{A Victory Over Common Sense} “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift (1726)

The fourth chapter of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels has consistently been a subject of notoriety for critics and casual readers alike. In the first book-length study of Swift published in 1752, John, Earl of Orrery, remarked that in the “last part of his imaginary travels, Swift has indulged a misanthropy that is intolerable.” In the same vein, Sir Walter Scott, in 1814, stated that “The Voyage to the Land of Houyhnhnms, is, beyond contest, the basest and most unworthy part of the work.” Few books in literary history have raised the ire of readers like Gulliver’s Travels, let alone works penned by men who have taken religious orders, like Swift had. Gulliver’s Travels may be the only book to have ever graced the children’s section of the library with the libel of obscenity hanging over the author’s head. The book has survived many horrible fates in order to become the classic it is today. Most of the book’s infamy rests on the final chapter, A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms, and it is not difficult to understand why so many have been perturbed by Swift’s satire.

Where the first three chapters may have been mild in their indignation, comparable to the Christian ecclesiastical maxim of detesting the sin and not the sinner, Swift raises the stakes in the fourth chapter of his book by scolding human nature itself through the interactions of Lemuel Gulliver and the Houyhnhnms. The Houyhnhnms are unconventional agents of satire because they are horses, and horses in our experience do not engage in verbal discourse with men. The entire book has an element of the fantastic about it, so by the fourth chapter we are quite used to Swift’s tactics. It is not uncommon in literature for an author to use animals as part of an allegory. Aesop’s beast fables immediately come to mind and Swift’s motivation is not substantially different from Aesop’s; granted, it is easier to detect the moral behind the majority of Aesop’s fables than it is in Gulliver’s Travels, but there is a similar narrative technique involved. The animals in Aesop’s fables allowed him to express his opinions indirectly, through characters in a fictional narrative. Swift employs a similar strategy throughout Gulliver’s Travels, especially in the fourth chapter of his book; the Houyhnhnms are a kind of homage to the fables of Aesop and Swift reserves a special purpose for them.

The symbolic value of the animal characters in Aesop may be debated, but they functioned primarily as contrasts to human nature and society. Aesop realized the full satirical value of having animals behaving like humans and the incongruity it afforded. Contrast is essential in satire, and having animals representing human types is fundamentally ironic. Irony is inherently a feature of satire and Swift’s representation of horses in Gulliver’s Travels, as rational creatures par excellence, is a testament to his appreciation of the ridiculous. Swift’s wit aside, the horses are emblems of an ideal in the book because they are perfectly rational and also because they live in harmony within nature and amongst themselves: “As these Noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by Nature with a general Disposition to all Virtues, and have no Conceptions or Ideas of what is Evil in a Rational Creature, so their grand Maxim is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it.” Gulliver’s esteem for the Houyhnhnms is meant to reflect our own, which is what makes the conclusion of the book so comical and denigrating.  Swift’s purpose throughout Gulliver’s Travels is to diminish the quality of pride by disintegrating human achievement, be it the satire against English political parties in chapter one, the government and learning of Europe at large in chapter two, or the philosophers and men of science in chapter three. As stated earlier, Swift’s object of satire in chapter four is human nature, but his strategy is more than misanthropic at heart, despite what some critics have maintained. Swift’s satire is harkening back to the tradition of the danse macabre and the leveling qualities of that tradition.

In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye says that Swift had an “affinity with the danse macabre tradition” and that he is in the “tradition of the medieval preachers who painted the repulsiveness of gluttony and lechery.” The didactic purpose of the danse macabre for priests and friars was to remind people of their fallen nature irregardless of station, of the imminence of death and the subsequent judgment of God, demonstrating that all men and women are equal before the presence of death and the jurisprudence of God. The Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels are not meant to represent any human individual or any human type; they are entirely other to the society of man, woman, and Yahoo alike. The Houyhnhnms are perfect creatures, and yet they are animals, kin to the subservient breed of animal known as the horse. Swift’s portrayal of the Houyhnhnms as the human ideal is dubious in purpose. Gulliver, by books end, has no difficulty in denouncing his own native society and, indeed, his own human nature in favor of the model proffered by the Houyhnhnms and the social order they conduct: “But I must freely confess, that the many virtues of those excellent Quadrupeds placed in opposite View to human corruptions, had so far opened my Eyes and enlarged my Understanding, that I began to view the Actions and Passions of Man in a very different Light, and to think the Honour of my own Kind not worth managing.”

