Gulliver’s Travels

Gulliver’s Travels is a novel written by Jonathan Swift in the 1700s about a character who records his encounters of foreign species on his many travels. The species with which he encounters are closely related to what exist on Earth, allowing a comparison by the reader, and making the satire easier to receive. For example, he encounters a race that resembles humans, only they are six inches tall. The species that will be referenced in my discussion are the Houyhnhnms, a horse race that is capable of language, reasoning, and civility, and the Yahoos, a savage beast-like human.

The interactions between Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms illuminates a satire on humanity. Gulliver slowly learns the language of the Houyhnhnms, and the satire on humanity is revealed in a conversation about the world from which Gulliver came. Gulliver attempts to explain the treatment of horses to the Houyhnhnm master. He tells him that horses are beaten into submission at an early age so that they may be used for labor. The juxtaposition of the reasoning Houyhnhnms and the slaved horses results in an awkward introspection in the reader on the treatment of animals. Gulliver later expresses his own disapproval of human action, newly formed due to the comparison with the Houyhnhnms. To the reader, Gulliver defends his choice of describing humans to the master in an honest, poor light by saying,

I must freely confess, that the many virtues of these excellent quadrupeds placed in opposite view to humane corruptions, had so far opened mine eyes, and enlarged my understanding, that I began to view the actions and passions of man in a very different light; and to think the honour of my own kind not worth managing.

Essentially, upon seeing the pitfalls of the human race in comparison to the virtuous Houyhnhnms, Gulliver no longer felt the need to defend his race due to a sudden disgust. Jonathan Swift’s language and elaborate scenes evoke a passion in the reader, effectively creating a good medium for the reception of satire.

In another criticism of humanity, the relationships with and attitudes toward the Yahoos can be related to the human race. The Yahoos and Houyhnhnms are the only species that exist on the island, and their contrast is striking in its opposition to the reader’s expectation. The horse-like Houyhnhnms are the superior beings, and they cage the wild human-like Yahoos to maintain order. The savagery of the Yahoos disgusts Gulliver, but a similar feeling is geared toward the human race in the scene where Gulliver explains the treatment of horses, as evidenced by the line “it is impossible to express [the Houyhnhnm master’s] noble resentment at our savage treatment of the Houyhnhnm race.”  Upon reading this quote, the reader is given clear pictures of the different races: the noble and virtuous Houyhnhnms and the savage humans.

A satire of civilization is also prominent in the portrayal of the humans versus the Houyhnhnm. It is evidenced by the subtle depiction that the Houyhnhnm race is superior to humans. When Gulliver attempts to describe his culture, the master does not understand the concept of lying and deceit. Their race has no need for the terms because their civilization is based on reason, and in a reasonable society there is no need for dishonesty.




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