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Parts of a Whole:

The Yahoos,The Houyhnhnm, and Gulliver in Book IV of Gullivers Travels

Angel and demon, pure and fallen: when dealing with Book IV of Gullivers Travels,

many critics focus on the relationship between the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnm and examine

their individual construction as units in binary opposition. This is an over-simplification and it

also largely ignores the keystone in the discursive arch, the figure of Lemuel Gulliver. Standing

apart from both Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, Gulliver acts as the fulcrum from which each group

can be accessed, across which each group may be compared, and in doing so, he becomes a focal

point in his own right. In a letter from Swift to Alexander Pope dated the 29th September, 1725,

we find that Swift penned the Travels to vex the world rather than divert it (667), and creating

vexation in no way suggests that the work should not be read as didactic. Trying to tease a

singular meaning from a text is always troublesome, but I believe that one of Swifts goals of

Gullivers Travels was to suggest the importance of understanding the symbiotic relation between

reason and passion, and to show, through an antithetic example, the importance of an internal

equilibrium in the pursuit of a positive character and existence.

Let us begin by examining the lynch-pin in the satiric structure: Lemuel Gulliver. His

position of ships surgeon and a man of science adds legitimacy to his accounts, suggesting

unbiased observation. Gulliver is, however, repeatedly shown to be inconsistent. William Ewald

draws our attention to Gullivers apparent inability to lie after his departure from the

Houyhnhnms. The juxtaposition between Gullivers request to Don Pedro to keep secret the

existence of the Houyhnhnms and, on Gullivers departure from Lisbon, the extended ruse of
illness to maintain his isolation from the crew, shows how quickly his abhorrence for the thing

that is not melts away when circumstances require it (134). Yet, the moral and ideological ebb

and flow of Gulliver we experience throughout the four books is not an inconsistency to be

wrestled with, but rather should be an accepted unit of his construction as an authorial voice. It is

this consistently inconsistent structure which allows Gulliver to be an effective lynch-pin in the

structure of Gullivers Travels.

Gullivers malleability is what allows for the final meaning to be teased from the text. He

begins as a man, gradually transforms to a noble Yahoo, and arrives home again existing as

something like a Houyhnhnm trapped in a mans body. Another analysis of his final state may be

that it is one of madness, but this distinction is unimportant presently; the key is, his perspective

shifts drastically. Gulliver often remarks on his distain for the Yahoos throughout Book IV. As we

move through the narrative, he begins to reduce the linguistic distinction between himself and

the monstrous Yahoos. He reports in Chapter III, I expressed my uneasiness at his giving me so

often the appellation of Yahoo, an odious animal, for which I had so utter an hatred and

contempt (2597), and for a time refers to his fellow Englishman as countrymen, but by Chapter

X he remarks:

When I thought of my family, my friends, my countrymen, or the human race in

general, I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in shape and disposition,

perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the gift of speech; but making

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.

This should be a very problematic section of his recounting as we see, time and time again, how

different the Yahoos are from humans in both physical form and disposition. This quotation is

problematized further when we consider that, immediately before this outburst, Gulliver reveals

his belief that all the little knowledge [he has] of any value was acquired by the lectures [he]

received from [his] master (2621) who, of course has a biased opinion of the Yahoos. This also

seems to suggest that any and all experience as a sailor, surgeon, captain, husband, and father; his

three years study at Emanuel College, and further four years medical apprentice with Mr. Bates;

time learning navigation and mathematics, and further two years and seven months studying

physics; and all his previously reported experience from his earlier travels, all in combination, do

not compare to the learning he received from his equine master in his 5 years of residence in

Houyhnhnm Land. His position as a man of science should allow him to see the failing of logic

in his assessment of the human race as nothing more than Yahoos, but his perspective has been

so influenced by the Houyhnhnms that he is no longer the same man. It is important to note his

becoming more and more biased throughout his Travels.

Charles Peake also draws our attention to the problem of Gulliver seeing humankind as


The Houyhnhnms recognize the differences between Gulliver, an ordinary man,

and the Yahoos; he is teachable, civil, and clean, and, above all, he has some

Rudiments of Reason. Although Gulliver, on his return, confuses mankind, even

his own family, with the Yahoos, yet he never from the beginning confused

himself with them, and the contrast between the Yahoos and the magnanimous
Portuguese sea-captain (whom Gulliver at first treats as a Yahoo) is too striking to

be accidental. Gullivers confusion of Yahoos and men must be taken as part of

Swifts satirical technique. (293)

Swift, in the same letter to Pope on September 29th, wrote I have ever hated all nations,

professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe

of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-oneI hate and detest that animal called man, although

I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth (667). The position of Gulliver in this satiric

structure is thusly clarified, and we can understand how he fits into Swifts satirical technique.

