Gullivers Travels Paper
In this extract of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver has just been attacked by a herd of Yahoos throwing excrement at him, and his rescuers, the Houyhnhnms, observe him. Swift juxtaposes Gulliver’s human vanity with the calm, rational nature of the Houyhnhnms to satirise the human assumption of being the most morally and rationally superior species. This is significant preparation for Gulliver’s moral realisation towards the end of the book.
This portrayal of Gulliver is perhaps a response against the Renaissance period views where mankind was celebrated as the ultimate being, and instead the neo-classical genre influence, where mankind was viewed as imperfect and inherently sinful but can redeem himself by a constant struggle towards humility, is strongly ingrained in the text. Gulliver’s belief that humankind is the most superior species, which has been developed throughout his journeys, carries on to Houyhnhnmland, as suggested by Swift’s choice of images and words. One aspect of the extract that reveals Gulliver’s vanity as a human is his clothing.
He makes several references in the first paragraph to his clothing: his ‘hat’ is ‘discomposed’ by the horses, and the fact that he was ‘forced’ to adjust it better shows that vanity, in the form of concealing imperfections through clothing, is an innate part of humans. The Houyhnhnms’ unfamiliarity with clothing such as his ‘coat’, an unnatural covering for the body, thus highlights their belief in living in harmony with nature, and this neo-classical type of conservatism is presented as a much better way of life as it escapes vanity. Another aspect showing Gulliver’s pride in being human is his self-proclaimed ‘strength of …
reasoning’, which in fact becomes tiresome to the reader, as Gulliver tends to flaunt his intelligence purposelessly. For example, in the first paragraph he inserts a trivial fact ‘(who was a brown Bay)’ in his account to show his knowledge of animals; but this serves no real purpose, especially since the horses are such a united species that distinguishing between different types is futile, and could perhaps instead suggest the pettiness of humans, a theme developed since Lilliput, where petty jealousy and politics lead to absurd wars.
His speculation of the horses being conjurers is created from his imagination and only founded by his observation that they are ‘orderly and rational, so acute and judicious’. As soon as Gulliver comments on these positive qualities, they are immediately attributed to humans, showing his belief in human superiority. Because of this, he speaks to the horses in a formal register, respectfully referring to them as ‘Gentlemen’.
While this would have been commendable, the irony is that Gulliver only displays this respect because he believes the Houyhnhnms to be fellow human beings. The phrase ‘as if he were a real horse’ connotes that if he had known from the beginning that the Houyhnhnms were merely animals, he would not have asked to ride on them as a favour because it would be a natural to just ride them; only because he thinks that they are humans does he ask to be excused. Therefore, at this point Gulliver is still a being with no sense of humility.
Meanwhile, because of their humility and simple lifestyles the Houyhnhnms do not understand any form of grandeur and unnaturalness that Gulliver possesses; instead of being critical of their ignorance, Swift presents it in a positive light because it complies with neo-classical virtues, something humans should constantly strive for. In all his previous journeys, when Gulliver meets a people he is critical of them: the Lilliputians for being so powerless as to have to tie him up, the Brobdingnagians for being life threatening and the Laputians for neglecting him.
However, the Houyhnhnms seem to strike a perfect balance, calmly investigating him with ‘new Signs of Wonder’; yet when Gulliver is hurt, they ‘touched (him) with all possible Tenderness’. This harmony between a wondrous curiosity and careful treatment of the intruder does not lean towards any extremes; it is in balance, just as neo-classicism promotes. Another example of Houyhnhnm ignorance being treated positively is when in return of a favour, Gulliver offers gifts in the form of a ‘knife’ and a ‘bracelet’, which Swift uses as symbols of human lifestyle.
The fact that he offers these as gifts shows that Gulliver highly values them, but to the horses these items are useless and so they respond to them with indifference. The main functions of a ‘knife’ in Gulliver’s Travels have been either to inflict fear upon others or to defend oneself, such as the instances in Lilliput where he pulls out the scimitar to stun the Lilliputians, and Brobdingnag where he kills rats dexterously. However, for the Houyhnhnms, the notion of violence is completely unknown because they live peacefully in a utopian environment, unless dealing with Yahoos.
The ‘bracelet’ represents opulence, which is again unheard of in Houyhnhnmland – the notion of money is only present in Yahoo society, which the Houyhnhnms consider inferior. By making the creatures that represent reason ignorant of these two common human commodities, and by creating this allusion between humans and the excrement loving Yahoos, Swift successfully portrays humans as perhaps an even more inferior species, with more disgusting qualities, than beasts.
In the final section of this extract, the foreshadowing of Gulliver being trapped between being a Yahoo and being a Houyhnhnm is presented, preparing the reader for the conclusion. Even when he found it ‘impossible to conjecture what it meant’, the first word he learns in the Houyhnhnm language is ‘Yahoo’, suggesting that perhaps he instinctively relates to the Yahoos more than to the Houyhnhnms by learning their name first.
When he actually tries to pronounce the word ‘as near as (he) could (to) the neighing of a horse’, he is ‘very far from any degree of perfection. ‘ and pronouncing ‘Houyhnhnm’ is an even more strenuous task. Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, language has been Gulliver’s main skill and it represents his ability to adapt and immerse himself into the different lands he visits. However, in Houyhnhnmland is perhaps the first time where he does not succeed in pronouncing a word until much later.
Swift uses this to represent the fact that while Gulliver could cope with adapting into all the other cultures he had encountered previously, the ‘perfection’ in this land is so difficult to imitate that he, a flawed human being, must struggle towards it but even then, may never fully achieve it; but from the phrase ‘I had better fortune’, Swift also presents the notion that despite the imperfections in pronunciation, Gulliver still believes he is successful, and still seeks approval as he says the Houyhnhnms were ‘amazed at my Capacity’.
This foreshadows the realisation moment towards the end, when he repudiates from his own reflection. As the symbol of imperfect language suggests, while he struggles towards the ideal throughout all of part four, he does not have the capability to actually fully achieve it; yet instead of accepting this fact, he deludes himself by repudiating from his own reflection in order to gain approval as a virtuous being. Thus, this extract contains significant symbolic foreshadowing of the conclusion of the novel.
In this extract, Swift has effectively presented the contrast between human flaws and ideal values through the juxtaposition of Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms, as well as choice of phrases with subtle connotations. It also aids in foreshadowing Gulliver’s struggle towards humility, one which he never achieves, as suggested by the symbol of imperfect language. By showing readers Gulliver’s mistakes, Swift is perhaps suggesting that the only way to live a virtuous life is to be in a constant struggle towards having the neo-classical virtues of reason and balance.