Gulliver’s Supposed English Superiority Gulliver’s typical Anglocentric Enlightenment views are best exemplified in Chapter 1 of Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels. The long paragraph, in which he describes his encounter with the Yahoos as well as the circumstances leading up to it, illustrates the climax of his Anglocentric views, after which his English pride begins to gradually degenerate and his desire to emulate the Houyhnyms arises. His English pride in this paragraph is demonstrated by his resolution to trade his life with the local “Savages” using “Toys” as his only means, his judgment of the Yahoo’s lack of comprehensive language ability, and his ever-present disgust for bodily functions. As the passage opens, Gulliver considers his situation and decides “to deliver [himself] to the first Savages [he] should meet; and purchase [his] life from them by some Bracelets, Glass Rings and other Toys, which Sailors usually provide themselves with in those Voyages.” Despite all his previous voyages in which Gulliver encountered people who were not at all savage (and possibly more civilized than him), he automatically assumes again that people in territories outside of Europe will be inherently savage. Not only does he underestimate their level of civilization, but he then proceeds to assume that the Native people will be intellectually inferior when he believes he can buy his life with what he himself refers to as “Toys.” Gulliver’s belief, however, is not completely grounded in arrogance because imperialistic powers did trade cheap jewelry with the Native Americans for furs or even land.
Using this logic, Gulliver feels he can extend trading “Toys” for life. He feels that if they are dumb enough to trade furs for glass rings, it is likely that he can guarantee his life in the same manner–that his life can be traded for something so insignificant. Due to his sense of Enlightenment superiority, Gulliver does not even entertain the possibility that his life actually is as insignificant as the Toys which he plans on trading for it. Ironically, as his pride degenerates into a hatred for his own race, Gulliver indeed starts to believe in the insignificance of human life. After Gulliver considers his options, he inspects the island and observes a species of animals whom he likens at different points in the paragraph to goats, squirrels, monsters, cattle and beasts.
It is no wonder then, that later when Gulliver reveals that these creatures are human beings, that his reader is surprised. He describes their shapes as “Singular and deformed .. .their Skins were of a brown Buff colour.” Perhaps one reason Gulliver does not initially see any resemblance between himself and the Yahoos is because they are not white; perhaps his Anglocentric ideal does not permit any color but white to be acknowledged as his equal. What seems certain, however, is the fact that Gulliver feels an immediate antipathy to the Yahoos because they show no indication of having a rational language. In watching them, he does not see them speak to each other and this alienates him because as we see in each voyage, it is imperative to Gulliver that he learn the language of the peoples he encounters, from the Lilliputians to the Brobdingnagians.
As with all his journeys, he wants to find inhabitants that he may converse with but when he sees no sign of a language, he feels helpless and cannot then put the Yahoos in his frame of reference. Language is a tool Gulliver uses to maintain a sense of security, something that he equates to rationality and thus, to himself. In order to trade his life for toys, he needs to be able to communicate with the inhabitants but these creature seem to Gulliver to be beyond savage. When, he strikes a Yahoo with a hanger and the creature reacts by “[roaring] so loud, that a Herd [flocks] about [him] .. howling and making odious Faces,” Gulliver decides that this a truly irrational and repulsive species.
When he first encounters the two Houyhnhnms, however, he is impressed by their seeming language ability and their behavior (their striking of hooves like the shaking of hands) and concludes that they must be “orderly and rational.” Thus Gulliver separates himself from the language-less barbarian Yahoos and resolves to learn the language of the Houyhnhnms. It is interesting to note that he learns to understand their “graceful and significant” language in ten weeks, and in three months can speak enough to answer his “Master’s” questions, whereas it took much less time to learn the languages of the other islands. This indicates that he exalts the language of the Houyhnhnms more than any of the other foreign languages he has learned in his voyages. Finally, the most memorable part of the passage seems to be that in which the Yahoos strike at Gulliver’s vulnerability: his disgust for bodily functions, particularly excrement. As the stricken Yahoo signals the other Yahoos, they crowd around him, jumping into the tree, “from whence they discharge their Excrements on [his] head.” The Yahoos do not just relieve themselves on Gulliver but they do so on his head, the source of Gulliver’s Enlightened brain, the source of his rationality.
Thus, not only are they are a threat to his rationality mentally because they have no coherent language but they a threat to his rationality physically as well because they literally dump their dung on it. Furthermore, this gesture of the Yahoos causes great shame because it is as if they seem to mistake Gulliver for one of their own, in effect, initiating him into their species. Dropping excrement is not an uncommon thing to do among Yahoos as the they perform this ritual on the “Favourite” of the “Ruling Yahoo” when he chooses a new “Favourite.” Mistaken for a Yahoo causes Gulliver such discomfort that he considers them to be the lowest form of life and sets himself as far apart as he can from them. Gulliver was taught, in an Anglocentric society, to believe that bodily functions are embarrassing and shameful. We see this all throughout the novel, from when Gulliver is ashamed of his abundant pile of excrement to when he wears it on his head. Excrement almost seems to function as a symbol of man’s evils.
It is what he needs to dispose of or it will consume him in the same way that evil will. Gulliver does not accept it as a part of nature. His pride and rationality are so threatened by the Yahoos that he cannot acknowledge the Yahoos as forerunners of his kinsmen even though they are a lowly version of himself. This dislike for the Yahoos later turns into a denouncement of his species but even though he is not proud of his humanity, he is still proud. Gulliver considers himself better than all other Yahoos because of his knowledge from the Houyhnhnms.
The excrement itself is not the reason behind his pride. Nobody would want to be covered in it. The excrement, however, is the major foundation for Gulliver’s loathing for the Yahoos and he would not have been so affected by it had he not lived in a society which is ashamed of its natural processes. In his novel, Swift does not use the Yahoos to show the evil of man but rather, to show the potential for evil that man has. Gulliver, however, takes his notions of judgment, and presupposes his intellectual superiority which feels he confirms based on the Yahoos’ lack of language and their not-so-warmhearted welcome. As he gradually begins to believe that all humans are at the Yahoo level, however, his Anglocentric pride fades.
Thus, this passage is effectively the last time we really see Gulliver act on his presupposed English notions. English Essays.