Though humanity as a unit may be beyond hope, there may be hope for the individual, even

though Gulliver himself is broken beyond mend at the narratives close.

Just as we see Gulliver as a complex and changing unit within the narrative, the

Houyhnhnms and Yahoos must not be assessed in too reductive of a way. They are not simply

good and evil as some critics believe, but rather are parts of the complex view of human nature

within Swifts satire. Rather than standing in opposition, they represent the failings of either

passion or reason while separate from each other. The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos stand on

either side of the human psyche as the Brobdingnagians and Lilliputians stand on either side of

his physique (Peake 294). Through viewing Gulliver, the Yahoos, and the Houyhnhnms all as

incomplete reflections of humanity, we can begin to access Swifts perspective on balance, rather

than an unmoving condemnation. Rather than the Yahoos being a warning of human nature,

seeing both the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos as incomplete elements of human nature which do

not directly oppose one another, Gulliver himself becomes the figure of warning, showing the
danger in an existence without equilibrium between reason and passion.

Early in Book IV Gulliver reports that he had never observed so disagreeable an animal

(2589) as the Yahoo in all his travels, which suggests they exist in a position of deficit within the

binary Yahoo-Houyhnhnm system. Our perspective of these beasts, accessed through Gulliver,

shifts abruptly as we learn they in fact possess a recognizable human figure (2592).

Interestingly, this is also an early experience of the rationality of the Houyhnhnm, as Gulliver

and a Yahoo are brought close together (2592) for the purpose of examination and comparison.

Differences between the us, as represented by Gulliver, and the Yahoos are obvious - their

hairiness, our soft skin, their claws, our bi-pedality - yet these are of course chiefly superficial.

The most striking disparity between the us and them is their lack of language, which

metonymically relates to a lack of logic and rationality. A fundamental division between human

and beast. The Houyhnhnms, conversely, hold most dear that which the Yahoos have a deficit of:

friendship, and benevolence (2615) but most importantly an idealized representation of our

capacity to reason. In neither party do we find the full extent of the human condition, but we find

neither party totally inhuman either as the Yahoos hold our figure and our passions, just as the

Houyhnhnms hold our minds and language. Due to their various deficits, however, we find

neither party to be existing in an ideal state.

Houyhnhnm signifies horse and also in its etymology [it signifies] the Perfection of

Nature (2595), but we must remember that this judgment is biased as it is their perspective of

themselves. It is reported by Gulliver that during his stay in the land of the Houyhnhnm there

was a grand assembly held in which the question to be debated was whether the Yahoos should

be exterminated from the face of the earth (2617). Gulliver reports that it was with extreme
difficulty that [he] could bring [his] master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or

how a point could be disputable (2615). Here we see one of the many inconsistencies within the

Houyhnhnms. In their perfection, they are so uncorrupted that lying is beyond their

comprehension and having to dispute an issue is inconceivable, yet the issue of culling the Yahoo

population has remained in flux for so long. There is noticeable stagnation within their

discussion; the point as to whether extermination the Yahoos is good or bad is debatable, but the

fact that the two options stand, in a very real way, in opposition to one another is an unwavering

assumption. Whichever course is just, the Houyhnhnms have done neither good nor bad. Peake

reminds us that Swift believed that the Passions were the ultimate source of all that was good

and all that was bad in human behaviour (297-8). In the same way that the Yahoos are deficit

of what the Houyhnhnms possess, the passions of the Yahoos, the drive for action, are missing

within the Houyhnhnms. Kathleen Williams states that the Houyhnhnms, far from being a

model of perfection, are intended to show the inadequacy of the life of reason (195). She goes

on to point out that Houyhnhnms may be considered perfect but limited natural creatures, of a

nature not simply unattainable by man, but irrelevant to him, and incapable not only of the

depths, but also of the heights, to which humanity can reach (197). The reason of the

Houyhnhnms may be pure, but our connection between passion and reason - the coming together

of Yahoo and Houyhnhnm - allows for a greater variety of experience.

Rather than representing perfection, the Houyhnhnms represent a state of purity:

freedom from adulteration or contamination (OED). Even Gulliver begins to exist in an ideal

form while among them, remarking that during his tenure he never had one hours sickness
(2594). The distinction between perfection and purity may seem slight, but in truth it is

significant. Perfection often has a connotation of perfecting: progress toward a state of

perfection,. Purity however, holds within it an image of a beginning state (as connected with its

connotations of conveying virginity) from which all things depart. Conceiving of the

Houyhnhnms as Purity of Nature rather than Perfection of Nature adds clarity to their

position as creatures of stagnation.

