Yahoo: "composed of yah and ugh, both interjections implying disgust.
Their description may derive from contemporary accounts in travel books of apes and Hottentots."
(footnote from Gulliver's Travels)
The Yahoos are animalistic humans who were discovered by the fictional character Gulliver in Jonathan Swift's novel Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver runs into these creatures in the land of the Houyhnhnms, and they are symbols of his contemporary peers, with all faults magnified.
The Reformation of the Yahoos
The novel Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, was revolutionary for its time. Political satire was even more dangerous than it is now, with a society that was still under the rule of a ‘God-ordained’ monarchy, who was superseded in corruption only by an equally powerful religious counterpart. Therefore, Swift was risking more than just his position in the church by openly criticizing the secular and religious politics of his time. What then was his motivation in writing Gulliver’s Travels? "To reform the Yahoo face in this kingdom" he states to his cousin Sympson in a ‘letter’ printed after the introduction to the novel. It is through the vehicle of satire that he attempts such a project, and while he is successful in his satire, his ideal is never fully realized.
Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift comments on British politics of the time, the conflict between the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations, and on human nature. Gulliver, his main character, drew a parallel between the Yahoos he described in the fourth book of the novel and Englishmen, as he self-righteously stated his intentions in writing out his memoirs:
But when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience… I dwell the longer upon this Subject from the Desire I have to make the Society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable (288).
The Yahoos were a barbaric species that Gulliver encountered in the land of the Houyhnhnms, which were intelligent horses who ruled over the Yahoos through fear. The Yahoos had every human fault magnified in them, with their instincts ruling over their every action in place of logical thought processes. By comparing them with the stereotypical Englishman of the 1700s, Swift was certainly opening himself up for criticism and certain resentment from those he depicted. However, he did not simply state that Englishmen were arrogant, ignorant, greedy, lustful, and corrupt- that would have been too simple and it would not have required much imagination. So instead, Swift used satire to pointedly deride not only his opponents but also his main character Gulliver, who somewhat represented Swift.
Satire can be a very effective tool for bringing about social and political change at both a personal and communal level. Politically, satire is capable of putting those in power in their rightful place, where the common man and woman should be able to criticize their actions without being made to feel blasphemous, by exposing their faults and laughing at how they seriously they take themselves. For example, in the first book of the novel, A Voyage to Lilliput, Swift uses the example of two groups of Lilliputians who argue over which side of an egg should be broken- the big end or the small end. The egg represents the Eucharist, and the divisive forces represent Roman Catholics and Protestants, arguing over the symbolism and meaning of the Eucharist. He also shows the pettiness of the whole situation structurally, as everyone around Gulliver is a mere 6 inches tall, and we see the kingdom of Lilliput in a more detached, omnipotent manner. Swift then turns to human nature, when the Lilliputian officials search his pockets and find a pocket watch:
And we conjecture it is either some unknown Animal, or the God that he worships: But we are more inclined to the latter Opinion, because he assured us…that he seldom did any Thing without consulting it (21-22).
It is a relatively gentle poke at how people in Western culture often give time so much power over their lives, by letting it determine what they do or how they do things, which Swift recognized in himself as well. Also, at the end of the novel during the rant of Gulliver about the disgusting, prideful nature of human beings (including his own family), we see how easy it is to become just as bad as the people you criticize:
During the first Year I could not endure my Wife or Children in my Presence, the very Smell of them was intolerable (281)... and therefore I here intreat those who have any Tincture of this absurd Vice (pride), that they will not presume to appear in my Sight (288).
By bringing his satirical criticisms back round to his main character, Swift is able to take even more ammunition from his opponents, by being the first to point out his own weaknesses.
Was Swift successful in altering the nature of English society and its religious and secular politics? To a certain extent he was, in that he scared so many people in power that he was banished to Ireland and basically blacklisted within the hierarchy of the church. In addition, over time his style and subject matter influenced other political writers, who also began to utilize satire to make witty statements about the corrupt institutions in power. On a personal level as well Gulliver’s Travels encourages one to do a bit of self-inspection, as one can easily find some character to relate to in the novel, whether it be the pompously insignificant Lilliputians, the fascist-like attitudes of the ‘rational’ Houyhnhnms, or the pointless philosophical minds of the Laputians. However, on a general socio-political scale, the impact that Swift made was not large enough to effect a change in the nature of the political parties or the church politics which still remain as ridiculously relevant today as they did more than 200 years ago, due to the unchanging nature of so many Yahoos.
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