A Beast in Disguise


“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.ย  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.

17 thoughts on “A Beast in Disguise

  1. Question is: how much is deliberate mischief-making on Swift’s part? It is impossible to presume to know Swift’s mind, motives and mileau How Do you spell that?) to answer that, I suppose.

    So good to see you blogging on this; you’re the one to do it.

  2. Swift’s misanthropy owed partly to his own observations and much to his health issue-kidney stone. He was a satirist and he could write in simple language,- that itself proves his felicity with the language. Marvel is that it can be read as a bitter indictment on human society as well as fit juvenile reading. Gulliver’s Travels has never been out of fashion. One must-read book in the 100 books ever written in English language.

    • Hi Benny, the first two volumes seem to be actually designed for children with all those giants and dwarfs that people a kid’s imagination, while the last two crush the contemporary faith on the greatness of man. I remember that the Gulliver’s Travels I read when I was a little girl included only the first two volumes.
      Stefy ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I understood the work to be an anti-establishment satire using characterization to portray the foibles of humanity. Your references support the latter using parody for ‘exaggerating and distorting’. Neatly nutshelled eT.

  4. So nice to see a thoughtful post on Swift’s work and characters…

    While reading an enjoyable and thrilling work like this we used to develop a kind of our own perspective and it’s always nice to compare with that of others.

    I read these beautiful novels when I was a kid and thoroughly enjoyed the stories, and it’s still there in my mind.

    Thanks a lot for sharing, Stefy ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks a lot Srejiit ๐Ÿ˜‰ Gulliver’s Travels is all perspectives: children fiction, travel fiction, a dissertation on the nature of man…..etc. That’s why it is such an enjoyable read .

      • You are absolutely right, and that’s the reason why, we still could enjoy and appreciate the work… It caters to all age groups perfectly at the same time, right?

        I really feel like rereading it now ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. This is just a truly interesting idea!…
    So it appears that Jonathan Swift believed in Evolutionism or differences among humna beings… Which reminds me of Darwin, Nazi Goebbels, Malinowski and argentine’s Sarmiento motto Civilization vs Barbarism.
    “Facundo” by Sarmiento (who would become president of Argentina) was a work of creative non-fiction that helped to define the parameters for thinking about the region’s development, modernization and culture, contrasting civilization and barbarism as seen in early 19th-century Argentina
    The only difference is that Swift opposed the greatnessโ€ of the Enlightenment creed to the moral โ€œsmallnessโ€ of man. While the dichotomy was quite the opposite in Sarmiento’s “Facundo”
    An excellent post, dear Stefi!. Thanks a lot for sharing dear Stefi!.
    All the best to you. Aquileana ๐Ÿ˜€

    • And this is an excellent comment, Dear Aquileana. I didn’t know much about Sarminto’s ” Facundo” and now I am kind of intrigued. I’m going to get some information about it. Thanks a lot.

  6. I think that Swiftโ€™s point of view is exaggerated. I want to believe that mankind is better then it is today. So, I donโ€™t agree with Swift. But I love his ironic description oh mankind. He always banters us and he was a genius to think this at that time.

  7. With the description of the man’s swift I personally disagree because I think it is mentally closed and above all not true because men know how to reason correctly and above all they are not animals.

  8. I think that through the work Swift has perfectly managed to make us understand his point of view about man.Surely the author sees men in a negative way, a very strange thought for the age of the Enlightenment. I consider “Gulliver’s Travels” a masterpiece and reading the book made me enjoy it but at the same time understand many things.

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