Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels, has been widely analyzed by scholars, and is indisputably one of the greatest satirical works of the human condition ever written. This is especially evident when one examines the Houyhnhnms in part four of the Travels. Two scholars that provide interesting interpretations are Alan Bloom and David Ward.
While each attempts to develop individual ideas about the Houyhnhnms, each follows a predetermined theme. They seem to ignore the idea that Swift is one of the most talented writers of the 18th century – encompassing satirical themes that penetrate deeper than the simple, surface interpretations.This paper will deal with a concept undeveloped by these scholars; the notion that Swift, through the Houyhnhnms, and Gulliver’s interpretations of them and the Yahoos, is not simply presenting a satirical look at civilization as a whole. Upon closer examination, one finds that Swift actually exposes the absurdity of the notion that there could be a perfect civilization. Swift demonstrates that regardless of mans perceived attitude, he will always trample uopn those that he considers beneath him. He does this by examining the Houyhnhnm’s idea of slavery, their placement of women in society and their treatment of the lower class Yahoos.To help develop the notion of slavery and male domination, one should examine the Houyhnhnms and Gulliver’s ignorant fascination with their ‘ideal’ culture. The Houyhnhnms have typically been viewed as a ‘perfect’ society – demonstrating a standard for conduct by which humanity should follow.
Ward argues that the Houyhnhnms are “… intelligent in the way in which they organize their lives.
They are an expression of something which we would all …
wish to be; an expression of a human ideal, an ideal which [is] very much prized” (168).This may be the case if one’s ideological perspectives focus on slavery and female subordination. Swift’s desire to encompass slavery in the Houyhnhnms’ lifestyle is not done accidentally and Gulliver’s ignorant acceptance that slavery is a fundamental right of the upper class, satirically stabs at the ideological beliefs of a blind society. Bloom comments that the Houyhnhnms’ incorporate “passionate, natural harmony . . . with rationale” (661).
This is obviously not Swift’s intention – or better yet, this is merely Swift’s surface intention.Instead he attempts to develop subtle, negative aspects within the Houyhnhnms culture, paint them as perfect and ideal, and have Gulliver attempt to prove they are. The cautious reader, however, realizes they are not. To help develop the ‘ideal’ society, Swift has the Houyhnhnms keep sorrel nags as their servants.
Gulliver’s ignorance shines brilliantly through, as he does not comment once on the fact that slavery is demeaning and morally objective. Gulliver is especially ignorant because he ignores the fact that slavery in the Houyhnhnm culture is based on color.Every “under servant” (Swift IV. 1075) is a brown horse.
Even in Houyhnhnm marriage, they are “extremely careful to choose such colors as will not make any disagreeable mixture in the breed” (Swift IV. 1096). Those that are “bred up to be servants” (Swift IV.
1096) are allowed to “produce three of each sex, to be domestics in the noble families” (Swift IV. 1096). Swift is alluding to a fascist ideology in which a military / noble dominance controls everything for the preservation of the race and the state regardless of suffering or cruelty.The fact that Gulliver never addresses this idea shows his, and more specifically, societies ignorance toward such blatant horrors. Swift exposes the concept that even when society thinks of itself as perfect, as through the eyes of the Houyhnhnms, they are blind to the obvious tortures of humanity. After time, Gulliver is given his own sorrel nag.
He does not object to partaking in slavery and in fact considers the sorrel nag to be fond of him. Swift cleverly develops Gulliver, and more particularly, societies ignorance by the general acceptance of slavery.