Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels". Dystopian or Utopian Literature?

Term Paper, 2015

8 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Houyhnhnms and their Land

3. The Yahoos

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

When dealing with utopian literature one always comes across Thomas More who founded the neologism ‘Utopia’ in 1516. His Work De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia is about an island that is excluded from its surroundings and has a full self-supply. It is considered to be the pioneer of utopian literature as genre. The term ‘Utopia’ derived from Greek ou-topos and means “no place” or eu-topos “good place”. This genre generally offers an idealized state where harmony and entire satisfaction are omnipresent, which is considered to represent a counter-image of the historical reality of the author’s times. Utopia represents a moral land which can never exist in the real world. In this way utopian places reflect wishes of the authors which can never come true – or at least only years later. To name but a few are the realization of democracy and human rights, improved medical care or nature conversation.

Unlike utopias, dystopias[1] [2] from Greek dys- (‘bad’) tópos (‘place’) often refer to totalitarian societies and restricted personal freedom. They appeared in the 19th century and their number increased strongly during the last hundred years. Dystopias critically reflect social imbalances and the lack of essential and personal liberty.

As an example of ideal concepts of a society, the paper will discuss utopian elements in Gulliver’s Travels, which will be compared with dystopian elements that refer to worse societies with social disparities and injustices. Hence, the question whether Gulliver’s Travels is more utopian or dystopian will be answered. The first part will have a focus on the country and the Houyhnhnms. The second part will analyze the other inhabitants – the Yahoos and how they fit into the island.

2. The Houyhnhnms and their Land

In chapter four Gulliver gets into a storm (cp. 187) and reaches the heretofore unknown country of the Houyhnhnms (cp. 186). After the landing a detailed description begins. It is a land that “was divided by long Rows of Trees not regularly planted, but naturally growing” (189). Gulliver has come to a country with an unspoiled countryside with “plenty of grass, and several Fields of Oats” (189). These descriptions of the countryside create an allegory to the Garden of Eden which is full of harmony and where no harm can be found. The Garden of Eden[3] hence functions as an idealized, unused place and is therefore often used as a utopian element in literature. Such a place can also be found in Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890) where an idyllic and harmonic place is created[4]. Although the descriptions of the countryside play a role in many utopian texts, there are more important aspects on the cultural level of the peoples.

The first people discussed here is that of the Houyhnhnms who look like horses. Gulliver describes them as noble and perfect. He has the highest consideration of them and says:

As these noble Houyhnhnms are endowed by Nature with a general Disposition to all Virtues, and have no Conceptions or Ideas of what Evil in a Rational Creature, so their grand Maxim is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it. (225)

It becomes obvious that they do not know evil in the world and they even do not have a word for it. The Houyhnhnms seem to represent a society without evil. There are neither lies, nor words for evil in their language or passions that would endanger their society. In their language “Houyhnhnm” itself means a horse that is perfect: “The word Houyhnhnm, in their Tongue, signifies a Horse, and in its Etymology, the Perfection of Nature” (199). This statement also relates to them being the superior species in that country.

The only possibility of living the idea of an ideal state where everyone lives peacefully can be reached through strict regulations. This is underlined by the motif of reason through which they justify their habits and their way of life: “[…] [H]e thought Nature and Reason were sufficient Guides for a reasonable Animal, as we pretended to be, in shewing us what we ought to do, and what to avoid” (210) and that “Reason alone is sufficient to govern a Rational Creature” (219). Reason itself plays an important role in relation to utopias and it is said that it is “[…] das Konzept einer funktionierenden Staats- und Gesellschaftsform in einer nahe liegenden oder noch weit entfernten Zukunft“ (Hachtel 19). However, this society has some strict rules that keep up a stable social coexistence – And the price for such a seemingly perfect state is high: For example, there is the aspect of birth control by which the birth rate is regulated to “prevent the Country from being overburthened with Numbers” (226). Although, the danger of starving is prevented, too, such a regulation refers to the lack of individual freedom – and individuality – which is the necessary price for social freedom. Despite this there is no possibility of social mobility. The differences within the social hierarchy are highly visible and can be illustrated by the example of the different hair colours of the horses:

