Choose format

Related topics

The poverty of literary theory

Imaginary homelands

Orwell and the shooting-stick

The Rushdie affair reconsidered

The diminutive insect

Gulliver’s Travels, Original Sin and the imagery of size




SWIFT HAS SOMETIMES BEEN seen as a champion of liberty. In his essay ‘Politics vs Literature’, however, George Orwell took a different view. ‘Swift,’ he wrote, ‘was one of those people who are driven into a sort of perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the moment.’ At best Swift was ‘a Tory Anarchist, despising authority while disbelieving in liberty.’ At worst he was a reactionary, opposed not simply to sham science, but to all science, and even to intellectual curiosity itself. Orwell also portrays Swift as a hater of the human body and an authoritarian. ‘In a political and moral sense,’ writes Orwell, ‘I am against him, so far as I understand him.’ Yet no sooner has he written these words than he goes on to declare that Swift ‘is one of the writers I admire with least reserve’.[1]


Orwell presents his riven view of Swift as an example of his own sound judgment. His assessment of Swift’s political outlook is, I believe, in some respects just. Yet if we consider Orwell’s essay sceptically it begins to seem as though he is in a great muddle about Swift. He writes that he is against Swift ‘so far as I understand him’. But does he understand him? There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that he does not, and that his difficulty in understanding Swift has been shared by a large number of modern critics.


At one point in his essay Orwell writes that ‘Swift shows no sign of having any religious beliefs.’[2] This view was put forward by a number of commentators from the time of Thackeray, who said of Swift ‘He puts his apostasy out to hire . . . and his sermons have scarce a Christian characteristic’, to the time of Leavis, who once attributed to Swift ‘a complete incapacity even to guess what religious feeling might be’.[3] Such judgments were repeated so frequently that the view eventually hardened into something approaching an orthodoxy and, as Basil Hall noted almost thirty years ago in his essay ‘“An Inverted Hypocrite”: Swift the Churchman’, little account of Swift’s religious views is usually taken in judgments of him either as a man or a writer:


On the contrary it is more usual to think that Swift was fundamentally irreligious; that he was using a career in the Church for personal ambition, since he lacked a political post; that he showed no respect for traditional Christian beliefs; that his religious writings are political tracts with pious titles; and that his handful of sermons are the chilled product of a rationalism without insight or conviction.[4]


In his essay Basil Hall offered a cogent challenge to what had become the prevailing view. According to his argument one of the reasons that commentators, beginning with some of Swift’s own contemporaries, failed to perceive the importance of Christianity to Swift’s literary vision was that Swift’s faith belonged to his ‘private heart’ which ‘he least of all men was willing to wear on his sleeve’.[5] Hall invokes Bolinbgbroke’s view of Swift as an ‘inverted hypocrite’ who, while pretending to the world that he was not deeply religious, preferred to conceal his faith and religiously motivated charity from the eyes of others. He then goes on to cite the words of Dr. Johnson. While never an admirer of Swift, Johnson appears to have seen deeper into his character than many:


The suspicion of his irreligion proceeded in a great measure from his dread of hypocrisy; instead of wishing to seem better, he delighted in seeming worse than he was. He went in London to early prayers, lest he should be seen at Church; he read prayers to his servants every morning with such dextrous secrecy that Dr Delaney was six months in the house before he knew it. He was not only careful to hide the good that he did, but willingly incurred the suspicion of evil which he did not. He forgot what he had formerly asserted, that hypocrisy is less mischievous than open impiety. [6]


There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that the ‘inverted hypocrisy’ which Bolingbroke and Johnson discerned in Swift’s life may also be found in some aspects of his art and that orthodox Christian beliefs were central to some of his most important works. In this paper I want to look again at the role played in Swift’s work, and especially in Gulliver’s Travels, by one particular aspect of Christian teaching – the doctrine of Original Sin.


