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


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.