Gulliver's Travels | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Gulliver's Travels | Part 4, Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Three months before Gulliver leaves the Houyhnhnm island, he attends a grand assembly of the Houyhnhnms as they debate whether to exterminate Yahoos from their island entirely. The speakers argue that the Yahoos are untrustworthy and would destroy their livestock, food supplies, and property if they were not constantly watched. Furthermore, the Yahoos breed so prodigiously that the Houyhnhnms worry they might overrun the island. Gulliver's master presents Gulliver as an example of Yahoos' potential worth and proposes they not kill the whole population at once. Instead, he believes they should castrate the young males—as humans in Europe do with horses—and end their breeding. In the meantime, the Houyhnhnms can breed donkeys to take over the Yahoos' labor. The assembly agrees to this plan, and they tell the master something else that he does not share with Gulliver right away.

The Houyhnhnms have no written letters, but they excel in poetic language. They also have no word to describe evil and express negatives in terms associated with the Yahoos. They have developed medicines to treat injuries and naturally live between 70 and 75 years. Houyhnhnms approaching death are aware of it and spend their final days visiting with friends. Gulliver recounts a visit from a female Houyhnhnm to his master who apologizes for being late by explaining that her husband was dying earlier in the day and she had to discuss plans for his burial with her servants.

Analysis

Although Gulliver believes the Houyhnhnms have mastered pure reason and represent an ideal civilization, their proposal to exterminate the Yahoos represents the kind of violence that the Houyhnhnms have scolded and rejected in Gulliver's accounts of Europe. Surely such a plan, if executed, would lead to war. Although the Houyhnhnms have embraced equality and fair treatment among their own kind, they do not extend these graces to other groups. Gulliver's master presents Gulliver as a kind of defense against killing the Yahoos, which raises the question of whether the Yahoos on the island would indeed be so barbaric and untrustworthy if they were given the same kind of care and attention given to Gulliver. These creatures have been subjugated and pushed to the margins by the Houyhnhnms for so long, they have nothing of their own, and no potential for improvement. In a telling moment, the Houyhnhnms claim that the Yahoos came to the island and began proliferating. The Houyhnhnms began using them for labor and service from the beginning, which means the Yahoos have never had a chance to be anything other than animals. They observe that if the Yahoos had been "aborigines" or native to the island, they would have "long since been rooted out," which reads as a comment on the European tendency to destroy other cultures during the process of colonization.

The exchange with the Houyhnhnm widow further reveals the lack of emotional attachments these creatures form in their pursuit of pure reason. At the time Gulliver's Travels was published, complex social rules mandated mourning periods and dress for the recently widowed. Not only would a social visit on the day of a spouse's death be unexpected, but in human society it might be frowned upon as insufficient evidence of grief. Even in the current day, social engagements take a backseat to the grief associated with the death of a loved one. The Houyhnhmn widow explains her lateness as the result of prolonged consultations with her servants about a "convenient" place to bury the body. The lack of emotion expressed here shows the extreme lack of emotion these creatures express. At the same time, Gulliver reveals that the widow herself dies three months after her husband, which may simply indicate her age in relation to her husband's but could also point to a deeper emotional connection between spouses than any of the Houyhnhnms will outwardly admit or express.

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