During the beginning of the 18th century, satire grew; and the most famous writers who wrote satirically were Pope and Swift. This period, often called the “Age of Reason,” was highly influenced by a group of the elite of society, who called themselves the Augustans and were determined to live their lives according to “truth” and “reason. The satire of both Swift and Pope is animated by moral urgency and heightened by tragic sense of doom. Pope saw the issue as a struggle between Darkness and Light, Chaos and Order, Barbarism and Civilization. For Swift the issue was one between right reason and madness- not clinical insanity, but blindness to anything but ones own private illusions, which is an abandonment of practical reality.
Jonathan Swift was the greatest rival to Pope in the field of satire, his genius is so powerful and varied and so mysterious that any summary of his work is bound to be ridiculously over-simplified. Swift was also one of the most devastating critics of the contemporary scene, while the range of the targets he chose makes him one of the most comprehensive. His most contentious and his greatest work, however, was a series of chronicled voyages known as Gulliver’s Travels. Gullivers Travel was published in 1726. Because it can be read as a fantasy novel, a story for children, and a social satire, its tales of dwarves, giants, floating islands and talking horses have long entertained readers from every age group. It has often been issued with long passages omitted, particularly those concerning bodily functions and other distasteful topics. Even without these passages, however, Gulliver’s Travels serves as a biting satire, and Swift ensures that it is both humorous and critical, constantly criticizing British and European society through its descriptions of imaginary countries. Also, there is a general tone of mockery in the text, echoing the sarcastic voice found in other works by Swift. Gulliver is sometimes wise, sometimes foolish, but always eager to please his new masters. The sarcastic tone of the text sets Swift himself as a kind of foil to Gulliver; unlike his protagonist, Swift’s purpose was no doubt to annoy the leaders of Britain rather than please them. Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels at a time of political change and scientific invention, and many of the events he describes in the book can easily be linked to contemporary events in Europe. One of the reasons that the stories are deeply amusing is that, by combining real issues with entirely fantastic situations and characters, they suggest that the realities of 18th-century England were as fantastic as the situations in which Gulliver finds himself.
The fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, “A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms,” is particularly filled with satire, as Gulliver discovers a Utopian society of horses (Houyhnhnms) who sneer at humans (Yahoos) as being savage. There can be little doubt that the major purpose of the Fourth Voyage is to reveal the barbarism of humanity. The theme is found nearly everywhere. The reader cannot help but feel in part ashamed of himself after finishing the book.
Swift here is writing almost an allegory on the constituent elements in man: he is splitting man into his animal and rational parts, and seeing how the parts work separately. He is showing man as slave, and man as master. Swift is reminding us so compromisingly of the strength of our animality- the animality, which it is more comfortable and reassuring to forget that we are him and his harsh from complacency. At the same time, he sets forth in utopian fullness the human achievements possible through the exercise of reason.
In this book the story is Gullivers own story, he is the hero, almost the tragic hero. He becomes the seriously troubled protagonist: Gulliver belongs to both parties, and all the open antagonism between Yahoos and Houyhnhnms is really the war in his soul. He has learned much about himself, and his problem is to accept his knowledge without being overcome by it. The book is about him, in its picture of his various stages of development, presents the tightest structure of all four books. Each part of a very casual-looking story has a specific function. The first stage in Gullivers inner drama in his recognition that a member of the herd of creatures whom he has instinctively hated has a perfect human figure, it is his first glimpse of the human being from a new perspective. Yet in the first stage he resists being identified with the Yahoos and clings to his rationality, which surprises the Houyhnhnms, as his distinguishing feature. In his second stage (Chaps. 5,6,7) he gives his Houyhnhnm friend an account of life in Europe : here Swift, as the deadpan ironist , works through Gulliver, making him report the follies and evils of life, either with admiration for familiar way of doing things or without recognizing the Yahooism of European practices. Gulliver still feels essentially different from the Yahoos, and comes to love the Houyhnhnms. In the third stage (Chaps. 7,8) the Houyhnhnm argues that Gullivers people are the same as the Yahoos, and after the brilliant scene in which he is attacked by an eleven-year-old female Yahoo, Gulliver can no longer deny that he is a yahoo, and must recognize Europeans as Yahoos or even worse. His long study with the Houyhnhnms-his newly intense practice of reason-has brought him to this self-knowledge. This is the dramatic climax of the story, and it is not an accident that Gulliver is kicked out at this point (Chap. 10) because at this point Swift is giving his story a new turn. He is not content with the allegory. So the Houyhnhnms expel Gulliver, and his expulsion, far from being a merely convenient of his experience-his readjustment to humanity, which he now sees exclusively in the light of pure reason. The drama of Gulliver is quite a complex one. As he become more and more aware of the animal ingredient in man, he is more and more overcome by shame and loathing, and insofar as the reader identifies himself with Gulliver, he may be led into similar disgust or else into a disgust against the writer who can thus portray Yahooism.
