Difference between the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels

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Comparison between the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Detailed Comparison between two Characters, Yahoos and Houyhnhnms in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels : In “Gulliver’s Travels”, Lemuel Gulliver visits the semi-tranquil, semi-chaotic land of Houyhnhnyms. Its chief inhabitants are talking horses. These horses are gentle, virtuous, rational and vegetarian. The land of the Houyhnhnms is, like Brobdingnag, a utopia. It is an unspoiled Shangri-la. Most unlike the war zones of “1984”. There is no stealing, no lies and no disease in the land of the Houyhnhnms. These vices exist only among the Yahoos. The Yahoos are inferred as savage, cave man like, aggressive, excitable and carnivorous beings. They are, without question, a parody of humans.

The “hard” school of criticism contends that the Houyhnhnms are Swift’s ideal while the Yahoos are his satiric representation of actual mankind at its most despicable. There seems to be no obvious way to reconcile this con- tention with the claims of the “soft” school that quite the contrary is true; that the Houyhnhnms represent Swift’s satire of an inhuman, unattainable rationality and of the deists’ belief in rational, benevo- lent man, while the Yahoos are placed at the opposite end of the scale – the intention being to show man’s middle state between irra- tional brute and creature of pure rationality.

Gulliver’s description of the horses, the Houyhnhnms, is almost idyllic: “The behaviour of these animals was . . . orderly and rational . . . acute and judicious.” Indeed, it is a horse that rescues him from the Yahoos — not by any overt, physical action, but by simply appearing on the road — no physical action being necessary. Houyhnhnms live simple lives wholly devoted to reason. They speak clearly, they act justly, and they have simple laws. Each Houyhnhnm knows what is right and acts accordingly. They are untroubled by greed, politics, or lust. They live a life of cleanliness and exist in peace and serenity. They live by the grand maxim: Cultivate Reason and be totally governed by it. So perfect is their society, in fact, that they have no concept of a lie, and therefore no word to express it. The only word for evil is “Yahoo.”

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Character Analysis of Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels

Swift defines Houyhnhnm as meaning “perfection of nature.” This definition establishes an important distinction. The horses are uncorrupted by passion — either base or noble. They are devoid, for example, of charity. Also, they are not subject to temptation. Swift, however, never suggests that the Houyhnhnms stand for perfected human nature; on the contrary, they manifest innocent human nature. What they do — and what they say and think — is akin to human nature, but the character of the Houyhnhnms is far from Gulliver’s. They are ignorant of many things which most people would consider venial. They cannot, for example, understand lying — or even the necessity for lying.

Yahoos are the human-like creatures that Gulliver first encounters in the Country of the Houyhnhnms. Not recognizing their link with humanity, Gulliver describes the Yahoos as animals: ” . . . deformed . . . . Their heads and breasts were covered with thick hair . . . but the rest of their bodies were bare . . . . They had no tails and often stood on their hind feet . . . .” He concludes with, “I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal.”

Although they are human in form and feature, the Yahoos are, indeed, animals. They are filthy and they stink. They are omnivorous but seem to prefer meat and garbage. (Significantly, they eat nearly everything prohibited by the biblical and Levitical food codes.) They are “the most filthy, noisome, and deformed animals which nature ever produced . . . ” and they are “restive and indocible, mischievous and malicious.”The Yahoos, however, are not merely animals; they are animals who are naturally vicious and represent Mankind depraved. Swift describes them in deliberately filthy and disgusting terms, often using metaphors drawn from dung. In terms of their evolution, the words used to describe the Yahoos are “degenerating by degrees.”

The Houyhnhnms say that the Yahoos, a name given to us by them, are savages, animals who lead useless lives. They teach that the Houyhnhnms are the masters, and they train us, send us away, or keep us near to work for them, picking crops and eating wild animals and plants . The Yahoos are described as the opposite of the Houyhnhnms who praise themselves for their actions and thoughts. They may be the opposite, but it does not mean that Houyhnhnms are perfect. There are many flaws in the Houyhnhnms that the Yahoos, despise. The Yahoos do not understand these behaviors, for they make the Houyhnhnms’ lives dull and lifeless.

The Houyhnhnms pride themselves on being better than the Yahoos, but they view some of their people as worse than others. The Yahoos are equal, except for the leader who has a strong will to make others do what they must. The Houyhnhnms judge their kind by the most useless of traits, like color. A gray horse is no different from a brown horse, yet the sorrel nag (a brown horse servant) works for the master from birth without any choice of what they can do. The Houyhnhnms do not treat the servants as badly as the Yahoos, but they see differences where there should be none . A leader of the Yahoos takes control, but the Houyhnhnms decide for others what they should do.

The most horrible part of the Houyhnhnms’ lives is how they treat the Yahoos. They see us as brutes and use our energy for their own needs. The Yahoos work tirelessly only to receive nothing but hate. The Yahoos are slaves, a word that Englishmen like Gulliver know well. So, the Houyhnhnms are not kind or gentle as they see themselves; they describe the Yahoos as cruel, but we do not enslave our people. The Yahoos carry the Houyhnhnms and work in the gardens, although we never wanted to do it. The Yahoos do not want to work for the Houyhnhnms or anyone else, but the horses make men and women their pets and workers, taking away freedom to pillage or steal.

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The thoughts of the Houyhnhnms are as hard to understand as their deeds. The Yahoos act as their heart moves them – fighting and loving are parts of life that make it fun. The Houyhnhnms lead dull lives where nothing happens but existence and death. The word “lie” does not exist in their language, but the Houyhnhnms cannot be true to themselves when they say that love has no place in their relationships . The Yahoos see no joy in marrying to have children and nothing else. The whole nation deciding what is reasonable seems impossible, because the horses must have some differing thoughts. They are hiding their true natures and pretending that they do not feel. The Yahoos are not cowards in the end, but the Houyhnhnms are! They are afraid to disagree or to feel love and desire for one another, choosing an emotionless existence. Reason cannot explain love or passion, and breeding for the best characteristics means that the Houyhnhnms fear becoming even a little similar to the Yahoos.

In their feeling of superiority, the Houyhnhnms also become ignorant of others. They do not learn about the Yahoos to live with us but to control us. The Houyhnhnms view their system as the best and do not want to see how we can live without them and be happy in our way. The bland and unchanging lives that the Houyhnhnms live are not appealing. If there were other people, like Gulliver, who lived beyond the sea, the Houyhnhnms would not welcome them. Instead, they would treat them like they do us – putting themselves above all and judging harshly traits that do not fit their view of goodness.

Swift thus establishes a range, or spectrum, of existence. The horses are literally innocent, having never (in theological terms) “fallen”; the Yahoos are super-sensual and seem depraved. The Houyhnhnms are ice-cold reason; the Yahoos are fiery sensuality. Swift positions Gulliver midway — figuratively and literally — between the super-rational, innocent horses (the Houyhnhnms) and the filthy, depraved Yahoos. Gulliver, however, reacts to the Yahoos with immediate and overpowering detestation and is horrified by the Yahoos’ similarity to him. He lacks the humility to see himself as a sort of Yahoo. Rather, his pride leads him to try to become a horse. Gulliver will try with admirable determination to improve himself; he will try to change himself into a more horse-like state, but he will fail. He is, simply, more of a Yahoo than a Houyhnhnm.

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