I must immediately acknowledge that the main claim I am going to make is entirely unoriginal. The view that Gulliver’s Travels cannot be understood without approaching it by way of the doctrine of Original Sin was either implicit or explicit in the reactions of at least some of Swift’s contemporaries. But during the nineteenth century (and even in the latter part of the eighteenth century) this view of Gulliver’s Travels seems to have disappeared almost without trace. Only in 1926, exactly two hundred years after the publication of Swift’s book, was the prevailing view of Gulliver’s Travels strongly challenged. The challenge came in Theodore O. Wedel’s essay ‘On the Philosophical Background of Gulliver’s Travels’. In this essay Wedel argues that the rapid eclipse of the doctrine of Original Sin during the early part of the eighteenth century meant that most readers thereafter found the pessimistic view of human nature which is expressed in Gulliver’s Travels uncongenial and repugnant – and sometimes so alien that they did not understand it at all. He goes on to suggest that the common reading of Gulliver’s Fourth Voyage, in which the Houyhnhnms are understood as standing for some rational and wholly admirable ideal, is mistaken. Instead he points out that, for Swift at least, they represent man’s misguided and overweening pride in the power of reason. It is against such pride, according to Wedel, that the main force of Swift’s satire is directed.[7]


A similar view of Gulliver’s Travels was taken by a number of twentieth century critics, including Kathleen Williams and Ernest Tuveson. At the same time the whole argument about Gulliver’s Travels and Original Sin was developed in considerable detail in an excellent article by Roland Mushat Frye, ‘Swift’s Yahoos and the Christian Symbols for Sin’.[8] It is worth noting, however, that Frye’s article, which appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas, was published in 1954, which is to say almost fifty years ago. Although there was a time when the view he put forward seemed to gain a degree of critical acceptance, it is by no means clear that the influence of either Wedel or Frye has endured. Indeed it is my own impression that a path of criticism which might once have seemed well-beaten has been trodden less and less frequently in recent years.


As a result brambles have begun to grow up once again over a path which had never been entirely cleared. If the path were unimportant this would not greatly matter. But, if, as I believe to be the case, the path is the most important of all the critical routes which can give us access to Swift’s intended meaning in Gulliver’s Travels (and his unintended meanings too), then it is time it was opened up once again. In what follows I want both to try to travel some way along the original path and to take a particular fork which has never been opened up before but which, unless I am mistaken, leads straight into the very allegorical heart of Swift’s masterpiece.


Let me begin simply by restating the position already taken up by Theodore Wedel, by Roland Frye, and by a number of other critics. What they have pointed out is that the very essence of the doctrine of Original Sin was to be found in the attack it made on spiritual pride. The way in which it made this attack was by offering a theory of human nature according to which men and women, rather than being in control of their own lives, were doomed to remain the prey of a seething and unclean mass of impulses and desires which had become, through Adam’s fall, an ineradicable part of their nature. Individuals might seek to control these impulses through the use of reason, but they could never hope to escape from them within their earthly lives. The religious importance of this doctrine was that through it, and it alone, could the need for Christian redemption be established. For one of the essential points of the doctrine was that it universalised the concept of illness. By postulating that all human beings were afflicted by sickness of the soul it suggested that all equally stood in need of a physician. In the words of Pascal, the traditional Christian faith rested on two things, ‘the corruption of nature and redemption by Jesus Christ’.[9]


The doctrine of Original Sin reigned for centuries as perhaps the most important psychological and political theory of Christian Europe. Its immense historical significance and its deep psychological appeal are essential elements in the heritage of modern intellectual culture. But one of the eventual outcomes of the rational spirit of the Reformation, and of the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic church, was that the doctrine tended increasingly to be repudiated by theologians and intellectuals. Quoting Pascal’s words, and referring mainly to Protestant England, Theodore Wedel has written that ‘half at least of Pascal’s formula is seldom spoken of after 1700’.[10]


Yet although the doctrine of Original Sin has tended to be progressively weakened by the advance of Protestant rationalism, one of the main projects of religious traditionalists has always been to restore the doctrine to a position of theological centrality. One of the most significant of all such traditionalist movements in England was the Methodist church founded by John Wesley. Wesley’s longest written work was actually entitled The Doctrine of Original Sin (1757). In this work, after surveying the host of optimistic views of nature and human nature which prevailed in the middle of the eighteenth century, Wesley inveighed against the arrogance of ‘the present generation of Christians’:


How many laboured panegyrics do we now read and hear on the dignity of human nature! . . . I cannot see that we have much need of Christianity. Nay, not any at all; for ‘they that are whole have no need of a physician’ . . . Nor can Christian philosophy, whatever be thought of the pagan, be more properly defined than in Plato’s words: ‘the only true method of healing a dis­tempered soul.’ But what need of this if we are in perfect health? [11]


It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the tendency of Christianity to universalise the concept of illness. One of the aims of Wesley’s movement, indeed, was to re-establish the ‘reality’ of the Christian’s distempered soul. It did this by vitalising all the anxieties about irrational and sexual impulses which Christians had traditionally been encouraged to feel but which had been, as it were, disconnected from the consciousness of mainstream Protestant rationalism. Wesley and his followers believed that it was necessary to bring these buried anxieties back into the Christian consciousness, for it was only by doing this that they could establish people’s need for the religious therapy which they offered.


