“A Modest Proposal” Essay, Research Paper
Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, in which he suggests that the problem of Irish poverty can be solved by the sale of the children of the poor for consumption, is above all things a criticism of human faults: extremism of thinking, greed, pride, hypocrisy, intolerance, and insensitivity. His use of ireony is evident even in the title: the idea that not only should poor Irish children be eaten, but that they should be bred for eating is certainly anything but modest. Swift’s plan is that through irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration, the reader will recognize those faults which may not seem so obvious in their more mild forms.
In Swift’s criticism of extremist thinking, he switches back and forth throughout the text between two different methods of thinking: one is purely emotional, the other is purely rational. The faulty logic is obvious in comparisons between the conclusions that both methods reach. For example, the reasonable thinker, in his discussion of the breeding of the children who are to be consumed, assumes that the mother has no emotional attachment to her children and would be happy to give them up to be slaughtered for the profit. And yet the emotional thinker says that those mothers who abort their children do so for emotional reasons, namely shame. It follows then that those who give birth to their “bastards” must feel enough love for them to raise them in spite of whatever shame they may feel. Also the emotional narrator describes begging as dishonest, whereas the rational thinker uses the term “lawful” to describe it. In this way Swift shows how the two thinkers reach opposite conclusions, neither of which tell the whole story or are entirely accurate. The reasonable thinker is also so simple as to believe that because he is supported by so many “experts” who he keeps claiming he has consulted, that his ideas are justified. The only paragraph in which both methods of thinking are combined is the one in which Swift makes his true proposals which are reached by a moderate method.
Greed is another human downfall Swift deals with in his proposals, namely the greed of the British landlords and aristocracy which he sees as directly responsible for the poverty of the Irish. This is primarily dealt with in the overall image of the British “devouring” the beggar children of Ireland in order to rid themselves of the eyesore that they pose and which the British have directly caused by displacing them from their homes and starving them with exorbitantly high rents. He describes these aristocrats and landlords as “all the fine gentlemen who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in fine eating” and suggests that since they have already “destroyed their deer” that they might appreciate a substitute for their appetites. Speaking ironically, he attempts to appeal to this sense of greed by describing the children as “a good fat child”, and “excellent nutritive meat.” He even criticizes the greed of the Irish tavern keepers who he assures the reader would “contrive to make it [the flesh of children] as expensive as they please.”
He also accuses the British of pride with his claims that they would be pleased to serve a child’s flesh at “merry meetings, particularly weddings and christenings” and that it would “make a considerable figure at a lord mayor’s feast or any other public entertainment,” suggesting that the meal would serve as a status symbol for the aristocracy. The idea is further supported by Swift’s bold and outlandish claim that the rich would be pleased to wear the flayed carcasses as “admirable gloves for the ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” The skins would have to be “artificially (skillfully) dressed” however, suggesting that the nobles would have to go out of their way to be able to adorn themselves in this new fashionable symbol of their wealth and privilege.
Swift also deals with the folly of the insensitivity of the British to the plight of the starving Irish. Mocking the “reasonable” Brit, he claims that they would have no problem with having to slaughter the child themselves in order to ensure the freshness of the meat: “I rather [than buying the child already butchered] recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife as we do roasting pigs.” Throughout his description of the process by which the new meat will be produced, the reasonable narrator is insensitive to the Irish as he deals with such issues as how the child will be provided for while it is alive. He computes the cost of keeping the child in “rags” as that is their present state of dress anyway, and describes how the mother may provide the rags by “begging” as that is her “lawful occupation” anyway. He even goes so far as to attempt to deal with the burden of the “aged, diseased, or maimed,” who he claims are not a great problem because “they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can reasonably be expected.” He does not feel sympathy for these people but only wishes to be rid of them. The narrator makes the outlandish assertion that “it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure this practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering on cruelty; which I confess hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project how well soever intended,” after he has just suggested that the flesh of twelve and thirteen-year-old’s be sold as an alternative to venison. The narrator thus obviously is insensitive to the cruelty of killing an adolescent for consumption, although he claims to object to cruelty in general.
This passage is not only a criticism of British insensitivity but also British hypocrisy. The other obvious criticism of hypocrisy is demonstrated in the fourth paragraph in which the aborted children of the Irish are described by the narrator as “poor innocent babes” when the sum of the essay is to propose that the children of the Irish be “murdered” and not before birth, but no earlier than at one year of age. The implication is that the Irish are unscrupulous for ridding themselves of unwanted children, but that there is no moral issue for the British to encourage the same for their own gain.
Another fault of the British that Swift deals with is intolerance. This is seen most clearly in his discussion of one of the benefits of his plan, namely “by lessening the number of Papists [Catholics, who include in their number the great majority of Irish] among us.” This demonstrates that Swift believes that the British would see the reduction of Catholics as a benefit because they are intolerant of their differences from the English Anglicans. Swift also makes clear his belief that the English are narrow-minded in the first paragraph when, dripping with sarcasm, he condemns the Irish practice of “leav[ing] their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain.” The allusion is to James II, who was the rightful heir to the English throne, but was deposed because he had Catholic sentiments and had the gall to issue a declaration which granted religious freedom to all in his kingdom. (The Anglican) God forbid that the Catholics should be allowed to practice their religion without fear of persecution.
Swift attempts to expose the folly of all of these human downfalls through his use of irony, which with the literal meaning is the exact opposite of the intended meaning, and sarcasm: his suggestions are based on the failings of the narrator, who is ignorant of their absurdity while it is obvious to the reader. He also attempts to deal with them seriously in the paragraph in which he outlines his true proposals. He explicitly condemns greed in his discussion of shopkeepers “who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness…” He suggests that there be “introduc[ed] a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance,” that the “expensiveness of pride and vanity be cured,” that “animosities and factions” be abandoned, and that landlords be taught “to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants.” Swift is a believer in improvement in people, and he attempts to induce it through his writing by encouraging introspection, which will hopefully lead not only to the recognition of faults in individuals and the societies and systems they create, but also the desire to change them.