The people reading Dr. Jonathan Swift’s satire A Modest Proposal back in 1729 might have thought that he was insane, proposing cannibalism as a solution to poverty and overpopulation in Ireland. Poverty and overpopulation in Ireland had become such a problem in the 1700’s and since no one was attempting to help the Irish, Jonathan Swift (an Englishman born in Dublin) decided that he had to open the eyes of the English and make it aware that poverty was a growing issue in Ireland that needed to be addressed. Jonathan Swift decided to write a satire in order to hopefully solve the problem. He suggested that the poor people of Ireland eat their children and use their skin as clothing, or sell them to others as a means of making money to buy food, reproduce, and then again sell their children for money. Some people need that certain shock value to understand the real problem, and that’s exactly what Jonathan Swift handed to them on a silver platter.
Satire is meant to invoke an improvement in behavior by pointing out human vices. It pokes fun at the ridiculous and inane. In this case, Swift used satire to point out the English’s vices of greed in an attempt to fix the problem in Ireland. Satire is something that can be easily misconstrued and it is possible that someone unaware of what satire is might have thought Jonathan Swift was serious about eating children. This video shows what could have happened if people didn’t understand the satire and true message of A Modest Proposal.
To start his argument, Swift writes, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child is well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust” (142 Swift). Although it is satirical (and therefore he is not serious), Swift is literally naming off all of the ways one could cook a child. Swift is using allusion to say that eating children is a solution to the problem without actually stating the words “You should eat children.” This gives us an idea of how bad the problem of starvation is for Ireland during this time.
Swift attempts to persuade the English audience by mentioning “there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because of the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us” (142 Swift). What Swift is saying is that he has found that the Roman Catholics have more children nine months after Lent and therefore the markets will be more crowded because of the need of food for the surplus population. Swift is using insinuation to say that because of the Roman Catholics’ reproductive habits, there is going to be even more Roman Catholic children than there are non-Roman Catholic children (3-1). In relation to historical context, he is pointing out how much the English disliked the Catholics at that time. The English would rather the children of the Catholics die (except in this case through cannibalism instead of starvation) than live. He explains this when he says “It will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children” (141 Swift). Because of how badly the English treated the Irish, the women were getting abortions and murdering their bastard children in order to keep them from living a life of poverty and suffering. Suggesting that eating the children is a better means of them to die than by their own mother’s hand is another way Swift is trying to open the eyes of the English people.
Dr. Swift gives us six reasons as to why we should consider his proposal. The second reason claims “The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress, and help to pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown,” (144 Swift). Swift is saying that by having children, the poorer tenants will have something of value that they can use to pay their rent because everything else they owned had already been taken away. He is alluding to the fact that the landlords are so greedy that they will take just about anything as a rent payment. This again shows the historical context of the major issue of poverty in Ireland at the time.
The sixth and final reason explains, “This would be a great inducement to marriage… men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage,” (144 Swift). The literal meaning of this is that Swift suggests that having children to sell is very helpful to a marriage because the men will become fond of their wives while they are pregnant. This statement implies that the men beat their women, and would only not beat their women when they are pregnant because if the woman has a miscarriage, their money source will be gone. This shows the social context for the time period that it was much more common for men to beat their wives, and how Swift himself has negative feelings towards the beating of wives.
Many of the arguments Swift presented have to do with some sort of financial gain, and are quite focused on making money, because that is one of the major problems of Swift’s time.. Satirically, he points out all the ways the English and the Irish could improve their behavior: taxing absentees at five shillings a pound, using neither clothes or household furniture except for what we have made ourselves, rejecting materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury, curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in women, introducing parsimony, prudence, and temperance, learning to love their country, quitting their animosities and factions, being cautious not to sell their country and consciences for nothing, teaching landlords to have a degree of mercy towards their tenants, and lastly teaching honesty, industry, skill, and fairness to the shop keepers. This is the root of the satirical essay: pointing out all of the English’s vices in order to improve their behavior. Once they realize what they are doing wrong, it might motivate them to change for the better.
While the Irish and the English were bickering over power, Dr. Jonathan Swift was trying to come up with a solution to solving the poverty in Ireland.. Tenants were forced to hand over everything they possessed to their landowners, just to keep a roof over their heads. It was becoming ridiculous, and something needed to be done about it. Swift uses the reductio ad absurdum argument, described by E.F. Watley as “disproving the validity of a notion by pursuing it to absurdly logical extremes” (Watley, Perspectives). Watley continues to say “Swift was reacting to the subtly pervasive dehumanization of poor Irish by showing the potentially horrific consequences of overt and complete dehumanization.” Since no one else took the time to propose a solution to the problem of the English taking away everything from the Irish, as well as poverty and overpopulation in Ireland, one could say that Swift’s was a perfectly modest proposal compared to the way we say that “something is better than nothing.”
Caron, Jacob. “A Modest Proposal – Official Trailer [HD].” YouTube.28 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. Currents in British Literature II Course Packet. Comp. Ann McClellan. Plymouth, NH: 2014. 140-146.
Watley, E.F. “Perspectives: Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.” Check Please! 24 Oct. 2005. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.