In 1729, Jonathan Swift published a Juvenalian satirical pamphlet anonymously, titled A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal. The essay was written during a famine and flows as a monologue rather than a dialogue. He seems to be attacking the policies that governments introduce in the guise of philanthropy, with the use of irony and sheer mockery. Such an attack is more evident in his Maxims Controlled in Ireland: The Truth of Some Maxims in State and Government Examined With Reference To Ireland (1728). It has also been argued that A Modest Proposal was, at least in part, a response to the 1728 essay The Generous Projector or, A Friendly Proposal to Prevent Murder and Other Enormous Abuses, By Erecting an Hospital for Foundlings and Bastard Children by Swift’s rival Daniel Defoe. Swift was Anglo-Irish by birth but his loyalties lied with the Irish peoples. He deeply resisted British dominance through the written word, with the motive of awakening his audience. In The Drapier’s Letters (1724–25), Swift asked: “Were not the people of Ireland born as free as those of England?” This series of seven pamphlets was written in opposition to the policy of Wood’s Halfpence which was a cunning strategy to drain Ireland of its gold and was also in complete violation of the rights of the Irish Parliament and the Privy Council. Swift further proposed a sort of boycott of “everything wearable that comes from England”, in his own words. He rebukes the populace of Ireland for its apathy, and at the same time instigates them to join his cause. In this he is resonant of Samuel Johnson’s plight against corruption as posited in his poem, ‘London’ (1738).
In its literal sense, A Modest Proposal presents itself as a modest proposal providing a solution to Ireland’s economic problems. The narrator suggests that they might as well eat their own children in an attempt to recover from their miserable and poverty-stricken conditions. John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London during an episode on BBC Radio 4 points out that Swift’s witty and intelligent use of irony becomes lucid when he says, “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”. Such a proposal is a deliberate shock for the reader after Swift uses the first part of the essay to describe the plight of the starving beggars in Ireland. Judith Hawley (Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London) is of the view that Swift is “in no way sympathetic towards these beggars as he constantly complains of what a burden they are” in many of his works. However, his entire essay seems to be an attempt to awaken the people who have become desensitized to the suffering of the poor. Swift also cites Psalmanazar, a literary imposter, which clears all doubts regarding his true intent.
Swift’s intended dissimulation is supported by the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone while explaining the economic benefits of such an inhumane practice. He ironically states:
“There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, also, too frequently 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.”
The narrator elucidates that the horrid practice of aborting children because of financial crisis can be abolished if women, like “breeders”, breed children like pigs, with the purpose of providing commodities to her husband or herself. This would also end the practice of wife-beating because now she would be a valuable asset to her husband. Additionally the narrator points out that people would now want to get married for its economic benefits. Here Swift shrewdly illuminates the empty marriages that people were forced into because of societal or financial pressures. By referring to humans as commodities, Swift unveils the camouflage of harmony. He stresses on the fact that a human being’s worth was being equated to her/his productivity or labour power which by proxy equates human beings to machines. Like Cicero, Swift uses Apophasis, the rhetorical device, to highlight the hidden reality behind political discourse. The very intent of this cannibalistic metaphor was to provoke and disturb his audience, to make them aware of how inhumane their very existence is within the prevalent practices. He uses a similar technique in Gulliver’s Travels wherein he uses allegory to explicate societal problems such as those of corruption, greed, exploitation, etcetera. Through A Modest proposal, Swift reproaches the exploitation of the poor and the down-trodden by the rich and powerful minority. He uses the language of economists to underscore the violence of economic theories and policies, such as his reference to humans as breeders. He calculatively asserts the utility of devouring one’s own children, as landlords “have devoured most of the parents”. He employs mathematical and scientific tools to justify his “scheme”, reminding the readers of William Petty’s ‘utopianism’ when under Cromwell’s rule, he distributed Irish land amongst the English resulting in a large number of Irish tenants starving to death because of poverty. Such tools drew attention and appreciation from his contemporary audience after the influence of scholars like Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century, who was termed ‘the father of empiricism’.
In Swift’s Modest Proposal, George Wittkowsky argues that Swift’s main target in A Modest Proposal was not the conditions in Ireland, but rather the “illogical schemes” that would purportedly solve social and economic ills, for example, “the idea of running the poor through a joint-stock company“. According to him, the essay targets reformers who “regard people as commodities” as Swift adopts the “technique of a political arithmetician” to show the utter ridiculousness of trying to prove any proposal with dispassionate statistics. On the other hand, Wittkowsky mentions that some critics like Edmund Wilson disagree with this view and offer that statistically “the logic of the ‘Modest proposal’ can be compared with defense of crime (arrogated to Marx) in which he argues that crime takes care of the superfluous population”. Wittkowsky then counters, that Swift’s satiric use of statistical analysis is an effort to enhance his satire that “springs from a spirit of bitter mockery, not from the delight in calculations for their own sake”. The school of deconstruction developed by Jacques Derrida allows for both of these readings to coexist. Further, Wittkowsky analyses the mercantilism of the 18th century and agrees with Louis A. Landa’s statement, “people are the riches of a nation” in A Modest Proposal and Populousness. Landa proclaims that England was dehumanizing Irish citizens. Robert Phiddian’s article Have you eaten yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal also works along similar lines, “in the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry… the somewhat more humane attitudes of an earlier day had all but disappeared and the laborer had come to be regarded as a commodity”. In A Modest Proposal, at one point the narrator regards the painful deaths of the poor, as a mere decrease in population thus benefitting the polis. In fact he insinuates cannibalism for this very advantage and even states that the people themselves might prefer to die than to live in abjection.
Swift uses grotesque and disgusting imagery and does not allow his readers the comfort of euphemism, in order to force thought provocation. He goes on to account for the increase in trading opportunities and uses of human flesh apart from food like garments. Charles K. Smith’s Toward a Participatory Rhetoric focuses on Swift’s use of gripping details of poverty juxtaposed against his narrator’s cool approach towards them creating two opposing points of view that “alienate the reader, perhaps unconsciously, from the narrator”. He says that Swift uses the proposer’s serious tone to highlight the absurdity of his proposal. In making his argument, the speaker uses the conventional, text book approved order of argument from Swift’s time (which was derived from the Latin rhetorician Quintilian). The contrast between the “careful control against the almost inconceivable perversion of his scheme” and “the ridiculousness of the proposal” create a situation in which the reader has “to consider just what perverted values and assumptions would allow such a diligent, thoughtful, and conventional man to propose so perverse a plan”. This leads us to Wayne C. Booth’s concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’ in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. While the narrator’s motive is to resolve the economic troubles, Swift’s motive seems to be entirely different. Inspired from Tertullian‘s Apology according to James Johnson in Tertullian and A Modest Proposal, Swift attacks the evils of the British rule with means of irony and rhetoric instead of angry speech. The impact of such a method is that it jerks people out of their comfort zones and reminds them of their own oppression.