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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
Part IV is the most controversial section in Gulliver's Travels. It is largely on the basis of Part IV that Swift has been attacked for misanthropy. There are three questions you must bear in mind as you read this book:
Is Gulliver Swift? Gulliver, as you know from the letter he wrote to his publisher, does exhibit signs of misanthropy, that is, he doesn't seem to like his fellow man very much. But might Swift have a purpose in presenting us with a misanthropic character? Might he be trying to comment on misanthropy itself? And on pride? (Remember, Swift was a cleric.) As you grapple with this question, try to imagine living in a society run by Houyhnhnms. Try to imagine living in a society run by Yahoos. Try to imagine a happy medium between these extremes, and try to imagine the society that this creature might create.
Do the Houyhnhnms represent Swift's human ideal? Think back to Descartes' theory that man is a "rational animal."
Do the Yahoos represent Swift's actual vision of mankind? If man is filled
with Yahoo-like traits, is there any hope that he can improve? As you
wrestle with this question you might try to balance the harsh things Gulliver
has said about man in Part III, Gulliver's sometimes shameful performance
in Part II, and the many forms of Lilliputian smallness in Part I, against
the Christian notion that man is capable of both the best and the worst.
Following this line of thought, man's work on earth is to come to terms
with the worst he can be and try to attain the best.
Don't be discouraged. These questions have plagued critics ever since the publication of Gulliver's Travels. As long as you can support your viewpoint with passages from the novel, you're doing fine.
Right away Swift signals that Gulliver is in for a rough trip in Part IV. Gulliver's men suffer fevers, the survivors mutiny and put Gulliver into a long boat to make it to land if he can. Eventually, Gulliver does make it to land. The first being he sees is a Houyhnhnm. "Upon the whole," he says, "I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy." Disgusted and confused, Gulliver strikes the second Houyhnhnm that approaches him.
After some experience with these horses, whose behavior is "so orderly and rational, so acute and judicious," Gulliver concludes the Houyhnhnms are magicians. For their part, they conclude that Gulliver must be a Yahoo.
For the first time, Gulliver suspects he may be losing his mind. So civilized are the Houyhnhnms they disturb Gulliver's notions of what characteristics apply solely to humans. When he sees that the Houyhnhnms even have servants (sorrel nags), he concludes that they "who could so far civilize brute animals, must needs excel in wisdom all the nations of the world."
Gulliver's first meeting with a Yahoo is traumatic. "My horror and astonishment are not to be described, when I observed in this abominable animal a perfect human figure...." To Gulliver the Yahoos are "detestable on all accounts" and become "more hateful" the more he is near them.
What do you think of Gulliver's reaction to the Yahoos? How do you think you would react in Gulliver's shoes? How do you feel as you read about the Yahoos? Attacked? Found out? Insulted? Enraged?
Gulliver, at chapter's end, is in a sort of no-man's land. He isn't permitted to lodge in the house with the Houyhnhnms whom he so admires, but he isn't made to sleep in the kennel with the Yahoos. He is neither one nor the other. Yet he makes it clear, in his last sentence, that he wishes to be counted with the horses. Would you?