Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Part 4, Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

The Houyhnhnms do not fully understand the concepts of doubt and disbelief because falsehood is also foreign to them. Deception, they believe, defeats the purpose of communication. They see no reason to mislead others by telling them a "thing which is not." Gulliver is able to explain that Yahoos like him rule his home country and Houyhnhnm are called horses. Horses are treated well by the wealthy and worked hard by the lower classes. The master is confused by this order of things, as Houyhnhnms are much stronger than people, and Gulliver explains how horses are trained to obey from birth. The master is offended by the training methods, particularly the practice of castrating young male horses to make them more docile. The master once again questions how a race so inferior as the Yahoos, even Yahoos like Gulliver, could rule over Houyhnhnms but concludes that this is evidence of the European Yahoos' ability to use reason to compensate for lesser physical strength.

Analysis

For the Houyhnhnms, communication exists for one individual to pass knowledge and information along to another. To give knowledge that is not simply mistaken or incomplete is one way to hinder communication, but to provide information that actively moves the hearer further away from truth makes no rational sense to them. They lack a concept of intentional deception as a result, and the closest they can get to the idea is to declare a lie a "thing which is not." This phrase does not describe intent, as they cannot understand the intent to deceive; it only describes the content of a false statement.

The role reversal between horses and humans that has been implied in the previous chapters becomes explicit in Gulliver's conversation with his master in which he describes how horses are used as beasts of burden in Europe. For the Houyhnhnms, physical strength plays an important role in establishing power, an idea that is also visible in Gulliver's experiences with the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians. At the same time, the Houyhnhnms acknowledge the superiority of reason as a source of power, which is not an idea espoused by the other societies Gulliver has encountered. The Houyhnhnms combine physical dominance with an equal measure of reason to rule over their land.

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