’s Modest Proposal Essay, Research Paper
Have You Eaten Yet?: Swift s Final Solution
As a lately favored eighteenth century essay, Jonathan Swift s Proposal has been canonized as a satirical model of wit. As will be discussed shortly, Swift s essay is often seen as an allegory for England s oppression of Ireland. Swift, himself and Irishman (Tucker 142), would seem to have pointed his razor wit against the foreign nation responsible for his city s ruin. Wearing the lens of a New Historicist, however, requires that we reexamine the power structures at work in Swift s society. We must delve into not only Swift s Proposal, but also into other of his correspondence, and even into discourse of the epoch in order to gain a thick description of the many levels of understanding present in Swift s Proposal.
As a model of rhetorical discourse, Jonathan Swift s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public is unique among the plethora of pamphlets which circulated Ireland in the early eighteenth century. However, it is imprudent to think of the work as having emerged purely isolated from the pressures of the society in which Swift wrote. While propositions such as A Modest Proposal for the More Certain and yet More Easie Provision for the Poor, and Likewise for the Better Suppression of Theives Tending Much to the Advancement of Trade, Especially in the most Profitable Part of It, (Author Unknown, Cited in Rawson 189) were commonly circulated in order to postulate solutions to the crises of the day, Jonathan Swift s Proposal has been read as a parody of this sort of pamphlet (Rawson 189). There can be no solid support for such a thesis, and it would be wrong to infer that what is at work in Swift s Proposal in any important sense is a burlesque on project concerning the poor or on the titles of certain types of economic tracts. The mimicry of these things which Swift employs is but seasoning, and not the main point. Likewise, to suggest that Swift was radically attacking the notion of economic planning of human affairs, or even that his attitude on certain central questions was humane or liberal is misleading. The majority of interpretation of Swift s proposal points us to an understanding that Swift was not really proposing infant cannibalism, rather that he points to an analogy between his proposal and the actual (or actually alleged) destruction consumption of Ireland by a voracious England, the parent-kingdom eating up its child-colony. There are major impediments to this approach.
The Proposer is clearly in Ireland, addressing an Irish audience with an account of circumstances which are as real as they are horrible. (Rosenheim 204) England s consumption of Ireland is mentioned expressly, but in a single clause which certainly does not inform but transiently exploits the great central conceit at work in the Proposal : although I could perhaps name a country that would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it [preserving the flesh of the infant carcasses]. (Swift) The structure and progress of the Proposer s argument, both as a whole and in it particulars, seem in no way derived from any analogical or allegorical perception. Rather, at least some of Swift s irony, if not the largest portion thereof, is directed at Ireland, not England.
The proposer states that Infants flesh will be in season throughout the year and that a large quantity of infant flesh will be consumed. He indicates that cooks will vie with each other in preparing new dishes of this food which is a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food. (Swift) The proposer next exhausts the list of ways one can prepare this food in order to emphasize that the food will incite a continuous craving in the people who devour it. The proposer also derives by-products from the infants flesh; clearly, he is establishing a major industry which will use a lot of infant flesh. The enormity of the business is again seen in regard to the actual slaughter, for he says
“Shambles may be appointed for this Purpose, in the most convenient of Parts of [Dublin]; and Butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I
rather recommend buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the
knife, as we do roasting pigs.” (Swift)
After the enormity of the business has been indicated, the proposer solidifies his attack on Ireland when he states that the Irish have 100,000 infants to sell each year. He continues that a quarter seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day. (Swift) Because an infant will last four days by making four meals for the average family, the dimensions of the proposer s plan begin to be quantified. (Hozeski 54) The crucial point in determining the proposer s aim occurs when he ponders Supposing that one thousand families in this city would be constant customers for infants flesh. I compute that Dublin would take off, annually, about twenty thousand carcasses… (Swift) With each family eating one child every four days, 91.25 infants each year are consumed. The thousand families in Dublin would, then, actually consume 91,250 infants annually, not twenty thousand, as computed by the modest proposer. (Hozeski 54) This obvious error causes us to question Swift s target in his essay. According to the proper calculations, the Dubliner s and the others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, (Swift) would consume additional infants until the Irish eventually became extinct. The attack, then, has ultimately been leveled against Ireland, not England as is sometimes thought (Hozeski 55).
The idea of cannibalism attributed to Swift may in fact have been suggested in official correspondence from Archbishop King to Edward Southwell, the Irish Secretary of State. The Archbishop writes, but where [the money] will be got God knows except we flea the people & sell their skins. (Coleborne 132) This exasperation of finances creates a rhetoric of exasperation that Swift ameliorates into an entire proposal. Between 1709 and 1725, Ireland had created a 300,000 debt, one of staggering proportions to the poor nation. It is a commonplace of Irish pamphleteering of the 1720s that the country had the potential for richness of a kind that would have turned aside the hideous face of its poverty and misery. (Coleborne 133) The crucial passage in the proposal which underscores the bitterness which Swift feels towards the poor he allegedly is advocating through satire is the one in which the speaker asserts that the prescriptions for infant cannibalism is calculated only for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and urges, Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor household furniture except what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury, (Swift) and so on, through a catalog that repeats precisely those steps to betterment which Swift has repeatedly urged upon his compatriots, who have repeatedly ignored them. (Rosenheim 208) This is the point in the essay where the proposer turns from barbarous plan and becomes the accuser, confronting his Irish audience with a devastating assessment of their own condition and, at least obliquely, of their own guilt. In each of the other expedients itemized by the proposer lies the power of the Irish to better their own situation; by rejecting them, the Irish have left the door open to no alternatives other than the present interminable wretchedness or the cannibalism of the proposal. It is this passage which points to an indication that Swift was not concerned with satirizing the proposals of other writers on Irish affairs, many of whose schemes he had himself championed. (Rawson 201) The genuinely sane and practical suggestions included in the list of other expedients diver the tone of mockery in the essay back to Swift himself. This self-mockery is one of Swift s ways of deemphasizing the culpability of the inept economists, instead underscoring the hopeless incurability of the society whose life the government was trying to improve.