Wesley was by no means alone in seeking to revive the traditional doctrine of Original Sin. The work to which he referred to most frequently in his own disquisition on the doctrine was none other than Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. For, as Wedel, Frye and others have recognised, Swift’s scatological satire was, no less than Wesley’s religious propaganda, directed against the spiritual pride and naive self-love of ‘man’ which he felt was expressed by the rationalist optimism which surrounded him.[12] In place of the view of human beings which saw them existing in harmonious, rational integration, Swift reasserted the traditional Christian view accord­ing to which they were profoundly divided between their rational souls and their carnal bodies. We can only understand Swift’s satirical intentions if we recognise that the excrement-loving Yahoos which Gulliver encounters in his Fourth Voyage are to be seen as an imagin­ative representation of this sinful carnal body. ‘Unregenerate man’ is in this way presented by Swift in very much the same way as he had been by St Augustine and countless other exponents of the traditional doctrine of Original Sin – as a ‘lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride.’[13]


Deane Swift, the biographer of his cousin Jonathan, recognised this in a way that most mod­ern literary critics have failed to do when he wrote that, in describing the Yahoos, Swift was fulfilling his duties as ‘a preacher of righteousness’ and ‘a watchman of the Christian faith’:


And shall we condemn a preacher of righteousness for exposing under the character of a nasty, unteachable Yahoo the deformity, the blackness, the filthiness, and corruption of those hellish abominable vices, which inflame the wrath of God against the children of disobedience.[14]


We should recall here that the Yahoo vices by which the ‘children of disobedience’ are seen as ‘inflaming the wrath of God’ are, in Swift’s imaginative restatement of the doctrine of Original Sin, the same vices against which Christian moralists had always warned. For the Yahoos are por­trayed not only as excrementally unclean, but as driven by uncontrollable sexual and sadistic impulses and as possessed by an animal lust for financial gain. The implicit moral of Swift’s religious satire is that human beings can be saved from their own destructive and naive self-love only by accepting the hideousness of their animality and the depth of their carnal sinfulness. For it is only when they have first done this that they will be made aware of their own deep need for the redemption offered through Christianity.


This much at least is not, or should not be, new. I want to suggest however, that it is not only by portraying ‘unregenerate man’ as a Yahoo that Swift reaffirms the traditional doctrine of Original Sin. For it is perhaps in the way that he exploits the theme of relative size that he succeeds in restating this doctrine most imaginatively and most subtly. Here it is my impression that there is a very significant lacuna in the way twentieth century critics have treated representations of Original Sin in relation to Swift’s art. For although Roland Frye, to cite the most illuminating case, has give numerous examples of the manner in which Christian thinkers have employed images of the body’s supposed excremental uncleanness in order to expound the doctrine of Original Sin, he fails to note that images of relative size have sometimes been used for exactly the same purpose.


One of the most vivid and striking examples of this use of the theme of relative size is provided in a celebrated sermon by one of Swift’s contemporaries, the New England Presbyterian Jonathan Edwards. In Edwards’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ God is imagined as a giant holding the body of the tiny diminutive sinner over the abyss of eternal punishment:


The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful serpent is in ours.[15]


Indeed the image of the small loathsome creature is one that we find over and over again in religious writings. In an explicit reference to the doctrine of Original Sin, John Bunyan, in taking account of his ‘original and inward pollution’, compares himself to a toad:


I was more loathsome in mine own eyes than a toad, and I thought I was so in God’s eyes too. Sin and corruption, I said, would as naturally bubble out of my heart as water would bubble out of a fountain...I thought none but the devil himself could equal me for inward wickedness and pollution of mind. I fell, therefore, at the sight of my own vileness, deeply into despair...[16]


The most common of all religious images of self-contempt is that of the worm. 'But I am a worm and no man’, writes the Psalmist as he seeks to answer the question as to why God has forsaken him. (Psalm 22) In a similar manner, man's unworthiness is lamented by Bildad in the Book of Job:


How then can man be justified with God?

Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?

Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not;

Yea, the stars are not pure in his sight.

How much less man, that is a worm?

And the son of man, which is a worm? (Job 25:4-6)


The idea of man as a worm is one to which Christian preachers have constantly turned. Martin Luther, for example, writes that ‘We are nothing but a worm in ordure and filth, with no good or hope left in us, a loathsome abomination and object of scorn...’[17]


Swift’s use of the imagery of relative size belongs recognisably to the same imaginative and moral universe as that inhabited by Bunyan, Luther and Jonathan Edwards. In Lilliput, one of the main functions of the difference in size between Gulliver and his hosts is to provide a satirical perspective on the vanity, pretensions, and the craving for distinction which animates the Lilliputian court and legislature. By reducing kings and politicians to the size of insects, and viewing them through the eyes of the ‘Man Mountain’, Swift attempts to convey the absurdity and insignificance of the earthly achievements of men and women when they are seen in a cosmic or divine perspective. This technique is common in Christian satire and is used, to cite but one example, by Erasmus in In Praise of Folly. Swift, however, is a much more astute satirist than Erasmus, and skilfully uses his presentation of the Lilliputians as alien and diminutive beings as a way of drawing the reader into identification with Gulliver.


By his sheer size Gulliver seems at first to be a creature of awesome grandeur, and through him readers of Swift’s tale are able to indulge their own fantasies of omnipotence. In the early part of his voyage Gulliver recalls one of his reactions to the swarming Lilliputians: ‘I confess I was often tempted, while they were passing back and forwards on my body, to seize forty or fifty of the first that came in my reach, and dash them against the ground.’[18] To the extent to which he succeeds in seducing his readers into identification with the apparently omnipotent Gulliver, Swift has, however, effectively trapped them within the carefully woven web of his satire. For Gulliver himself is soon shown to be no less susceptible to dreams of glory and to self-deception than the Lilliputians. In many ways his predicament parallels closely that of the Emperor of Lilliput. For while the tiny emperor glorifies himself as ‘taller than the sons of men . . . whose head strikes against the sun’, Gulliver, by judging his own stature according to a Lilliputian perspective, succumbs to a similar illusion and glories in his outward appearance as a prodigious ‘Man Mountain’. Swift exposes Gulliver’s illusion by having him behave as though he were a tiny Lilliputian. While the Lilliputians are shown ‘creeping’ their way to political power by flattery and their willingness to accept humiliation, Gulliver too is shown repeatedly submitting to indignities in order that he may maintain his privileged status, and Swift repeatedly uses the word ‘creep’ to describe his movement during his captivity.[19] Not only does Gulliver ‘creep’ into his temple, but he craves the distinctions which the Emperor confers upon him as though he were the tiniest of his citizens and describes how, after he has captured the enemy fleet, ‘the most puissant Emperor of Lilliput . . . created me a Nardac on the spot, which is the highest title of honour among them.’[20]


In the first voyage of Gulliver’s Travels – and, indeed, throughout the book – Swift implicitly recognises what might be deemed a fundamental psychological truth: that feelings of power and mightiness are invariably based on compensatory fantasies which function to drive from consciousness the psychologically primitive image of the self as worthless and diminutive. But what Swift does not recognise is that the view of the individual as a Lilliputian, or as a diminutive insect, belongs no less to the realm of fantasy than any dream of omnipotence. For Swift, as for countless Christian thinkers before him, to see unregenerate man as a tiny, unclean and insignificant creature is to see him with the eyes of God – to see him, that is to say, as he really is.


In Lilliput Swift thus portrays Gulliver as a man whose pride has prevented him from seeing the ‘truth’ about his own nature; through his compulsive need to indulge in dreams of grandeur and omnipotence Gulliver is unable to see that the diminutive Lilliputians are, in fact, his own countrymen, and that his own self- adulation is, when seen through the eyes of God, no less absurd than theirs.


