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Les voyages de Gulliver

François Boulaire
Daniel Carey

“In a glass, darkly”: Swift, Gulliver and the Human Shape

Aileen Douglas

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1It was Samuel Johnson (1709-85) who dismissed Gulliver’s Travels by observing:

  • 1 James Boswell, The Life of Johnson (1791), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 595.

When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.1

  • 2 Frank Boyle, having noted that arguably “the most settled commonplace of Swift criticism at all le (...)

2In Johnson’s negative view, Gulliver’s Travels is simply a trick of perspective: with its “big men and little men” it offers nothing but an adjustment of scale after which the rest – that is, Swift’s satire on human pretension and self-aggrandizement – follows on easily. Implicit in Johnson’s dismissal is the notion that a human body, even if distorted in scale, is nonetheless always a familiar object. That Johnson had so little time for Gulliver’s Travels is, at least in part, attributable to his refusal to see human bodies as being anything other than obvious. For Jonathan Swift, as not only Gulliver’s Travels, but also others of his writings show, human bodies were indeed obvious, unavoidable, and sometimes disgusting material objects. Yet, while Swift is notorious, especially in his images of the female body, for a fixation on pus, excrement and running sores, he does not represent the body exclusively as a functioning, or malfunctioning, organism.2 Swift’s writing is also characterized by an ability to distinguish the human form as an isolated shape, or an abstract image.

  • 3 Indeed, so central an issue is observation of the body in Gulliver’s Travels that the text has bec (...)
  • 4 For helpful discussions of Swift’s identity as a writer see Joseph McMinn, “A Weary Patriot: Swift (...)

3This essay is concerned with the human shape in Swift’s writing. Swift’s representation of the human shape is often highly dramatic. Gulliver’s Travels is built around a series of tense encounters between an observer, and a figure who may or may not be recognized as human, in a landscape unfamiliar to at least one of them. The chief – but significantly not the only – object of scrutiny in these scenes is Gulliver himself.3 Gulliver’s Travels offers Swift’s most elaborate, and controversial, representations of the human shape, but significant images of the human form occur elsewhere in his writing, especially in his Irish writings of the 1720 s, the decade in which Gulliver’s Travels was written and published. Two major factors contributed to the power that a human shape, confronting a dislocated observer, exerted over Swift’s imagination. The first was the extent to which Swift felt himself displaced. Although born in Ireland, he settled in the country unwillingly, and only reluctantly became a spokesman for its affairs. The perspective of the visitor, or outsider, was one to which Swift was naturally drawn.4 The second factor was the contradiction inherent in the human shape itself. For although that shape is the most immediate, and apparently most distinctive, human attribute, it is, finally, what humans share with certain other animals, and therefore not distinctive at all. This contradiction is one exploited again and again in Swift’s writing.

4That shape and form are generally primary to definitions of humanity was acknowledged, but not approved of, by John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690). Observing that complex ideas, such as that of “man”, are often formed by taking “some few sensible obvious Qualities” and leaving out others of equal significance, the empiricist Locke goes on to say that

  • 5 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Peter H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Pr (...)

Shape is that, which to us is the leading Quality and most characteristical Part, that determines the Species.5

5The extent to which shape is definitive of the species, and its relationship to other material human qualities – reason, speech, walking erect – is a question posed time and again in Gulliver’s Travels. In Brobdingnag and Houyhnmland, Gulliver’s shape, his obvious human form, is exactly studied and becomes the basis of philosophical and ontological puzzles – for others, but not for Gulliver himself. For the greater part of his travels, Gulliver, in the face of those who would dismiss him as a piece of clockwork, or a freak of nature, successfully maintains, at least to himself, that his visible shape is indeed the mark of a full humanity. Surviving all the challenges of his first three voyages, Gulliver, on his fourth voyage, to Houyhnhnmland, undergoes an ordeal that destroys him. This voyage differs from those previously undertaken by Gulliver not only because the challenge to his own humanity is here more acute – although it certainly is that – but also because here Gulliver himself confronts, for the first time, the very problem which until now he has only embodied for others. In the extended opening sequence of the final book, Gulliver plays both parts in the scene: he is not only a possibly human shape in an unfamiliar landscape, but also the observer of other possibly human forms.

