Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a genius work in the art of literary satire. I picked certain issues and commented on them regarding how Swift made Irish beggars and their children a necessary evil that was deteriorating Ireland from the inside. Largely, this behemoth of a problem was causing an economic slump of mass proportion.
I point out his brilliant use of population figures, social issues (domestic violence, poverty, hunger, etc.), and religious groups (other than his own). He addresses these issues by offering a ludicrous solution—cannibalism of the young infants when they reach their first birthday.
Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: Reflective Essay Addressing Swift’s Satire Approach Concerning the Economic Problem of Dublin’s Starving Children
Swift presents a brilliant tongue-in-cheek argument concerning a way to solve the plight of starving Irish children. He introduces his ludicrous proposal at the beginning of his essay, and then supports his subject by reinforcing his foundation with strong, supporting arguments.
Each building block of his argument elicits sound thought for handling Ireland’s glaring social issues; namely, begging and starving children. Swift proposes to eat one-year-olds because of their economic burden. While purporting his idea, he uses economic strategies, population figures, cooking methods and avoiding commodity outsourcing to support his irony.
Swift looks at a beggar’s child as the projected worth of a future commodity. He justifies his moral depravity and degrading of human life in lieu of population control, annihilation of abortion, domestic violence and food shortage.
He refers to wives as “breeders” of these future delectable human dishes, and believes a one-year-old could give back to the commonwealth by offering its “carcass” as food for a starving country. He reasons that a beggar’s child should be able to live for the first year so that it could be fattened up on mother’s milk, which the “dam” naturally produces and therefore would cost the commonwealth nothing.
Swift surmises that his idea is humane because the future holds nothing for these children who mature and adopt livelihoods like “stealing,” going off to fight for the
“Pretender in Spain,” or “selling themselves to the Barbados.” Instead of suggesting the obvious—limiting the number of children each female “breeder” should have—he
encourages the “breeders” to get pregnant, enjoy motherhood and nursing of their suckling infants for one year, and then sell them to the marketplace as a prime cut of young, tender meat. This is a chilling mental image of the plight of a poor Irish infant.
He continues to build upon this horrific image of an Irish infant dressed and prepared as the main serving for a lavish feast. He enjoys toying with the image of “a young healthy child well nursed” that could be “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled,” and suggests serving it as “a fricassee or a ragout.” This is a disturbing image of a baby as the main dinner dish.
He continues to take this macabre image further when he suggests “a child will make two dishes at an entertainment” function for friends, and if it is only to be one family dish, would “be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.” This gruesome image has come full circle by suggesting the infant “carcass” could be extended to four days of leftovers.
Ireland’s population has always been Catholic, and Swift sees Catholics as a major part of the starving human burden that is hurting Ireland. He ridicules the Catholic religious holyday, Lent. He reasons that since Catholics eat more fish during Lent, nine months later, a lot of infant Catholics are born.
He does not criticize this, but reasons that because Catholics propagate more after Lent, the meat market will benefit from plump infants ready for the grocer. Swift connects Ireland’s economic problems directly to the Catholics and their lack of birth control—even in the face of being extremely poverty stricken.
He revels in putting a price on a beggar child as the child matures. He uses the figure of 120,000 children as full reservoir, then reserves 20,000 as breeders, but not more than 5,000 of that number as males. He reasons that 5,000 males is a usual number for sheep, cattle and swine. Swift’s irony gives the reader a picture of a single cock that breeds with the entire hen house and the reader cannot help but be amused.
One male should suffice four “breeders,” he surmises, but then catches himself in this digression, and reverts to his ridiculous projected numbers. Of the 100,000 infants that remain, Swift writes, these should be fattened up for the meat market. He almost forces the reader to think that it is a well thought-out plan that would benefit all—irony at its very best.
Swift is not a feminist. He never refers to the father’s responsibility to his beggar children. Instead, he puts the sole responsibility of caring for beggar children on the mother. This is a result of the makeup of Dublin’s street beggars—mothers and many small, unkempt children. It is false to believe that he is not a moralist.
Obviously, poverty-stricken mothers and their children disturbed him, but is that because of their drain on an already weak Irish economy or because these deplorable human beings actually tugged at his heart strings and bothered him enough that he felt the urge to write about it? He calls his writing a “modest” proposal—another play on words. In no way is this modest suggestion, but rather an alarming, vivid picture of cannibalism meant to elicit action regarding this social problem.
Swift, J. (2011). A modest proposal in R. J. Diyanni (Ed.), Fifty great essays. (pp. 296-303). London: Longman.