Misanthropy in “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
“The judgements that Swift’s satires ask us to make go well beyond straightforward condemnation of the work’s obvious target; rather, we are led to form a series of deeper judgements about language, religion, and politics, and about the operations of human vice and virtue that govern these activities in others and in ourselves.”1
Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a satirical essay written in 1729 that suggests improvements for the Irish living situations and social oppressions of the eighteenth century; Swift addresses particularly the issues regarding poverty, hunger, beggars, and abortions to avoid the expense of providing for the child, and unites all these problems in one, making each cause and consequence of the other, but an important issue worth noticing lays below the surface of his proposal, and that is the inhumanity with which he refers to the solution to this problems. Swift refers to the abortions and the providing of these children as the consequence of the economic situation in the country and as the reason for which he is writing his proposal. At the beginning he addresses the subject in a sympathetic way, but at the same time the language used in the next lines, foreshadows the proposal’s real purpose of outraging its audience: ...it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practise of women murdering their bastard children, alas, too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.2 By using words such as “murder”, “bastard” and “innocent”, he demonstrates his lack of real sympathy towards the babies, by first addressing them as if they were a despised object, but afterwards, trying to produce pathos in his audience in order to distract them from the real content of the proposition. Swift focuses on making this economical and social oppression the main hue and cry of Irish society at the time, but particularly making it the central issue of his proposal, or at least during the first part of his essay. He wrote this “Modest Proposal” to raise social indignation in order for Ireland to want to break from this terrible oppression it had been subjected to, and by pointing the clear way in which the social strata inside Ireland was replicating the oppression and judgment of the lower classes, without noticing how harmful the repetition of these pattern could be. For making his point clear, Swift concentrates on the individual and the particulars, addressing the problems as if the conjunction of all would be reflected in the amount of children that have been aborted, and as David Nokes wrote in his book “Jonathan Swift a Hypocrite Reversed” the rest of the problems faded into statistics because that one was the issue he had chosen to particularize. “As he showed many times in his sermons, he would single out for his charity the one beggar in a hundred with a human face, while dismissing the rest as mere statistics”.3 The title of this essay provides the reader with a clear image of what the text is about, creating a hypothesis by which children from Ireland, particularly beggars, are a burden to society, and trying to find a way of making these children be productive for their parents and the rest of the population. By Explaining these problems in Ireland Swift creates the allusion of these being a real social and political pamphlet rather than a satirical approach to an otherwise unexamined issue: The way in which these people, beggars, are treated by the rest of the Irish population, and the way the Irish population is treated by the English population. For Swift, language, religion, and politics are not strictly divisible, but are all inextricably linked as integral parts of human endeavour [...]Swiftian satire is that it invites (or provokes) the reader to be critical.4 Swift’s essay introduction lays...
Bibliography: Fox, Christopher. Editor. “The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift”, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom, 2003
Greenblatt, Stephen, Editor. “The Norton Anthology of English Literature”, Norton and Company, New York, Eighth Edition, Volume I, 2006, 2904pp.
Clifford, James L. Editor. “Eighteenth- Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, 283 pp.
Nokes, David. “Jonathan Swift a Hypocrite Reversed”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, 427 pp.
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