A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public (1729)
Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, was an Irish author, satirist and clergyman.He was a member of Irish ascendancy. He published his several writings under pseudonyms. His style of irony and mockery makes him the master of satire. During his time, there were several governmental issues so he decided to pen down his writing in the form ofsatire and directed it towards politics (Ross).
Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is most likely the renowned satirical essay in the English language. The article is not at all a modest article as described by its title, rather it is pitiless.The ideas such as selling the children, cooking them in several ways and making products of their skindoes not make the article modest but terrifying.
Swift, in his article,is being concerned about the problems of poverty and over population in Ireland. So, he argued by logical reasoning to turn this problem as its own solution. He proposed to sellthe children at the age of one and to fatten up these children in order tofeed them to wealthy English landlords. He even suggested ways of cooking them such as ‘baked’, ‘stewed’, and ‘roasted’. According to him, this practice will make husbands more caring towards their wives, parents will value their children more and the nation’s stock will also increase.He concludes by saying that these methods will be effective than any other methods proposed. The following assessment focuses on Swift’s perception and how it is relevant in today’s age and time.
The article was written in 1729 in Ireland, a colony which was under British Empire. The text is aimed at 18th century landlords in Ireland and the British. During that time, Irish people were suffering from extreme famine. They were poor, hungry, and unemployed. The children were a burden to their parents as well as to the country. The reason was the exploitation of poor Irish workers by the wealthy English landlords.So, in this essay, Swift proposes a solution to famine by selling the poor children to wealthy families. He then goes on to explain how this solution will help to end the problems of Irish people.The reason Swift wrote the essay was that he firmly believed that the English land owners were the culprits, so the whole essay blames and mocks these landlords for badly treating the Irish workers.
One of the purposes was also to shock the readers by exposing the terrible conditions of the Irish people.He wanted to show that the Irish people were so poor and helpless that suggestions as selling their own children and catering them as food was not as big a deal. He is implying to the fact that we have gone so cruel and money minded that we can practice these ideas proposed by him.
The initial paragraphs of thearticletalk about the poor living conditions of Irish people flooding the streets and introduces the inhumane practices of abortions and killing one’s own children. This shows that the author has deep concern for the Irish people and it also shows his resentment for the landlords.In the later paragraphs, he suggests the ways of tackling their sufferings by making the poor children fat and plump in order to be sold and eaten which will reduce the problem of over population and poverty. He also suggests several ways of cooking these underprivileged children (Critique Modest Proposal). Here the reader gets to know that the entire essay is bitterly ironic and not to be taken literally and that behind all the sarcasm andmockery lies the real meaning. In the opening paragraph, Swift establishes his argument in a long-winded style which does not effectively convey his point of view (AS Level Lang/Literature). His use of terms as ‘pretender in Spain’ and ‘sell themselves to the Barbadoes’ does not deliver the meaning clearly.
Swift said that people, addressed in the article as ‘projectors’, came up with certain ideas that were ridiculous because they were focusing solely on logic.He says: ‘As to my own part, 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.’So, to show these projectors how ridiculous their ideas were, he addressed his solution and based it entirely on logic and not on emotions (Swift’s “A Modest Proposal).As already said, he advised to save the whole nation or kingdom by sacrificingthe poor people. Logically it seemed reasonable. Thus,he implied that there should be a balance between emotion and logic.However, nowhere in the article he talks about the schemes of the projectors which according to him are ludicrous methods. It leaves the readers clueless about what logical methods were proposed.
Furthermore,the author establishes his point by saying ‘a child just dropt from its dam’ (A Modest Proposal para: 4). Here he is referring a mother to a domestic animal which is clearly derogatory to a mother. Similarly, Swift uses a metaphor that ‘these children are seldom fruits of marriage’(A Modest Proposal para: 10). He used this metaphor because he preferred using euphemism rather than using slang language such as calling them bastards so referring them asfruits of marriage seems very polite where as saying they were born out of marriage. Nevertheless,it dehumanizes children by calling them fruits of marriage rather than saying human beings themselves (AS Level Lang/Literature). Likewise, calling children as ‘saleable commodity’ (A Modest Proposal para: 7) is like humiliating them and taking away the human element from them. This depicts the distressing aspect of our society, for it has considered children a burden and have started to seek returns on their children by selling them as products. So, Swift is criticizing that if they cannot fulfill the responsibility of rearing their children then better give up on them and sell them.
