Gulliver’s Travels – Houyhnhnmland

Gulliver’s Travels – Houyhnhnmland
One of the most interesting questions about Gullivers 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 Gullver
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
Darwins 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.

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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 Vienese waltz. To my mind, they seemed like
the greatest humans ever seen in court, even more dextrous 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 singlehandedly 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 Elizabeths

Swifts satire of the Houyhnhnms comes out in other ways as well.
One of the most memorable scenes is when the dapple grey 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 grey 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 Houyhnhm is being
prideful, and it is that pride that makes him unable to impress
Gullivers 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 queezy (198).

A final indication that the Houyhnmns are not meant to be taken
seriously occurs when the leader of the Houynhms 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 Houyhnmn 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 Houyhnhmns
are smart, they do not know how to use that knowledge for the benefit
of society, only for their own prideful agrandizement.

Throughout Gullivers Travels, the Houyhnhms are shown to be an
ideal gone wrong. Though their intent might have been good, they dont
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 Houyhnhm
who, having just been born, exclaims, “With this sort of entrance,
what must I expect from the rest of my life!” (178).