But I glanced at Bill, and hesitated. He had the most appealing look in his eyes I ever saw on the face of a dumb or a talking brute.

The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry

The word “brute” has several meanings:

1 A savagely violent person or animal.

1.1 informal A cruel or insensitive person.

1.2 Something awkward, difficult, or unpleasant.

2 An animal as opposed to a human being.

Oxford US English Dictionary on lexico.com

The second definition is not likely applicable because Bill is not an animal.

So it is perhaps used in the first definition.

May dumb (unable to speak) be the metaphor of animal, and talking (able to speak) be the metaphor of human?

  • a dumb brute — savagely violent animal
  • a talking brute — savagely violent person

2 Answers 2


Yes, essentially this is a minor wordplay and double meaning.

A "dumb brute" is a phrase that was commonly used to denote an animal, not necessarily even a savagely violent animal. I say "was" because I associate this phrase with a time in English writing when words like "brute" and "savage" carried less negative connotations and could be used without necessarily implying any kind of violence (or perhaps I should say differently negative connotations, as they were often used with racist undertones).

Even "dumb brutes", animals unable to speak, can have an appealing look in their eyes (think of puppy eyes). This is probably the impression that the author is trying to convey by saying "dumb brute" here, that of a puppy, or your cute animal of choice, with an appealing look in its eyes. Then, since Bill is not a mute animal, the author takes the sentence in an unexpected direction by inserting "or talking" in the middle of "dumb brute": basically it means that the look in his eyes was more appealing than that of any animal, or for that matter any human either.

  • This is all good except your last sentence, "... it means that the look in his eyes was more appealing than that of any animal, or for that matter any human either." No, only the most appealing of any brute - animal or human.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Sep 24, 2021 at 20:01
  • @GlenYates My interpretation is that "brute" in this context doesn't necessarily imply brutishness as such: the phrase "dumb brute" is used simply to mean any unspeaking animal.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 24, 2021 at 21:27
  • 1
    If "dumb brute" means any unspeaking animal, then what is "talking brute" meant to imply other than a person? If "brute" is used in the context of a person, then surely it means "brutish" behavior or demeanor. After all, Bill is the "brawn" of the kidnapper duo, taking the brunt of Red Chief's punishments, even being ridden by him (like a dumb brute), whereas Sam (the other kidnapper) is the narrator and thus the "brains" of the duo.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Sep 28, 2021 at 15:11
  • 1
    On second thought, I think the narrator, Sam, was likening Bill to a 'dumb brute', but then in a surprising twist inserted the word 'talking' to include humans as well. So, essentially, your last sentence in your answer is correct. Thanks, for making me analyze this a little deeper and prompting me to re-read this classic short story, its been a long time since I first read it.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Sep 28, 2021 at 15:30

A simpler interpretation is that that "dumb or talking" is merely contrasting "unable to speak" and "speaking". While you could extend that to discuss "human or beast", I think it's easier to read it as "talking or not".

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