  • 6 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Paul Turner (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 7 (...)

6When Samuel Johnson limited his account of Gulliver’s Travel s to its first two books he exemplified an approach to the text which would remain powerful for centuries. The most celebrated images of Gulliver’s Travels, represented again and again in countless illustrations, play with the scale of the human body. A giant in Lilliput, Gulliver has the power to seize fifty or sixty of its inhabitants and dash them to the ground. Simply feeding this “man-mountain” requires hundreds of baskets of meat and puts the whole economy of Lilliput under strain. In Brobdingnag, his diminutive stature makes Gulliver vulnerable not only to other animals such as rats and wasps, but even to vegetable matter: the ears of corn growing in the field are “so strong and pointed, that they pierced through [his] Cloaths into [his] Flesh.”6 To his discoverers, Gulliver’s size makes him a “strange animal” even though he is “exactly shaped in every Part like a human Creature”. At court, three great scholars examine Gulliver’s shape “with much Nicety” and all agree that he could not have been produced according to the regular Laws of Nature:

because I was not framed with a Capacity of preserving my Life, either by Swiftness, or climbing of Trees, or digging Holes in the Earth. They observed by my Teeth, which they viewed with great Exactness, that I was a carnivorous Animal; yet most Quadrupeds being an Overmatch for me; and Field-Mice, with some others, too nimble, they could not imagine how I should be able to support my self, unless I fed upon Snails and other Insects; which they offered by many learned Arguments to evince that I could not possibly do. (92)

7His voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag dramatically re-position Gulliver in relation to other creatures. In his early adventures, Gulliver faces significant dangers, but because his adventures are clearly fantastic, the effect is to delight, rather than disturb, readers.

  • 7 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1777-81), John Wain (ed.), London, Dent, 1975, p. 594.

8Not all the fears raised by Gulliver’s Travels can, however, be quietened by a simple referral to the extra-fictional world. Significantly, in dismissing Swift’s big men and little men, Johnson avoided Gulliver’s fourth voyage, of which he wrote, elsewhere, in terms of horrified disgust. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, the “chain of being” familiar to Gulliver and his readers undergoes more profound changes than those related to scale, for this is a society in which bestial humans are ruled by rational horses. The final book of Gulliver’s Travels disturbed Johnson, and many other subsequent readers, so profoundly, because they saw in the Yahoos a representation of degraded human nature. It was Gulliver’s graphic portrayal of the Yahoos that caused Johnson to puzzle over the “depravity of intellect” whereby Swift delighted “in revolving ideas from which almost every other mind shrinks in disgust.”7 Whereas the images in Gulliver’s early voyages – of a giant reaper or wasps the size of partridges – were of purely physical dangers, the image of the Yahoo threatened the idea of humanity itself. It is when Gulliver confronts beings like himself, on his own scale, that he becomes unhinged.

9Gulliver’s Travels appeared at a time when philosophy, science, and popular culture alike participated in what Carole Fabricant has described as a

  • 8 Carole Fabricant, “History, Narrativity, and Swift’s Project to’ Mend the World’”, in Gullivers T (...)

framework of contemporary texts and social practices that … challenged long-standing notions about human identity and tested the fluctuating boundaries between self and not-self, savage and civilized beings, the human and the non-(or barely) human.8

10In his Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke had opined that it was very difficult to tell where exactly the boundaries of the human species were to be found. For himself, he could discern no precise or immovable boundaries. Asserting that the definition of a complex idea such as “man” was primarily a matter of language, Locke concluded that

