“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…”
– Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
In 1729, Jonathan Swift published an essay titled A Modest Proposal, wherein the narratorial voice offers a seemingly viable solution to the poverty-stricken populace of Ireland. A closer reading of the text, however, reveals stark irony in the Proposal which is otherwise written and presented to us a commonplace, banal economic theory. One of the greatest satirists of the Eighteenth Century, Swift had little faith in man’s reasoning ability. He thus constructed a classical rhetoric to convince man of his follies and presented his essay filled with irony which he termed as a “grave formal lie”.
Swift’s narrator, grieving over the horrifying conditions in Dublin, comments, “It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms.” In response to the abject conditions which the Dubliners are subjected to, he proposes that young infants be reared as a commercial food product and sold for consumption. Carefully calculating demographic figures and statistical data, he enlists the various advantages of his proposal and states that the proposition would be largely helpful in controlling the population explosion and in lessening the number of Papists, that it would give the poor “something valuable of their own”, and also increase the nation’s stock. Moreover, the infant’s mothers (called “breeders”) would be free of the troubles of raising children who would undoubtedly grow up and either turn to thievery for want of work or “leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.”
Irony is established here by Swift at two different levels. Firstly, his narrator uses a pervasive tone of diminution, reducing mankind to the level of beasts. In suggesting that “Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when they are ready to farrow”, he implies that he wishes for child-rearing to become an institutionalised trade similar to animal husbandry. Swift, himself, however, does not advocate these ideas. He is against the belittlement of human beings brought about by a moral perversion in the fabric of society. Secondly, the narrator’s sustained point of view as an economist quantifying human beings in terms of statistical abstractions is also something that Swift is attempting to satirise. Swift is critical of seeing humans in terms of labour power, as a commodity or as an instrument for increasing the wealth of a nation.
Eighteenth century politics and economics presupposed human beings as quantifiable statistical data which would be useful in enumerating national wealth. People were seen only in terms of their utility, that is, they had a right to existence only if they could contribute to the production of wealth. The narrator’s mercantile view of utilising the bodies of the poor in order to generate national income is supported by Mandeville’s Essay on Charity, and Charity Schools (1723). Mandeville says that “in a free Nation where Slaves are not allow’d of, the surest Wealth consists in a Multitude of laborious Poor,” who should serve as nurseries of fleets, armies, and industry.” Being simply poor does not suffice. “To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances,” he argues, “it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor.” Economist Eli Heckscher opines that “In the mercantilist view no child was too young to go into industry”, which is exactly what the narrator supports. Children as young as a year old are able enough to fetch a profitable income.
The author, Swift himself, on the other hand, does not align himself with the ideas advocated by the narrator. Swift is simply showing his anger and disgust, using the narrative as a prop to argue against the state of affairs. This makes the narrator an unreliable one. Critic Wayne C. Booth, in his essay The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), remarks that an unreliable narrator is one who does not speak for or acts “in accordance with the norms of the work”. He also mentions that the narrator is unreliable when he “is mistaken or he believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him.” Clearly, the narrator advocates cannibalism with complete authenticity while Swift himself does not. The narrative of the text becomes unreliable because the narrator is at odds with the author. However, the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator allows the reader to distance himself from the text and does not gain sympathy. Irony arises when the reader realises that the proposition is satiric and not to be taken at face value.
As posited by critic Charles Allen Beaumont in his essay Swift’s Classical Rhetoric in “A Modest Proposal” (1960), “the classical form of the essay is itself an important constituent of Swift’s irony, for the projector’s addressing his readers through an ancient and learned form helps allay any suspicion of radical newness.” The economically revolutionary proposal to sell the babies of Ireland as food for the rich is meted out in the traditional, respected form of writing political pamphlets. In doing so, Swift reduces political rhetoric to its euphemism, and strips it off its seemingly philanthropic or altruistic nature. Swift would like his readers to face the harsh reality of public affairs, and does not want them to be lulled to sleep with the false belief that all is okay with the world. The Irish famine did witness incidents of cannibalism in the early eighteenth century, because of which the Irish were highly criticised and ostracised by the English gentry. Swift here subtly warns the elitists to stop looking at state affairs with a myopic vision, and tells them to look at the bigger picture.
Critic George Wittkowsy, in his essay Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet (1934) advises the reader to note “the provision in the Irish law passed during the reign of the first George, which classified unemployable children as impotent poor. The act declares that since there are everywhere numbers of helpless children who are forced to beg in order to live and who, unless some care is taken of their education, will become “not only unprofitable but dangerous to their country.” Swift clearly has a different, distinct vision for the children of the nation, whom he wishes to see growing up to be worthy, productive individuals, though not in the utilitarian sense. Swift’s Voyage to Lilliput from his renowned novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) describes the faraway land of Lilliput where children are raised not by their parents but by the state as a whole which bestows them with noble qualities. The gap between the rich and the poor is minimised in this manner as both are raised under the same circumstances. Swift illustrates this in order to draw a parallel with eighteenth century British society which only sees its youth as a means to an end. In A Modest Proposal, Swift once again attempts to suggest that children need to be diverted away from thievery and forced labour towards more sustainable professions. However, he satirises this need by depicting them as commodities. With the exception of the word carcass, all of the other nouns applied to children are food terms. The narrator admits that this new food “will be some-what dear.” Here, as Beaumont points out, “all except one of the ironic veils is lifted in order to state a terrible truth, with only the one word ‘somewhat’ holding the thin thread of irony as the observation darts for the moment to the very edge of the fine line between irony and simple truth.” The same effect is achieved when the narrator admits that the proposal might be objected to as “a little bordering upon Cruelty.” The single phrase “a little bordering upon” holds the ironic structure tightly together while still allowing the reader a small glimpse into the heart of the matter.
Finally, the narrative is successful because Swift writes his narrator to be humble enough to gain the reader’s approval, sympathy and confidence. The narrator also had to be kept sufficiently dense to sustain the irony. The proposal is a “Modest” one. It is introduced in generally modest terms such as, “I shall now therefore humbly pro-pose my own Thoughts…”, “I do humbly offer to publick Consideration…” According to Beaumont, Swift blends these two qualities of his narrator in such a way that both are convincing and that neither quality over-shadows the other. The result is a pleader whose humility is justifiably tempered by the sure knowledge that he has something to offer Ireland, to her everlasting benefit. The last paragraph of the essay assures the reader of the narrator’s sincerity and unselfish motives: “I PROFESS, in the Sincerity of my Heart, that I have not the least personal Interest, in endeavouring to promote this necessary Work … I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.” This last sentence tells us that the narrator is not a childless man who can propose such a solution in ignorance of a father’s feelings, and also that he would not gain personally from the adoption of the proposal.
We may thus assert that Swift satirises the economy and politics of Ireland through dexterous use of irony which is brought forth through the unreliable narrator. The reader witnesses a “willing suspension of disbelief”, and in the words of Roland Barthes, we “surrender to text.”