The author writes a very long sentence starting from ‘The number of souls in this kingdom…’ (A Modest Proposal para: 6) with multiple clauses, which makes it complex and confusing. By doing so, he is giving the impression of authority and shows the reader that he has a lot of knowledge about the subject and has a lot to say on it.In fact, what it does is it makes him look pompous, and loquacious (AS Level Lang/Literature).Moreover, his suggestion of the ways a child can be cooked such as ‘stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled’ is a shocking aspect for the reader, especially for the parents and the parents who have lost their children or are without children. The narrator with such ease and comfort lists down the advantages of the skin of children for exampleit can be used as “admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen,”(A Modest Proposal para: 15) as if it were something admirable and beautiful. This shows how human beings are callous enough to use even children as their own means, which is quite a depressing state. The obsession of wealth, material things and fame has made the society blind.
Swift’s solution is appreciable.He engages his audience by informing them about the deeper political reality, social and moral truths as well as the problems. (Irony and Social Critique). He mentioned merchants, doctors, projectors and foreign friends as imaginary participants of interaction. Calculating the profit from the sale of infants and enumerating its several benefits are appreciable. He says:“I am assured by our merchants,…” (A Modest Proposal, Para 7). It seems from his proposal that he is very serious though he is not. The consistency in his ideas and way of presenting them makes him a master of satire.
The writer makes his intentions crystal clear when he says, “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” (A Modest Proposal, Para 12). This is the only text in the entire essay which effectively expresses that he is directing his satire at the English landlords who have already eaten most of the parents(AS Level Lang/Literature).Furthermore, the Catholics and Irish were never on equal terms with each other. So, Swift directs his critique at the Papists (Roman Catholics) as well. He says that by selling the infants, the number of these Papists will also be reduced. The Catholics are considered to be proud and to beobstinate in their religious beliefs. So, Swift says that to decrease the spread of any bad religion, start selling their religion. He is also satirizing the fact that Roman Catholics do not deserve to grow because of their archaic beliefs. They are so old-fashioned that they have made the lives of Irish people difficult.
Swift acknowledges this very fact about law as to how it has ruined the lives of poor people rather than making them better and how it has made them open to attack rather than protecting them. He is criticizing that law snatches everything such as home, money, corn and cattle from a poor person, then why cannot law also take away their children and bring them up itself.
The vocabulary of the whole text is neither so difficult nor so easy. There are a few archaic words such as ‘hitherto’, ‘shillings’, ‘whereof’. It is perfectly suited for the learned audience. The tone is throughout ironic. The real meaning is disguised by all the sarcasm. However, the reader must have the brief knowledge about the background of the subject otherwise it will be hard to grasp his satire. He must look into the history of Ireland and the tussle of British and Ireland. Moreover, the examples he has used are no doubt horrifying but they are to the point strongly supporting his viewpoint. The entire text is written in the style of a formal essay. The ideas are consistently presented and coherent starting from the depressing state of the nation then figuring out the solutions to it and then listing the advantages to these solutions.
In today’s era, Swift’s ideas are unknowingly in practice. The child abuse, pornography and trafficking are all the instances about which Swift informed that we have the capacity to go so low as to implement such inhumane acts. The governmental issues, poverty, over population, inflation and terrorism are all the reasons as to why these horrendous actions are in widespread practice.People are so engrossed in worldly affairs that they have forgotten the difference between moral and immoral. Therefore, they need to be reminded.
The methods which according to the author are innocent, cheap and easy are undoubtedly exactly the opposite. Horrifying as they may seem are nevertheless can be unfortunately implemented given the miserable state of the society. The English landlords are plundering the Irish people to that levelthat it has left them despaired. The children who once were considered to be the bright future of the nation were then considered to be the burden for the nation and for their parents as well. Suggesting the sale of children and having them as food and products are mind boggling ideas but it does yield benefits if seen only logically.Thus, these ideas help save the kingdom. Swift is being totally emotionless, not caring about the emotions of his audience by dehumanizing mother, Catholics and children.The satire therefore makes this fact realize how human beings themselves are being the reason for their own miseries and agonies.
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