A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift
This entry presents criticism of Swift's 1729 satire A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents, or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. See also Gulliver's Travels Criticism (1726).
A Modest Proposal is considered one of the finest examples of satire in world literature. Written in the persona of a well-intentioned economist and published in the form of a popular pamphlet, the tract argues that the problem of poverty in Ireland can best be remedied by selling the children of the poor as food for the wealthy. This outlandish thesis is a manifestation of Swift's outrage at what he saw as the scandalous economic and political policies of the Irish and English governments, and the author uses the assumed voice of the economist, an abundance of detail, literalized metaphors, and other ironic and parodic techniques to devastating effect. At the same time Swift directs his satire at Protestant-Catholic divisions, contemporary economic theories, and other targets. A Modest Proposal has long been judged an incomparable work of rhetorical brilliance, and it continues to garner new readers and additional critical attention to this day.
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667 to Abigaile Erick Swift, seven months after the death of his father, Jonathan Swift, Sr. Swift graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1686. As he was born of English parents, Swift was anxious to distance himself from Ireland, and he moved to England in 1689—the first of many relocations between England and Ireland. While living at Moor Park in England, Swift served as a secretary to Sir William Temple, and it was there that he began his writing career. After receiving his Master of Arts degree from Oxford University in 1692, Swift was ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1694 and was stationed as prebendary of Kilroot, a poor town in northern Ireland. He disliked the experience, and two years later he returned to Moor Park, where he remained until Temple's death in 1699. Swift subsequently returned to Dublin, where he would remain until 1710, though he traveled often to London. Although he originally supported the Whigs, Swift was eventually won over by the Tories due to their support of the Church of Ireland's position regarding taxation. Swift served as the Tory ministry's main political writer, culminating in 1710, when he was asked to take responsibility for directing the Tory journal The Examiner. In 1713 he was appointed dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. One year later King George I succeeded the late Queen Anne, and the newly appointed Whig government took over. Swift was left with no opportunity for further political involvement, and therefore returned to Dublin, where, over the next two decades, he became increasingly engaged in the Irish political landscape and wrote the majority of his most influential political satire. Swift, a longtime sufferer of aphasia and Ménière's syndrome, remained at St. Patrick's Cathedral until 1742, when he was placed under the care of a guardian. He died in Dublin on October 19, 1745, and is buried in the middle aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In A Modest Proposal Swift adopts the persona of a concerned economist who suggests that, in order to better combat the poverty and overpopulation of Ireland, the children of the poor be sold as food to the wealthy. As a result, he argues, not only will the population be reduced, but the income of the poor will increase significantly as they sell their children. In developing this outrageous thesis, Swift provides abundant detail, projecting the costs of child rearing (which will be saved if the child is eaten), estimating the portion of the population affected, and even providing specific ideas regarding the number of servings a child might provide. He suggests that the meat of the children of Ireland would be considered a delicacy to both the English and to Irish landowners, and would therefore be highly sought after for feasts and special occasions. Throughout, Swift's satire relies on the persona of the economist, an ostensiblly well-meaning visionary whose sympathy for the poor leads him suggest a remedy of murderous cruelty. His arguments, rationally presented, support a profoundly irrational proposition, and their appalling callousness radically undermine their benevolent intent.
Swift uses the absurd thesis of A Modest Proposal to attack contemporary English and Irish politics. He focuses on the metaphorical “devouring” of Ireland's resources by England's policies and by wealthy Irish landowners, literalizing the metaphor to attack the positions of both parties. At its core, his suggestion is that the English and the wealthy landowners of Ireland are causing the poverty and misery of the population. Swift's satire is by turns oblique and direct; in one instance he suggests that, while the meat of children likely could not withstand preservation in salt for long sea voyages, he “could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.” His allusion to England (deriving from its close proximity) also directly assaults the English misuse of Ireland. Swift does not spare Ireland, however. At one point he presents a list of alternative solutions to Ireland's problems, none of which were ever attempted. In the process he emphasizes the number and extent of Ireland's social ills and the indifference and neglect with which they have been treated. At the same time, through the use of the adopted persona, Swift also satirizes those who propose solutions to political and economic issues without consideration of the human cost involved. With devastating irony, Swift shows the inhumanity of schemes for alleviating the suffering of the poor that are solely based on rational principles.
