Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels
Gulliver in Houynhnmland
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
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
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).