“I am 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 fricassee, or ragout.”
(A Modest Proposal, Swift, J.)
The lines quoted above have been taken from Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. The essay is a satire—a text that aims to improve society through ridicule or mockery of the human being, attacking and bringing attention to prevalent ideas of the time. It deals with the present state of affairs and how it optimally should be, making its reader aware of existing problems in the societal structure. In this light, Swift writes in the form of the Menippean satire (after Menippus, the third century BCE satirist), which, as Michael F. Suarez, S.J.’s definition elucidates, “emphasises combining parody with satire and mixing together several different kinds of discourse in a single work. Swift’s pieces are thus vigorous literary hybrids produced by juxtaposing and combining multiple discursive forms” (Fox, 2003.) including both ‘transplanting’ (using lines from other writers for comedic impact) and ‘personation’ (mimicry).
He begins his essay with an attempt to appeal to the emotive responses of readers—referring to the deplorable conditions in civilisation. This serves to evoke sympathy as well as the need for a solution, in an odd anticipation of his (ironic) argument to come. He is, however, not in the least sympathetic to these beggars himself, as he constantly complains about their being a burden. The highlighted impoverished state of the people only serves to guide the reader towards the equally shocking suggestion that Swift satirically offers—that of feeding on the babies of the poor so that they may “contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands” (Swift, 1729.) and to maximise their utility in society, improving Ireland’s economy and standard of living. He articulates his proposition in the form of a witty and intelligent essay, that uses humour as a tool to change matters. His message is delivered with deceptive hilarity (as it is actually a deeply unfunny subject). His irony lures the readers into engaging with the text and then forces them to think.
Though he writes satirically, the proposal offered is more than a funny joke. While an initial response may be outrage, and a subsequent one is usually amusement, one can see and appreciate, after thought and deliberation, the wit with which the message (of a need for change in the social order) is sent across, which is the reaction Swift expects and intends to provoke through his careful language and tone. His prose works also are found by Pat Rogers to “combine moral intensity with skilful and often virtuosic use of language: they exhibit great rhetorical sophistication, and they require to be read (as they seem to have been written) with fierce concentration, in case the author should ambush us into accepting some enormous or absurd position which he has slipped into the text.” (2003)
Moreover, as various intellectual pamphlets are already being widely distributed (and overlooked) in the late seventeenth century, Swift breaks this monotony and constructs a ridiculous proposal that is sure to get noticed. The irony in the essay makes it far more impactful than a straightforward speech would have done, as it uses tropes that the reader and Swift both know to not be true, posing the opposite of the intended meaning, in order to make the reader think (as well as laugh) about the condition of humanity and how to better it. This is misleading, however, as Swift offers a limited scope of thinking, almost an illusion that it is the reader’s own conclusion, as he has been accused of harbouring resentment and writing propaganda that nudges the reader towards the conclusion he believes in.
