Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is presented in a way that is insanely inhumane, but also in a rather formal, convincing manner. To modern day readers, this proposition would first strike as blasphemy, but given that this was created in the Restoration period, this was not meant to portray an idea of realism but rather a suggestive hope for improvement, given the brilliant satire in the piece. “The greater share of the seventeenth century satires are in prose and follow the broader definition of a satire as ‘biting wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose vice or folly (uknowledge.uky.edu).’” Satire was used in the Restoration period for the purpose of improving humanity by acknowledging problems in society and attempting to reform them by using a comical and witty manner. Through the use of satire, Jonathan swift was able to expose and critique social injustices by proposing his satirical plan in an effort to express the problem that was Catholic oppression in Ireland in the 1700’s.
We are introduced to Swift’s satire right away in the text. He says, “… having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation… I propose to provide for them (babies) in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands (Swift 141).” Here, we see Swift’s satirical plan, which is using the babies of the poor Irish for food and clothing, with which their parents will be rewarded a certain amount of money for. The satire in this passage is his use of the phrase “…and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors…” Although Swift may have weighed options for schemes to dissolve Ireland’s oppression and deprivation (Swift was raised fatherless and in poverty, a native of Ireland, a Protestant), his proposal turns out to be quite the opposite of “mature.” Swift, by saying that babies would “contribute to the feeding and partly to the clothing for many thousands,” is depicting this desire to solve Ireland’s oppressive problem in an immature and comical way, which is the element of satire. Here is a student-made video portraying the satire by Jonathan Swift, but in a more modernized light:
In this screenshot, you can see how this student depicted Swift’s attempt to display the poor people and see through their lens. I like how this video included a begging scene, because this proposal was not just satirically humorous with the act of eating babies, but had underlying notions that get uncovered as well.
The satire that Jonathan Swift uses is purposeful in the act to shed light upon these societal issues of a nation not coping and the poor being burdened. Swift says,
“Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people who are aged, diseased, or maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts on what course may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance … they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected… it would greatly lessen the number of Papists (Roman Catholics), with whom we are yearly over-run… (Swift 143-144).”
In this one passage, Swift first explains that the upper class Protestants were not confident enough to eat the poor Catholic babies because they were concerned with them carrying diseases. Then, he goes on to say that, yes, they are indeed “dying, rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin…” Here, Swift completely downplays the idea of the poor being sickly and struggling for survival by saying that the rich weren’t very excited to eat their babies because they might be carrying diseases and could in turn make them sick by consuming them. Even though he is speaking neglectfully and nonsensically, this satirical moment does shed light on the fact that there are poor people who are dying and aren’t getting any acknowledgement.
Swift, in A Modest Proposal also likes to shed the light onto the English landlords, with whom he blames for much of the Catholic’s struggle. He writes, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children (Swift 142).”
Swift is placing some blame on the landlords for putting the Catholics out on the street, a.k.a. “devouring” them because they would most likely starve and end up sick. On this subject, I found this quote online:
“He believed England was exploiting and oppressing Ireland. Many Irishmen worked farms owned by Englishmen who charged high rents—so high that the Irish were frequently unable to pay them. Consequently, many Irish farming families continually lived on the edge of starvation…Swift satirizes the English landlords with outrageous humor, proposing that Irish infants be sold as food at age one, when they are plump and healthy, to give the Irish a new source of income and the English a new food product to bolster their economy and eliminate a social problem (cummingsstudyguides.net).”
So, one of the major initiators to this starving and begging problem that we see with the Catholics can be titled to the landlords. Swift satirically notions that, because it was these landlords who “devoured” the parents, they should be entitled to “devour” their one year-old babies. This can obviously be seen as a comical statement and a reckless suggestion.
One thing that Jonathan Swift does well is proposing actually reasonable solutions to Ireland’s problems, but then brushing them off as a waste of time. “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentess at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: … Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants (Swift 145).” Here, we find out that Swift actually did take the time to think of schemes that would benefit everyday life in Ireland. But, he won’t listen to these “expedients,” as he says. Here, he is calling reasonable solutions blasphemous and sticking to his theory for selling and consuming one year-old babies. Can you see the satire?
A Modest Proposal is satirically brilliant. It is both convincing and absolutely barbaric at the same time. Swift does a good job to give reasons why this plan would work and then makes fun of the whole idea. The Restoration period laid the grounds for satirical writing and Swift took the idea and ran with it in this piece. He was able to speak of a topic that was surrounded by much controversy and feud during the era of the early-to-mid 1700’s and also be able to infuse satire into it. By satirically publishing this “modest” proposal, Swift exposed social injustices to the public, calling attention to abuses inflicted on Irish Catholics by well-to-do English Protestants.
Cummings. “A Modest Proposal: A Study Guide.” A Modest Proposal: A Study Guide. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Seago, Kate. “Restoration Satire.” Uknowledge.uky.edu. N.p., n.d. Web.
Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. Currents in British Literature II Course Packet. Comp. Ann McClellan. Plymouth, NH: 2014. Pg. 141-147.