A Modest Proposal

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Have You Eaten Yet?: Swift's Final Solution

As a lately favored eighteenth century essay, Jonathan Swift's "Proposal" has been canonized as a satirical model of wit. As will be discussed shortly, Swift's essay is often seen as an allegory for England's oppression of Ireland. Swift, himself and Irishman (Tucker 142), would seem to have pointed his razor wit against the foreign nation responsible for his city's ruin. Wearing the lens of a New Historicist, however, requires that we reexamine the power structures at work in Swift's society. We must delve into not only Swift's "Proposal," but also into other of his correspondence, and even into discourse of the epoch in order to gain a thick description of the many levels of understanding present in Swift's "Proposal."

As a model of rhetorical discourse, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public" is unique among the plethora of pamphlets which circulated Ireland in the early eighteenth century. However, it is imprudent to think of the work as having emerged purely isolated from the pressures of the society in which Swift wrote. While propositions such as "A Modest Proposal for the More Certain and yet More Easie Provision for the Poor, and Likewise for the Better Suppression of Theives…Tending Much to the Advancement of Trade, Especially in the most Profitable Part of It," (Author Unknown, Cited in Rawson 189) were commonly circulated in order to postulate solutions to the crises of the day, Jonathan Swift's "Proposal" has been read as a parody of this sort of pamphlet (Rawson 189). There can be no solid support for such a thesis, and it would be wrong to infer that what is at work in Swift's "Proposal" in any important sense is a burlesque on project concerning the poor or on the titles of certain types of economic tracts. The mimicry of these things which Swift employs is but seasoning, and not the main point. Likewise, to suggest that Swift was radically attacking the notion of economic planning of human affairs, or even that his attitude on certain central questions was humane or liberal is misleading. The majority of interpretation of Swift's proposal points us to an understanding that Swift was not really proposing infant cannibalism, rather that he points to an analogy between his "proposal" and the actual (or actually alleged) destruction—consumption—of Ireland by a voracious England, the parent-kingdom eating up its child-colony. There are major impediments to this approach.

The Proposer is "clearly in Ireland, addressing an Irish audience with an account of circumstances which are as real as they are horrible." (Rosenheim 204) England's consumption of Ireland is mentioned expressly, but in a single clause which certainly does not inform but transiently exploits the great central conceit at work in the "Proposal": "…although I could perhaps name a country that would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it [preserving the flesh of the infant carcasses]." (Swift) The structure and progress of the Proposer's argument, both as a whole and in it particulars, seem in no way derived from any analogical or allegorical perception. Rather, at least some of Swift's irony, if not the largest portion thereof, is directed at Ireland, not England.

The proposer states that "Infants flesh will be in season throughout the year…" and that a large quantity of infant flesh will be consumed. He indicates that cooks will vie with each other in preparing new dishes of this food which is "a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food." (Swift) The proposer next exhausts the list of ways one can prepare this food in order to emphasize that the food will incite a continuous craving in the...
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