Updated July 2, 2022
“A Modest Proposal ..” is a satirical essay by Jonathan Swift which seeks attacking British Policy towards Irish Citizen and bashing mercantilism of the Age. On the face, though it suggests that the poor Irish might ease their financial stress by selling their young ones as commodity. A Modest Proposal was synonymous with early modern western satire.
Jonathan Swift (1667) was the greatest prose satirist of the 18th century. Most of his works are satirical and ironical in tone and lashing the venom in essence. His satire and irony is as bitter as gall. Instant ironical essay “A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of Ireland from a Burden to their Parents and Country” is one of such essays. It is a direct outcome of his personal experience.
Analysis of “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children..”
“A Modest Proposal” is a touchstone for Swift’s style and character as a satirist. A student of Swift can do no better than begin with this essay. The dispassionate business like tone in which he unfolds the grotesque proposal in nothing but a thin layer of cooled lava covering a pit of boiling indignation whose depth has never been sounded. The contempt with which he attacks Walpole, Wood and absentee landlords who had literally torn the bread from the hands of Irish people and flesh from their bones is unparalleled.
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 alm.
It was the normal scene in Ireland. This tore the heart of Swift. Now as an outraged observer of such brutality he had several options. He might shed tears and pass by or he might appeal hysterically to humanitarian sentiment and collect sympathetic contributions to relieve a handful of people momentarily. He had also the option to denounce the government.
But, Jonathan Swift knew that neither the attack on official nor the appeal for mercy will improve the lot of tenants and their children. That is why, he decided to launch or offensive through his writings. As usual he employs ridicule as the most effective weapon. He knew that the devil is brave in the face of threats, stony hearted, before tears, vulnerable only in the Achilles heel of his vanity.
The main reason of launching vigorously attack against the absentee landlords was the pathetic state of children of Ireland. England’s policies of exploitation had rendered Ireland a poor country. There was sharp divisions of wealth, luxury and will for life. The upper class enjoyed exotic feed and the poor had to wander in the woods is search of edible roots. This resulted into the death of a large number of children.
Swift evokes a unique proposal to prevent children from being a burden to their parents or country. He proposes that the young children should be carved like lambs to be supplied to the dining table of the rich. He writes
……that young healthy child, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.
He tries to compute the exact number of children available for his trade. He suggests that the children should be carved and eaten to squeeze the best of benefit or profit from it. The flesh and bone will go to the dining table and the skin can be use for making dainty items. He believes that the rearing and slaughtering of children would benefit the poor couple. This will improve the quality of food. This will also encourage the institution of marriage.
Swift claims that this proposal is not for his personal benefit but he wants to improve the lot of the poor. He writes:
I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny..
Swift’s method in this essay is strikingly bold with sarcasm and irony. He reveals the terrible suffering of a race is a mocking manner. His style is marked with clarity, precision and conciseness. He employs figure of speech and epigrammatic expressions rarely. Jonathan Swift was the most original writer of satire and he was one of the masters of English Prose.
A Modest Proposal to Parents- In Conclusion
It would be no exaggeration to say that Jonathan was a king of satire in 18th century. The might of his pen has been recognized by all great writers of his age and afterwards. Swift chose to use “a modest proposal” to attack the discriminating policy of British to Irish in general and catholic Irish in general. In later years phrase become an expression to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly. Precisely speaking it is an indirect or passing reference which we know as allusion in literature.
Literary experts suggest that “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan was most suitable critique to “people are the riches of a nation”, the prevailing mercantilism. Swift by the instant Satire seeks to clarify that population alone did not mean greater wealth& economy in Ireland’s case.
Landa presents Swift’s A Modest Proposal as a critique of the popular and unjustified maxim of mercantilism in the 18th century that “people are the riches of a nation”. Swift presents the dire state of Ireland and shows that mere population itself, in Ireland’s case, did not always mean greater wealth and economy.
In a sense this satire also underscores the Mercantilist paradox that wealth of a country is based on the poverty of the majority of its citizens. Additionally, Swift also seeks to highlight the fact that England was denying Irish citizens their rights and viewing them as a mercantile commodity.
Beyond The Mercantilist Satire of Swift Under Literature Reads
- Jonathan Swift as a Satirist, a Moralist and a Reformer
- A Letter of Advice to Young Poet’ by Jonathan Swift
- Literary Characteristics of Age of Pope aka Augustan Age
- The Prose Predominance in 18th Century Literature & factors
- “The Castle of Otranto” by Horace Walpole as First Gothic Fiction
- Brief Note on “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer