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  • Houyhnhnm Virtue
  • Bernard Harrison


Nineteenth and twentieth-century criticism has found Book IV of Gulliver's Travels a hard nut to crack. Wayne Booth aptly described the critical stalemate in 1961:

The debate about where Swift stands in the fourth book . . . is apparently as much alive today as it ever was—not because Swift has left any doubt about the presence of irony but because it is very hard to know how much distance there is between Gulliver and Swift and precisely which of the traveler's enthusiasms for the Houyhnhnms is excessive. Whatever Swift's satirical point, it is neither sufficiently commonplace nor sufficiently simple to be easily deciphered. Does he agree with Gulliver that "these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by nature with a general disposition to all virtues" (chap, viii), or is Swift attacking, behind Gulliver's back, the "absurd creatures" who, in their cold rationalism, "represent the deistic presumption that man has no need of the specifically Christian virtues?" As Professor Sherburn says, it is unlikely "that there will ever be unanimous agreement as to what Swift is doing in . . . Gulliver's fourth voyage."1 . . .

Unless there has been some permanent loss of clues to meanings which were clear to Swift's contemporaries, we must conclude either that Swift's norms are too complex or that the relations between Gulliver's opinions are too complicated.

Even if we conclude that the fourth book has been left to some degree indecipherable, we may, of course, go along with the current fashion and praise Swift for his ambiguities rather than condemn him for his inconclusiveness. But whichever side we [End Page 35] fall on, we should be quite clear that the ambiguity we accept will be paid for by a loss of satiric force.

(Booth 1961: 320-21)

Behind the puzzle thus set out lies a certain strategy of reading, a certain set of assumptions concerning what would count as a satisfactory way of reading Book IV The central presumption of that strategy is that Gulliver's Travels is part a political satire, and part moral fable. On either account, it belongs to a class of fiction whose object is to present, in indirect and amusing ways, a case for the political or moral views of their author. The business of criticism with such a work, especially one originating in the forgotten political quarrels of a remote age, is, therefore, to strip away the ironies and obliquities of the fiction to reveal the true lineaments of the authorial mind lurking beneath. Evidently, if the ironies are so intricate and the contemporary references so obscure that no clear moral or political stance can be assigned to the author, that enterprise must end in frustration.

That, on the whole, as Booth says, has been the fate of attempts to "decipher Swift's satirical point." Either one takes Swift to approve of the Houyhnhnms or to disapprove of them. The trouble is that either choice appears to leave the critic with the task of explaining away an irritating little collection of passages inconsistent with it. Four hundred and fifty years of Protestantism and two hundred of Romanticism have conditioned the least attentive reader to sympathise with a great deal of what Gulliver says about the awfulness of European civilisation as contrasted with the Stoic austerity of Houyhnhnm existence. On the other hand, only the least attentive reader can ignore the fact that at certain points the noble Houyhnhnms display feet of clay with which they can only have been provided by the malign and inscrutable Dean.

Following the latter clues, some twentieth-century critics, including Kathleen Williams, Irvin Ehrenpreis, and John Traugott, have detected irony in Swift's presentation of the Houyhnhnms. For them, therefore, a gap opens between Gulliver's unfettered Houyhnhnm-worship and a more disabused view presumably held by Swift. But how disabused? All three postulate a Swift who goes at least half of the way with Gulliver, one who holds that the world of the Houyhnhnms represents a genuine Utopia, a genuine ideal for rational beings but who doubts whether it is an ideal which human beings, complex and imperfectly rational creatures as they are, can usefully...


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