The certain Boundaries of that Species, are so far from being determined, and the precise number of simple Ideas, which make the nominal Essence, so far from being setled, and perfectly known, that very material Doubts may still arise about it: And I imagine, none of the Definitions of the word Man, which we yet have, nor Descriptions of that sort of Animal, are so perfect and exact, as to satisfie a considerate inquisitive Person; much less to obtain general Consent. (455)

11In 1699, Edward Tyson, the foremost English anatomist, attempted to provide a more “perfect and exact” definition of “man” by carefully delineating the boundary between the human and the animal. In his Anatomy of a Pygmie (the animal concerned was actually a chimpanzee from Angola), Tyson compared the pigmy with a monkey, an ape and a man, so as to

better observe Natures Gradation in the Formation of our Animal Bodies, and the Transitions made from one to another.

  • 9 Edward Tyson, Orang-outang, sive, Homo Sylvestris, or, The Anatomy of a Pygmie (1699), facsimile e (...)

12He drew attention to the “great Similitude” between the “lowest Rank of Men, and the highest kind of Animals”, concluding that the chimpanzee was “the Nexus of the Animal and Rational.”9 Tyson discovered that “in the formation of the Body” the pigmy more resembled man “than any other Animal.” Yet, while the pigmy could be seen as an “intermediate Link between an Ape and a Man”, it was, Tyson insisted, “wholly a Brute” (5). The process of discrimination between human and animal has been made more difficult by “the Imposture of Navigators” who have embalmed the bodies of apes and “brought them home, and then made the People believe that they were the Men of those Countries from whence they came” (36).

13Tyson’s anxiety to maintain the boundaries between species is evident in his efforts to explain away accounts – both from the ancients and from contemporary travellers – attributing speech to orang-outangs or wild men. Later scientists would re-enforce Tyson’s work. Buffon, for example, in his Histoire naturelle, acknowledged the many anatomical similarities between chimpanzees and humans only to emphasize the decisive, nonanatomical, differences:

  • 10 Buffon, Histoire naturelle (1766), vol. XIV, p. 51, quoted in Robert Wokler, “Tyson and Buffon on (...)

la langue & tous les organes de la voix sont les mêmes que dans l’homme, & cependant l’orang-outang ne parle pas; le cerveau est absolument de la même forme & de la même proportion, & il ne pense pas.10

14While common sense gave priority to shape in defining the species, scientific opinion in the late 17th and early 18th centuries increasingly emphasized speech as the truly distinctive human attribute.

15Interest in the definition of the human species was not confined, during Swift’s writing career, to philosophers and scientists. A similar fascination also pervaded popular culture, where it took the form not of enquiry and analysis but of spectacle. Prominent amongst eighteenth-century diversions were various kinds of monster shows. Particularly popular were displays of feral children, bestial humans, and animals that could mimic human actions, all of which blur boundaries between species. As Dennis Todd points out, the tricks Gulliver performs in Brobdingnag, when he drinks to the company’s health and performs exercises with part of a straw in lieu of a pike, are drawn from actual performances of monkeys and dwarfs in the fairgrounds of eighteenth-century England. Indeed, Todd argues that the fairground infatuation with the monstrous informs the whole structure of Gullivers Travels, made up as it is

  • 11 Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England, Chicago, (...)

of little people, big people, intelligent animals, and bestial men, the four most typical monsters exhibited at the Fair.11

16On Gulliver’s fourth voyage, his men mutiny and he is set down upon a strand in an unknown country. He resolves to deliver himself

to the first Savages I should meet; and purchase my Life from them by some Bracelets, Glass Rings, and other Toys. (214-15)

17He comes to a road and discovers “Tracks of human Feet, and some of Cows, but most of Horses” (215). Shortly afterwards, he comes upon a group of hairy, bearded animals, who stand on their hind Feet. He is immediately repelled, telling the reader that he never

beheld in all [his] Travels so disagreeable an Animal, or one against which [he] naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy. (215)

18Full of “contempt and aversion”, Gulliver continues on his way until he sees a horse walking in a field:

The Horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself, looked full in my Face with manifest Tokens of Wonder: He viewed my Hands and Feet, walking round me several times. (216)

19The horse is joined by another and both continue to scrutinize Gulliver, being “under great Perplexity” about his shoes and stockings which

they felt very often, neighing to each other, and using various Gestures, not unlike those of a Philosopher, when he would attempt to solve some new and difficult Phaenomenon. (218)

20The horses escort Gulliver to a building where he once again thinks of presenting the toys which “Travellers usually carry for Presents to the Savage Indians of America and other parts” (220). Further encounters with horses ensue, and again it is Gulliver’s hands and face (the only unclothed parts of his body) that receive particular attention. Finally, Gulliver is brought into the yard, alongside one of the “detestable Creatures” he had first met, and the two – as was the case with Tyson’s specimens – become objects of close comparison:

The Beast and I were brought close together; and our Countenances diligently compared, both by the Master and Servant who thereupon repeated several Times the Word Yahoo. My horror and Astonishment are not to be described, when I observed, in this abominable Animal, a perfect human Figure. (222)

21While the horses can only compare the visible parts of Gulliver’s body and the Yahoo, Gulliver himself knows that were it not for his clothes and shoes – of which the horses have no conception – the resemblance would be even more exact. Despite this knowledge, Gulliver refuses any kinship, thinking only of escape “to some other Country, and to Creatures of my own species” (224).

22When he isolated shape as the “leading Quality” in the determination of a species, John Locke went on to observe:

  • 12 Swift, in a letter to Alexander Pope of 1725, famously expressed his scepticism over the definitio (...)

For however some Men seem to prize their Definition of Animal Rationale, yet should there a Creature be found, that had Language and Reason, but partaked not of the usual shape of a Man, I believe it would hardly pass for Man, how much soever it were Animal Rationale. And if Baalam’s Ass had, all his Life, discoursed as rationally as he did once with his Master, I doubt yet, whether any one would have thought him worthy the name Man, or allow’d him to be of the same Species with himself. (456)12

23In Houyhnhnmland, Gulliver is placed in the position that Baalam’s ass takes in Locke’s discussion. Despite his ability to discourse rationally with his Houyhnhnm master, Gulliver’s shape still tells against him. For all their reason, the Houyhnhnms cannot admit very much complexity. Gulliver’s ability to speak his own language, and learn that of his hosts, causes them no uncertainty as to categories, or as to the Yahoo nature. It simply earns Gulliver the adjective “wonderful” before the appellation “Yahoo”. (264)

24Under Houyhnhnmn tutelage, of course, Gulliver begins to accept this designation. The parallels his Houyhnhnm master draws between Yahoo and European society, not to mention the many faults he finds in Gulliver himself, combine to convince Gulliver that the honor of his own kind is “not worth managing” (250). When Gulliver, while swimming, is accosted by a young female Yahoo, the identification between human and Yahoo seems complete:

now I could no longer deny, that I was a real Yahoo, in every Limb and Feature, since the Females had a natural Propensity to me as one of their own Species. (259)

25So intense is Gulliver’s admiration of the Houyhnhnms, and his desire to emulate them, that his own image becomes an object of loathing. In a significant passage, Gulliver reveals that the love and veneration he feels for the Houyhnhnms causes him eventually to consider his family and friends

as they really were, Yahoos in Shape and Disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech; but making no other Use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren in this Country had only the Share that Nature allotted them. When I happened to behold the Reflection of my own Form in a Lake or Fountain, I turned away my Face in Horror and detestation of myself. (270-71)

