In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift uses the sharp contrast between the rationality of the Houyhnhnms and the bestial intensity of the Yahoos to expose the pros and cons of societies founded on the conflicting principals of unfeeling reason and fiery immorality. The Houyhnynms embody the insensitivity required to attain an “ideal” utopian civilization, while the Yahoos represent the intense passion that blossoms from a savage, immoral society. Swift depicts the Houyhnhnms as a very intellectual and stable civilization, whereas the Yahoos are a species driven solely by impulse. By providing this comparison, Swift also brings to light the problems with English society of the time.
While the Houyhnhnms seem like an idyllic society, the contrast to the Yahoos shows that the Houyhnhnms are unfortunately devoid of passion. A specific example of this is that the Houyhnhnms choose their mates based on genetic strengths rather than love or any kind of emotional attraction. The Yahoos are portrayed as a savage population that lacks all facets of self control; however this view is transformed as the beauty of their inherent passion and freedom is exposed. Gulliver is the balance between the two races; he’s viewed as a Yahoo, but feels that he is intellectually closer to the Houyhnhnms. Ann Cline Kelly claims that “Jonathan Swift vexes the issue of what constitutes a ‘brute’ by situating Gulliver as a pet in Houyhnhnmland, where “brutes” look just like him, and by focusing on the experience of pet keeping, which collapses the differences between the dominant, rational race and the lesser creatures whom they choose as companions” (323).
The twisted view of horses ruling over people paints the picture of how Swift viewed the eighteenth century English society. As stated by Kathleen M. Williams, “The opinion of Gulliver’s master on the ‘prodigious Abilities of Mind’ of English lawyers, which should qualify them to instruct others in wisdom and knowledge, leads to a valid satiric point” (279). Williams goes on to say that unlike the rational society of Houyhnhnms, humans are not capable of guiding all of their decisions and passions by reason. Although this does make human civilization much more unstable than that of the horse people, there are certain innate qualities that spring from that instability such as a love for life and for other people (281).
Kate William's travel poster with the Houyhnhnms as the destination
(Click poster for a larger image)
<--Back to home
Get a Plot Summary
View Concept Map
The Houyhnhnms feel that nature and reason should be the two controlling factors of a civilized life. Williams furthers this argument by pointing out that the horse people claim that “man has no right to lay claim to the life of Reason, for in him nature and reason are not, as in the Houyhnhnms, identical, and there is that in his nature which is outside reason’s legitimate control” (282). While the English is not held to as high an esteem as the Houyhnhnms in the novel, they are not viewed as quite as low as the Yahoos. The English culture represents the semi-happy medium between the cold rationality of the Houyhnhnms and the unrestrained evil of the Yahoos.