How does Swift satirise human behaviour within Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels? ‘A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’ is the fourth journey of Swift’s satirical travel book, in which he explores the idea of a perfect society based on pure reason. With the placement of Gulliver, a very average man of his time, Swift compares the beliefs and actions of his contemporary society with that of the Houyhnhnms. Through the Yahoo’s he expresses human behaviour as an extreme against the passive reasoning of the Houyhnhnms.
Gulliver’s experiences throughout the book, as a whole, change his perceptions of both himself and others, which Swift uses to parody contemporary society. He examines the vices of society in the search for an understanding of the virtues expressed by the Houyhnhnms, but also to satirise the actions of society and the faults within, “In it’s most fundamental sense, the myth of the voyage to the Houyhnhnms is a myth about true knowledge. “1 Rosenheim suggests that this society is an experiment into the functions of interactions and hierarchy and the ideal behaviour of beings within a culture.
He refers to it as a myth, and with this fictitious nature suggests the impracticality of the society, but also the idealism of which Swift writes. However Swift uses the Houyhnhnms, also, to express underlying human flaws by hinting at faults in the Houyhnhnms themselves. The Houyhnhnms are portrayed mainly as a perfect race to establish the extremities of human behaviour and that of their society. Swift makes no hesitation in convincing the reader of the Houyhnhnms worth, “The word Houyhnhnm, in their tongue, signifies a horse; and in it’s etymology, the perfection of nature. “2.
Swift not only suggests the ideal race but names them this too, he has stated perfection which enables him to compare them to humans from the beginning of the book rather than build a character of perfection, therefore allowing him to concentrate on the satirical elements. However, Swift also shows the aspect of pride maintained, through the fact that they believe themselves to be of a perfect nature, therefore showing the Houyhnhnms to have some human failings. Swift does not exemplify any traits that may alter the illusion of true perfection but concentrates on those which find fault with human living, such as lying, “that I said the thing which was not.
(For they have no word in their language to express lying or falsehood. )”3 Swift has based the thinking of the Houyhnhnms on pure reason with very little emotions shown, which enables them to make ‘correct’ decisions for the good of the species rather than one single being, creating a utilitarian society. Swift enhances their rational trait through the contrast to the Yahoos, but also the Houyhnhnm’s expectation of these creatures. We see the superiority of the Houyhnhnms in comparison to the Yahoo’s through the treatment of Gulliver, himself.
They are astounded at his mental ability and therefore take it upon themselves to teach him, “For they looked upon it as a prodigy, that a brute animal should discover such marks of a rational creature. “4 Here Swift establishes the mental abilities of the Houyhnhnms in comparison to Gulliver to create a relationship on which to base the contrasts. We are also reminded of Gulliver’s own personality and abilities, which enables him to learn the language of the Houyhnhnms with ease. The Houyhnhnms clearly think of themselves as rational beings, which show a role reversal for Gulliver, which Swift had not shown in the previous books.
Swift uses horses as to satire human behaviour due to their passive nature and their role his society and the workforce. This creates an ideal basis for the Houyhnhnms treatment of the Yahoo’s, therefore giving Gulliver an experience which he had not encountered in the other books. Swift shows the natural state of horses, almost taking them back to a state of nature through their rationality. We see their reaction to the clothes that Gulliver wears and their inability to understand to purpose of them, “for he could not understand why nature should teach us to conceal what nature had given.
“5 Swift explores the idea of something as simple as clothes to begin the satire of the human form and their way of living. Here he asks a simple question that makes us question the reasons for our actions. As Donoghue states, “Houyhnhnmland seems to us to be a desert of nothings; no this, no that; while in Swift’s terms the things that it lacks are the things of which it is free. “6 Here we see a critical review of human lifestyle and the burdens that we carry. The Houyhnhnms live in a very simplistic way, which, as Donoghue suggests, we cannot understand.
Throughout the fourth book Swift shows Gulliver to be stripping down these burdens to become like a Houyhnhnm and remove all that he sees wrong with human society. However, Swift does introduce us to aspects of their society that we may consider absurd, such as their parenting methods. Gulliver describes this with surprise at the lack of affection or emotion that one Houyhnhnm bestows upon his ‘child’ or ‘wife’, “They have no fondness for their colts or foles; but the care they take in educating them proceedeth entirely from the dictates of reason. “7.
Swift, subtly, creates a controversial issue in human society but disguises it, as Gulliver does not comment. Again we see their lack of emotion which leads to reproduction based on reason, i. e. each pair must have both a colt and a filly and this is attained by swapping offspring. The Houyhnhnm’s base their breeding on pure necessity, but also partake in the selective breeding of both sexes and colours, which runs parallel to the human breeding of horses. By systematising reproduction the Houyhnhnms are keeping the balance of society and the numbers of their population, a problem which humanity faces today.