations. For the same Reason they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the Beginning of a Sentence to the End; and by this Defect they are deprived of the only Entertainment whereof they might otherwise be capable.2(pp345-346)

After meeting several Struldbruggs, Gulliver writes, “The Reader will easily believe, that from what I had heard and seen, my keen Appetite for Perpetuity of Life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing Visions I had formed; and thought no Tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with Pleasure from such a Life.”2(p348)

Swift’s account of dementia in the Struldbruggs has led to speculation about their diagnosis. The memory loss and failure of social engagement suggest Alzheimer disease.4 Others5 emphasize the progressive nature of their illness, beginning with melancholy and dejection and followed by personality change (emotional blunting, egocentricity), memory loss, and an inability to hold a conversation, and propose Pick’s disease (frontotemporal degeneration [FTD]), noting that apraxias and visuospatial disorientation typical of Alzheimer disease are not mentioned in Swift’s account. However, Alzheimer disease may begin in late life with an affective disorder followed by memory loss, and late aphasia may occur. The younger age at onset is consistent with FTD, but the long duration is more in keeping with Alzheimer disease.

Swift lived a full life into his seventies, a long life span in his time. From his early twenties, he was afflicted with Ménière’s disease,6-8 a syndrome that affects the inner ear and causes dizziness, nausea, and intermittent deafness. He describes rarely feeling safe from attacks of vertigo or from a deafening sound like rushing water, “seven water mills,” in his ears that blocked out normal human voices.9(p320)Ménière’s disease worsened as he grew older, and with other infirmities of old age, Swift did little writing during the last 15 years of his life.

In 1742, 3 years before his death, he was declared of unsound mind due to senility. “It was the talk of the town,” said his cousin Deane Swift, “that a statute of lunacy ought to be taken out, in order to guard the dean against further insults, and wrongs of all kinds.”9(p915)A preliminary inquiry was ordered, which was carried out in July, not to investigate Swift’s sanity but rather as a necessary step to oversee his person and his affairs. A general investigation into Swift’s mental state ended all doubt as to his needs:

[He] hath for these nine months past, been gradually failing in his memory and understanding, and [is] of such unsound mind and memory that he is incapable of transacting any business, or managing, conducting, or taking care of his estate or person.9(p915) . . . His understanding was so much impaired, and his memory so much failed, that he was utterly incapable of conversation. Strangers were not permitted to approach him and his friends found it necessary to have guardians appointed to take more care of his person and estate.10

Like the Struldbruggs he had written about almost 2 decades earlier, Swift was declared incompetent in 1742 and died on October 19, 1745. For 4 days the cathedral bells were rung muffled. He was buried on the south side of the great middle aisle in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, at his request. His grave bears this epitaph: “Here lies Jonathan Swift, for many years Dean of this Cathedral, where righteous indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go, traveler, and imitate if you can This earnest and dedicated Champion of Liberty.”

In his final years, Swift bequeathed money to found the first Irish asylum for mentally ill and mentally retarded persons. Rejecting the theories put forward by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, he was influenced by the ideas of the Scottish doctor and the “enlightened” thinker John Locke. The new institution, St Patrick’s Hospital, was modeled on the much older Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam). After Swift’s hospital had been enlarged twice at the taxpayers’ expense in 1778 and in 1793, the administration erected the Richmond Asylum in 1810, the first public asylum in Ireland. When this asylum became overcrowded, in 1817, legislation was passed that led to the establishment of the oldest system of public asylums in Europe.11

As for Grandville, he produced over 3000 prints, engravings, and lithographs during his career.12 After the death of his first wife, who sought to restrain his imaginative drawings, he produced his best-known illustrated book, Un Autre monde(Another World), in 1844. It is full of strange metamorphoses and animated subjects. Following a series of personal misfortunes, including the deaths of his 3 sons, Grandville became ill. Delirious following a severe throat infection, he died at age 44 years. He remains one of the great illustrators of the 19th century. His work strongly influenced John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland,13 and modern artists, the expressionists and surrealists, were influenced by his work.

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