Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels


Gulliver in Houyhnhnmland:
One of the most interesting questions about Gulliver's
travels is whether the Houyhnhnms represent an ideal of
rationality or whether on the other hand they are the butt
of Swift's satire. In other words, in Book IV, is Swift
poking fun at the talking horses or does he intend for us
to take them seriously as the proper way to act? If we look
closely at the way that the Houyhnhnms act, we can see that
in fact Swift does not take them seriously; he uses them to
show the dangers of pride.
First, we have to see that Swift does not even take
Gulliver seriously. For instance, his name sounds much like
gullible, which suggests that he will believe anything.
Also, when he first sees the Yahoos and they throw
excrement on him, he responds by doing the same in return
until they run away. He says, "I must needs discover some
more rational being," (203) even though as a human he is
already the most rational being there is. This is why Swift
refers to Erasmus Darwin's discovery of the origin of the
species and the voyage of the Beagle--to show how Gulliver
knows that people are at the top of the food chain.
But if Lemule Gulliver is satirized, so are the Houyhnhnms,
whose voices sound like the call of castrati. They walk on
two legs instead of four, and seem to be much like people.
As Gulliver says, "It was with the utmost astonishment that
I witnessed these creatures playing the flute and dancing a
Viennese waltz. To my mind, they seemed like the greatest
humans ever seen in court, even more dexterous than the
Lord Edmund Burke" (162). As this quote demonstrates,
Gulliver is terribly impressed, but his admiration for the
Houyhnhnms is short-lived because they are so prideful. For
instance, the leader of the Houyhnhnms claims that he has
read all the works of Charles Dickens, and that he can
single-handedly recite the names of all the Kings and
Queens of England up to George II. Swift subtly shows that
this Houyhnhnms pride is misplaced when, in the middle of
the intellectual competition, he forgets the name of Queen
Elizabeth's husband.
Swifts satire of the Houyhnhnms comes out in other ways as
well. One of the most memorable scenes is when the dapple
gray mare attempts to woo the horse that Guenivre has
brought with him to the island. First she acts
flirtatiously, parading around the bewildered horse. But
when this does not have the desired effect, she gets
another idea: "As I watched in amazement from my perch in
the top of a tree, the sorrel nag dashed off and returned
with a yahoo on her back who was yet more monstrous than
Mr. Pope being fitted by a clothier. She dropped this
creature before my nag as if offering up a sacrifice. My
horse sniffed the creature and turned away." (145) It might
seem that we should take this scene seriously as a failed
attempt at courtship, and that consequently we should see
the gray mare as an unrequited lover. But it makes more
sense if we see that Swift is being satiric here: it is the
female Houyhnhnm who makes the move, which would not have
happened in eighteenth-century England. The Houyhnhnm is
being prideful, and it is that pride that makes him unable
to impress Gulliver's horse. Gulliver imagines the horse
saying, Sblood, the notion of creating the bare backed
beast with an animal who had held Mr. Pope on her back
makes me queasy (198).
A final indication that the Houyhnhnms are not meant to be
taken seriously occurs when the leader of the Houyhnhnms
visits Lilliput, where he visits the French Royal Society.
He goes into a room in which a scientist is trying to turn
wine into water (itself a prideful act that refers to the
marriage at Gallilee). The scientist has been working hard
at the experiment for many years without success, when the
Houyhnhnm arrives and immediately knows that to do: "The
creature no sooner stepped through the doorway than he
struck upon a plan. Slurping up all the wine in sight, he
quickly made water in a bucket that sat near the door"
(156). He has accomplished the scientists goal, but the
scientist is not happy, for his livelihood has now been
destroyed. Swifts clear implication is that even though the
Houyhnhnms are smart, they do not know how to use that
knowledge for the benefit of society, only for their own
prideful aggrandizement.
Throughout Gullivers Travels, the Houyhnhnms are shown to
be an ideal gone wrong. Though their intent might have been
good, they don't know how to do what they want to do
because they are filled with pride. They mislead Gulliver
and they even mislead themselves. The satire on them is
particularly well explained by the new born Houyhnhnm who,
having just been born, exclaims, "With this sort of
entrance, what must I expect from the rest of my life!"


Quotes: Search by Author