Note: As the title says, spoilers are included in this post. If you have not read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift I suggest you read the book first before reading my reflection because I don’t want my views to influence how you read the text. Now, on to my reflection on Gulliver’s adventures in Houhnhnm Land (a.k.a. Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels)…
Jonathan Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope because of the way human nature is portrayed in Gulliver’s Travels. Lemuel Gulliver leaves the country of the Houyhnhnms with a deep dislike for mankind. He treats his wife and daughter infernally and considers it a great privilege to have met the Houhnhnms – that superior race of horses. Throughout the whole book, in fact, the weaknesses of society and human nature are described in great detail giving the impression that Swift thinks he is superior to others.
But is Lemuel Gulliver the same as Jonathan Swift, and are the Houyhnhnms as excellent as Gulliver thinks they are? I purport that a closer look at Part IV reveals a message that is a lot less misanthropic than at first glance.
But let’s first take a look at Gulliver’s previous voyages. The first land that Gulliver visits is Lilliput, a land inhabited by doll house-sized people. From their perspective, Gulliver is a giant and a freak. He eats hundreds of times more food than the Lilliputians and can deter invaders with his bare hands. In Brobdingnag, everything is reversed. Gulliver is tiny while the inhabitants are giants. It is safe to say that his adventures in both lands cause Gulliver to lose a sense of proportion. He is either the most conspicuous figure or the least noticed. In both cases, he is a freak whom people pay to see. Gulliver’s identity is no longer defined by his political or religious affiliations or by his profession. He is great or small not because of anything he does but solely because others perceive him as such.
“I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian [a very tiny person] would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”
When Gulliver returns from Brobdingnag, he stoops down to kiss his wife because he is so used to being surrounded by giants. In comparison to the Brobdingnagians, his wife is tiny. But notice that Gulliver still thinks he is larger than his wife otherwise he would not have stooped down to kiss her. Gulliver wants to be normal. He doesn’t want to be a freak. No one does. To avoid feeling like a freak, Gulliver adjusts his worldview to match that of the Brobdingnagians.
The voyages Gulliver takes to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan aggravate his sense of proportion even more. In those lands, the inhabitants are eccentric and frankly stupid. Gulliver doesn’t know whether he should criticize or praise them. The historical figures he meets are nothing like the image he had of them:
“A general confessed in my presence, that he got a victory purely by the force of cowardice and ill conduct; and an admiral, that for want of proper intelligence, he beat the enemy to whom he intended to betray the fleet. Three kings protested to me, that in their whole reigns they never did once prefer any person by merit, unless by mistake or treachery of some minister in whom they confided…”
Now, let us turn to Part IV of the book in which Lemuel Gulliver encounters intelligent horses and degenerate humanoids. The Houyhnhnms claim that they are an intelligent race – a race that lives by reason alone. In Houyhnhnm Land, the greatest and the least are side by side. Gulliver is at first horrified by the Yahoos, but the Houyhnhnms convince him that humans are even worse than these beasts. The Houyhnhnms introduce us to their society, which at first glance seems perfect. The first four times I read Gulliver’s Travels I too envied the horses. Even though certain aspects of their society made me feel uncomfortable, I didn’t bat an eye. Why should I? They are the superior race. They say so themselves. Like Gulliver, I took their word for it. The Yahoos, in comparison, disgusted me.
The Yahoos are in the way. They undermine an otherwise perfect society. So, the Houyhnhnms debate on what do about these creatures:
“The question to be debated was whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the face of the earth.”
I don’t know which is worse: the Houyhnhnms’ belief that they are superior to others and therefore have the right to determine who should live or die, or Gulliver’s agreement with the Houyhnhnms that humans are worse than Yahoos and therefore, by analogy, even less worthy of life and love.
Gulliver leaves Houyhnhnm Land with a profound hatred for humanity, but he feels so grateful for having met a race of intelligent horses. He should feel like scum, but because he knew the Houyhnhnms he feels superior to the other humans. Gulliver is convinced that he alone knows the truth while others continue living in absolute ignorance of their degeneracy. By now it should be clear that Lemuel Gulliver is an unreliable narrator. He has allowed the Houyhnhnms to define his identity and the identity of his fellow humans. Gulliver’s Travels is on the surface a critique of human nature, but underneath this surface it is a two-fold commentary on oppression and the nature of pride. Throughout history, oppressors like the Houyhnhnms (or the English imperialists) have convinced the oppressed (like the Irish Swift knew so well and whose plight he sympathized with) that they are nothing – that they are unworthy of life. Oppressors depict their slaves as beasts, and unfortunately, the slaves come to believe it. If an oppressed person is granted special status (like Gulliver) that individual turns on his own people. Gulliver can no longer even look or touch his wife and child because, to him, they have no dignity. It is in this context that I read the final passage of the book with which I will leave you:
“But the Houyhnhnms, who live under the government of reason, are no more proud of the good qualities they possess, than I should be for not wanting a leg or an arm, which no man in his wits would boast of, although he must be miserable without them. I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.”