Gulliver's Travels and the idealization of humanity in the Houyhnhnms
's Gulliver's Travels
presents many satirical
views of the human
condition. Through these views he illustrates the weaknesses of mankind
and his own ideal for the improvement of humanity
. He characterizes the human condition through four fanciful societies that are discovered by the protagonist
. Each civilization has its own exaggerated feature. Through the Lilliputian
s, he presents the animalistic
nature of humanity. The bestial characteristic is taken to an extreme in the disgusting Yahoo
s. Man's capability for reason
is shown in the Brobdingnagian
s. The highest ideal for man, however, is best represented by the Houyhnhnm
s. This race of horse
s embodies all of the principles that Swift believes would best serve humanity.
Upon Gulliver’s first awakening on the island of Lilliput, he is quite surprised to find himself tied down. When the perpetrators of this act reveal themselves, he yells in surprise at their diminutive size. "I was in utmost astonishment, and roared so loud, that they all ran back in a fright," (56). The response of the Lilliputians is vicious and immediate. "I felt above an hundred arrows discharged on my left hand, which pricked me like so many needles," (56). This is a somewhat unreasonable, animalistic response of force. Even more illogically, it doesn’t give them the upper hand against Gulliver. "I could easily free myself: and as for the inhabitants, I had reason to believe I might be a match for the greatest armies they could bring against me, if they were all of the same size with that I saw," (57). Swift expresses his dislike of power through force and casts their reaction as an animalistic response that serves little purpose. Since they are men, they serve as evidence that man is an animal.
While the Lilliputians are shown to retain some trappings of reason, the Yahoos are entirely bestial. Gulliver’s first meeting with these mischievous creatures greatly disgust him. "Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy," (170). The response of the creature is without reason or rationality. "When the beast felt the smart, he drew back, and roared so loud, that a herd of at least forty came flocking about me from the next field, howling and making odious faces," (170). They even go so far as to climb a tree above him and discharge their excrement onto him. The Yahoos are clearly animals.
Though Gulliver tries to disassociate himself from the Yahoos among the Houyhnhnms, it soon becomes clear that Yahoos and humans are intimately related. At one point during his stay with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver decides to bathe in a river while his protector is standing nearby, and takes off his clothes to do so. A nearby female Yahoo immediately charges and hugs him, refusing to let go until the nag arrives. The Houyhnhnms and Gulliver make the only conclusion they can from the incident. "For now I could no longer deny, that I was a real Yahoo in every limb and feature, since the females had a natural propensity to me as one of their own species," (315). The correlation between humans and Yahoos necessitates that humans are animals, with an animal nature.
Unlike the Lilliputians or the Yahoos, who represent Swift's conception of man as an animal, the Brobdingnagians show man's capability to be more than just an animal. The Brobdingnagians possess reason as well. During Gulliver's stay with the Brobdingnagians, he is asked by the king to describe Gulliver’s home of England. After Gulliver is finished, the king comments,
By what I have gathered from your own relation, and the answers I have with much pains wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives, to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. (173)
The king listens, reflects, concludes, judge
s – all characteristics of a reasonable person. He is a man, and thus an animal, but he is also capable of reason.
In comparison to the Europeans referenced to in the quote, the Brobdingnagians are far more reasonable. When Gulliver attempts to convince the king to construct weapons of terrible destruction, the king refuses. "Although few things delighted him so much as new discoveries in art or in nature, yet he would rather lose half his kingdom than be privy to such a secret," (175). The king takes an ethical view, which balances positive and negative returns. Using his faculties for reason, the king sees that possessing such a weapon would cause great devastation, and he overcomes an animalistic desire for power. The Brobdingnagians illustrate humanity’s ability to reason.
Though the Brobdingnagains show man as an animal capable of reason, the Houyhnhnms best represent the ideal of reasonable creatures. Through various discussions and interactions with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver finds them to be quite different from humans. While humans are animals only capable of reason, the Houyhnhnms are entirely governed by reason, with no internal conflicts. "As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by Nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it," (315). In the Houyhnhnms, Swift describes his vision for humanity free of strife and hardship through the universal use of reason. While the Brobdingnagians' reason is hard won through conflict with their animal nature, the Houyhnhnms' reason is pure and without conflict.
The Houyhnhnms exceed the Brobdingnagians in their use of reason. Gulliver tells us about the Brobdingnagians that, "For, in the course of many ages they have been troubled with the same disease to which the whole race of mankind is subject; the nobility often contending for power, the people for liberty, and the King for absolute dominion," (179). Though the Brobdingnagians are reasonable, they still preserve some of the irrational aspects of human nature. Because of individual needs for power, liberty, and domination, the Brobdingnagians' reasonable nature is weakened. The Houyhnhnms possess none of these weaknesses. Their government only addresses problems of the community, and no one within the Representative Council take irrational or unreasonable actions. "And wherever there is any want (which is but seldom) it is immediately supplied by unanimous consent and contribution," (318). They have none of the conflicts between power, liberty, and absolute dominion. Thus, while the Brobdingnagians are a good example of the struggle for reason, the Houyhnhnms are better representatives of Swift's ideal of reasonable creatures.
Gulliver's Travels serves as a vehicle for Swift’s criticism of humankind and his ideal for their existence. Each society is like a magnifying glass, exaggerating the characteristics that Swift is examining so that they can be clearly seen. This satirical treatment allows him to humorously illustrate the weaknesses of man, and suggest ways of improvement. In the Lilliputians, he shows an instinctual reaction more commonly associated with animals than humans. The Yahoos also exhibit this kind of reaction, taken to a further extreme. Their similarity to humans makes it clear that humans are animals. In contrast, the Brobdingnagians show that man is capable of reason, though they still struggle with their animalistic tendencies. The Houyhnhnms are the pinnacle of reason, entirely governed by it with no internal conflicts. In this way, the Houyhnhnms serve as an example of the ideal for man.
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