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The Question of Humanity in Gulliver’s Travels Book IV

The Question of Humanity in Gulliver’s Travels Book IV

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Published by Kristine Reynaldo
Essay addressing the question of humanity in the Yahoo/Houyhnhnm dichotomy
Essay addressing the question of humanity in the Yahoo/Houyhnhnm dichotomy

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Published by: Kristine Reynaldo on Aug 27, 2011
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Reynaldo 1Kristine Marie T. ReynaldoProfessor JurillaEnglish 12517 October 2008The Question of Humanity in
Gulliver’s Travels
: Book IVGulliver’s Voyage to Houyhnhnmland presents us with two extremes: pure reason,embodied by the horse-like Houyhnhnms, and primal appetites and passions, embodiedby the brutish human-shaped Yahoos. Into these two poles, the qualities of man,characterizing his dual nature, are dissociated.What disturbed me about the fourth book is that the Houyhnhnm is held to be theparagon of virtue, the kind of creature that man ought to be, while the Yahoo, treatedwith deep disgust and symbolic of complete moral degradation, is identified with man. Agreat part of the book is devoted to proving the equation Man = Yahoo correct, and agreat part of it is likewise given to extolling the Houyhnhnms. But how justified areGulliver’s idealization of one extreme and his categorization of man as the other? Howfar should we believe him?Too often and too simplistically, Swift has been identified with Gulliver, and the latter’smisanthropy heaped on Swift (Monk 287), leading to conclusions that Swift means tosay, as Gulliver says, that Man is Yahoo—sometimes even worse than Yahoo—and that
the Houyhnhnm is the human ideal. However, though Gulliver may sometimes serve asnothing more than Swift’s mouthpiece, he does not always speak for Swift. Behind themask of the fictional persona Gulliver, Swift’s “controlling intelligence … leaves open thepossibility that he may re-enter the argument when he finds re-entry expedient, and thathe may re-enter as either enemy or friend” (Sams 343). Indeed, Gulliver sometimesspeaks, ironically, against Swift’s own opinions, and in such cases, Swift makes him thebutt of satire. For example, upon leaving Houyhnhnmland, Swift mocks his unhingedbehavior in reacting to what he deems a society of Yahoos: he trots like a horse; hisspeech sounds like a horse’s neighing; he talks with his horses, and even maintains thatthey understand each other! These may come off as laughable, but underlying theabsurdity is a grim picture: that of a once amiable man, driven to what may be calledmadness by his experience of “perfection” and his abhorrence of anything that falls shortof it. The result is a distressing misanthropy that fills him with “hatred, disgust, andcontempt” (2569) at the sight of even those people he once loved—his family—andcauses him to scorn the close affinity he had with them, to suffer them not to take him intheir arms, nor hold his hand, nor eat with him, nor touch his food—to be nauseated atthe very smell of them.We may attribute such callous behavior to the trauma of being banished from the utopiahe had dwelled in for five years, but his inability to adjust we may not so easily excusewhen already several years have passed since he left Houyhnhnmland. A deeper reason—one that Swift is sure to decry—may be that Gulliver, for all his railing against it, ishimself smitten with pride. When he first came upon the Portuguese sailors, for example,he was surprised that they were capable of speech, which to him seemed “monstrous”and “unnatural” (2467). He even wondered that Captain Pedro de Mendez, whom herecognized as “a very courteous and generous person” (2467), should be capable of 
civilities, “Yahoo” that he is. It even took some time before Gulliver “descended to treathim like an animal which had some little portion of reason” (2467), which implies that hethinks himself superior for being more Houyhnhnm-like—and in his mind, perfect—thanhis fellow-men. However, his aspiration to become more Houyhnhnm-like to escape thatterrible alternative, that of being Yahoo, renders himself unfit for human society. Indeed,one has to commend Captain Pedro for not throwing the contemptible Gulliver out.However, for all his pride, it is questionable whether he indeed picked up much virtuefrom the Houyhnhnms. For instance, though he professed that he had almost forgottenwhat falsehood meant, he pretended to be sick in his voyage back to England to avoidinteracting with people. When he treats his family with contempt, he is contradicting theHouyhnhnm doctrine of benevolence and friendship to all members of one’s species.Furthermore, as Sherburn points out, “The captain is a teller of tall tales. He protests histruthfulness too often” (vi). That he swore his honesty by a quote about Sinon, theultimate liar of Virgil’s
, is perhaps enough reason to keep us on our guard.What should we watch out for? It seems to me to be primarily Swift’s distorted “limitedvision”, through which he inclines the argument in his favor by selecting the mostsignificant details in a situation (while ignoring the others) and exaggerating them(Hunting 111). Usually, these details are the negative ones, and are thus biased andoften illogical. As Quintana notes, “Through artistry the idea is intensified, charged withemotions, and thrust home in a manner that shocks the nerves before it arouses themind” (302), and which “may well numb the critical sense of certain readers” (Monk 295).This is apparent in Gulliver’s accounts of war, lawyers, and physicians. He seems to berelating them as they are, but his explanations are too simplistic and prejudiced. Onemay argue that perhaps that is the point, that the reasons for the situations he describesare really simple, but that man complicates matters and attempts to rationalize them to

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