Gulliver’s encounter with the Yahoos foreshadows (and in a sense, justifies) his eventual repulsion of and withdrawal from humanity. The encounter is a pivotal point in his paradigm shift, his desire toward “Houyhnhnm-ization” which is simultaneously an act of self-extinction and self-creation. The image of depravity and bestiality that confronts Gulliver leads him to a critical assessment and disillusioned view of human nature and society. Gulliver has had an initial glimpse of human corruption prior to his encounter with the Yahoos.
The mutiny on board his ship may be seen top agitate, if not completely corrode, his faith in his fellowmen. Gulliver is victimized by his own kind—the fact that most of the mutineers are foreigners does not appear to make them total strangers, “others”, in the eyes of Gulliver. Humanity is the common ground he appeals to. His words: “… and they were so civil as not to search my pockets, into which I conveyed what money I had” (226) are not without sarcastic undertones.
On the one hand, they speak of his naive optimism. Gulliver sounds like a man desperately and insanely clinging to a blind and broken faith.
The minutest (and possibly unintentional) act of civility does not elude him. Taking his previous experience into account, Gulliver’s encounter with the Yahoos comes as an affirmation of the hatred and disgust brewing within him. These emotions toward his kind and self will fully materialize and escalate into complete self-cancellation especially when his resemblance with the Yahoos is fully established.
“In this desolate condition (Gulliver) advanced forward” (224). Gulliver’s efforts to assuage his physical plight are coupled with attempts to overcome his agitated mind.
At this point, his idea of danger and enemy come primarily in the form of the savage; not an entirely grave threat considering his hope of “purchas(ing) my life from them by some bracelets, glass rings and other toys” (277). The possibility of Gulliver’s rescue, of appeasing and cajoling the savage significantly elevates the latter above raw and indiscriminating brute force, the irrepressible primal drive toward predation and destruction. In Gulliver’s mind the savage (whom the colonial master typecasts as a “brute”) is a far cry from the Yahoos who represent the nadir of humanity and the height of bestiality.
The Yahoos are epitomes of monstrosity. They are devoid of reason or identity. To Gulliver they are a single mass of hairy bodies bent on sating their hunger and lust. The Yahoos are “the most unteachable of all animals, their capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry burdens…. they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but of a cowardly spirit, and by consequence, insolent, abject and cruel” (275). The Yahoos’ physical deformity complements their beastly nature.
Quite understandably, Gulliver’s reaction toward them is one of revulsion and disgust. He says, “Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy” (228). Gulliver automatically qualifies the Yahoos as “others” and enemies. He does not make any attempt to befriend the beast: “The ugly monster…lifted up his forepaw, whether out of curiosity or mischief, I could not tell. But I drew my hanger, and gave him a good blow with the flat side of it…” (228).
Here, Gulliver has not yet realized his affinity with the Yahoos. He is considerably distanced and insulated from them, or better yet, his real self. His Yahoo-ness remains unnoticed underneath his “human”, that is, rational and civilized facade. Only the Houyhnhnms are able to discern early on Gulliver’s resemblance with the brutes, indicative of the horses’ heightened sensitivity and rational faculty. The Yahoos’ behavior come in stark contrast with that of the Houyhnhnms: “…yet looking with a very mild aspect, never offering the least violence” (229).
Consequently, Gulliver’s attitude toward the horses changes as well. Not only does he try to befriend the animal, he regards them with awe: “I was amazed to see such actions and behaviors in brute beasts and concluded with myself that the inhabitants of this country were endued with a proportionable degree of reason , they must needs be the wisest people upon the earth” (229). Apparently the encounter with the Yahoos serves as a foil against which the Houyhnhnms’ ideal nature is compared and highlighted.
The first time Gulliver meets the Yahoos a concrete dichotomy is established in his mind: Yahoo/ evil (hence, the Houyhnhnms’ word for “evil” is “Yahoo”) as opposed to Houyhnhnms/ “perfection of nature” (240). Such dichotomy is to function not only as a criterion in Gulliver’s evaluation of both species’ nature. It is to become his standard for living not only in the beast-utopia but in human society as well. With Gulliver, first impressions do last. Images of filth predominate in the encounter scene. Gulliver describes how the Yahoos “leaped up into the tree, from where they began to discharge their excrements on my head” (228).
The use of bodily excretions operates in both literal and metaphorical senses. Reference to the Yahoos’ filthiness will recur later on when Gulliver’s “master”, a Houyhnhnm remarks: “Another thing he wondered at in the Yahoos was their strange disposition to nastiness and dirt, whereas there appears to be a natural love of cleanliness in all other animals” (272). Figuratively, the use of excrement speaks of the internal origin of dirt. That the filth does not come from an external source suggests the Yahoos’ inherent moral and psychological dirt, a fact which Gulliver soon realizes to be his own.