In the ‘Voyage to Brobdingnag’ Swift develops the religious satire whose terms have been established in the first book and sets out to expose Gulliver’s refusal to accept the orthodox Christian view of the self’s importance. In Lilliput Gulliver was conspicuous by his size and this conspicuousness, together with his practical power as a military saviour, heightened a positive form of self-consciousness. Now, as a tiny animal surrounded by giants, he is, in a sense, just as conspicuous and just as self-conscious, but in a much more negative manner. For the first time Gulliver becomes acutely conscious of his frail mortality. For in this country of giants his tiny self is threatened everywhere with extinction, whether by the reaping-hook of the giant at harvest, the hailstones of a sudden storm, the cow-pat in which he almost drowns, or the giant hand of the monkey that seizes him from within his box. The orthodox Christian identification of the diminutive sinner with small unclean animals is made implicitly throughout the episode. The first giant that he meets picks him up warily as though he were ‘a small dangerous animal’. When he takes Gulliver home to show him to his wife, we are told that ‘she screamed and ran back as women in England do at the sight of a toad or a spider.’[21] In a later episode, when Gulliver is maliciously thrown into a bowl of cream, the punishment inflicted on the dwarf is imaginatively consistent with Gulliver’s insect-like status: after being soundly beaten, the dwarf is ‘forced to drink up the bowl of cream into which he had thrown me.’[22] Here Gulliver is not only a small animal but an unclean one – a source of pollution. In one of the most important episodes of the voyage, the King of Brobdingnag himself refers to Gulliver as a ‘diminutive insect’ and, after having extracted from Gulliver an account of English history and politics, he pronounces his famous verdict on Gulliver’s countrymen: ‘I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.’[23]


The King’s verdict endorses Swift’s initial satirical view of men and women as Lilliputians. But it should not, any more than Swift’s portrayal of human beings as Yahoos, be taken as a final judgment on the human condition. For what Swift is seeking to establish through his corrosive satire on human vanity is, it would seem, the prevalence of the plague of sin, and the need which all human beings therefore have for a physician – for the redemption promised by Christ. In Swift’s orthodox Christian vision this redemption is conditional on an inward acceptance of the burden of sin; before individuals can be redeemed they must first reconcile themselves to the fact that their status in the eyes of God is that of ‘a diminutive insect’; before their souls may be cleansed, they must first recognise the blackness of their unregenerate nature in the image which is provided by the Yahoos. Swift’s implied moral is that the truth about human nature is a humiliating one, and that men and women can face it only by drawing on the strength provided by the Christian faith.


In this connection we must note that one of the features of Gulliver’s character, which would have been more conspicuous to Swift’s contemporaries than it is to the modern reader, is his apparent lack of faith. Throughout all the calamities to which he is exposed in the course of his voyages he does not once invoke the aid of God and in this respect his behaviour contrasts strikingly with that of a contemporary fictional voyager – the devout and prayerful Robinson Crusoe. In parts of his narrative Swift seems to go to some lengths to underline his hero’s lack of orthodox devotion and there is no better example of this than in Gulliver’s first encounter with a Brodingnagian giant. When he sees the giant approaching he is apprehensive lest he be ‘squashed to death’ and cries out in fear:


Whereupon the huge creature trod short, and looking round about under him for some time, at last espied me as I lay on the ground. He considered a while with the caution of one who en­deavours to lay hold on a small dangerous animal in such a manner that it shall not be able to scratch or to bite him, as I myself have sometimes done with a weasel in England. At length he ventured to take me up behind by the middle between his forefinger and thumb, and brought me within three yards of his eyes, that he might behold my shape more perfectly. I guessed his meaning and my good fortune gave me so much presence of mind that I resolved not to struggle in the least as he held me in the air above sixty foot from the ground, although he grievously pinched my sides, for fear I should slip through his fingers. All I ventured was to raise mine eyes towards the sun, and place my hands together in a supplicating posture, and to speak some words in a humble melancholy tone, suitable to the condition I was then in. For I apprehended every moment that he would dash me against the ground, as we usually do any little hateful animal which we have a mind to destroy. But my good star would have it that he appeared pleased with my voice and my gestures, and began to look upon me as a curiosity.[24]