26Shape is the first quality that Gulliver mentions here (as, indeed, it was the first correspondence between Yahoos and humans of which he became aware) and shape continues to dominate the passage. The differences between humans and Yahoos are airily dismissed, neither civilization nor speech being given much weight. Gulliver’s reflection, the shape that he shares with the Yahoos, becomes a source of horror and detestation. In his Essay, Locke remarked that the number of ideas that the mind of man combined in making complex ideas of substances “depends upon the various Care, Industry, or Fancy of him that makes it” (456). During his sojourn in Houyhnhnmland, Gulliver becomes increasingly careless and lazy in his conception of man. Under pressure from his Houyhnhnm host, Gulliver takes little cognizance of any human attribute other than that of shape, to which he increasingly assimilates the Houyhnhnm account of Yahoo behavior. A poignant indication of how decisively the Houyhnhnms have reduced Gulliver’s sense of humanity is his reaction to the speech of the sailors who rescue him once he is forced to leave Houyhnhnmland:

When they began to talk, I thought I never heard or saw anything so unnatural; for it appeared to me as monstrous as if a Dog or a Cow should speak in England, or a Yahoo in Houyhnhnm-Land. (278)

27The narrative ends with Gulliver at home in Redriff, where one of his activities is to

behold my Figure often in a Glass, and thus if possible habituate my self by Time to tolerate the Sight of a human creature. (287)

  • 13 Pat Rogers argues that Gulliver suffers from a “visual over-development, hypertrophy of the sight. (...)

28For Gulliver, shape is indeed “the leading quality” in the definition of the species. Initially, in Houyhnhnmland he both admits and denies that his shape is identical to that of the Yahoo; returned home, he hopes that by looking at himself in the mirror he can, eventually, come to tolerate other human creatures. One way of describing what happens to Gulliver is to say that he is mesmerized by the human shape, and is unable to register that it is only one constituent of human identity. After all, Gulliver is no more identical to the Yahoos than he is to the Houyhnhnmns, although he shares characteristics with both: reason with the Houyhnhnmns and shape with the Yahoos. Gulliver’s attempt to cure himself, staring at the glass, is in fact simply another symptom of his malaise. He hopes to gain from his reflection in the mirror something the reflection simply cannot yield.13 Gulliver’s conception of man, hopelessly limited and reduced by his experiences, will not be annealed by any amount of staring.

  • 14 See James Kelly, “Jonathan Swift and the Irish Economy in the 1720s”, Eighteenth-Century Ireland/I (...)

29That the apprehension of the human shape requires more than simply the work of the eye is demonstrated throughout Swift’s Irish writings. The decade in which Gullivers Travels appeared was also the period during which Swift paid the most sustained attention to, and was most publicly involved in, Irish affairs. In The Drapiers Letters (1724-26), The Intelligencer (1728-29), and A Modest Proposal (1729) Swift deplored the economic position of Ireland, and denounced the treatment of the island as a colony, rather than a sister-kingdom, of England.14 In these various writings Swift repeatedly identified the causes of Irish poverty as the restrictions imposed upon Irish trade by England, the failure of absentee landlords to develop their land, the dependence of the Irish on imported luxury goods, and their refusal to rely on their own manufactures. All of these factors, combined with famine in the later 1720s, created a bleak landscape, one which Swift characteristically represented through the eyes of a visitor. According to Swift, a traveller to Ireland,

  • 15 Jonathan Swift, The Intelligencer, James Woolley (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992, p. 179.

would be apt to think himself travelling in Lapland or Ysland [Iceland], rather than in a Country so favoured by Nature as Ours, both in Fruitfulness of Soyl, and Temperature of Climate. The miserable Dress, and Dyet, and Dwelling of the People … the families of Farmers who pay great Rents, living in Filth and nastiness upon Butter-milk and Potatoes, without a Shoe or Stocking to their Feet, or a House so convenient as an English Hog-sty to receive them.15

  • 16 For a full account of these, and Swift’s other Irish writings, see Oliver W. Ferguson, Jonathan Sw (...)

