Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Curious, Isn't It?

Throughout his travels Gulliver speaks about “curiosities” numerous times. Although he does not use the word at the end of the first part, his actions could certainly be described as a “showing of curiosities” when he makes “a considerable Profit by shewing my Cattle to man Persons of Quality…” (71). He brings back tiny cattle and sheep from Lilliput as, what we would now call, souvenirs or artifacts. Gulliver would have taken some of the Lilliputian men and women as curiosities as well, but none desired to return with him (70). In the second part, the Voyage to Brobdingnag, Gulliver uses the word “curiosity”/”curiosities” to describe occurrences similar to the one from the Lilliput section. The role, of course, is reversed: the Brobdingnagian “began to look upon me as a Curiosity” (79) and his master travels around to show Gulliver off as a “publick Spectacle” (87).

Obviously, the ability of one human creature to make another human creature into a “curiosity” is size. In the first part, Gulliver holds power over the Lilliputians and in the second, the Brobdingnagians hold power over Gulliver. In both instances, however, the person is objectified. The human “curiosity” is not seen as a being with equal dignity or deserving equal respect, but as a thing to be shown off, a money generator or a pet. Indeed, the king of Brobdingnag says that Gulliver’s is “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (121). Gulliver is viewed as less than a person—he is vermin. He is a curiosity. I believe this ties into Swift’s satire of his society at large: British society was obsessed with “curiosities” from foreign lands and creating museums to house all of the funny objects.

In class, we have discussed how bodies, especially female bodies, were subject to much distortion through clothing, wigs, make-up, et cetera. As Sarah talks about in her post, Swift continues this discussion of distortion through the grotesque descriptions of the bodies of the people he encounters, especially the Brobdingnagians. I believe that Swift also means for the bodies of all of the characters in the book to be called “curiosities” in order to highlight their objectification. Just as the British body had been objectified—made to look strange and curious as an object on display—so too are the bodies in Gulliver’s Travels.


  1. I really liked your final insight into the objectification of bodies, but I think it is important to highlight that specifically women have been turned into curiosities in British society. I do think that Gulliver's analysis of the Brobdingnagian women satirized this, but how does the strange portrayal of Gulliver as an "erotic pet" play into this objectification? A common notion regarding "Gulliver's Travels" is og misogyny...could Swift also be pointing out the flaws of women? Or specifically criticizing women for their use of curiosities more than mens which seems to be more anthropological and economical.

  2. Wouldn't "curiosity" be a great word for an OED?

  3. Exactly what I was thinking, Ginny. =)