[…] among the Houyhnhnms, the White, the Sorrel, and the Iron-grey, were not so exactly shaped as the Bay, the Dapple-grey, and the Black; nor born with equal Talents of the Mind, or a Capacity to improve them; and therefore continued always in the Condition of Servants, without ever aspiring to match out of their own Race. (216)

This passage demonstrates that the society and landscape of the Houyhnhnms can be understood as seemingly perfect. Moreover, there are certain habits that do not fit into the picture of an ideal society, for example the social differences of masters and servants. Their place in society is determined by their hair colour (216ff.). The Houyhnhnms do not have the possibility of climbing the social ladder and so there depicted a predetermined way of life of every individual in this social structure controlled not only by birth control, but also by their mating behaviour. Mating happens only within one class in order to breed a master race. Some aspects that refer to the positive features of that people can be seen particularly in their refusal of money or luxury goods: “My master said, he could never discover the Reason of this unnatural Appetite” (220). The narrator says, the Houyhnhnms cannot comprehend the longing for useless things, which are, for example, jewelry or other goods that are in themselves not useful in everyday life. Further, they are not suspect to diseases: “the Yahoos were the only animals in this country subject to any Diseases” (221). Instead of a fairly upright treatment of other species, they have a slave system that can be regarded to be a dystopian element. Thus, the Yahoos’ fur is used for making clothes and they furthermore work as slaves for the Houyhnhnms. Here, the question of what justice arises and it can be said, that as a consequence of these aspects there is no justice at all and it is reminiscent of a totalitarian system rather than an ideal society.

All these aspects show some reasons for their primary state in that country. It is all in all rather an authoritarian and totalitarian socio-political system which strongly influences the everyday life of the citizens or other creatures living under their control. In this respect, it cannot be said that this society is ‘perfect’ or almost perfect. Therefore, this society is a negative utopia rather than a positive one.

3. The Yahoos

The Yahoos are the counterpart of the Houyhnhnms. Thus, they are rather animal-like than human. Although they look similar to humans, they significantly differ in their physical appearance and their habits. Gulliver is filled with disgust when seeing them the first time after his arrival in Houyhnhnm Land. He says: “I never beheld in all my Travels so disagreeable an Animal, no one against which I naturally conceived so strong an Antipathy” (189f.). Furthermore, he names this disagreeable animal an “ugly Monster” (190), which underline his disgust. Their appearance is quite strange. They are animals which are covered with hair on their heads, breasts and their backs (189). Their outward appearance can also be related to their traits. This means that they do not have the way of life as the Houyhnhnms as a rational and reasonable people do. Likewise, they often fight without any reason: “[…] Battles have been fought without any visible Cause” (219). This sentence displays their brutal nature. They do not need any reasons for fighting or killing. Moreover, they sometimes fight against their own species, for example when there are many Yahoos who want to have food and “each single one impatient to have all to itself” (219). Here, a strong self-centred behaviour is shown in contrast to that of the Houyhnhnms.


[1] Also called “Anti-Utopia”.

[2] Mai (2014, 10).

[3] Radner (1992) comments on the land which is “like another Eden, though an Eden without the presence of God, and without temptation except for Gulliver” (p. 65). So this image of an ideal world obviously is two-sided and not really ‘perfect’.

[4] cp. Morris News from Nowhere. Especially in Chapter 30 are many descriptions of the surroundings and the landscape that form a utopian countryside.

Excerpt out of 8 pages


Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels". Dystopian or Utopian Literature?
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels
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jonathan, swift, gulliver, travels, dystopian, utopian, literature
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Kathrin Peschel (Author), 2015, Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels". Dystopian or Utopian Literature?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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