The fact that at previous and historically recorded times of famine, actual instances of cannibalism, including child-eating, had occurred in Ireland (about which Swift certainly knew), adds hideous and tragic overtones to the insinuation of guilt made by the proposer. No longer is the fantasy of exasperation an innocent play; a more cutting, spiteful nature arises. In An Answer to A Memorial (1728), Swift noted that our ancestors, the Scythians, and their posterity our kinsmen the Tartars, lived upon the blood and milk, and raw flesh of their cattle; without one grain of corn; but I confess myself so degenerate, that I am not easy without bread to my victuals. (Rawson 196) In 1729, newspaper reports were saying that the unemployed in Dublin were forced to feed on grains, and blood from the slaughter-houses. Behind the pained compassion of the proposer lies a great deal of contempt for the Irish and their barbarous ways.
There was also a tradition that the Scythians made mantles out of the skins of their enemies, (Rawson 197) which doubtless gives additional irony to the Proposal s notion that skins of cannibalized babies will make admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen. (Swift) The Synthians, for Swift, clearly meant not only barbarism, but certain archetypal forms of human folly which he felt to be close at hand, (Rawson 197) in the city around him. The descriptions of Scythian barbarism among the Irish tracts of the late 1720s are shot through with pity, but the pity is an angry one, mixed with many kinds of resentment and contempt. (Rawson 197) For his part, in A Modest Proposal, Swift is saying to the Irish, you have acted like beasts; hence you no longer deserve to be thought of as men.
Swift s ways of animalizing Ireland and the Irish are clearly not ironic in that simple compassionate sense presupposed by many readers of the Modest Proposal. (Rawson 198) In an essay also written in 1729, A Proposal that All the Ladies and Women of Ireland Should Appear Constantly in Irish Manufactures, Swift wrote, The three seasons wherein our corn hath miscarried, did no more contribute to our present misery, than one spoonful of water thrown upon a rat already drowned would contribute to his death. (Rawson 198) The drowned rat which is Ireland evokes a mixture of feelings. While the passage evokes exasperation at the Irish, it also angrily mimics the contemptuous way in which the condition of Ireland is normally spoken of, and it contains an obvious gruff compassion on Swift s part, itself partly contemptuous.
Swift was intensely hostile to beggars. (Rawson 191) In his serious sociological tract, The Proposal for Giving Badges to Beggars, Swift wrote there is not a more undeserving vicious race of human kind than the bulk of those who are reduced to beggary, even in this beggarly country…[strolling beggars are] fitter to be rooted out of the face of the earth than suffered to levy a vast annual tax upon the city. (Rawson 191) Like the sardonic voice in the Proposal, this is no doubt a rhetoric of exasperation and not an advocacy of massacre. Swift s distaste for indigents is made even more clear through his correspondence to Pope some months before the proposal appeared. Swift asserts that, what I do is owing to a perfect rage and resentment, and the mortifying sight of slavery, folly, and baseness about me, among which I am forced to live. (Rosenheim 208) The proposal seems to follow this line of thinking perfectly.
History indicates how readily we seize the opportunity to attach guilt to affliction. (Rosenheim 212) Swift s Proposal fascinates us as the expression of a strange and compelling personality. From a historical perspective, Swift s essay allows us to sense the complexity of emotions attached to the Irish famine of the eighteenth century. Swift s compassion for the poor can also be identified as disgust and a true desire to eradicate the presence of three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. (Swift) What is more eye opening, historically, is that such painful and morally appalling steps as put forth in Swift s Proposal have been taken. This perspective discourages the common reading of the Proposal as a brilliant curiosity, a dichotomy of prescribing unspeakably cruel means to terminate a condition of chronic suffering. Does the suffering of cannibalized infants justify the prevention of starvation? If so, then it may, therefore, be argued that the proposer s solution is successful because the problem has been improperly formulated in the first place. (Rosenheim 211) If human misery is interpreted, as the proposer chooses to, in terms of economic waste and quantitative scarcity, without the least attention to the pain accompanying these circumstances, then and entirely economic, logistical solution is indeed triumphant, and matters of pain, death, and suffering are not germane. In this vein, the holocaust becomes a close analogue to the proposal, since the problem, whose formulation and very existence might elsewhere seem preposterous, underwent a Final Solution with hideous efficiency. This comparison reinforces the point that the proposal is not a sheer fantasy, nor a sardonically frivolous gesture of despair. With a New Historic lens, we must examine the interplay of interpretations of the history we have been taught. As Tyson puts it, had the Nazis won World War II, we would all be reading a very different account of the war. (Tyson 282) We cannot be satisfied with any interpretation of history which relies on subjective information.
It is not surprising that the targets of Swift s satire cannot be, and are not meant to be, clearly distinguished from one another, nor that Swift s allegiances between the English, the Anglo-Irish, and the natives are blurred and fluctuating things. These confusions provide essential energies of Swift s style. The Modest Proposal clearly is an embodiment of the complexities and contradictions of the English-Irish relationship in the eighteenth century.