Gulliver’s Travels is yet another dense and elaborate text by Jonathan Swift. By dividing his essay into four parts, Swift gave each section a unique characteristic. Furthermore, each part of the essay was strategically placed to foreshadow each of the main character’s adventures. Although each part in Gulliver’s Travels has a profound message with in it, Part IV leaves a lasting impression in the reader’s mind. Swift uses the Houyhnms, an ideal society based purely on principles of reason to prove that one could not live in a society strictly based on reason. This is proven by Gulliver’s disconnect from mankind after spending several years with the Houyhnms.
In order to provide considerable evidence for this claim, one must begin by examining the key aspects of Part IV in the essay. First, it is necessary to analyze how Gulliver reacted when he encountered the Yahoos and the Houyhnms. Then, one must provide evidence as to how Gulliver differentiated the two groups from one another. It is also important to provide information on the way in which Swift used stylistic devices to define either one of the aspects of the two races, or one of the ambiguous trials hidden inside the final part of Gulliver’s journey. Ultimately, this analysis will provide a deeper understanding of the passage’s overall theme as well as its meaning and purpose.
Swift begins Part IV in a unique way. Rather than having Gulliver dock his ship near the island or docking station, Gulliver was cast overboard by his own crew (who turned out to be a group of pirates) and was banished to the country of the Houyhnms. Ironically, having Gulliver being alone was a way for Swift to introduce the Yahoo to Gulliver. Moreover, he also provided a sense of mystery by having Gulliver stranded on the island. Shortly after seeing what appeared to be human and horse footsteps in the mud, Gulliver gazed upon the first Yahoo. He described their features as such:
Their [heads] and breasts were covered with a thick [hair,] some frizzled and others lank; they had [beards] like [goats] and a long [ridge] of [hair] down their [backs,] and the four [parts] of their [legs] and [feet,] but the rest of their [bodies] were bare, so that I may see their [skins…] (454-55).
Through closer analysis of this is representation, one can see that the Yahoo appear to be a representation of the savage nature of mankind. This becomes clear when Swift had Gulliver explain that after being threatened by a Yahoo, he had to fend him off with his sword. After hitting the Yahoo with the hilt of his sword, the Yahoo retaliated with a violent roar; calling his pack. The pack of Yahoos attacked Gulliver by jumping into the trees, and released their excrements upon him (455). Both the description of the Yahoo and its violent nature are intriguing. By giving this basic description Swift implied that the Yahoo and the rest of mankind were one and the same.
This idea that the Yahoo reflected the savage nature of mankind was illustrated when Gulliver was rescued by a Houyhnm, who figured Gulliver to be an odd-looking Yahoo. Swift uses this misconceived assumption to show that the Houyhnms were barely able to distinguish a normal Yahoo from the rest of mankind. Furthermore, this misconception is stylistically used by Swift to make one see the connection between the Yahoo’s violent nature and mankind’s violent nature. In short, the Yahoo race is a metaphor for the imperfection of mankind.
The Houyhnm are unique characters, because they contrast the Yahoo in every single way. The Houyhnms do not resemble human beings at all, as they are described to look like horses. Furthermore, Swift implied that they had their own language, and would converse with one another. As for their nature, Swift inferred that they did not perceive themselves as animals. Swift showed this by having a Houyhnm reject Gulliver’s hand while he attempted to pet him. (455-56).
One of the key aspects of this passage was how Gulliver reacted to the horse-like Houyhnm figures. Rather than fear these creatures, Gulliver allows them to take him to their village. Although one may be confused by Gulliver’s reaction to the Houyhnm, this was yet another stylistic device used by Swift to separate the animalistic, yet humanlike Yahoos from the ideal moral rational Houyhnms.
Swift used the moral rationalistic traits of the Houyhnm to further build the theme in the last part of the essay: the disconnection between Gulliver, who represents the failed ideal, and the rest of mankind. Gulliver became familiar with the Houyhnm by learning the rational ways in which they perceived life. Moreover, Swift used Gulliver’s relationship with these people to express his belief on how one could not live within a completely rationalistic society. To further establish the final passage’s theme, Swift uses the animalistic qualities of the Yahoo and the rationalistic qualities of the Houyhnms as a metaphor to connect the flaws of mankind with the rationalistic ideal.