Somewhat surprisingly, A Modest Proposal received little sustained critical attention until the twentieth century. Most early critics extolled the work but treated it only briefly, judging it to be in a unique class of its own and therefore difficult to analyze. In the twentieth century scholars began to see the tract as more than a simple attack on particular conditions in Ireland, but as a penetrating interrogation of the political and economic theories that gave rise to those conditions. In his 1943 analysis of A Modest Proposal, George Wittkowski argued that the work's comedic parody obscured for earlier critics its examination of political affairs. Since then, sociopolitical interpretations of Swift's satire—such as those by Oliver W. Ferguson, Robert Mahoney, and John Richardson—have vied with analyses of its brilliant deployment of rhetorical strategies—including those of Samuel J. Rogal, Denis Donoghue, and Wayne C. Booth—to account for its enduring power. By consensus, however, A Modest Proposal, is deemed a masterpiece and a stunning example of the satirist's art.
Give examples of satire in “A Modest Proposal” and describe why they are satirical.
Answer: The entirety of “A Modest Proposal” is satirical because it makes fun of other grand ideas that people have proposed to solve big problems in society. The proposal itself—that the Irish should eat their babies—is satirical, too, because it makes fun of people who propose absurd things thinking that they are practical. Swift’s reference to boys and girls as not a “saleable commodity” is a good particular example because it suggests the cold thinking of people who argue for turning everything into questions of economics. A similar moment comes when Swift says that “those who are thrifty” may use the carcass of the infant for ladies’ gloves or gentlemen’s boots; this takes children as animals where the whole animal is used for different purposes. The narrator’s friend, the “very worthy person,” proposes that children of fourteen should be consumed as well, and the honest assessment of this idea is satirical along the same lines; the taste is what matters and, besides, it would limit the number of breeders (which is itself a strange argument if overpopulation or too many Irishmen were the problem). Swift’s final declaration that he has nothing to gain economically from his proposal satirizes the usual protestations of people who are claiming to be altruistic in their proposals.
Discuss the theme of religious prejudice in Swift’s satires.
Answer: “A Modest Proposal” takes on the theme of religious prejudice with the narrator’s assurance that his proposal that Ireland eat its young will decrease the number of “papists” (Roman Catholics). Assuming the narrative voice of a bigoted English Protestant, Swift says that the Irish Catholics are England’s “dangerous enemies.” Swift exposes the stereotype (taken here as a negative) that Catholics have many children by having his narrator call them the “chief breeders of the nation.” In “An Argument Abolishing Christianity,” too, Swift assumes the voice of someone with religious prejudices in order to expose those prejudices. The narrator says that the abolition of Christianity could invite “papists” (again, Catholics) to invade England or would give Freethinkers a lot less enjoyment in sinning or making fun of Christians. "A True and Faithful Narrative" points out Swift’s own prejudice, shared by many (perhaps because it is basic to human nature), that religious people tend to be hypocritical and unwilling to live up to their own ideals.
Why did Swift publish “A Modest Proposal” anonymously? How does this contribute to the effectiveness of his piece?
Answer: If Swift had not published his piece anonymously, readers may have been less likely to consider it serious. If readers knew from the beginning that “A Modest Proposal” was written by an accomplished satirist, they would be looking for the joke from the beginning and might not be taken in at all. The proposed solution for the poverty in Ireland might have been believed for just long enough to make readers appreciate the deeper level of satire against cold and calculating arguments that miss the elements of basic humanity. Assuming the guise of a fake, anonymous narrator allowed him to better parody the prejudices that someone like his narrator might have.
What attitude does “A Modest Proposal” take to the trend of answering social questions with mathematics?
Answer: “A Modest Proposal” mocks the idea that society’s ills can be cured by simple calculations. The piece is full of numbers: the number of people in the entire country, the number of couples, the number of poor couples, the number of children born into poor families, and many more. Swift conducts mathematics with these numbers in his proposal, subtracting, for example, the number of miscarriages or deaths by famine or disease from the total number of children born per year. By turning a tragic thing like the death of children into a math problem, Swift is mocking the tendency in the nineteenth century to view social questions dispassionately in terms of calculations, according to the new advances in science, math, and economics, instead of considering the human element.
Discuss the theme of economic inequality in “A Modest Proposal.”
Answer: Economic inequality was a chief concern of Swift’s, and he expressed this concern satirically in “A Modest Proposal.” The title itself hints at economic inequality—his proposal applies to “the poor people of Ireland.” The children that will be eaten, under this proposal, are poor children. Specifically, the poor children will be bought and eaten by the rich. This is only right, says the narrator, because the rich have already consumed their parents economically. Swift is making the point that economic exploitation is like actual consumption; the rich feed off the poor.
Why might Jonathan Swift have chosen to write so much satire? What is he able to do with a satirical piece that he is unable to do with a serious piece?