Swift could have cast the human ideal as a man or a woman, perhaps the Brobdingnagians are abortions of such a plan, but instead he selected the horse as an emblem of perfection: “The Word Houyhnhnm, in their Tongue, signifies a Horse, and in its Etymology, the Perfection of Nature.” The Yahoos, like Gulliver, cannot be part of the Houyhnhnms’ society, but for different reasons. The Yahoo is a representation of the “noble savage” or natural man, according to M.H. Abrams, a “human being [that] exists entirely in the order of nature and does not have a soul or any mode of participating in a religious or spiritual world beyond the natural world” and, keeping with the book’s tone, Swift’s portrayal of the Yahoo as ignoble creature is satiric in aim: “He said the Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different Species of Animals; and the Reason usually assigned, was, the Odiousness of their own Shapes, which all could see in the rest, but not in themselves. He had therefore begun to think it not unwise in us to cover our Bodies, and by that Invention, conceal many of our own Deformities from each other, which would else be hardly supportable.” Mankind is not a higher-order animal like the naturalists argue. Gulliver is not a Yahoo, although he resembles one, just like Houyhnhnms are not horses.

Mankind, as the Christian tradition attests, has fallen from a state of perfection. Mankind is not part of the animal world, nor can they be part of the equilibrium of the natural order. Mankind has a spiritual body, therefore they are unnatural. The perfection of nature are the Houyhnhnms; they are an image of beings in a state of innocence and perfection. They might as well be angels to Gulliver because he cannot be part of their society, regardless of his behavior or intentions: “He looked upon us as a sort of Animals to whose Share, by what Accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its Assistance to aggravate our natural Corruptions.” The Houyhnhnms are certainly not the dancing skeletons of the danse macabre, but they function in a similar way. They do not invite Gulliver to participate in their society, but the vision they impart on him is parallel to the effect of the danse macabre: the Houyhnhnms reveal the limitations of human society and human nature: “When I happened to behold the Reflection of my own Form in a Lake or a Fountain, I turned away my Face in Horror and Detestation of myself.”

It is plain to see why critics have spoken of Swift as a misanthrope, but there also a kind of freedom permitted by the author’s vision of mankind. Swift gives us the opportunity to laugh at our follies. Gulliver pleads that he writes “for the noblest End, to inform and instruct Mankind”, but Swift can hardly attest the same because the Houyhnhnms are not imitable creatures. When Gulliver says that he has given us “a faithful History of [his] Travels for Sixteen Years,” near the end of the book, we realize what Swift has been up to all along. Gulliver goes on to say that he related his tale in “plain Matter Fact [and] in the simplest Manner and Style, because my principal Design was to inform, and not to amuse thee.” Swift’s practice is the exact opposite of Gulliver’s; his narrative is full of fanciful characters and settings, and his characterization of the idealized other as horses undermines even our “serious vision of the other world.” Seemingly, Swift leaves the reader with nothing to hold on to after reading the final chapter of Gulliver’s Travels. Mankind, in Gulliver’s final estimation, is nothing more than “a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride.” However, instead of disintegrating us, Gulliver ends up freeing us from our selves by lending us a new perspective.

Swift’s book is obviously a work of imaginative fiction, but one wonders why he bothered to be so exacting and scientific in his descriptions of characters and locales in the narrative. Travel narratives were common in Swift’s time as they are in ours, but we realize within the first few pages of the book, when we find the narrator shipwrecked on a foreign isle inhabited by pint sized people, that Gulliver’s Travelsis a fantasy. Frye says that “Whenever the “other world” appears in satire, it appears an ironic counterpart to our own, a reversal of accepted social standards.” Swift’s narrative is indeed a fantasy. The arguments he posits through Gulliver’s experiences with foreigners, despite being logical, accounts for only the surface of Gulliver’s Travels. Everything in the book is meant to make sense or to appear to make sense. Most of the episodes in the book are described in minute and precise detail. To say that the book is only an exacting satire, with elements of imagination and inventiveness thrown in for good measure is committing a heinous grievance to the legacy of the author. Swift is like his contemporaries, Alexander Pope and John Dryden, who were also masters of the satiric form; however, what separates him from the aforementioned authors is that his work is more inventive, or wittier, than say Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712) or Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (1681).

Does wit make Swift’s satire more commendable or more entertaining to his audience? What Jonathan Swift’s inventiveness achieves in Gulliver’s Travels is the opposite of the artful manipulation of means to foreseen ends. His fantasy, citing Northrop Frye, “breaks down customary associations, reduces sense experience to one of many possible categories, and brings out the tentative…basis of all our thinking. The final perspective that Gulliver’s Travels affords is a victory over common sense. It is easy to see why many people would disagree with Swift and his leveling process in the book; most people would fear such a movement, especially those with plenty to lose. The danse macabre has an invitation for everybody, and it is only customary to hate the messenger along with his message.