If one were to strictly focus on the animalistic and violent nature of the Yahoo, they most likely would find it easier to favor the rationalistic and therefore peaceful characteristics of the Houyhnm. However, Swift’s purpose behind creating these two archetypes was to show how one could not live a society that was based strictly upon reason. He shows this by having Gulliver travel through the village of the Houyhnm in which he sees how the Houyhnms treat the Yahoos. The text illustrates that the Houyhnms enslave the Yahoos by either imprisoning them in a kennel, or forcing hard labor upon them. Swift further illustrates this by having Gulliver describe how the Houyhnms use the Yahoos as vehicles to transport those who were injured by saying:
…I saw coming towards the horses a kind of vehicle drawn like a [sledge] by four Yahoos. There was an old [steed] who seem to be of [poor] [quality] he alighted with his [hind-feet] foreword, having by [accident] got a hurt in his left [fore-foot]… (459).
Though this may appear to be a simple observation, Swift used it to uncover a much more morbid side of the Houyhnm people. As a result, Swift leaves one to question whether a strictly rational society has its faults. Upon closer inspection of the text, it is evident that even Swift sees a problem with a strictly rationalistic society. Firstly, the name Houyhnm refers to a horse that represents, as Swift said, “…[An etymology] [and] the perfection of [nature.]” (462). Although this may sound intriguing being perfect would deprive one of so many experiences. If one were to be completely immersed in nature, one would have no use for books, films, clothing, games, or anything else in the way of possessions. Secondly, if one was a perfection of nature, could one be exposed to learning new things and therefore grow in life? Ultimately, one must ask is being perfect is a virtue or a vice. Furthermore, if one were completely rational, would they favor the institution of slavery if it was deemed reasonable? Rather than simply stating his opinion about an idealistic rational society, Swift implied his opinion about such a society through the characteristics of Gulliver and the Houyhnms.
However, it is only reasonable to be fair and equitable to other points of view. Some may see living in a society based on rationality as a virtue. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct further analysis on the text to uncover how this viewpoint is flawed. When making a claim, one must not forget about the metaphor Swift used to connect the Houyhnms and the yahoos to everyday life. One must keep in mind that for Swift, the Houyhnms represented an ideal and the Yahoos represented the savage nature of mankind.
Firstly, the way in which the flaws of this society are brought forth is through the conversations between Gulliver and his Houyhnm master. The essay mentions that the Houyhnms have no idea about books or literature, because they have no use for them (461). This fact is debatable, because as human beings or “Yahoos” we are not always rational. Therefore, we utilize what we learn from books and literature to provide an understanding of life by examining the teachings of those who came before us. Therefore, it would make it impossible for Gulliver to give up all he has learned from books and literature. This was yet another hidden message of Swift’s. He used the Houyhnm’s disregard for books and literature to show that human beings simply could not progress without them.
Ultimately, Gulliver informs his master of all the injustices done by his country’s government. He describes how unjust the legal system is, and how the judges in charge of this legal system refused to see how those who have sworn to uphold those laws have taken advantage of them. It is clear that there are some injustices among our nations. With that being said however, one must remember that human beings, or yahoos, are not completely rational creatures. Therefore, some may take advantage of a position of power. However, the opposite is also true, and it is what Swift secretly implied in the essay. Swift’s purpose for doing so was to show how mankind is corruptible and ultimately fallible. Swift himself saw that human beings could not be completely rational. He showed this by having Gulliver lose his connection to mankind.
Although Gulliver’s Travels is riddled with ambiguity, it is nonetheless a classic which continues to be debated. In Part IV of the essay the debate of the current society of mankind versus the ideal rational society posited by the Houyhnms is sustained until the conclusion, because it shows how a human being cannot be completely rational. Ultimately, this final part shows that no matter how rational human beings perceive themselves to be, we are all nothing more than odd-looking Yahoos, and thus imperfect.
Rawson, Claude, and Ian Higgins, eds. The Essential Writings of Jonathan Swift. Landon: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. N. pag. Print.