In Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s travels, part four introduces the Houyhnhnm race. The Houyhnhnms are the leaders of their land, which the main character, Lemuel Gulliver, finds shocking since they are
horses. What Gulliver sees in this group and what Swift was actually portraying are opposite. On the surface the race seems to follow a Utopian like lifestyle, yet underneath they are far from perfect. There seemingly noble creatures follower a strict lifestyle that they say does not involve any type of evil. The hypocrisy in this is how uncivilized they treat the less superior race, Yahoos, who have striking similarities to humans. Some suggest they are the biggest example of satire in Swift’s entire work. Other’s suggests their downfalls represent why humans do not live the Utopian lifestyle. While there are many good, noble qualities in their land, some necessary privileges as an individual are stripped. In Houyhnhnms, the good of the individual is nullified for the good of the race as a whole.
The Houyhnhnms represent an ideal of rationality. Their lifestyle is based on simplicity and their rules all work towards the common goal of bettering the race. The “ideal” plan that each individual follows tells how each one will love, communicate, breed, and, in simpler terms, live. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of their culture is the lack of any lies, deceit, jealousy, hatred, or anything else considered “evil”. These ideas do not even exist in their world; there is no word for “lie” in the language. Another huge appeal in their lifestyle is how everything is thought through in order to benefit from it. Instead of jumping to certain conclusions, the Houyhnhnms take the good out of situations. When dealing with Gulliver, they observe him in the beginning enough to understand he is unlike any Yahoo they have ever encountered. The Houyhnhnm master even goes as far as communicating with Gulliver to learn more about his life.
E. Sullivan compares Houyhnhnms to men saying, “Houyhnhnms are more rational than men… man ought to be swayed by reason…clean…decent-but… they have to refer to our world.” (Sullivan) Another distinct difference between this race and man’s is their strict practice of family planning. The word “love” seems to have a completely one-sided meaning. They love everyone equally, therefore no one individual is loved more than another. This practice not only prevents jealousy, it restricts forming relationships to a breeding purpose. Mary P. Nichols states, “Just as they are free from envy and malice, so are they free from sexual passions.” (Nichols) She also goes on to discuss the many reasons for their mating based relationships that are found in part four. Rather than finding mates on a mental compatibility, they search for a perfect blend of genetics. The Houyhnhnms choose others that will make well-blinded colors in their offspring. They also, “[…] value the strength in the male and comeliness in the female […]” (Nichols) These relations were not based on love so they could preserve their race from degenerating. Extending what they will do, families will actually swap children to keep the ratio of one female offspring to one male offspring. This concept reflects on a time much later than the piece was written; this family dynamic relates to a more modern yet classic idea of the perfect four-piece family. Reflecting on this race being based on reason, they believe marriage is a necessary act of a reasonable being.
Another paradox in the Houyhnhnms and the Utopian idea is with Eden itself. The race itself shares certain ignorance towards anything malice just as Adam and Eve did. Swift includes many references throughout the final journey but leaves out religion. Perhaps this was done on purpose to see if readers would wonder what was missing. Although religion as a subject is missing there are various similarities that push the underlying theme of religion anyway. Margarot Thickstun suggests that Swift presents Houyhnhnmland as a somewhat Eden-like place because, “ […] the reason with which he endows the Houyhnhnms is not a philosophical concept but an example of the ‘erect Reason’ of Adam and Eve in Paradise.” (Thickstun) Perhaps Swift was suggesting that by nullifying evil in their society, grave saves them. Thickstun discusses many powerful points that describe the Houyhnhnms as “prelapsarian” beings, they are comfortable in their bodies as well as their environments; Just as Adam and Ever were before their expulsion from Eden. Better stated, “They do not require clothes for warmth, they do not become ill…they do not understand the meaning of shame.” (Thickstun) The connection between the two on the Eden level is only one part of the paradox. The Houyhnhnm master argues that, “Nature and Reason were guides for a reasonable animal, as we pretended to be, in showing us what we ought to do, and what to avoid.” While much good stems from the Utopian/ Eden lifestyle, some unintended betrayal of personality come hand in hand.
For a land so concentrated with peace and well-being, they seem infatuated with disgust for the Yahoo people. The idea of enslaving a creature to the extent of what they do seem out of the ordinary. With the humanlike Yahoos answering their every beck and call, even pulling their wagons. They are symbolized by sin, greed, lust, and everything else the society does not participate in. Gulliver notices the similarities in figures but does not identify with the Yahoos on any other level. Thickstun points out, “He sees a connection, but he does not yet see it with conviction.” (Thickstun) The Yahoos seem to represent a dramatized and over emphasized version of Europeans, what Gulliver is, and the Houyhnhnms represent what Gulliver is working for so the world will be fixed. Swift also seemed to have taken two roles and reversed them to confuse people on what they truly believe is right and wrong. The cruelty to the Yahoos seems unlawful because readers can relate to them on a human bases, yet if Swift had the Yahoo’s be the civilized colony and the horses were the ones pulling them around it would not seem unsettling. This parallel entertains the mind into reorganizing ones morals.