It is clear that the Yahoos stand apart from the Houyhnhnms, but they are not standing in

active opposition. Gullivers teachableness, civility, and cleanliness[are] qualities altogether

so opposite to [the Yahoos] (2595), and are all qualities valued by his equine masters. The most

stark difference between the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms seems to be that they are ruled by

passion and impulse rather than reason. The most obvious example of this is the attempted rape

of Gulliver by the emblazoned Yahoo while he is bathing in the river (2615). A consistency in the

Yahoos is their complete lacking of reason, even to a point at times which appears to be an

inversion of logic; the Yahoo groups are, after all, lead by the member who was always more

deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition (2612) rather than the most fit individual.

This lack of reason should not be read an an inversion of reason - irrationality - but rather a type

of logical vacuity. Passion does not stand in opposition to rationality, as irrationality does, but

rather is a separate and complementary part of our human condition. The Yahoos and the

Houyhnhnms do not stand in opposition to each other, but simply apart, as each fills a different,

but equally important part of the satiric argumentation. Swift believed that [passions] supplied

the motive power of all human action (Peake, 284); looking at the actions of the Yahoos which

do not directly injure others, we see the very human qualities of desire and a drive toward
pleasure. In some parts of the country there are certain shining stones of several colours,

whereof the Yahoos are violently fond; and when part of these stones are fixed in the earth, as

sometimes happeneth, they will dig with their claws for the whole day (2610-11) even though

there seems no logical purpose for this expenditure of energy outside of a base drive toward

pleasure. The fact that the Yahoos are victims of their own desires or fears, alone subject to

diseases of the body (2611), and that they are void of both recognizable reason and

understandable language solidifies their position in this satirical structure. The Yahoos are a

diseased, unguided, but moving body, where the Houyhnhnms are an isolated stagnant, and

incomplete mind.

Swift believed that Passions were what carried man through life: whether they carried

him along the straight and narrow path or into the mire of sin depended on his control and

direction of them (Peake 285). The Yahoos do not lack control, but rather lack the apparatus

which allows for control: reason. Swift also believed that reason itself is true and just, but the

Reason of every particular Man is weak and wavering, perpetually swayed and turned by his

Interests, his Passions, and his Vices (286). Claude Rawson also draws our attention to a similar

interaction between reason and passion as he reminds us that Swift believed that the individual

variations of folly and vices are so infinite that unless men are artificially unified by a perverse

leadership, they will find their only principle of cohesion in common Sense, and plain Reason

(32). Thus, it is clear that Swift recognized the intimate relation between passion and reason.

Either one isolated is farcical. Like two cogs working for a singular purpose, without a

connection neither can be effective. The Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos are not flawed but rather

are incomplete. The fact that what each group is lacking is held in excess by the other should be
read as a clue left by Swift. A clue which Gulliver missed. The tradition of misanthropy is

established within Swifts cannon, but one should remember his own distinction between hating

mankind, but still feeling love for his close acquaintances. Equilibrium should be read as of the

utmost importance, and pretending otherwise may end as poorly as it did for our narrative guide:

madness, living with horses rather than humans.

Swift often creates a caesura at the end of his satiric works (In a Ladys Dressing Room is

an excellent example of shifting from the apparent critique of the habits of Women to the

misguided elevation of the purity of Women by Men) and in the same vein, the close of The

Travels deserves close attention. We have seen, throughout his stay in the land of the

Houyhnhnms, Gulliver separate himself from first the Yahoos, and second humanity-as-Yahoos

as he attempts to become more like his master. This latter movement is especially troubling as

the creatures of reason which Gulliver is attempting to transfigure into draw a firm distinction

between Gulliver-as-human and Yahoo (teachability, cleanliness, etc.). When Gulliver returns

home he is not able to recognize the obvious differences between horses and Houyhnhnm. He is

mad, and arguably this is because of a deficit of something. He stagnates: staying isolated, only

speaking to horses, sitting far from his wife when he finally allows her to eat with him.

Stagnation is due to a lack of movement, obviously, but what motor provides this personal

progression: returning to Swift, it is passion. Gulliver has lost this motivating agent as he became

more akin to the Houyhnhnm and attempted to separate himself from the Yahoos. In Gullivers

final existential tableau, we can access Swifts didactic resolution; through this antithetic

example, we see the importance of an internal equilibrium between the driving force of passion

and the controlling force of reason. The alternative is of course that we plug our noses, and try to

live among beasts, real or imagined.