But Gullivers very shame is an index of the moral capacity of man. At the same time that Gulliver comes to knowledge of human animality, he is exhibiting the other side of man- the capacity for rational communication and understanding. He is a Yahoo who thinks, and as long as a Yahoo can think, there is at least some hope for him. A doctrine of hopelessness would appear only if man were shown content with Yahooism, unable to rise above it, and indeed ignorant of anything else.
In another point of view, Swifts treatment of Houyhnhnm rational ideality is remarkable. He never undervalues rational activity, yet he can embody reason in the Houyhnhnms and surround them with humble but absolute qualifications. Gullivers friend and master knew it was impossible that there was a country beyond the sea,(Chap.3) he tends to be parochial, unimaginative, and dogmatic. The Houyhnhnms live a dispassionate, schematic, mathematical, even arid life; they discipline reality by simply cutting too much of it out, and the result is a factitious order. Ironically, the sharpest critique of the Houyhnhnms comes from Gulliver in his comment on the order ehich exiles him: I thought it might consist with reason to have been less rigorous(Chap. 10). The impassionate devotee of reason himself points to inflexible doctrinaire quality of his heroes. Pure reason is not an adequate guide to life. The Houyhnhnms, though apparently perfect beings, are actually just clever imitations of the Augustans. As said before, the Augustans dedicated their lives to reason and truth. Much like the Augustans, everything the Houyhnhnms do is based on a scientific process. In their marriages they are exactly careful to choose such colors as will not make any disagreeable mixture in the breed. Strength is chiefly valued in the male, and comeliness in the female; not upon the account of love, but to preserve the race from degenerating; for where a female happens to excel in strength, a consort is chosen with regard to comeliness. The lives of the horses lack passions, pleasures, and ideas. Even if they have no evils in their society, they have no real benefits either. If deleting all the risks in life is what it takes to eliminate vice, shouldn’t mankind accept the necessity of a little bit of evil? The world in which the Houyhnhnms live is far from perfect. Swift is brilliantly making fun of the Augustan goal. After all, the “Houyhnhnm” scenario is the way the Augustans strove to live their lives. Later, in the Romantic period, they would be criticized for their scientific approach to everything and their strict adherence to reason. In this way, Swift was ahead of his time, and, although his book did not glorify emotion or anything of that nature, it certainly ridiculed the Augustans and their ideals. The Augustans were a product of the Enlightenment, and with the help of social commentaries like Swift’s, they began to die out as people began to see how senseless a life dedicated to reason truly was.
At this point Gulliver is forced back into the complexities of existence and in the fact that he has a difficult task of readjustment is underscored by the fact that in all other books Gullivers return is purely routine. But in book four, he is deeply involved, and his extrication is more than the business of ending the voyage; the real issue is his re-accommodation to reality. The Gulliver of the last two chapters is a man suffering from an overdo of intellectualism, from having abstracted a neat pattern of the orderable elements of existence from the tough, difficult, only partly manageable fabric of the whole.
