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Swift's Alleged Misanthropy and His Attitude toward the Houyhnhnms

By Edit-Rácz Dec 03, 2013 1113 Words
Swift’s alleged misanthropy and his attitude towards the Houyhnhnms

In order to understand why Swift has been called a misanthrope, and even a hater of humanity, we have to briefly look at the reasons that lead to this accusation. In his letter to Alexander Pope, he defines man as ’animal rationis capax’ (a being capable of reason) rather than ’animal rationale’ (a rational being). With this statement, Swift simply tried to point out his disagreement with the view that human nature is essentially good. (Abrams, p. 972). Even the Earl of Orrery, who was Swift’s close friend one time, claimed in his ‘Remarks on the Life and Writings of Jonathan Swift’ that Gulliver’s Travels, more closely, his latest one with the status and the portrayal of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms is ‘a real insult upon mankind’. Speaking of the Yahoos, the Earl of Orrery claims that Swift “has indulged a misanthropy that is intolerable. The representation which he has given us of human nature, must terrify, and even debase the mind of the reader who views it” (Fox, p. 3). We also have to point out that Gulliver’s Travels was written in the beginning of the 18th century, at a time when the British Empire was an expanding empire exploiting most of the lands and their inhabitants it conquered. Swift, a church cleric, greatly disagreed with the way his contemporaries were thinking at that time and he used his satires, quite successfully, to make a point which could reach all levels of society. Gulliver’s Travels quickly became a bestseller; it was so popular that its readers spent hours puzzling out references, allusions, and possible coded meanings in the text (Fox, p. 216). This task was somewhat easier at the time for contemporary readers but still makes sense for us who read the novel three hundred years after it was written. For those who do not consider Gulliver’s Travels a satire can still enjoy the novel without drawing parallels. This explains why it has become and remains to this day an extremely popular children’s story as well. In Part IV in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift ridicules humans through his depiction of the Yahoos and the status which horses have in Houyhnhnmland. Here horses are the leaders of society while the Yahoos, man-like savage, disgusting creatures are only inferior beings. Houyhnhnms and Yahoos seem to be complete opposites, the first being driven by reason and the latter lacking all the good qualities that the Houyhnhnms possess. If we want to analyze Swift’s attitude towards the Houyhnhnms, we have to have a look at how Gulliver is interacting with them and what his perception is about their society. “For they looked upon it as a prodigy, that a brute animal should discover such marks of a rational creature”.

The Houyhnhnms (Gulliver’s master and his family) first considered him a savage Yahoo, but they soon understood that he is an exception as he possesses qualities of ration that the Yahoos would never be able to have.

“… said the thing which was not”.
An important notion during Gulliver and his master’s conversations; something that is unknown to the Houyhnhnms where the concept of lying simply does not exist.

Gulliver soon after his arrival already enjoys living in Houyhnhnmland and tries to conceal his appearance by always wearing clothes, although he knows that he cannot hide his appearance forever. Gulliver’s ‘master’ is surprised to learn about his similarity in appearance with the Yahoos but that does not seem to affect his attitude negatively towards Gulliver (he “must be a perfect Yahoo”). The master seems to be very inquisitive and tries to learn as much as he can about Gulliver’s land (there is frequent use of circumlocutions during Gulliver’s portrayals).

“He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon water. He was sure no Houyhnhnm alive could make such a vessel, or would trust Yahoos to manage it”. The master simply cannot imagine how Yahoos could be rational and sensible in Gulliver’s England, the same Yahoos that he so much despises in his land. The latter sentence can also be interpreted as an insult upon mankind, if a horse is not able to manufacture an object, he would not trust a Yahoo with producing it, either.

“He 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”. This passage quite clearly shows the master’s attitude towards reason: Yahoos in fact would be able to govern in certain conditions as reason sooner or later will find its way.

Gulliver vows “never to return to humankind”, but he knows it well that he is closer to the Yahoos and it is just a utopia that he is in.

“As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by Nature with a general disposition to all virtues, and have no conceptions or ideas of what is evil in a rational creature, so their grand maxim is to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it”. Gulliver’s description gives an account of the features of the Houyhnhnms very well: they are beings exclusively driven by reason and common sense.

“Courtship, love, presents, jointures, settlements, have no place in their thoughts, or terms whereby to express them in their language”. A point which shows that Houyhnhnms are not perfect creatures either and humans should not try to be exactly as they are. We can also see this when we learn that they have no letters and they also lack feelings – e.g.: the death of a horse as perceived by his wife. The absurdity of the gap between the utopian (the land of the Houyhnhnms) and the real (his own land, England) becomes something terrible for Gulliver (Zwicker, p. 261). After his return to England, we see a different Gulliver who is not happy to be back in his country. His attitude towards humans has completely changed: he considers them the same savage Yahoos that he encountered in Houyhnhnmland, feels disgusted even by their smell, and only feels comfortable among his horses in his stable.

Swift is certainly trying to draw a parallel between Yahoos and mankind. He is trying to emphasise man’s material nature and points out the things which man lacks. These are the things that Houyhnhnms possess: reason and a need for a calm and just life – this is what he is trying to teach mankind.

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