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Reversal in Gulliver's Travels: Humans and Horses

Updated on March 6, 2014

As a description of Book 4 of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, C.J. Rawson’s assertion that “while the Houyhnhnms are an insulting impossibility, the Yahoos, though not a reality, are an equally insulting possibility” is accurate in the sense that the Houyhnhnms are an insulting representation of the dystopian potential of humans, while the Yahoos are an insulting representation of the primal and barbaric potential of humans. However, this statement is inaccurate in the sense that it suggests that the Yahoos are a possibility because they look like humans, while the Houyhnhnms are not because they look like horses. The Country of the Houyhnhnms is an inversion of Gulliver’s England, a place where horses are civilized people, and humans are uncivilized animals. Therefore, because the Houyhnhnms are civilized reversals of horses, and the Yahoos are animalistic reversals of humans, the Houyhnhnms are an insulting possibility for horses, while the Yahoos are an insulting representation of horses (and animals in general).

The relationship between horses and Houyhnhnms, as well as that between humans and Yahoos, is apparent in Gulliver’s first direct interaction with one of each. Gulliver describes the first band of Yahoos that he sees very much as though he were watching animals (1004). In his first direct encounter with one: “The ugly monster, when he saw me, distorted several ways every feature of his visage, and stared as at an object he had never seen before; then approaching nearer, lifted up his forepaw, whether out of curiosity or mischief, I could not tell” (1004). Gulliver demonstrates an obvious aversion to the apparently sub-human creature, and when the Yahoo lifts its hand, Gulliver refers to it as a paw rather than the very human-looking hand that it is. Furthermore, he is not able to tell whether the creature has malicious or benign intent, despite having a human face. In contrast to his experience with the Yahoo, Gulliver seems to be able to interpret the almost human expressions on the face of the first Houyhnhnm he directly encounters thereafter: “But this animal, seeming to receive my civilities with disdain, shook his head, and bent his brows, softly raising up his left forefoot to remove my hand” (1005). Despite having the appearance of a horse, Gulliver so strongly responds to the humanlike countenance of the Houyhnhnm that he refers to its hoof as a foot. These two separate interactions with both a Yahoo and a Houyhnhnm respectively serve to demonstrate that while the Yahoos look like humans, they are reasonless animals, and while the Houyhnhnms look like animals, they are civilized like humans.

The parallel set up by the humanizing of horses with the Houyhnhnms, and the animalizing of humans with the Yahoos is even more deeply expressed when Gulliver is lead to a Houyhnhnm dwelling. He is perplexed by the humanlike behaviour of the Houyhnhnms: “There were three nags, and two mares, not eating, but some of them sitting down upon their hams, which I very much wondered at; but wondered more to see the rest employed in domestic business” (1007). The domestic civility of the Houyhnhnms clearly reflects that of humans in Swift’s England, while the Yahoos, who are kept restrained in a building away from the Houyhnhnm dwelling reflect horses kept restrained in a stable: “They were all tied by the neck with strong withes, fastened to a beam; they held their food between the claws of their forefeet, and tore it with their teeth” (1008). Therefore, there is a reversal of Gulliver’s England in the Country of the Houyhnhnms whereby it is horses who have gained dominion through their capacity to reason, while the humans remain brutish animals.

Gulliver is contrasted alongside the animalistic image of the Yahoos; the Houyhnhnms recognize that he is more like them in mind and behaviour than he is like the Yahoos: “[My master] was convinced that I must be a Yahoo, but my teachableness, civility, and cleanliness astonished him; which were qualities altogether so opposite to those animals” (1010). If Gulliver and the Englishmen he represents (1015) are in all manners of mind and behaviour the opposite of any given Yahoo, then it is a fair assumption that the Houyhnhnms, who are so unlike horses in mind and behaviour, are the opposite of horses in this sense. Therefore, it is logical to interpret Book 4 from the two angles discussed above, rather than the single angle that is apparent in Rawson’s quotation.

Gulliver and his Houyhnhnm master’s discussion of reason concludes with the mutual inversion of England with the Country of the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver offers his master an account of the perspective that Englishmen would take upon learning of the relationship between the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos: “Our countrymen would hardly think it probable, that a Houyhnhnm should be the presiding creature of a nation, and a Yahoo the brute” (1013). Gulliver is describing how improbable the notion of a race of horses playing the role of humans, and a race of humans playing the role of reasonless animals (such as horses) is from the point of view of his people. The way in which this is described is further indicative of how self-conscious Book 4 is about the relationship between our world and the Houyhnhnm’s world.

Upon studying the Yahoos, Gulliver makes an observation that further places Yahoos in the position of horses in England: “the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all animals, their capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry burdens” (1029). In his observation, Gulliver is clearly likening the Yahoos to horses, who are primarily beasts of burden in his world.

Gulliver and his master discuss the inversion of their two worlds on a philosophical level after Gulliver tells him about the subservient role that horses play in England: [My master] said, if it were possible there could be any country where Yahoos alone were endued with reason, they certainly must be the governing animal, because reason will in time always prevail against brutal strength” (1014). This general philosophical assertion is one of the Book’s themes; if a species of animals has more reason than all others, then they will inevitably become rulers above all in the animal kingdom. This is a major reason why it is erroneous to interpret Book 4 from the one angle presented by Rawson; the idea is not that the Houyhnhnms are an unattainable outcome for humanity due to the fact that they are of a different species, but that whenever a species rises above the rest and dominates with its capacity for civilization, it will inevitably become corrupt in one way or another, just like the human society presented in Book 4.

In conclusion, Rawson’s statement is accurate in its suggestion that both the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms are representations of humanity, but it is illogical to claim that Houyhnhnms are an impossibility for humans, because both representations serve a different purpose. The Yahoos exist to show that without reason, humans are just as much animals as any other creature. Rather than just standing as the representation of an unattainable state for humanity, the Houyhnhnms instead serve the purpose of illustrating that no good will ultimately result from the rise of one animal above all others, and in that sense, represent the very flaw that humanity itself is.

Work Cited

Swift, Jonathan. "Gulliver’s Travels. Part 4. A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms" The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1996. 1002-1048. Print.


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