30The most celebrated of Swift’s interventions into Irish affairs was the series of letters that became known as The Drapier’s Letters. Here, Swift assumed the persona of a Dublin cloth merchant, in order to encourage public resistance to the imposition on Ireland of a copper coin minted in England by William Wood. The coin was objected to both on principle, because the patent had been granted without consultation, and for practical reasons, the excessive amount of the issue giving rise to fears that it would drain Ireland of wealth.16 A theme of Drapier’s Letters is the ignorance among ordinary English people of Ireland, and their propensity to imagine Ireland as a savage state. As far as the English are concerned, Ireland could as easily be one of the “remote nations” to which Gulliver travels, a place seen – as Gulliver initially sees Houyhnhnmland – through a haze of misperception. The Drapier complains that

  • 17 The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Herbert Davis (ed.), 16 vols, Oxford, Blackwell, 1939-74, vol. (...)

Our Neighbours … have a strong Contempt for most Nations, but especially for Ireland: They look upon us as a Sort of Savage Irish, whom our Ancestors conquered several Hundred Years ago: And if I should describe the Britons to you, as they were in Caesars Time, when they painted their Bodies, or cloathed themselves with the Skins of Beasts I should act full as reasonably as they do.17

31This complaint is later amplified to the charge that the English know of Ireland

  • 18 The Prose Works…, vol. 10, p. 103.

little more than they do of Mexico; further than that it is a Country subject to the King of England, full of Boggs, inhabited by wild Irish Papists; who are kept in Awe by mercenary Troops sent from thence … I have seen the grossest Suppositions pass upon them; that the wild Irish were taken in Toyls; but that, in some Time, they would grow so tame, as to eat out of your Hands.18

32This ignorance and lack of sympathy extends, the Drapier insists, even to those who do have direct knowledge of the Irish; the same piece includes a bitter reference to the hostility expressed towards Irish interests by the citizens of Northampton, even though they

  • 19 The Prose Works…, p. 104.

lie directly in our Way to London; and therefore, cannot but be frequently convinced that we have human shapes.19

33English prejudice, as the Drapier describes it, sees the Irish as Yahoolike beings. Savage and wild, they are more like beasts than humans. Not amenable to reason, they have to be kept under control, and “in Awe”, by armed troops, although sometimes they can be trapped and tamed and turned into domestic pets. The effect of these gross suppositions is to make the Irish appear radically different from the English themselves, a difference that Swift disputes. The reference to the Picts, who painted their bodies during the time of Caesar, reminds the reader that the English themselves are a conquered people – so that at least they have in common with their neighbors. The reference to the citizens of Northampton, is, however, for the purposes of the present discussion, more significant. The fact that so many Irish people travel through Northampton on their way to London should dispel ignorance and misapprehension. In this place at least, the Irish should be seen for what they are. Placed at the end of a section, and produced with a tone of finality, the appearance of the “human shape” is intended to displace all that has gone before: the savage Irish, the wild Irish, the bestial Irish. When Swift says that the citizens “cannot but be frequently convinced that we have human shapes” he is deploying the body as an incontrovertible argument.

34Despite the passage’s authoritative tone, however, the situation is far from simple. After all, the human shape has been present in the passage all along, just as it was present all along in the opening pages of Part IV of Gullivers Travels. The savage Irish and the Irish taken in traps have human figures, just as the Irishmen walking the streets of Northampton do. Even more importantly, the implication of the passage is that the citizens of Northampton do deny the undeniable and refuse to recognize the human shapes that parade before them. It is only at a textual level, in the context of Swift’s rhetoric, that gross supposition can be displaced by the undeniable human shape. To put it another way, the self-evidence of the human shape is an illusion, but one which is made good on the printed page. It is the reader, and not the citizen of Northampton, who cannot but be convinced of Irish humanity.

35A similar textual complexity is at work in a later pamphlet Swift wrote at the behest of the Dublin weavers. Since 1720, with the publication of A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, Swift, who had both denounced laws enacted in England which prohibited the free export of Irish wool, and the refusal of the native Irish to buy and wear their own produce, had been regarded by native tradesmen as their protector. Returning to the plight of the weavers in 1729, Swift began his analysis with a striking representation of the human shape:

  • 20 Ibid., vol. 12, p. 65.