One of the striking features of the predicament which Swift describes is its closeness to Jonathan Edwards’s vision of the sinner in his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’; in both cases ‘unregenerate man’ is represented as a small, despised animal, held in the hands of an apparently omnipotent being. Yet Gulliver himself reacts to his plight with obstinate pride and a kind of theological obtuseness. The ‘natural’ reaction of any Christian who found himself in Gulliver’s position would be to engage in prayer. The very fact that Gulliver adopts a ‘supplicating posture’ and ‘places his hands together’ helps to evoke this reaction. But Swift’s seemingly studied refusal to use the word ‘pray’ draws attention to Gulliver’s godlessness. Gulliver is thus shown adopting the attitude of prayer but – and here there is perhaps a hint of anti-Catholic satire – the words he utters are apparently meaningless, devoid of any inward spiritual commitment, or any recognition of his ‘real’ status in the eyes of God. Swift reinforces the point when he uses the phrase ‘raise mine eyes towards the sun’. Swift’s normal usage here would be the modern form ‘my’; ‘mine’ is, it would seem, a deliberately intruded archaism. In this context its most obvious resonance is with the Authorised Version of the Bible, and in particular Psalm 121:


I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the Lord which made heaven and earth . . .

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.

The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in . . .


In contrast to the passage from the Bible to which Swift seems to be alluding, Gulliver’s supplication takes the form of a conspicuously Godless invocation for help. Just as he raises his eyes not towards God, but ‘towards the sun’, so, when the danger has passed, it is not God whom he thanks for his deliverance but ‘my good star’.


In the terms of Swift’s Christian orthodoxy Gulliver must, I think, be seen as a man without Christ, alternately indulging pagan superstitions and the delusions of eighteenth century rationalist optimism. His spiritual plight is that, lacking the resources of faith, he is unable to recognise, in the mirrors held up to him throughout the voyages, the image of his own ‘sinful’ self.


In Brobdingnag, the more he is confronted with the Christian ‘truth’ that man is but a sinful insect, the more anxiously he seeks to flee from his own identity. In Lilliput he had clung proudly to the feelings of importance and omnipotence which were directly suggested by his massive size. In Brobdingnag he is shown clinging yet more obstinately to the same feelings in spite of the fact that his physical size now accurately reflects his ‘true’ status as a diminutive sinner. Thus, as he becomes increasingly aware of his own tiny vulnerability, he is forced into a more and more intense identification with the giants who surround him so that, by the time he returns home, his dreams of omnipotence are even more intense than they had ever been in Lilliput and he takes refuge in a deluded and literal self-aggrandisement:


My wife ran out to embrace me, but I stooped lower than her knees, thinking that she could otherwise never be able to reach my mouth. My daughter kneeled to ask me my blessing, but I could not see her till she arose, having been so long used to stand with my head and eyes erect to above sixty foot; and then I went to take her up with one hand, by the waist. I looked down upon the servants and one or two friends who were in the house, as if they had been pygmies, and I a giant. I told my wife that she had been too thrifty, for I found she had starved herself and her daughter to nothing. In short I behaved myself so unaccountably, that they were all of the captain’s opinion when he first saw me, and concluded I had lost my wits.[25]


Gulliver’s crisis of identity at the end of his second voyage prefigures a similar crisis which is produced by his experience in the land of the Houyhnhnms. Here, having been forced to an intellectual recognition of his kinship with the Yahoos, who are, in effect, the personification of Original Sin, Gulliver is unable to ratify this recognition emotionally. While he readily applies the term ‘Yahoo’ to others, he cannot contemplate his own ‘Yahoo- nature’ without fleeing from it in horror:


When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or the human race in general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition . . . When I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or a fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself . . . [26]


Rather than follow the orthodox Christian course, which would be to accept his own sinfulness and then seek redemption through Christ, Gulliver attempts to deny the reality of sin by repudiating his own Yahoo-identity. The pattern which underlies his behaviour is outlined by the words which Swift puts into the mouth of the Houyhnhnm master:


He said that the Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different species of animals; and the reason usually assigned, was, the odiousness of their own shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves.[27]


In his attempt to locate his carnal and sinful self wholly outside his own identity Gulliver repeatedly indulges in what is, in effect, a form of psychological projection. As he anxiously attributes his own sensuality and sinfulness to the Yahoos, he is driven towards a deeper and deeper identification with the rational, pure and godlike Houyhnhnms – an identification so intense that he eventually succumbs to the delusion that he is a horse. Having defined the species to which he himself belongs as alien, inferior and sinful, he is able to listen with rational neutrality to a report of a discussion held by the Houyhnhnm assembly on the question: ‘whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the face of the earth.’[28] Later his attitude towards the Yahoos hardens to a cruel and pitiless readiness to exploit them and their bodies for his own ends. In order to construct the canoe by which he effects his escape from the island, Gulliver uses ‘the skins of Yahoos well stitched together’. He makes his sails from the soft and supple skins of Yahoo children and then caulks his boat with Yahoo tallow.[29]


