Gulliver’s Travels Essay, Research Paper

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


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).

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