I cannot reflect on the singular condition of this Country … without some Emotion, and without often examining as I pass the streets whether those animals which come in my way with two legs and human faces, clad, and erect, be of the same species with what I have seen very like them in England, as to the outward Shape, but differing in their notions, natures and intellectualls more than any two kinds of Brutes in a forest, which any men of common prudence would immediately discover, by persuading them to define what they mean by Law, Liberty, Property, Courage, Reason, Loyalty, or Religion.20

36In this instance, the “animals” passing before the eye of the narrator are dismembered and their behavior registered: “two legs and human faces, clad, and erect.” Initially, the animals are represented as quasi-monsters. Although they have “human faces” and all their listed attributes are compatible with, and indeed two of them (wearing clothes and walking erect) exclusive to, humanity, they are not described as human. The procedure is that of an anatomy. Like Tyson, this anatomist is a comparativist; unlike Tyson he does not name the animals, from Ireland and England, that he compares. Their “outward” shapes – like those of the chimpanzee and the human – are “very like”. Observation, however, only goes so far. In order to complete the encounter, the specimens have to be persuaded into dialogue. It is only when they are asked to define a series of abstract terms, such as Law and Liberty, that the distinction between the Irish animals and their English counterparts becomes apparent. The boundary separating the two species is, the narrator claims, faster than that dividing “any two kinds of Brutes in a forest”. The difficulty of this passage is that it requires the reader to accept, simultaneously, that the narrator is referring to a single species and to two different species. We have to entertain the notion that the narrator has yet to determine what species he is describing; if, however, we naively believe that he doesn’t know, then the whole point of the passage is lost. The Irish animals are both monstrous and human; they are both the same as, and different from, the English version. It is only through such elaborate play with the human shape that Swift can determine the nature of the human species. Some years before he began writing Gullivers Travels, Swift bitterly wrote of Ireland:

  • 21 The Prose Works…, vol. 11, p. 21.

Whoever travels this Country, and observes the Face of nature, or the Faces, and Habits, and Dwellings of the Natives, will hardly think himself in a Land where either Law, Religion, or common Humanity is professed.21

37The movement in this passage, from observation of the landscape and its inhabitants to an invocation of abstractions such as Law and Religion, is typical of Swift’s writing. Swift isolates the human shape, but only so that the reader re-connects the physical figure to invisible, intangible, human qualities. “Common humanity” is not, for Swift, a matter of a shared human shape, but rather a complex idea which emerges fully only when “professed”, articulated through a shared public language.

38Through the rhetorical intricacy of his Irish pamphlets Swift professes “common humanity”. It is here, rather than in any literal encounter, that the human shape can be fully recognized. There is, of course, one brutal, late, exception. In a pamphlet written in 1729, Swift recalls his efforts to improve the state of Ireland, and the various “expedients” he has proposed. His teeming pamphlets have, however, been powerless to effect change. No traveller can avoid the “melancholly Object” of Irish beggars, with their

  • 22 Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729), in The Prose Works…, vol. 12, p. 109.

prodigious Number of Children in the Arms, or on the Backs, or at the Heels of their Mothers, and frequently of their Fathers.22

39In a final, and bitterly disillusioned, contribution to Irish public life, Swift, in the guise of a rationalist projector, modestly proposes that cannibalism alone is the answer to Irish problems. And then lays down his pen.


