Over the course of two years, Gulliver describes the state of affairs in Europe, speaking to his Houyhnhnm master about the English Revolution and the war with France. He is asked to explain the causes of war, and he does his best to provide reasons. He is also asked to speak of law and the justice system, which he does in some detail, criticizing lawyers severely in the process.
The discussion then turns to other topics, such as money and the different kinds of food eaten in Europe. Gulliver explains the different occupations in which people are involved, including service professions such as medicine and construction.
Gulliver develops such a love for the Houyhnhnms that he no longer desires to return to humankind. His master tells him that he has considered all of Gulliver’s claims about his home country and has come to the conclusion that Gulliver’s people are not so different from the Yahoos as they may at first have seemed. He describes all the flaws of the Yahoos, principally detailing their greed and selfishness. He admits that Gulliver’s humans have different systems of learning, law, government, and art but says that their natures are not different from those of the Yahoos.
Gulliver wants to observe the similarities between Yahoos and humans for himself, so he asks to go among the Yahoos. He finds them to be very nimble from infancy but unable to learn anything. They are strong, cowardly, and malicious.
The principle virtues of the Houyhnhnms are their friendship and benevolence. They are concerned more with the community than with their own personal advantages, even choosing their mates so as to promote the race as a whole. They breed industriousness, cleanliness, and civility in their young and exercise them for speed and strength.
Gulliver’s master attends a Grand Assembly of Houyhnhnms, where the horses debate whether or not to extinguish the Yahoos from the face of the Earth. Gulliver’s master suggests that instead of killing them, they should, as the Europeans do with their horses, merely castrate them. Eventually, unable to breed, the Yahoos will die out, and in the meantime the Houyhnhnms can breed asses to take their place.
Gulliver then describes further aspects of the Houyhnhnms’ society. They create excellent poetry, have a sound knowledge of medicinal herbs, build simple houses, and usually live about seventy or seventy-five years, dying of old age. They feel no sorrow about death, accepting it as a routine element of life. They have no writing system and no word to express anything evil.
A room is made for Gulliver, and he furnishes it well. He also makes new clothes for himself and settles into life with the Houyhnhnms quite easily. He begins to think of his friends and family back home as Yahoos. However, he is called by his master and told that others have taken offense at his being kept in the house as a Houyhnhnm. The master has no choice but to ask Gulliver to leave. Gulliver is very upset to hear that he is to be banished. He builds a canoe with the help of a fellow-servant and departs sadly.
Gulliver does not want to return to Europe, and so he begins to search for an island where he can live as he likes. He finds land and discovers natives there. He is struck by an arrow and tries to escape the natives’ darts by paddling out to sea. He sees a sail in the distance and thinks of going toward it, but then decides he would rather live with the barbarians than the European Yahoos, so he hides from the ship. The seamen, including Don Pedro de Mendez, discover him after landing near his hiding place. They question him, laughing at his strange horselike manner of speaking, and cannot understand his desire to escape from their ship. Don Pedro treats Gulliver hospitably, offering him food, drink, and clothes, but Gulliver can think of him only as a Yahoo and is thus repulsed by him.
Gulliver is forced to travel back to England, where he returns to his family, which has been convinced that he is dead. He is filled with disgust and contempt for them. For a year he cannot stand to be near his wife and children, and he buys two horses and converses with them for four hours each day.
Here commences a New Dominion . . . the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants.
Gulliver concludes his narrative by acknowledging that the law requires him to report his findings to the government but that he can see no military advantage in attacking any of the locations he discovered. Moreover, he particularly wishes to protect the Houyhnhnms.
[W]hen I behold a Lump of Deformity . . . it immediately breaks all the Measures of my Patience.
The desire that Gulliver experiences to live among the animals persists in European literature. This desire is echoed later by the Romantics, who, writing in the nineteenth century, idealized pastoral simplicity and a return to nature. In the case of the Romantics, however, this love of nature was a response to the urbanization and industrialization of European society. In Swift’s case, the return to nature is a two-pronged tool for satire, skewering both human civilization itself and those who would look to animals for a model of how to live.
For the first time, Gulliver finds himself wanting to stay in exile from humanity, but he is not given the choice. He is appalled by the idea of going to live among the Yahoos, and he has so fully adopted the belief system of the Houyhnhnms that he cannot help but see his wife and children as primitive, ugly, beastlike creatures. But at the same time, he realizes that he has been living with the Houyhnhnms on borrowed time, pretending only half-successfully to be as rational as they are. The simplicity of the Houyhnhnms’ world attracts him, but it is not a world in which he is allowed to live. In the end, he is forced to return to the world from which he came—a single world that encompasses all of the flaws and complexities he has encountered in his travels. But even there Gulliver cannot rest easy. Having seen the things he has, the world of Yahoos is contemptible and disgusting to him. Barely able to tolerate the presence of his family, he retreats into a kind of madness, spending his days talking to the horses in his stable as if to recreate the idyll of Houyhnhnmland.
In the first three voyages, it is easy to identify with Gulliver, but in the last voyage he becomes so alienated from humanity that it is difficult to sympathize with him. This shift in our loyalty is accompanied by a shift in the method of satire. Whereas in the first voyages we can look through Gulliver’s eyes—sharing his astonishment at the Lilliputians’ miniature society, his discomfort at being the plaything of the Brobdingnagian giants, and his contempt for the tyrannical intellectualism of the Laputans—here, in the fourth voyage, we are forced to step back and look not with Gulliver, but at him.
Although in some ways the Houyhnhnms are the ideal for which Gulliver strives unsuccessfully among his fellow humans, in another way they are just as much the victims of Swift’s satire as the peoples of the first three voyages. Paragons of virtue and rationality, the horses are also dull, simple, and lifeless. Their language is impoverished, their mating loveless, and their understanding of the complex play of social forces naïve. What is missing in the horses is exactly that which makes human life rich: the complicated interplay of selfishness, altruism, love, hate, and all other emotions. In other words, the Houyhnhnms’ society is perfect for Houyhnhnms, but it is hopeless for humans. Houyhnhnm society is, in stark contrast to the societies of the first three voyages, devoid of all that is human.