However, his work does not appear to stem from any personal bias, as Swift abhors all of mankind in equal measure. As Matt Stone puts it, “Wanting a different standard for religions other than your own is, to me, is where satire ends, and intolerance and bigotry begin.” (2006) In this way, Swift is not intolerant or prejudiced, lampooning his own society, and is instead disillusioned with all the world. He uses sarcasm and rhetorical exaggeration to articulate his annoyance with politicians, papists, and generally all citizens of poverty-stricken Ireland in the late seventeenth century. This disgust with all people can be seen in his novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726), too, wherein he critiques European society through his political allegory (that is, extended metaphor) and symbolises a complete rejection of all of humankind (as he travels to four different lands and successively detests and spurns them all). As Claire Colebrooke puts it, “the capacity for misanthropy and disgust ultimately leads Gulliver to abandon human speech and dialogue altogether.” (2003) This is much like Swift’s own real-life rejection of humanity, wherein he is driven mad with his hatred for the world and becomes an outcast, with people at the time attributing his disillusioned writing to this apparent madness (despite the fact that he denies having written A Modest Proposal). This is similar to the concept of reason and madness discussed by Michel Foucault, where he posits that the “other,” with a different perspective, is considered mad and made an outcast. (1961)
Swift, additionally, uses perception as an effective tool to send his message. He is able to make people aware of their own apathy and callousness by writing of it in a reported, matter-of-fact way. This is a far more effective method than to go on an impassioned, irate rant, since he believes people have become desensitised. They are only woken up when the horror of their behaviour and actions is reported to them casually and unaffectedly, albeit in a greatly overemphasised manner. He reports on potential markets, cooking methods, and profitable bi-products such as leather for gloves or boots. This is the same as the technique Swift employs in Gulliver’s Travels, where he produces a replica of his own society of Britain in a fantastical setting, exaggerating the political events and reporting them in an impassive, sober tone so as to draw attention to their ridiculousness. He also makes use of perception in both these texts, presenting a different, fresh lens to view the same situation so as to bring about a realisation in the community. He attempts—through the use of the hyperbole of cannibalism—to make citizens cognisant of the violence, inhumanity, and brutality in their class-run world, to which they have become habituated. As Patrick Kelly writes, his
“pamphlet is intended to shock contemporaries into realisation of the enormity of the current crisis through the contrast between its horrifying subject matter and the objective-sounding economic language employed to present the projector’s research.”
(Kelley, P. 2003.)
Swift successfully alienates the reader from the familiar, which they had not been truly or accurately perceiving. He shifts their complacency by defamiliarising them, and his literary technique of irony and satire allows him to do so. He is almost forced to use irony due to the demands of the present state of affairs. As Claire Colebrooke puts it,
“Swift does not just use satire as a vehicle. The very style of satire […] is shown in both its positive effects and its risks. On the one hand, satire allows us to view the human condition […] and on the other, we see the violent tendencies of the satirical impulse. We could say that Swift is both satirical—making human nature and society an object of derision—and ironic for the text implies a position other than that of Gulliver.”
Similarly, Swift does not agree entirely with the narrator of A Modest Proposal either. He is not saying what either of these narrators propose- eating children, or sympathising with the extermination of human life because of its moral corruption. He is rather exposing a dehumanisation, striving to change the perception of Ireland and its citizens. Swift provides no textual authority or moral codes, usually present in satires. Instead, the constructive element, here, as Suarez writes, is the “active fostering of moral discernment, leading readers to develop their critical acumen about the workings of vice and folly […] in others as well as ourselves.” The goal therefore becomes to examine the human condition critically.
However, visible beneath his ornament of irony is the writer’s use of stereotypes against Irish Catholics, with them as the subjects of Swift’s satire. The argument that infants are too young to steal and therefore must be employed in a better activity implies that this is a common pursuit of Irish Catholics; the overall idea of overpopulation comes from the stereotype that Catholics tend to have several children; the idea of decreasing the Catholic population (the first basis for his argument) shows Swift’s satire of religious prejudice. The word “papists” is also used in the offensive sense of anti-Catholic rejection of the Pope. In Protestant England, people may share the stereotypes but would never eat children as the narrator suggests.
George Wittkowsky propounds that the targets of A Modest Proposal are the schemes set to ‘solve’ the socio-economic crisis, and not the conditions in Ireland. The essay, he finds, is intended for those who look upon people as material objects, with Swift adopting a mathematical outlook in order to draw attention to the absurdity of the materialistic, statistical preoccupation of the age. It shows the utter lack of humanity and personal empathy and human connections in a detached, unemotional world. Critics like Edmund Wilson however, suggest that the reasoning of the ‘modest proposal’ can be compared to the Marxian defence of crime wherein crime takes care of the surplus, and therefore redundant, population. These multiple interpretations nevertheless show the strength of Swift’s satire, which “with its lack of determinate authority and its often multiple ambiguities, attempts to foster critical discernment and to cultivate in its readers the art of disbelief.” (Suarez, 2003.)