Swift has not so much condemned humanity as he has demonstratedtwo of its component elements- animality and rationality; and he has shown how an exclusive experience in the rarefied atmosphere of the latter, which can be presented only in an allegorical framework, can incapacitate the individual for normal human relationships. Gulliver has had a brilliant vision, and he has paid price: by the very nature of his analytic partition of man, he has abstracted so much from humanity that he can no longer endure the whole. He is neurotic, but the author is not content to leave him illuminated and solitary; at the end, Gulliver is bent upon the solution of his neurosis, upon habituating himself. In earlier passage Gulliver writes,when I happened to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo than my own person. The latter passage: Gulliver plans regularly to behold my figure often in a glass, and thus if possible habituate myself by time to tolerate the sight of a human creature.
In addition to that, Swift occasionally leaps from the existential to the metaphysical level, engaging somewhat inconclusively with the problem of evil. About the good Houyhnhnms there is no doubt, since they represent not only, as we have already seen, the operation of reason but also the perfection of nature(Chap.3), that is, the two concepts which were available is Swifts day to represent the ideal order of the universe. And since the Yahoos lack reason, the implied theory of evil is that it is the equivalent of un-reason or the absence of reason. But while this may do admirably for the Yahoos themselves, who are allegorical figures, it obviously has its shortcomings as a conceptual means of disposing of Europeans, in whose life there are many phenomena, which cannot be adequately dealt with by a theory of irrationality about the essential nature of whose life errors Swift never quite makes up his mind, and whom he therefore pigeonholes in several different ways.
1.Evil is due to a corruption of reason.
2.A little reason is dangerous thing. The Houyhnhnms conjected European moral depths by imagining the conduct of a Yahoo who had a small proportion of reason(Chap.10)
3.Reason itself is the agent of evil. The human race makes no other use of reason than to improve and multiply those vices whereof their brethren in this country had only the share that nature allotted them(Chap.10). Here it is not the absence, insufficiency, or corruption of reason, but reason itself that is the agent of evil. Yet the Houyhnhnms are devoted to the unerring rules of reason(Chap.10)
Hence, The whole system of Houyhnhnmland is, in fact, an allegory. The horses represent true reason and the Yahoos pure emotion. Either one of these taken to an extreme is dangerous. If people let emotion completely rule them, they end up with a society without order, such as the Yahoos. On the other hand, if people dedicate themselves entirely to logic, they produce a society with plenty of order, but no vitality. A healthy community has a good mixture of the two. Swift leaves subtle clues like Gulliver’s illogical misanthropy at the end to indicate that one must see the value in both. Sadly, it is easy for a reader to walk away thinking that Swift thinks humanity to be evil. This piece in particular requires multiple readings to gather the true meaning of it. Indeed, there are many interpretations of the piece that criticize Swift for indicating that a flawless society could exist without religion of any kind. Obviously, the author of the criticism could not have possibly understood that the Houyhnhnms simply symbolized all that was rational, and religion would have been out of place in that context. Partially because of such subtleties, the Fourth Voyage, and indeed all of Gulliver’s Travels, contains outstanding satire. In fact, in a bizarre way, Swift almost betrays readers with his satire. He wins their trust with a tone of friendly conversation, and then begins to ruthlessly attack. Perhaps this was even why he was so effective. He also mastered irony by the time he died, as seen in his “A Modest Proposal.” His assaults on society did make people question themselves and their institution, and in a way, they did help to “wonderfully mend the world.”
Crane, R.S. “The Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and the History of Ideas.” Greenburg 402-6.
Crane, R.S. “The Rationale of the Fourth Voyage.” Greenburg 331-8.
Dyson, A. E. “Swift: The Metamorphosis of Irony.” The Writings of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Robert Greenburg. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973. 672-84.
Glendinning, Victoria. Jonathan Swift: A Portrait. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.
Greenburg, Robert, ed. Gulliver’s Travels: An Authoritative Text. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1976.
Kallich, Martin. The Other End of the Egg. Bridgeport: Conference on British Studies, 1970.
Knowles, Ronald. Gulliver’s Travels: The Politics of Satire. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Rowse, A.L. Jonathan Swift: Major Profit. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms.” Gulliver’s Travels. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Available http://www.gutenberg.net