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Jonathan's Swift, "A Modest Proposal"

By Navee-Samra Feb 17, 2014 1188 Words
Another Look at A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” incorporates satire in his writing that exposes England’s economical exploitation of Ireland. The full title includes, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public” (Swift 558). His essay, very skillfully, brings shame to and sheds light upon the impoverishment of the Irish people at the hands of England’s greed for profits. He employed satire and irony as an effective tool to make the reader understand the state of oppression of the Irish using the most extreme statements. In his writing, although grotesque, Swift’s use of satire effectively confronts the abuses and shortcomings of the political and economic structure of the time, and he successfully uses sarcasm as a constructive method to criticize the social issues faced by the poor Irish natives. Swift’s use of metaphors is graphic, gripping, and disturbing simultaneously. He shocks the readers by proposing that Irish babies should be used in recipes for stew as a delicacy that both the rich English and Irish can consume. He uses wit as a tool to depict the condition of the poor forcing the reader to revise the political climate faced by the Irish. To help them escape economic despair, his proposal included the selling of unwanted children whose parents could not afford to feed them. He referred to women as mere “breeders,” to the youth as “flesh,” and to people as commodities used for expenditure. According to Robert Phiddian, the feeling that Swift induces is of unease rather than pleasure, as exemplified when Swift states, “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London; that a young healthy Child, 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 Ragoust” (560). Disguised in the abstraction of metaphor, “one would think that the only half-decent thing in a discussion of cannibalism would be to maintain the greatest possible level of abstraction, and not to dwell on the details overmuch” (Phiddian 1). However, it is the use and need of these outrageous details that expose the desperate conditions revealing Ireland’s structure of authority. It is these grotesque statements that arouse emotion that children are precious to their parents, that life is precious, that human life should be protected, and that there is severe disparity in the current system. Providing the keenest insight into the condition of the native poor people in Ireland, Swift challenges and shames the Irish for inaction and he condemns England for taking advantage of the poor. In his essay, he confronts the English dominion and exposes the cruelty the Irish people face on a daily basis. Furthermore, in his writing, Swift has satisfied the popular need of satire to ridicule both the Irish and British Empire for suppressing the native Irish without any considerations for the welfare of the impoverished. Demonstrating Swift’s economic persona when he states “The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders,” (Swift 559) he is essentially comparing women (breeders) and children (flesh) to farm animals, marketing the availability of flesh for consumption. Swift’s profound dissatisfaction with his society is clearly expressed as he pushes for reform via his writing and forces the readers to acknowledge the despair state of the native poor. In paragraph 29 of “A Modest Proposal,” Swift states that he perceives no objection to his plan, which upon implementation will combat overpopulation and unemployment. He clarifies that this remedy to sell youth for consumption is only for one particular kingdom in Ireland and that he would not suggest that for any other country. He employs irony in describing solutions that he himself rejects because his proposed solutions, although viable, would not be employed due to the existing exploitation. However, it is these very solutions that he rejects, if implemented would help correct the economic struggle the Irish natives are facing. These solutions are the contrary of what is, and hence what should be. As you continue reading “A Modest Proposal,” it becomes obvious that the underlying meaning (to expose England’s tax demands and land ownership) and the surface meaning (satirizing both countries) of what Swift is saying are not the same. Turning to another analysis, Louis A. Landa holds that considering people to be the riches of a nation is an unjustified notion. She states that, “Swift presents the dire state of Ireland and shows that mere population itself, in Ireland's case, did not always mean greater wealth and economy. The uncontrolled maxim fails to take into account that a person who does not produce in an economic or political way makes a country poorer, not richer (165). She argues that Swift maintains that people are the riches of the nation. While, Landa claims that for people to become the source of wealth, the country has to capture its natural opportunities and its resources. On the contrary, if England reserved much of the land in ireland for their own benefit then the country is unable to capture its resources and thus unable to flourish. Moreover, in order successfully criticize the leaders and the political system; Swift must “speak sense through a madman’s lips” (Elliot 414). The choice of diction used by Swift reflects the treatment of the Irish by England, words such as: people are treated like “animals,” the word “flesh” when discussing children being served as a delicacy, and women as “breeders.” These terms generally describe animals, thus Swift makes a clear statement that this is how England sees and treats the Irish natives – like animals. Conclusively, through sustained irony, “A Modest Proposal” gains its effects by mocking the complacent Irish government and the overbearing cruelty of the British government. Swift effectively satirizes the political situation in which he shines light on England’s unconcerned attitude towards the poor Irish natives. His work contains depth as it depicts Ireland’s submissive condition in the 18th century. Although Swift’s proposals presented to, alleviate Ireland’s poverty, are highly unsettling, a deeper analysis of the effectively expounded satire helps understand both the dwindling political climate of the time and the aim to improve, overcome, and persevere.

Works cited
Ellior, Robert, C. “Swift’s Satire: Rules of the Game.” John Hopkins University Press. Swift’s Satire: Rule…ELH. 41.3. (1974) Web. 16 Feb. 2014. Landa, Louis, A. “A Modest Proposal and Populousness.” Chicago Journals. The University of Chicago Press. 40.2. Nov. (1942) : 161-170. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <> Phiddian, Robert. “Have You EatenYet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal.” Rice University. 1996. JSTOR. Web. Feb. 16, 2014. <> Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” A Writer’s Reader. Ed. Donald Hall and D. L. Emblen. 9th Edition. California: Longman, June 26, 2001. 558-65. Print.

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