Last Reviewed on May 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1148
The Houyhnhnms are so naturally truthful that they do not have a word for “lie.” Gulliver’s master, therefore, does not quite know how to respond to his stories, since he is not accustomed to the concepts of doubt and disbelief. He is horrified to hear about the practice of riding on the backs of horses, objecting that “the weakest servant in his house would be able to shake off the strongest Yahoo.”
Communication is made more difficult, even when Gulliver has learned the language, by the comparatively small vocabulary of the Houyhnhnms, who have few desires and consequently few words to describe them. Gulliver’s master regards all Yahoos as contemptible creatures, and though he sees that Gulliver is unlike other Yahoos in his softer skin and different facial features, he does not see any particular advantage in these distinctions. He even points out that Gulliver’s hands are inferior to the fore-feet of an average Yahoo, since they are not so well adapted for climbing.
Gulliver tries to satisfy all his master’s enquiries, but the difficulty of doing so is primarily philosophical rather than linguistic. He attempts to explain his position as captain of a ship, but his master cannot understand how he could convince so many strangers from different countries to follow him, particularly when his former voyages had been so unsuccessful. The Houyhnhnm cannot understand such concepts as power, government, war, law, punishment, and the desire for wealth, so despite his high intelligence, he finds Gulliver’s explanations hard to understand.
Gulliver gives his master an account of several recent European wars. His master asks why one country goes to war with another, and Gulliver lists many causes, including the ambition of princes, the corruption of ministers, and differences of opinion about customs. He discusses the treachery of governments toward their allies and of kings toward their relations who rule other countries. He also tells his master about mercenary soldiers, who fight for money rather than for their country.
Gulliver’s master objects that he is too weak a creature for his species to be such prodigious fighters, since he lacks even the claws of a normal Yahoo. Gulliver tells him about the vast array of weapons human beings have created to destroy one another: “cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets.” His master is appalled that a creature with all the malice and brutality of a Yahoo should also possess such destructive power. He then questions Gulliver about the laws of England. Gulliver explains the role of lawyers in defending falsehood and prosecuting the innocent, as well as their focus on all the least important aspects of any case, with the aim of winning rather than serving justice. His master observes that it is a pity for such intelligent creatures as lawyers must be to waste their abilities in this way, whereupon Gulliver assures him that outside the technicalities of their own profession, lawyers are generally accounted as ignorant and stupid.
Gulliver explains the use of money to his master, why it confers such great power on its possessor, and the lengths to which his countrymen will go to obtain it. He also discusses international trade, saying that the wealthier classes constantly scour the world for new luxuries and that “the whole globe of earth must be at least three times gone round before one of our better Yahoos could get her breakfast, or a cup to put it in.” He goes on to observe that most of the population make a small amount of money by providing luxuries for the rich and then talks of doctors, who earn their living by curing disease. The Houyhnhnm does not understand this concept, since, as Gulliver explains the matter, sickness is mainly attributable to eating and drinking the wrong things and to living in an unwholesome manner, matters in which the Houyhnhnms are quite innocent. He also remarks that many of the human race are hypochondriacs, and their ailments are imaginary.
When Gulliver’s master enquires about politicians and aristocrats in England, Gulliver is obliged to disabuse him of his idea that they must be among the best of humankind. He describes the corrupt and irrational government of his country and says that the aristocracy has become degenerate through generations of luxury, meaning that “a weak, diseased body, a meagre countenance, and sallow complexion, are the true marks of noble blood.”
Gulliver says that before he had lived for a year among the Houyhnhnms, he had already decided to stay in their country forever, since they were the most admirable beings he had ever encountered. His master, however, does not return his admiration. He observes that the Yahoos of Gulliver’s country clearly have somewhat more reason and ability than the ones with which he is familiar but that they use these limited gifts solely for the purposes of increasing their corruption and discovering new vices. Yahoos everywhere, he concludes, are violent, greedy, and dishonest. The specific institutions of government are clearly different in Gulliver’s homeland, for in the country of the Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos live as wild beasts. However, he has noted that, in a herd of Yahoos, the wickedest and most deformed individual often takes on the role of leader and retains it until an even worse specimen can be found.
Yahoos, Gulliver’s master observes, also show a “strange disposition to nastiness and dirt,” while every other species values cleanliness. He also remarks upon the absurdities of their courtship rituals, which Gulliver ruefully observes are only slightly more primitive versions of those familiar to him from his homeland.
Although he finds the Yahoos repulsive, Gulliver is nonetheless intrigued by them and takes the time to study their behavior closely. He says they are “the most unteachable of all animals,” perverse, malicious, treacherous, and cowardly. They are strong and hardy, can swim well, and are able to stay underwater for long periods and to catch fish.
The Houyhnhnms, in sharp contrast to the Yahoos, are noble, virtuous, and always guided by reason. There is so much agreement on the reasonable course in every case that they have no word for “opinion,” and Gulliver struggles to explain the concept to his master. They do not have strong affections, and the care they take in the education of the young is guided by the needs of society, not a special fondness for their own children. Marriage, like everything else, is a matter of reason, and the Houyhnhnms take care to breed only with partners whose colors and other attributes are compatible with their own. Males and females receive largely the same education, except when the females are instructed in their domestic duties. Every fourth year, the Houyhnhnms hold a national council, where they enquire into and quickly settle any matters in need of revision or adjustment.
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