Gulliver’s alienation from his own species continues when he returns home. There he finds the smell of his own wife and children offensive and treats them as though they were a source of a dangerous contagion:


. . . during the first year I could not endure my wife and children in my presence, much less could I suffer them to eat in the same room. To this hour they dare not presume to touch my bread, or drink out of the same cup, neither was I ever able to let one of them take me by the hand.[30]


Succumbing to a complete derangement of his identity and shrinking back from what he evidently experiences as the pollution of his fellow human beings, Gulliver seeks out the society of the horses in his stable. With these pure beings he converses, in his neighing, whinnying voice, ‘for at least four hours every day’.[31]




Gulliver’s Travels is, in many respects, a book rich in psychological insight. For Swift does not only come close to recognising the role played by compensatory fantasy in the imaginative construction of the human identity, he also recognises, above all in the fourth book, the strategies of projection which are part of the same psychological complex. His concern with the themes of extermination and ‘eugenically’ inspired castration which we find in the fourth book also suggests that he can see clearly the potential for human destruction in the rationalist ideologies he opposes.


Yet for all these signs of psychological insight, it would be quite wrong to suggest that Swift ever manages in Gulliver’s Travels to break through the limitations imposed by his Christian vision. In one part of the ‘argument’ of Gulliver’s Travels what Swift seems to be saying is that only if people acknowledged the reality of their own sinful ‘Yahoo’ natures would they cease to project their corrupt nature onto others; in this way, and in this way alone could human destructiveness be controlled and subdued.


The psychological truth which Swift cannot bring himself to confront, however, is that to expect people wholly to accept their sensuality and simultaneously to define that sensuality as sinful, is to make an impossible demand on the human personality. It is rather like expecting a poor man to accept a debt on the assumption that it will increase his solvency. For the very concept of sin implies an idealisation of some elements of the identity and a rejection of others. To portray human carnality in the form of a loathsome, sadistic, compulsively acquisitive, excrement-loving Yahoo, and simultaneously to demand that this carnality should be fully accepted as a part of the human identity is not, finally, to triumph against rationalist optimism, it is to concede defeat to it. For what we cannot but observe is that, although Swift saw himself as battling against the rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment, one of the basic assumptions of Swiftian psychology is itself rooted in a form of Enlightenment optimism.


Swift appears to assume, in very much the same way that Freud was later to do, that a full acknowledgement of the ‘sinful’ elements of the identity can be made in spite of the emotional factors which militate against this; he implicitly assumes that this can be done through the power of human reason. Swift’s works contain their own refutation of this view. His satire, for all the psychological insights it contains, is frequently both corrosive and bitter. His opposition to rationalism becomes at times an uncontrolled rage. In this raging hatred we cannot but see a form of that very projection against which he himself implicitly warns.


The possibility which Swift could not entertain was that the ills which he divined in eighteenth-century rationalism derived not from a rejection of Christianity but from a profound internalisation of its doctrines. For the contemporary trend towards the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin, which disturbed both Swift and Wesley so deeply, may very plausibly be seen as a direct psychological consequence of the ‘success’ of that very doctrine. It suggested that, among some deeply ascetic intellectuals, a sense of the loathsomeness of the human body and its appetites had become so acute that the only psychologically viable reaction was to ‘disconn­ect’ the body altogether and take refuge in dreams of the rational, scientific or military domin­ation of nature. It is ironic that, in satirising these dreams of power, Swift consistently offers as an ‘objective’ religious truth the very degrading self-image which is their psychological source.


The vision of unregenerate man as a Yahoo seems to have remained for Swift just as much a scientific reality as the supposed existence of infantile and anal-erotism did for Freud. It was nothing less than a resigned and submissive acceptance of this ‘scientific truth’ which Swift demanded of his contemporaries. In this respect, at least, Orwell was right. Swift always remained what we sometimes have difficulty in seeing him as – an authoritarian conservative. For, by virtue of his orthodox belief in the doctrine of Original Sin, he was necessarily opposed both to the liberation of the body politic and to the liberation of the body itself. If today we sometimes see Swift as a radical it is perhaps because his own particular brand of conservative authoritarianism was wiser and more profound than most, and because he used it to oppose, sometimes with considerable psychological insight, the totalitarian rationalism which was growing up around him.


