What Defines Us? Musings Prompted by Gulliver’s Account of the Land of the Houyhnhnms

Critical Reading, Group 8

In considering the Part Four of Gulliver’s Travels, the idea of what defines a human being seemed to be a prominent theme that resonated with me. When Gulliver encounters the horse-species of the Houyhnhnms, he is immediately awe-struck by their poise and wisdom. The natural beauty, splendor and strength combined with the capability of reasoning made the Houyhnhnms a superior species in comparison with Gulliver, whose intellect placed him above the Yahoos, but physical deficiencies (such as short claws, bipedal stance, lack of hair, and ineptness in climbing and running as described on numerous occasions by the Houyhnhnms, e.g. page 2610) made him inferior to Yahoos. Because of his similarities in appearance to the Yahoos (as described by Gulliver on page 2592), the Houyhnhnms judged Gulliver as such (which is ironic when considering that this species is presented as having a higher intellect in terms of reasoning).

(As a side note, I found it interesting that upon Gulliver’s first encounter with the intelligent, cognizant Houyhnhnms was that he was not at all unable to accept the fact that horses could be intellectual, reasoning, governed living creatures, but the Houyhnhnms, on the other hand, were perpetually unable to accept that Gulliver could be more than a foolish, brute beast like the Yahoos.)

The factors that define a human being, as related to the contents Part Four are as

  • Appearance
  • Malicious,
    Wicked Nature/Proclivities
  • Intellect
    and Reasoning
  • Emotions

The first two factors are shared with the Yahoos. The Yahoos, as already established, physically resemble us in appearance. Yet furthermore, they share our propensity for causing destruction and harbouring a host of evil and unnatural deeds described in detail across pages 2610-13. These are malevolence such as greed and selfishness (2610; when describing the Yahoos fighting over an abundance of food), rage and belligerence (2610; “for want of enemies”), idolizing of material things and avarice (2610-11; “shining stones of several colors”), drunkenness (2611; “another kind of root very juicy” and an assortment of sexual impieties (2613). All of these irreverent things are not practiced by the Houyhnhnms, who are therefore considered virtuous and uncorrupted by Gulliver. In many ways, it seems as though Swift is opening condemning the state of humanity (not only England) in providing the Yahoos as a reflection of us and the Houyhnhnms as a contrasting, juxtaposing image. The depravity of the Yahoos matches ours and the purity of the Houyhnhnms shames us.

Yet what differentiates us from the Yahoos is our ability to reason, our intelligence and intellect. On page 2614 the Yahoos are described as “the most unteachable of all animals”. Gulliver’s capability for learning the Houyhnhnm language and customs shows the Houyhnhnms a distinguishing factor, although they ultimately dismiss it and force him to leave; p2623. Indeed, the Houyhnhnms considered Gulliver’s intellect as a threat; that paired with his innate evil tendencies he could cause great depravity in the land as “was to be feared” (2622).

But finally, what sets us apart from both the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms is our
capacity for emotions. The Yahoos are immediately assumed to be lacking of these, but surprisingly, the Houyhnhnms are also void of such. For them, in marriage, “courtship, love, presents . . . have no place in their thoughts or terms whereby to express them in their language”. Their relationships are “not upon the account of love” but for fear of “degenerating”. They have no “jealousy, fondness, quarreling, or discontent” (2616), and in death there is “neither joy nor grief” or “the least regret” (2619). To me, this last factor
of emotions distinguishes us from both Yahoo and Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s
account, and thus is one of the most dear and important things to humankind.

Class Discussion Question: What do you feel defines us as human beings apart from all
other species and animals (both factual and fictional)? And why do you think it
was so difficult for the Houyhnhnms to accept Gulliver as an intelligent being?

Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012.  Print.

John Dieu

Group 8/2


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One Response to What Defines Us? Musings Prompted by Gulliver’s Account of the Land of the Houyhnhnms

  1. nicolericher says:

    I like that you pointed out emotions as the principle difference between Gulliver (mankind) and the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. However, I don’t agree that that necessarily makes the Houyhnhnms a superior race for their lack of emotional ties to one another. Despite emotional turmoil being the cause of war and moral undoing (greed, lust, etc.), as you say: this distinguishing factor is the most dear and important to humankind. Although cheesy, perfection lies in our imperfection and it’s finding the balance that crucially defines us as truly different from the other races Gulliver encounters. This does not necessarily condemn humankind, but perhaps just Gulliver as he encountered the drastically different races and saw radical perfection in the purity of the Houyhnhnms, and they saw the opposite of him.

    The difficulty the Houyhnhnms found in seeing Gulliver as an intelligent being lies in their lack of emotion. Their rationalizing was that Gulliver looked like the Yahoos, and so he must be a Yahoo with the simple addition of intellect. He could not be of superior or different race because he did not look differently from the Yahoos, and more importantly: like the Houyhnhnms. The horse-like race are unable to consider Gulliver as anything more than what they see because empathy, for Houyhnhnms, is impossible.

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