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The Natural History of the Houyhnhnms: Noble Horses in Gulliver’s Travels

The Natural History of the Houyhnhnms: Noble Horses in Gulliver’s Travels ABSTRACT: What does it mean that Swift models the rational non-humans of Gulliver’s Travels on horses, instead of other animals? Taking up this question, I argue that part 4 confronts readers with the incongruity between traditional admiration of horses as the noblest animals and their systematic exploitation as beasts of burden. To set Swift’s perspective in relief, I compare his satire with representations of horses in natural histories by Topsell, Jonstonus, and Buffon, as well as an equestrian manual by William Cavendish. While the exploitation of noble horses does not disturb Topsell or Jonstonus, Buffon’s text betrays signs of anxiety, which it nevertheless attempts to suppress. Cavendish, meanwhile, asserts that the human/horse hierarchy must be enforced with continual vigilance precisely because of the horse’s signal nobility. In contrast, Swift exposes attitudes toward horses as intolerably contradictory. Crucially, Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm master’s conversation about the treatment of horses emphasizes the disparity between their admiration and abasement. Swift offers an example of more logically consistent justifications for exploitation in characterizations of the Yahoos, but it is unclear whether the text advocates better treatment for horses (to accord with their status as the noblest animals) or debunks idealizations of horses (to produce a more compelling rationalization for exploitation). Although I distinguish Swift’s perspective on horses from modern arguments for the ethical treatment of animals, I conclude by suggesting that Gulliver’s Travels, in its resistance to modern paradigms, provides a vantage point from which we might undertake a radical re-evaluation of the human/animal relationship. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Eighteenth Century University of Pennsylvania Press

The Natural History of the Houyhnhnms: Noble Horses in Gulliver’s Travels

The Eighteenth Century , Volume 57 (1) – Mar 21, 2016

The Natural History of the Houyhnhnms: Noble Horses in Gulliver’s Travels


Bryan Alkemeyer The College of Wooster As Gulliver recounts his surprising discovery of a species of rational equines in part 4 of Gulliver's Travels (1726), readers make the parallel discovery of an interpretative dilemma that demands and resists explication: what does it mean that Jonathan Swift models his rational non-humans on horses, instead of (for instance) dogs, parrots, or monkeys?1 The question is especially urgent because Swift structures Gulliver's Travels to culminate in interrogation of the human/ animal relationship. Only in part 4 does it become apparent how the human form has operated tacitly--and, it turns out, fallaciously--as an index of rationality throughout the previous voyages. Gulliver makes this point as he answers the master Houyhnhnm's questions about his ship: I went on by assuring him, that the Ship was made by Creatures like myself, who in all the Countries I had travelled, as well as in my own, were the only governing, rational Animals; and that upon my Arrival hither, I was as much astonished to see the Houyhnhnms act like rational Beings, as he or his Friends could be in finding some Marks of Reason in a Creature he was pleased to call a Yahoo.2 It is easy to see that Swift could have used a rational variety of any familiar animal species in order to provoke Gulliver's re-evaluation of human/animal distinctions. Swift chooses, however, to imagine rational horses, and the implications of that choice call out for interpretation. The difficulties of providing such an interpretation can be illustrated by considering two classic and enduringly valuable essays, which have helped readers to appreciate Gulliver's Travels as an intervention in debates about the definition of the human but which have not satisfactorily accounted for the horse-like qualities of the Houyhnhnms. Influentially, R. S. Crane has argued that the Houyhnhnm/Yahoo relationship inverts definitions of humans and animals from logic books that...
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University of Pennsylvania Press
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Copyright © 2010 University of Pennsylvania Press.
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1935-0201
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Abstract

ABSTRACT: What does it mean that Swift models the rational non-humans of Gulliver’s Travels on horses, instead of other animals? Taking up this question, I argue that part 4 confronts readers with the incongruity between traditional admiration of horses as the noblest animals and their systematic exploitation as beasts of burden. To set Swift’s perspective in relief, I compare his satire with representations of horses in natural histories by Topsell, Jonstonus, and Buffon, as well as an equestrian manual by William Cavendish. While the exploitation of noble horses does not disturb Topsell or Jonstonus, Buffon’s text betrays signs of anxiety, which it nevertheless attempts to suppress. Cavendish, meanwhile, asserts that the human/horse hierarchy must be enforced with continual vigilance precisely because of the horse’s signal nobility. In contrast, Swift exposes attitudes toward horses as intolerably contradictory. Crucially, Gulliver and the Houyhnhnm master’s conversation about the treatment of horses emphasizes the disparity between their admiration and abasement. Swift offers an example of more logically consistent justifications for exploitation in characterizations of the Yahoos, but it is unclear whether the text advocates better treatment for horses (to accord with their status as the noblest animals) or debunks idealizations of horses (to produce a more compelling rationalization for exploitation). Although I distinguish Swift’s perspective on horses from modern arguments for the ethical treatment of animals, I conclude by suggesting that Gulliver’s Travels, in its resistance to modern paradigms, provides a vantage point from which we might undertake a radical re-evaluation of the human/animal relationship.

Journal

The Eighteenth CenturyUniversity of Pennsylvania Press

Published: Mar 21, 2016

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