Insofar as we, as an intellectual culture, have increasingly succumbed to just this kind of totalitarian rationalism, so Swift, the authoritarian conservative and the voice of eighteenth-century Christian orthodoxy, has almost inevitably come to be regarded as the subversive force he now perhaps truly is, but which, in historical reality, he never was.




This essay is based on a paper originally delivered in 1995 to a Swift conference organised by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. Parts of the paper first appeared in print in Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin Science and Psychoanalysis, Harper Collins/Basic Books, 1995; see Freud, Satan and the serpent.






[1]Orwell, ‘Politics vs Literature’ (1946), The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Penguin, 1970, vol. 4, pp. 243, 253, 257

[2] Orwell, Collected Essays . . ., vol. 4, p. 249

[3] ‘The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century: Swift’. W. M. Thackeray, Works: The Biographical Tradition (1898), vol. VII, p. 441. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, Peregrine Books, 1962, p. 85

[4] Basil Hall, ‘ “An Inverted Hypocrite”: Swift the Churchman’ in The World of Jonathan Swift: Essays for the Tercentenary, ed. Brian Vickers, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1968, p.

[5] Hall, p. 43

[6] Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, Everyman, 1958, vol. II, pp. 373-4; quoted in Hall, pp. 43-4

[7] T. O. Wedel, ‘On the Philsophical Background of Gulliver’s Travels (1926), in Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels: A Casebook, ed. Richard Gravil, Macmillan, 1974, pp. 83-99. See also Milton Voigt, Swift and the Twentieth Century, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964, pp. 86-93.

[8]Roland Mushat Frye, ‘Swift’s Yahoos and the Christian Symbols for Sin’, Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. XV, 1954, pp. 201-17; on Williams and Tuveson, see Voigt, pp. 90-1. It is perhaps worth noting that the view of Gulliver’s Travels put forward by Wedel and Frye, like the view which I adopt here, implies that Swift’s satire should be read as a kind of extended parable. One of the difficulties associated with such an approach to Swift is that we now tend to misconstrue parables and treat them mistakenly as a device for making meaning accessible. In their original New Testament context, the central function of Christian parables was exactly the reverse of this – they functioned to conceal religious meaning. The point has been well made by M. A. Screech in his study of Rabelais, a writer who, even more than Swift, tends to be misread and ‘dechristianised’ by modern critics who do not understand the profoundly religious nature of his literary vision:

Today we may misunderstand what parables are: a more theological age did not. The model of all parables are those of Christ in the New Testament. These parables are not self-evident, though after two millennia they might seem so: Christ had to explain them to his uncomprehending disciples; others heard them but did not understand them either; and to them the meaning was not revealed, so that seeing they might not see and hearing they might not understand. Parables are not a means of explaining a religious belief: they are a means of veiling it, until it is revealed. This is true of all parables. (M. A. Screech, Rabelais, Duckworth, 1979, p. 181)

[9] Pascal, quoted in Wedel, pp. 88-9

[10] Wedel, p. 89

[11] Wesley, quoted in Wedel, p. 90

[12] See, in particular, Frye, pp. 210-7

[13]Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Penguin 1967, p. 345 (Part IV, Chapter 12)

[14] Deane Swift, quoted in Frye, p. 203

[15] Jonathan Edwards, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’, in Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, ed. Ola Elizabeth Winslow, New York: New American Library, 1966, p. 159

[16] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), Evangelical Press, 1978, p. 35

[17] Martin Luther, Sämmtliche Schriften IV, p. 1252; cited by Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, RKP, 1959, p. 226

[18] GT, pp. 58-9 (Part I, Chapter 1)

[19] GT, pp. 62, 63, 64 (I, 1-2)

[20] GT, pp. 88-9 (I, 7)

[21] GT, p. 127 (II, 1)

[22] GT, p. 147 (II, 3)

[23] GT, p. 173 (II, 6)

[24] GT, pp. 125-6 (II, 1)

[25] GT, p. 191 (II, 8)

[26] GT, p. 327 (IV, 10)

[27] GT, p. 307 (IV, 7)

[28] GT, pp. 318-9 (IV, 9

[29] GT, p. 330 (IV, 10)

[30] GT,p. 339 (IV, 11)

[31] GT, p. 339 (IV, 11)





© Richard Webster, 2002