Depiction Of English Nation in Gulliver’s Travels
Jonathan Swift, a master satirist, used his writing as an outlet for his frustrations with the English nation and as a way to convey his antipathy towards the general state of the society in which he lived. Growing increasingly disappointed with the state of affairs in England, as well as the surrounding nations, Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels in order to articulate his extreme discontent with the many aspects of society. Throughout the books, Gulliver finds himself on many strange islands and meets an assortment of civilizations which personified the specific aspects of life, ranging from religion to politics, that troubled Swift the most. Using clever satire, Swift is able to place Gulliver in situations that make his opinions very clear. In the fourth book, however, Gulliver finds himself on the island of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos facing a group that is far too rational as well as a group that is overly emotional in their behaviors. His opinions in this book leave the reader questioning whether Gulliver was a representation of Swift’s true beliefs or merely a character used to show two extremes that should not be ventured into. This portrayal of polar opposites is Swift’s warning to English society about the pitfalls of following either.
In Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels Swift explores the idea of Utopia. He lands his ship on an island occupied by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, two contradictory groups. The Houyhnhnms, to Gulliver, represent the ultimate successes of society, while the Yahoos are a portrayal of the downward spiral he feels humanity is facing. When Gulliver first reaches the island, he is immediately mistaken for a Yahoo by the intelligent Houyhnhnms who are shocked to find that Gulliver is actually capable of logic and learning beyond that of any Yahoo they have ever encountered. Much like the upper classes back in Gulliver’s society, the Houyhnhnms judge Gulliver immediately based on his looks. To them, if he looks like a Yahoo than he must be a Yahoo, just as to England’s gentry, the lower classes all looked the same. The Yahoos are described as horrible, primitive beasts, unable to reason or learn. As Gulliver is taken in by the Houyhnhnms, however, he begins to learn more about each culture, and the parallels between the Yahoos and English society are rapidly revealed. Gulliver’s Master Houyhnhnm tells him that the Yahoos seem to always form groups and fight against other groups with no apparent reason other than, occasionally, over shiny rocks, which, in Gulliver’s world, could be compared to money or jewelry.
When introduced to a Yahoo servant Gulliver exclaims, “My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abdominal animal a perfect human figure”. It is at this point that Gulliver realizes that the only difference between himself and the Yahoo is the Yahoo’s lack of cleanliness and clothing. Other than those two minor factors, a Yahoo looked to him to be indistinguishable from any other human. At this moment Swift’s satire is able to achieve its main goal: to show the overwhelming flaws of humanity which, if left to develop and expand this far in the emotional direction, could lead to the complete humiliation of the entire human race.
In addition to the physical similarities between humans and Yahoos are the similar behaviors and mannerisms shared by people and Houyhnhnms. The one aspect most notably comparable to that of English culture is Swift’s description of the female Houyhnhnms, who obviously share many likenesses to the ladies of royal stature in England. The have their colts and foals and then barely pay any emotional attention to them, although they stress education and try to get their offspring the best schooling they can. As Gulliver explains,
They have no fondness for their colts or foals, but the care they take in educating them proceeds entirely from the dictates of reason.
This treatment of their young is a scoff at the way English royalty raise their own children: coldly and distantly, allowing servants to do most of the work.
Similarly, traditional roles of men and women as Swift knew them in England are presented in the world of the Houyhnhnms. The male horses are admired for their strength while the female horses must present an air of “comeliness,” much like the customary expectation for women to be gentle, charming, and beautiful while the man must present an air of force, muscle, and power. Also, many young Houyhnhnm couples are joined by their parents or friends based on their genetics and the plan for their future offspring. As Gulliver describes, “in their marriages they are exactly careful to choose such colours as will not make any disagreeable mixture in the breed” and when the couples are joined it is by the “determination of their parents and friends: it is what they see every day, and they look upon it as one of the necessary actions in a reasonable being.” This predetermined pact made to preserve the “perfection” expected by the Houyhnhnms is very close to the arranged marriages of the gentry, which were set up based on politics, dowry and other superficial matters.
In contrast, Swift also emphasizes the over-rational nature of the Houyhnhnms. Although Gulliver comes to admire their great logic and eventually decides that it is the best way to live life, Swift uses this extreme to show that the other half of English society may be headed in the opposite direction from the Yahoos, towards that of the Houyhnhnms, which would also lead to a crisis. As Ernest Tuveson, a professor of English at Berkley University in California puts is,
The absurdity of a domestic animal exhibiting more “humanity” than humans throws light on the defects of human nature in the form of the Yahoos, who look and act like humans stripped of higher reason. Gulliver and the reader are forced to evaluate such behavior from a vantage point outside of man that makes it both shocking and revelatory.
It seems that by creating a race as devoid of emotion and as driven by reason as the Houyhnhnms, Swift is criticizing the Royal Society’s over emphasis on logical experimentation. Swift loathed the science and rationality of the Enlightenment because “he felt that with the advancement of science, mankind will abandon the morals and values that define the human race.” He thought that the scientists were headed in a direction where emotion and passion were abhorred and was therefore disapproving of “the strange experiments of the scientists of the Royal Society.” Swift preferred the old religious faith as a way to explain what the new scientists were trying to rationalize.
More so, the rationality the Houyhnhnms use is not always the most reasonable form of logic. For example, they make the Yahoos into the “others”, a race of immigrants to their island, who were not original habitants as they were, which therefore helps them rationalize the stigmatization they place on them.
In closing, it is clear that Swift’s fourth book from Gulliver’s Travels is intended as the ultimate attack on mankind. Where the first three books attack specific actions of people that seem frivolous to Swift, the fourth book covers all of these which include political corruption, the self-importance of the English court, the follies of allowing one to become overcome by greed and selfishness, and the excessive reasoning of the scientist. In general, this refers to the essence of man himself. As Swift takes the reader through the four books of Gulliver’s Travels, bit by bit all pretensions are peeled away until all that is left is Swift’s urgent challenge to improve mankind. Swift proposes that becoming too reasonable and lacking any feelings would be just as bad as becoming a nation of overemotional illogical beasts, controlled by their hunger for power and money. Generally, Swift feels that mankind can survive if their unwarranted pride could only be overcome and a balance between the rationality of the Houyhnhnms and the irrationality of the Yahoos could be reached.
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