A Modest Proposal: Swift
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. His father died before he was born, leaving the family with relatively modest means. Nevertheless, as a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, Swift received the best education Ireland could offer. As a young man, he worked as private secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired Whig diplomat, at Moor Park in southern England. During his ten years in this position, Swift took advantage of Temple's vast library to round out his education and immersed himself in the politics and opinions of this prominent intellectual. Swift took orders in the Anglican Church in 1694, and he was named dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713. For many years he worked, anxiously and unsuccessfully, to secure himself a permanent appointment in England; during this period he considered his life in Ireland a kind of exile. Shuttling back and forth between Ireland and England with some regularity, he became increasingly embroiled in English politics. He also established himself in the literary circle that included Addison and Steele. Later, he changed both political and literary loyalties and befriended Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot, who would be his lifelong friends.
Swift's Ireland was a country that had been effectively controlled by England for nearly 500 years. The Stuarts had established a Protestant governing aristocracy amid the country's relatively poor Catholic population. Denied union with England in 1707 (when Scotland was granted it), Ireland continued to suffer under English trade restrictions and found the authority of its own Parliament in Dublin severely limited. Swift, though born a member of Ireland's colonial ruling class, came to be known as one of the greatest of Irish patriots. He, however, considered himself more English than Irish, and his loyalty to Ireland was often ambivalent in spite of his staunch support for certain Irish causes. The complicated nature of his own relationship with England may have left him particularly sympathetic to the injustices and exploitation Ireland suffered at the hand of its more powerful neighbor.
Particularly in the 1720s, Swift became vehemently engaged in Irish politics. He reacted to the debilitating effects of English commercial and political injustices in a large body of pamphlets, essays, and satirical works, including the perennially popular Gulliver's Travels.A Modest Proposal, published in 1729 in response to worsening conditions in Ireland, is perhaps the severest and most scathing of all Swift's pamphlets. The tract did not shock or outrage contemporary readers as Swift must have intended; its economics was taken as a great joke, its more incisive critiques ignored. Although Swift's disgust with the state of the nation continued to increase, A Modest Proposal was the last of his essays about Ireland. Swift wrote mostly poetry in the later years of his life, and he died in 1745.
The full title of Swift's pamphlet is "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick." The tract is an ironically conceived attempt to "find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method" for converting the starving children of Ireland into "sound and useful members of the Commonwealth." Across the country poor children, predominantly Catholics, are living in squalor because their families are too poor to keep them fed and clothed.
The author argues, by hard-edged economic reasoning as well as from a self-righteous moral stance, for a way to turn this problem into its own solution. His proposal, in effect, is to fatten up these undernourished children and feed them to Ireland's rich land-owners. Children of the poor could be sold into a meat market at the age of one, he argues, thus combating overpopulation and unemployment, sparing families the expense of child-bearing while providing them with a little extra income, improving the culinary experience of the wealthy, and contributing to the overall economic well-being of the nation.
The author offers statistical support for his assertions and gives specific data about the number of children to be sold, their weight and price, and the projected consumption patterns. He suggests some recipes for preparing this delicious new meat, and he feels sure that innovative cooks will be quick to generate more. He also anticipates that the practice of selling and eating children will have positive effects on family morality: husbands will treat their wives with more respect, and parents will value their children in ways hitherto unknown. His conclusion is that the implementation of this project will do more to solve Ireland's complex social, political, and economic problems than any other measure that has been proposed.
In A Modest Proposal, Swift vents his mounting aggravation at the ineptitude of Ireland's politicians, the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the tyranny of the English, and the squalor and degradation in which he sees so many Irish people living. While A Modest Proposal bemoans the bleak situation of an Ireland almost totally subject to England's exploitation, it also expresses Swift's utter disgust at the Irish people's seeming inability to mobilize on their own behalf. Without excusing any party, the essay shows that not only the English but also the Irish themselves--and not only the Irish politicians but also the masses--are responsible for the nation's lamentable state. His compassion for the misery of the Irish people is a severe one, and he includes a critique of their incompetence in dealing with their own problems.
Political pamphleteering was a fashionable pastime in Swift's day, which saw vast numbers of tracts and essays advancing political opinions and proposing remedies for Ireland's economic and social ills. Swift's tract parodies the style and method of these, and the grim irony of his own solution reveals his personal despair at the failure of all this paper journalism to achieve any actual progress. His piece protests the utter inefficacy of Irish political leadership, and it also attacks the orientation of so many contemporary reformers toward economic utilitarianism. While Swift himself was an astute economic thinker, he often expressed contempt for the application of supposedly scientific management ideas to humanitarian concerns.
The main rhetorical challenge of this bitingly ironic essay is capturing the attention of an audience whose indifference has been well tested. Swift makes his point negatively, stringing together an appalling set of morally untenable positions in order to cast blame and aspersions far and wide. The essay progresses through a series of surprises that first shocks the reader and then causes her to think critically not only about policies, but also about motivations and values.
It doesn't take long to summarize the short "pamphlet" that is Swift's Modest Proposal. To remedy the problem of the poverty-stricken, oppressed and uneducated population of Catholics in Ireland, Swift's projector calmly and rationally proposes that thousands of the children should be killed and eaten. This will help both the overpopulated poor, who can't afford to care for their children anyway, and the rich, who will get a good meal out of the whole process. Even in his introduction he explains the reason for his proposal: "for Preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick."
What follows is a very artful attempt to justify such a seemingly outrageous scheme. Yet throughout the discourse, the projector never loses his cool, but proceeds to logically lay out the ground work for such a proposal.
The following reasons he uses to advance his plan are summarized below. First, eating the poor children will solve the problem of population among the papists, or the Catholics. Second, it will make the remaining papists richer, since they will have such valuable commodities to sell in exchange for rent credit, etc. Third, it will help the economy since less money will have to be spent on the upbringing of so many poor children. This system, lastly, will produce a better cultural environment for Ireland as a whole, encouraging marriage and the charms of the tavern.
Finally, the projector defends his intentions in offering such a proposal, explaining that he has no personal advantages which will be derived from his plan, since his children are all too old to kill and his wife is too old to have more children.
TheProjector- The narrator, or projector, is the only major character in the work, since he is the one who is offering his "modest" proposal. He appears to be a self-inventor kind of person, indeed a down-to-earth thinker. His tone is calm and rational, though his words are quite unsettling, conveying a sense of melancholy to the reader.
To pick out a single metaphor from Swift's Modest Proposalwould be to undercut his message as a whole. The whole pamphlet, indeed, in its entirety, is one giant, metaphorical irony. The horror of the narrator's irony serves as a constant metaphor for the horror being experienced by the people of Ireland. His awful proposal is a result, an echo of sorts, of the terrible suffering of the speaker's own fellow citizens. Thus, Swift carefully uses his entire satire as a symbol for the atrocities already known in his country.
Swift's dehumanizing satire strives to shed light on the horrible situation of English/Irish tensions in Ireland. On a basic level Swift indicts the English Protestants for their cruel and inhumane treatment of the papists, or poor Catholics, through both political and economic oppression. This is seen most clearly when his projector muses that England would be more than willing to eat the Irish even without such a proposal, saying, ".I could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it."
Yet perhaps even more criticism is heaped on the Irish for not recognizing the horror of their own situation, and not taking constructive steps to remedy the problem. The very fact that such an immodest proposal can be given and received with such seriousness proves that all peoples involved have lost even the thinnest shred of human decency and respect.
On a larger lever, Swift successfully indicts the brutality of man as a whole. A Modest Proposal goes well beyond the limits of Europe, shedding a sickening light on all
humanity and the way in which we treat each other.