This is a course blog for the members of EH236 at the University of South Alabama, Spring 2006.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Less than Perfection

In Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” the reader is constantly reminded of reason. In the story, a sea captain by the name of Gulliver is abandoned on a remote island after mutiny takes place on his ship. His new captors leave him on this island without offering him any prior knowledge as of what may await him there. Gulliver fears that the first group of savages he encounters may tear him to pieces. As he explores this new land he comes across a village where he first sees a creature with striking human-like characteristics. Swift later describes these beings as Yahoos. Strikingly, they act nothing like humans at first, but more like wild creatures. His encounter with the Yahoos is unpleasant at best and two horse-like creatures known as Houyhnhnms save him. From the start Gulliver notices that these beings act by no means in the same fashion as the horses he had come to experience in the past. They take him to their village and investigate his every move. It is during this investigation when Gulliver realizes that the Houyhnhnms have order to their ways and even seem to uses a language, which he is later able to imitate.

Gulliver spends the better half of the reading describing how he came to the island and how he is different than the vile Yahoos. He tells stories of his society back home and how his people are nothing like the Yahoos. The Houyhnhnms society is one solely based on reason. They are better in every aspect than the Yahoos.

The initial sign that the Houyhnhnms do not contain a utopian society is seen when Gulliver realizes some sort of hierarchical scale. The stronger stags, such as his master, are the ones in charge. In order to make him appear less like a Yahoo, Gulliver keeps his clothes on when ever he is in the presence of a Houyhnhnm. This is his most important method of maintaining the illusion that he is in no form a Yahoo. Unfortunately his cover is blown one morning when a servant of his master sees him without his full attire. His master does not however relate his discovery to the others, but rather does something else. In the same matter that Gulliver has hidden the truth about his identity, his master has done the same by concealing what he knows about Gulliver. His master also continues to believe that Gulliver is different than the other creatures even though the thought is beyond reason.

Their society has its flaws nonetheless. Unlike the Yahoos, the Houyhnhnms are the only creatures on the island to be immune to any disease, but make “Medicines composed of herbs, to cure accidental bruises and cuts in the pastern or frog of foot by sharp stones, as well as other maims and hurts in several parts of the body.” However they are mortals because “If they can avoid casualties, they die of old age.”

In the realm of marriage, the Houyhnhnms lack the act of courtship due to the arrangement of matrimony conducted by the elders. As much as Gulliver exalts the many virtuous facets their society, in the end he sees their true colors. At an assembly, the Houyhnhnms discuss the extermination of all Yahoos and their concern with Gulliver. Ultimately he is forced to leave the island or suffer the same fate as the Yahoos.

The society of the Houyhnhnms seems perfect at times throughout the reading, but in the end contains its own failings and errors.


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