An Eye Opening Proposal
In A Modest Proposal by author Jonathan Swift, is an essay that uses satire to make its point. A satire is a literary work that attacks or pokes fun at vices, abuses, stupidity, and/or any other fault or imperfection. He 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, estimating the portion of the population affected, and even providing specific ideas regarding the number of servings a child might provide.
Swift 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. Swift's arguments rationally presented support a greatly irrational proposition, and their terrible cruelty thoroughly undermines their benevolent intent. He returns to the chief proposal and lists six reasons why it should be adopted. First, it will decrease the number of dangerous Catholics. Second, it will give the poor some property. Third, it will increase the nations overall wealth, since people will not have to pay for the upkeep of the children. Fourth, the mothers will be free of the burden of bringing up children. Fifth, the new food will be welcomed in taverns and culinary circles. Sixth, it will enhance the institution of marriage as women take better care of their infants so that they may be sold, and men will take better care of their wives so that their wives can make more babies to sell.
Stereotypes against Irish Catholics make it easier for Swift to use them as the subject of his satire. The stereotypes are present in both the reasons for the proposal and the language used. The narrators argument is that something must be done with infants because they are too young to steal implies that this is a common employment of Irish Catholics. The overall idea of overpopulation comes from the stereotype that Catholics tend to have a lot of children. He uses the word papists in the offensive sense of anti-Catholic rejection of the Pope (Frazier). In Protestant England, many people might share the stereotypes but would never go so far as the speaker suggests about eating children. Swifts aim, however, was not merely to expose Englands biased view of Ireland or to show general English arrogance towards other people, although that is achieved. The narrators statement that an American told him that children are delicious satire the idea that the Americans, like the Irish, were considered to be a barbaric people in need of instruction from the English.
The dominant figure of speech in "A Modest Proposal" is verbal irony, in which a writer or speaker says the opposite of what he means. Swift's masterly use of this device makes his main argumentthat the Irish deserve better treatment from the Englishpowerful and dreadfully amusing. For example, to point out that the Irish should not be treated like animals, Swift compares them to animals, as in this example: "I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs (Swift). Also, to point out that disease, famine, and substandard living conditions threaten to kill great numbers of Irish, Swift cheers their predicament as a positive development:
Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young laborers, they are now in as hopeful a condition; they cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment, to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength to perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come. (358)
At the time of the publication of A Modest Proposal, many British Protestants disdained Roman Catholics--especially Irish Catholics--and enacted laws limiting their ability to thrive and prosper (Cummings). The theme of prejudice against the lower classes is revealed in suggestions such as the idea that the carcasses of the poor children could be used for clothing or womens gloves. Swift suggests, with this extreme example, as well as his declaration that the landlords have already devoured the poor infants parents and that the rich live at the expense of the poor. By referring next to another figure, a very worthy person, who is meant to represent a member of the upper, learned classes, Swift furthers his satire of the upper classes by implying that there are people so disconnected from the lower classes that they might agree with this strange proposal.
Jonathan Swifts essay is a satirical attempt to describe the devastating social, economic and political troubles in Ireland. It suggests, in a new light, how these may be solved. The title of this essay is in itself mocking the superficial subject, commercial cannibalism, by saying that it is modest. Swift is not actually suggesting cannibalism, but in an ironic way, makes known the desperate and widening gap between classes and the need for a social and moral reform in Ireland.
Cummings, Michael. A Modest Proposal: A Study Guide. 2005. 13 September 2011 .
Frazier, Cora. A Modest Proposal and Other Satires Study Guide : Summary and Analysis of "A Modest Proposal". 30 May 2010. 13 September 2011
Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal." 1729.