Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

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Part IV, Chapters 3-5: Summary and Analysis

Gulliver learns the language of the Houyhnhms. His master is amazed at his ability, so uncharacteristic of the Yahoos, and is curious about Gulliver’s origin. Gulliver explains his origin, having difficulties because certain human concepts can be explained only with great difficulty in the Houyhnhms’ language. Gulliver has to say “the thing which is not” because there is no word for “lie” or “falsehood.” When Gulliver is accidentally seen naked, the Houyhnhms realize that he is of the same species as the Yahoos, but differs only in walking on the two hind feet. The Houyhnhms have great difficulty in believing that Gulliver comes from a country in which human beings are rational beings.

In Chapter Four, Gulliver learns that the Houyhnhms believe that the purpose of language is to communicate facts. To “say the thing which is not” defeats the purpose of language. They have difficulty believing that in Gulliver’s country people ride horses, and they want to know why the horses don’t throw and trample their would-be riders. Gulliver explains how horses are bred, and that some of them are castrated. The Houyhnhms think that Gulliver’s body is less serviceable than a horse’s. Lacking heavy hair all over his body, he is forced to take the trouble of making and wearing clothes. Gulliver tells a story, emphasizing human vices; the Houyhnhms are unable to understand the purpose of practicing these vices, nor can they understand the concepts of power, law, government, war, or punishment.

In Chapter Five, Gulliver discusses the causes of war and religious disputes, and has great difficulty making the Houyhnhms understand. The idea that a soldier, whose job is to kill people, could be held in great regard is also very difficult for them to understand. When weapons are explained, the Houyhnhm to whom Gulliver is speaking (the dapple-gray) says that humans in Gulliver’s country possess not reason, but some quality to increase their vice. Gulliver describes lawyers as people whose profession is to try to prove that black is white, and vice versa. He describes judges as being subject to bribes, and says they don’t decide cases according to their merits. Lawyers, Gulliver concludes, are totally unlearned and ignorant outside their trades.

In these chapters, Swift has Gulliver describe aspects of human life in the most negative, cynical, terms imaginable. The possibility of judges being honest is denied. Religious differences are trivialized; the idea of lawyers being learned outside their own discipline is denied. Swift, and Gulliver, are in fact giving a highly distorted account of European life, contrasting with the simple, Utopian life of the Houyhnhms.

The influences of Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic are evident in this section. The real world is deliberately depicted as worse than it is to make the ideal society, here that of the Houyhnhms, look so much better. The bitterness of the aging Swift has also been put forward by scholars as a reason for putting harsh words in Gulliver’s mouth. What we have is an intensification of the explanation of Gulliver’s country to the King of the...

(The entire section is 796 words.)