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Mockery of the Life in Ireland in “A Modest Proposal“ by Jonathan Swift Essay

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Updated: Sep 28th, 2021

Introduction

Jonathan Swift, the author of the famous Gulliver Travels, takes a dig at the Irish and British Bureaucracy in his masterful satire, ‘A Modest Proposal,’ which in the true sense is a mockery of the life in Ireland, where the majority is poor and destitute. Through this book, Swift is proposing a way to mitigate the misery of the poor by telling them to sell their poor, one-year-old child to the wealthy as food. He makes a mockery of meat when he says that the fattened children would make great food for the rich at parties and meetings and that the money that they got from selling their children could be used to support their family.

Discussion

Swift is made to touch upon this topic after seeing the millions of poor beg for food on Dublin’s streets with no solace in sight. The men have no jobs and the women are treated like slaves, only to get impregnated and deliver babies who languishes their life in rags. Left to fend for themselves without food and shelter, these children finally grows up to become thieves or leave the country to fight for the so-called pretenders in Spain.

‘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, … or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes’ (Swift, 1729).

While the book reflects the author’s sentiments and feelings for the poor, the book is a manifestation of Swift’s outrage at what he saw were the scandalous economic and political policies of the Irish and English governments during that time.

Ireland was in turmoil in the twentieth century and Swift was a spectator to what was going on in that country. Despite the turmoil, the life of the Irish was not spared, as the wealthy British continuously oppressed these poor for their happiness. He reflects on the way the wealthy British partied, when there was widespread poverty in the streets of Dublin. The poor in the street would indulge in begging and sex and this led to more and more ill-fed children roaming the streets.

It was with sarcasm that Swift portrayed these women, for even though they had nothing to eat, and no proper clothes to wear, they indulged in sex without thinking about its consequences. These kids, if and when they survived, would then be big enough to join the rebels and fight in Spain or work for the British, doing nothing for the country they represent. Even when the name of England is used, Swift never proclaimed it in first tense:

“He could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it,” his attack is on the English, … no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England’ (Swift, 1729).

England had things its way and all that the Irish people could do was watch in pain as they dictated terms to them.’ The English were rich and got what they wanted from the Irish without a fight and Swift was also a spectator to the atrocities committed on his native women who were raped and left to fend for themselves.

The poor could do little for a living. With no jobs or opportunities, Swift recommends that these women who were periodically raped, and begged for food, could do away with their fat young, tender babies to the rich for a paltry sum, instead of suffering on the streets of Dublin. The book has no luxuries, only pain and struggle as, in another part of the book, Swift challenges his proposal to be rebuked by wise men, and says that there would be none; for if that was to happen, he would ask them:

‘How would they will be able to find food and raiment for an hundred thousand useless mouths and backs’, and… beggars by profession to the bulk of farmers, cottagers, and laborers, with their wives and children who are beggars in effect’ (Swift, 1729).

This was precisely what was happening in Ireland. The rich were not concerned for the poor and spent time indulging in good and healthy food, wine and women. They were so self-centered that they ad no qualms of being under the watchful eyes of the English, who dictated to them.

Therefore, ‘I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion as to reject any offer proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual.’

Giving birth to babies and having them breast-fed was not going to hurt the poor. It was the easiest, cheapest, and effectual way to survive for the poor. So, should there be any other who could find a better solution to this problem of abject poverty, Swift was willing to listen and support. The government of Ireland was doing nothing to find a solution to the problem and was too busy with their parties to address this malady in society. Swift satirizes those who propose solutions to political and economic issues without any consideration for human beings. It is with this in mind that Swift brings out the inhumanity of schemes for alleviating the suffering of the poor.

Without being satirical, Swift, towards the end of the book, lists numerous reforms that could help the country fight poverty. He believes that these reforms would not be accepted without objections, and that whatever he said was his own and none others. He says that instead of the poor sacrificing their children, it would be practically possible for the rich to sacrifice some of their luxuries to support the poor. The country was thrown into abject poverty and he knew that the only way he could perhaps get someone to understand the plight of his countrymen and women was by making this harsh, yet forlorn comment on the society in Ireland.

He knew for sure that there would be a lot of criticism for what he wrote but that was possibly the only way to elicit a response from the bureaucracy that ruled the nation. Was there another way to overcome the misery of the people of Ireland? Though it sounded cynical, Swift was sure that he sounded the unequivocal thoughts of the millions on the streets of Dublin, who were fed up with the administration and sought some solace. He challenged the administration to come forward and propose a change which will alleviate the feelings of the poor on the streets of Dublin:

‘I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged,… fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it’ (Tamsen Connor, 2006).

References

Jonathan Swift: A Modest Proposal, 1729. Web.

Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal, 1969, Plain Label Books. Web.

Tamsen Connor, Satire and Significance in Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal,’ Brown University, 2003. Web.

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