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. 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 husband.

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