1 James Boswell, The Life of Johnson (1791), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 595.

2 Frank Boyle, having noted that arguably “the most settled commonplace of Swift criticism at all levels is that Swift was’ obsessed’ with the body and bodily functions” goes on to write insightfully of this commonplace’s “powerful, reductive effect”. Swift as Nemesis: Modernity and Its Satirist, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000, p. 33. For additional perspectives on Swift’s representation of the body, see Carol Houlihan Flynn, The Body in Swift and Defoe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990; and Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

3 Indeed, so central an issue is observation of the body in Gulliver’s Travels that the text has become an important literary source for historians of emergent human sciences in the early 18th century. See Christopher Fox, Roy Porter and Robert Wokler (eds), Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

4 For helpful discussions of Swift’s identity as a writer see Joseph McMinn, “A Weary Patriot: Swift and the Formation of an Anglo-Irish Identity”, Eighteenth-Century Ireland/ Iris an dá chultur, 2, 1987, pp. 81-89; Ian Campbell Ross, “The Scriblerians and Swift in Ireland”, in Reading Swift: Papers from the Second Münster Symposium, Richard H. Rodino and Hermann J. Real (eds), Munich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1993, p. 103-113; Robert Mahony, Jonathan Swift: The Irish Identity, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995.

5 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Peter H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975, p. 456. Subsequently in the Essay, Locke argued strenuously against the “ordinary way of Reasoning in this Matter” whereby people “lay the whole stress on the Figure, and resolve the whole Essence of the Species of Man (as they make it) into the outward Shape” (p. 572).

6 Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Paul Turner (ed.), Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 74. All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

7 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1777-81), John Wain (ed.), London, Dent, 1975, p. 594.

8 Carole Fabricant, “History, Narrativity, and Swift’s Project to’ Mend the World’”, in Gullivers Travels, Christopher Fox (ed.), Boston, Bedford Books, 1995, p. 356.

9 Edward Tyson, Orang-outang, sive, Homo Sylvestris, or, The Anatomy of a Pygmie (1699), facsimile edition, introduced by Ashley Montagu, London, Dawsons, 1966, “The Epistle Dedicatory”, n.p.

10 Buffon, Histoire naturelle (1766), vol. XIV, p. 51, quoted in Robert Wokler, “Tyson and Buffon on the Orang-utan”, Studies on Voltaire and the 18th Century, 155, 1976, p. 2313.

11 Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995, p. 145.

12 Swift, in a letter to Alexander Pope of 1725, famously expressed his scepticism over the definition of man as a rational animal: “I have got Materials Towards a Treatise proving the falsity of that Definition animale rationale; and to show it should be only rationis capex” (Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, Harold Williams (ed.), 5 vol., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1963-65, vol. 3, p. 103).

13 Pat Rogers argues that Gulliver suffers from a “visual over-development, hypertrophy of the sight. Gulliver lives through his gaze and his traveller’s curiosity rather than through any settled principles or inner resources” (Pat Rogers, “Gulliver’s Glasses”, in The Art of Jonathan Swift, Clive T. Probyn (ed.), London, Vision Press, 1978, p. 183).

14 See James Kelly, “Jonathan Swift and the Irish Economy in the 1720s”, Eighteenth-Century Ireland/Iris an dá chultur, 6, 1991, p. 7-36; and Patrick Kelly, “Swift, Berkeley and the Solution to Ireland’s Economic Problems”, in Locating Swift, Aileen Douglas, Patrick Kelly and Ian Campbell Ross (eds), Dublin, Four Courts Press, 1998, p. 47-59.

15 Jonathan Swift, The Intelligencer, James Woolley (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992, p. 179.

16 For a full account of these, and Swift’s other Irish writings, see Oliver W. Ferguson, Jonathan Swift and Ireland, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1962. A selection of these writings is usefully presented in Joseph McMinn (ed.), Swifts Irish Pamphlets: An Introductory Selection, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Colin Smythe, 1991.

17 The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Herbert Davis (ed.), 16 vols, Oxford, Blackwell, 1939-74, vol. 10, p. 64.

18 The Prose Works…, vol. 10, p. 103.

19 The Prose Works…, p. 104.

20 Ibid., vol. 12, p. 65.

21 The Prose Works…, vol. 11, p. 21.

22 Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal (1729), in The Prose Works…, vol. 12, p. 109.


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