The Houyhnhnms are perceived by Gulliver as a righteous, virtuous, and as an all around good race. Yet due to the certain ways they govern themselves, the evil seeps through. Although it seeps sparingly, it is still present. Human nature does not naturally fit the mold for the simple morals of this race, for regular mankind is extremely complex with emotion and intuitions. These feelings are was created Gulliver’s initial reaction. Yet in time, the Houyhnhnms manipulate Gulliver’s thoughts to push him away from his normal identity and more into their thought process. Nichols explains, “In his love of the Houyhnhnm, Gulliver accepts an idea of perfection which makes it impossible for him either to understand or to participate in human life.” (Nichols) They take him out of his normal comfort zone and present their own outlooks in life, not giving him any of their downfalls. Thickstun ties Gulliver’s actions to the underlying religious aspects of the story, “ Gulliver’s decision mirrors a Puritan impulse to withdraw, or separate, into ‘pure’ communities.” (Thickstun) After Gulliver becomes completely devoted to the Houyhnhnms lifestyle, they turn on him. In the start they judge him as a superior to the regular filthy, malicious Yahoos, but in the end they kick him out. The decision to eject Gulliver from their Paradise is evidence of how fallible they truly are. Gulliver being kicked out also related to Adam and Eve’s decent from Eden. When he returns to Europe he is faced with all the evils that infiltrated the world long, long ago. It was his love for the simple society that he struggled to find for so long, yet even this perfect world ended up hurting him in the end. After all his journey’s to find a society that he felt more in place with, this was the one, yet it took the opposite by actually rejecting him as not good enough.
Though the Houyhnhnms seem to have an extremely virtuous lifestyle, there are crucial elements mankind possesses that their race did not have. Sullivan suggests, “The ‘horses’… obviously represent the rationality and natural virtue that only a ‘modern’ fool…would presume mankind to be possessed of.” (Sullivan) The lack of individuality seriously depletes from their characters. By erasing certain words in their language, they are erasing the emotions that form personalities. Emotions like envy and passion have life lessons that go along with them. Love is also a major difference. If one feels only an even amount of love for everyone, there is a lack of intimate relationships between individuals. No one individual really knows another on an extremely personal level. This falls back into the idea of mating for a strictly breeding purpose. Nichols explain, “The Houyhnhnms…seem to have nothing of their own to which they are attached.” (Nichols) They do not even love their offspring enough due to their practice of trading out one offspring for another if it is of the same sex as the first offspring. Another situation that suggests the race is detached from any persons is if a couple that is past the age of childbearing loses an offspring, another is donated to them. It is seen more as a trade off than the human type of adoption programs. “The Houyhnhnms neither feel nor offer compassion […]”, states Thickstun. Only appearing to be, “representatives of admirable and attainable qualities.” (Sullivan) They were void of humor, creativity, and passion; yet still seem to come off a bit arrogant at times. Aside from personality traits that are lacking, there are the simplest of individuality aspects they do not possess. There are references to the difference characters, yet none of them have proper names. Even their language is basic, used solely to communicate their needs.
With all of these aspects, the race itself is interchangeable, owning no individual identities. In a seemingly black and white situation, the Houyhnhnms are both the simplest and the most complex of Swift’s characters. They are an incredibly stagnant society with no extreme ups and downs; In short, they lack dynamic. Their daily life is predictable, leaving no room for experiencing life. The Utopian lifestyle they portray seems enjoyable to an onlooker at first glance, even Gulliver fell for the charade. However, in the end, he felt more emotion than they understood by getting expelled from their society. Through the ideas of the community, they end up representing the most rational aspects of humankind. Swift insists his reader question what love was if there was no jealously or passion. Without sad how would one know they were happy? Swift causes his readers to question if a “perfect” life really could be perfect. Although one may find versions of “Gulliver’s Travels” in the children’s section of the library, the book questions the very morals of mankind, and is a moving and high impact piece of literature that forces its reader to do some soul searching and deep thinking.
Nichols, Mary P. “Rationality and Community: Swift’s Criticism of the Houyhnhnms.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 34.3 (Summer 1981): 318. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Burlington County Library, Burlington, NJ. 1 December 2007. < http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=38 467390&site+ehost-live.>
Sullivan, E.E. “Houyhnhnms and Yahoos: From Technique to Meaning.”
Studies in English Literature (Rice) 24.3 (Summer 1984): 497. MasterFILE
Premier. EBSCO. Burlington County Library, Burlington, NJ. 1 December
Thickstun, Margaret Olofso. “The puritan origins of Gulliver’s conversion in Houyhnhnmland.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 37.3 (Summer 1997): 517. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Burlington County Library, Burlington, NJ. 1 December 2007.