The Depiction of the Yahoo’s

 Gulliver’s Travels: The Depiction of the Yahoo’s 

In my reading of Gulliver’s Travels, I often couldn’t help but notice the extreme language and occasional, “gross” situations presented by the author (though perhaps just because the style of this genre), but it still sometimes took me by surprise. The story starts simply as Gulliver innocently lives among the Lilliputians, but in part 4 he clearly holds some resentment for the very species he is technically a part of, and in some cases the language even turns a bit dark and gruesome (Gulliver doesn’t even blink an eye at the thought of using human skins for his shoes and sail!). It’s obvious Swift is making comments about humanity’s “reason” in a humorous, yet sinister way, but what about Gulliver’s reasoning, or any of the others? The passage I decided to choose was therefore Chapter 9, and the description of the general assembly on the topic of the Yahoo’s fate.

In the beginning, I found it odd, and sort of funny, that when Gulliver first arrived on the island he instantly connects more with random horses trotting around than the hairy Yahoo’s who urinated all over; and if these are his fellow human beings, perhaps it’s not that hard to see why Gulliver doesn’t want anything to do with them. But the language is always harsh, and doesn’t let up in depicting the Yahoo’s as “ooze and froth from the sea” (2617). Swift seems to have numerous amounts of words that never end: “filthy, noisome, and deformed animal which nature ever produced…most restive and indocible, mischievous, malicious” (2617). I noticed throughout the entire adventure there is not one single redeeming feature given to the Yahoo’s at all, either on the island or off. It is stated that they are monstrous, barbarous, and so they remained, and the only difference about Gulliver’s own Yahoo’s back in Europe is that they have a “ounce” of reason, which, as much explained to us by Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms, is corrupted and untrue.

In the general assembly, and even before this as humanity was put down for all its faults, funny as they are, I found myself becoming overly critical of the Houyhnhnms way of life as well. For as charming and divine, and as much as I do admire their reasonableness and lovely way of appreciating all things (except Yahoo, of course), the first thing I tended to notice in Chapter 9 was the so-called ‘dispute’, which I had taken that the Houyhnhnms were supposedly never to have. The Yahoo’s are then described as a disturbance in the world of the Houyhnhnms, ‘not natural’ so perhaps this explains the cause; the Yahoo’s are outsiders, and no matter where they roam are corrupting the land, the ever peaceful, intelligent horses into the only argument “that ever happened in their country” (2617).

But as I read further into the passage, it becomes clear this isn’t even a ‘debate’ as it was first described, nor is it a form of ‘opinion’ on the Yahoo’s at hand. There is only the ‘affirmative’ to the discussion, no other considerations are remarked upon, no one is defending the opposite side– it appears the Yahoo’s are to be exterminated, which, as by the Houyhnhnms logic, is seen by their pure reasoning alone. The Yahoo’s are abominable, and it is an agreed fact even before the meeting starts that the Yahoo’s should all die, the only question being ‘how’ (which, as suggested by Gulliver unknowingly, is even more disturbing when put into thought). I don’t know if that’s just me and my poor Yahoo self, but maybe I felt Swift was going over-board, and negative language concerning the Yahoo’s, and humanity, is ever present.

The Yahoo’s are constantly represented as some sort of vermin which needs to be squashed, put out instead of breeding. “Evil”, “savage”, brutal images are often used relentlessly with comparisons to the lowest of dirt, and not even the young are held back for any sympathy. Is Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms right in their treatment of the Yahoo’s? Was this depiction accurate or too much, and what of Gulliver himself? Is Gulliver’s decision to shun humanity after seeing the monsters of society, the virtues of the Houyhnhnms, even seeing his wife and children as disgusting, truly ‘reasonable’? And is Swift going too far in his consistent language of the Yahoo’s?

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.

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2 Responses to The Depiction of the Yahoo’s

  1. Carol jones says:

    I find it very interesting that for all Gulliver presents the Houyhnhnms as superior to humans, they seem to be lacking in many of the traits that I think reveal the best in humanity. They are extremely judgemental in their attitudes towards the Yahoos, who apparently lack the intelligence to be any better than they are. Their prejudice is so ingrained that they cannot accept that Gulliver is different than those who’s physical appearance he shares. Their decision to eliminate the Yahoo species shows they lack compassion and are cruel.

    If you read any of Swift’s other works you will find that he is a misanthrope- he really doesn’t like humanity. He also is really preoccupied with ‘bodily functions’. How many other novels contain multiple references to urination and feces?

  2. rwhittaker says:


    Reading your commentary on the depiction of the Yahoo’s reminded me of the 1968 film Planet of the Apes. If you haven’t seen it, the story line is very similar to that of Part Four of Gulliver’s Travels: astronauts crash land on an island, they find that on this island apes are the dominant species, and the apes find out that one of the astronauts – Taylor – is intelligent unlike the mute and “Yahoo-like” humans on the Planet of the Apes. All the while getting lines from Taylor (Charlton Heston) such as the classic: “take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape”. What is interesting however is that in the film, Taylor, the main human character defends human kind, fights the apes, and tries to escape. Contrarily Gulliver, instead of trying to help the Yahoo’s, calls them “evil” and “savage”. Like Gulliver, Taylor has more in common with the Apes than his fellow humans, they are intelligent and he is able to communicate with them, but he attempts to fight back the injustice he sees, whereas Gulliver embraces it, as long as he is not the one subject to the inequality. To answer your question – Is Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms right in their treatment of the Yahoo’s – I have to say no. If Gulliver had been subjected to the same treatment as the Yahoo’s, I think he would have been far more willing to help them, but because he believed himself to be superior to the Yahoo’s, he (as you mentioned) shows no hesitation in using human skins for his shoes and sail. I enjoyed reading your post!


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