The Houyhnhnms in Gulliver8217s Travels
The Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels
In the last part of the novel Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, a dichotomy is established which crtiticizes two extreme ideas of man. The Houynhnms, a race of horses, are meant to symbolize man as a supremely rational being and the Yahoos, a primitive, vulgar version of humans, are made to symbolize man as an animal. The narrator Gulliver is a sort of reference point between the two, since in physical appearance he seems to be a Yahoo, but his ability to reason enables him to relate well to the Houynhnms. Readers have interrpreted the rational horses in a number of different ways. Some feel that the Houynhnms are the ideal to which humans should strive to attain. Others feel that the Houynhnms are as evil as the Yahoos. It is my opinion that Swift uses the Houynhnms and the Yahoos to illustrate both ends of the unattainable spectrum of reason, and why both are completely undesireable ways of life.
It is implausable to think that the Houyhnhmns are the ideal way for man to be. They have no writing system, as well as no passions, no love for family or friends, no real opinions and they are governed solely by Reason. Their lack of strong feelings can be understood through their attitude to their offspring; “They have no fondness for their Colts or Foles, but the Care they take in educating them proceeds from the dictates of “Reason”. Indeed, Love plays no part in even the institution of matrimony. Mates are selected based on their coloring, and to produce offspring that will enhance the species as a whole. Even death evokes no emotion among the Houyhnhnms; “If they can avoid Casualties, they die only of Old Age, and are buried in the obscurest Places that can be found, their Friends and Relations expressing neither Joy nor Grief at their Departure.” Why would the human ideal be existing as emotion-less, passion-less creatures devoid of feeling and driven purely by reason. Although Gulliver so admires them, Swift does not mean us to take this admiration seriously.
When Gulliver first encounters the Houynhnms, he takes an immediate liking to them, saying “Upon the whole, the behaviour of these animals was so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious, that I at at last concluded they must needs be Magician.” This admiration grows and grows until he quickly comes to believe that these creatures are perfect in every way possible. The fact that these creatures are horses, not humans, symbolizes how Swift believes that no humans can be so perfect. The extent to which Gulliver worships these creatures is further delineated by his self-loathing; “When I happened to behold my Reflection of my own form in a lake or a Fountain, I turned away my face in Horror and Detestation of myself.” Gulliver even tries to imitate them in a ridiculous attempt to be accepted in their society. Gulliver can be looked upon as a human, trying (in an effort to escape his animal tendencies) to become supremely rational which is a futile effort. Man can never be purely rational because man is an animal. Being face to face with man in his animal form (the Yahoos) further propels Gulliver into his futile effort to be completely reasonable and logical eventually leading to his insanity. Once Gullivar leaves the island, he is disdainful towards the rest of his race who he sees as vulgar Yahoos. His new attitude towards his fellow man is displayed in his treatment of Don Pedro. Don Pedro treats Gulliver with nothing but kindness and affection, and yet Gulliver repays him with disgust. The same happens when he is reunited with his wife and children. He has so adopted the belief system of the Houyhnhnms that he views them as primitive, ugly beast-like creatures and he is filled with contempt for them. In an effort to gain some form of Houyhnhmn companionship, he buys two horses and converses with then for hours upon end each day. Is this the way man will end up should he attempt to become a purlely logical being, such as the Houyhnhnms? This seems to be the point that Swift is trying to make.