Answer: If Jonathan Swift had written serious pieces simply espousing his true beliefs—for instance, that the state of the poor in Ireland was deplorable, that something must be done to help them—he would have likely gotten little response, as there were many such pamphlets circulating at the time. It was hard enough to write a lasting piece in any genre, and at least people like to criticize and they like to laugh. A satirical parody (a shocking one in particular) was likely to get the public’s attention in ways that a seriously written piece could not achieve. “A Modest Proposal” surprised people and got them thinking about the condition of the poor in Ireland and what should seriously be done about it. And when very sensitive subjects are involved, such as criticizing the nation’s prevailing religion, it is much safer to be hard to read and to be seemingly joking rather than to directly challenge authority.
Is Swift’s “main objection” to his idea in “A Modest Proposal” a sincere objection? How does this contribute to the effectiveness of the piece?
Answer: If any reader still thinks that this is a serious piece by this point, the “main objection” ought to persuade them that it is not. The writer says that the main objection to the killing and eating of Irish young is that it will decrease the population. A truly serious objection from a normal human being would be that it is morally wrong to consume human flesh on such a large scale. Furthermore, it is a straw-man objection, since the author reminds the reader that reducing the population is the overall goal anyway. Taking up the real objections would distract the reader by introducing a level of seriousness that the reader already knows how to reply. Besides, Swift introduces indirectly a good objection: that there are better ways to fix the problem, and the narrator even lists a bunch of ideas while saying that he is not interested to consider them. The effectiveness of the piece comes in large measure because the reader becomes engaged in thinking about the real problem and real solutions.
What is going on in the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns in “The Battle of the Books?” Are they truly two separate sides?
Answer: Although the Ancients and the Moderns appear to be two distinct sides in “The Battle of the Books,” there is evidence in the text of their similarity. They fight in the same world over the same territory, and the librarian, for better or for worse, has mixed the Ancients and Moderns together in the library, presumably on the basis of subject matter. The most worthy Moderns use the best of what can be found in the Ancients. The spider and the bee, the allegorical representations of the two sides, are themselves embroiled; the bee gets caught in the spider’s web. Their sources of disagreement, too, do not seem irreconcilable. The quarrel has a lot to do with those Moderns who turn up their noses at the Ancients and arrogantly go on their own way, and with the great swarm of third-rate Moderns who try to make a name for themselves by tearing down the great works and great ideas of the Ancients, or who like to quarrel with one another about the actual value of the Ancients. Certain characters in “The Battle of the Books” are more successful in battle than others based on how Swift judges their literary quality; despite Swift’s usual preference for the best of the Ancients, sometimes a great Modern overcomes a weak Ancient.
Give examples of Jonathan Swift’s literary parody.
Answer: “A Modest Proposal” is a parody of pamphlets distributed at the time that professed to have the single cure for all social problems. Swift thought this “can-do” attitude with its prescriptive writing style was naïve. The introductory material and digressions in A Tale of a Tub are themselves parodies of a variety of types of writing: medical texts, religious texts, and political texts, as well as the kinds of things written in introductions and by booksellers. “Meditation Upon a Broomstick” is a parody of the writing style of Swift’s contemporary Robert Boyle. “The Battle of the Books” parodies many scenes in Homer’s war epic, the Iliad. His satires thus not only parody ideas and personalities but also certain ways of expressing those ideas.
Write an essay in Swift’s style.
Answer: Think of a political or social issue, preferably something relevant to your own place and time. If you choose school uniforms, for example, the next step is to come up with your idea of the problem that is supposedly being solved. Then, decide where you stand on the issue: do school uniforms solve the problem or not? Next, think of a way of expressing this solution that would be extreme (like eating babies in “A Modest Proposal”). For example, if the idea of uniforms is uniformity and you do not think this is a good enough reason for school uniforms, then you could make fun of it by arguing that the students should go to school naked. Your essay will then be in the voice of someone who believes the opposite, arguing for attending school naked for the sake of uniformity (just like Swift’s narrator argued that Ireland should eat its young, but Swift didn’t actually believe this, and like Swift made those in favor of repealing the Test Act seem to be anti-Christianity in “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”). Now, choose a method of literary parody. Maybe you will pretend that this is an opinion piece in the school newspaper. This helps establish your audience and the kind of writing you will make fun of. Now comes the hardest part of all: telling all the jokes in the way that Swift does. As you think of the reasons that your extreme solution might be purportedly a good idea, imagine what different people might be thinking—parents, teachers, politicians, prudes, nudists. These reasons can be as silly as you want to make them, and if you have some extra joke to make about these kinds of people, fold them into the arguments. You could say, for example, that going to school naked would mean that parents wouldn’t have to pay for their students’ clothes, which is an expensive thing because students are always trying to get their parents to pay for the latest faddish designers. Or you could say that going to school naked would keep students from developing tan lines, or reduce the need for “sexting” because everyone would already know what each other looks like naked. The more different levels of satire you can get to work at the same time, the more it will be in the style of Swift.