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What does one get when an esteemed writer proposes something that is way absurd to a pressing problem that he believes is eating away society slowly? Swift’s essay entitled “A Modest Proposal” is obviously taking a satirical stance over his uncanny proposal to fatten beggars’ children to sell them for food in order to benefit the rich landlords and persons of quality. At first, it may sound to be a foolish and dehumanizing idea. Just imagine, what would this selling of human beings for meat bring to society? Does he promote cannibalism and immorality? However, Swift does not literally mean what he suggested in this essay. What this piece summons to readers is that it is a shocking and tragic piece of how society treats these people. Written with a comical twist, it is equally the product of the author’s despair and benevolence about what the state of Ireland plans for these individuals. Ultimately, this essay is written as Swift is distraught in bitterness because he seemed helpless to address the inconsiderate actions of those merciless tyrants, who starve and oppress people around them. Tyrants, who he believed, have no shame and are oblivious that they contribute to the destruction of their own country.
Even reading through the first sentence of Swift’s sermon, it was written though he was really serious with his proposed undertaking:
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 alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to Barbados (Swift, p. 217).
The first part suggested that beggars and their children are a liability of their state and the government should do something to benefit from these “worthless” and “productive” people. It even falls short of demeaning women, as beggars, who are annoying people when they ask for alms in their city’s streets. Worse, it paints a very bleak picture of what the future has in store for their children, who will become beggars or thieves themselves when they grow up. It seems like the author is saying that these beggars and their children are useless anyway, why will not the government do something worthwhile with them to help the ailing economy of Ireland?
In this essay, Swift seems to take the helm as a speaker, an Irishman himself as he gives confirmation later by referring to Ireland as “my Country”, specifically either residing in Dublin or at this moment writing in Dublin (“this great Town”). Indeed, he is a man who saw and is aware of the subhuman conditions of the Irish poor, both in Dublin and in the country. Swift used vivid details and portrayed all that he saw in raw candor, like of the scenes “cabbin-doors” crowded with “beggars” (Swift, p. 217). Despite his outrageously cruel suggestion, we all know that this speaker is acquainted with the national economic and moral problems arising from scenes like the ones he describes: he knows that because of lack of work the beggars turn to thievery or leave the country to serve as mercenaries or slaves. Definitely, he does not have a blind eye and is not playing ignorant to Ireland’s plight and its relationship with the world beyond. Thus, readers would definitely get the intention of Swift that he could just be cloaking his eerie suggestion. His expression of “melancholy” reveals his concern for the poor, and we may also surmise his concern over the economic plight of Ireland as a nation. Why would a country neglect its people like that? Eventually, readers would understand the sarcastic assertion of Swift as his rather distinct identity emerges from when reading through the entire essay that his heart commiserates with the beggars and their children.
In a critical essay written by Barbara Bengels (2006), she explained that the object of Swift’s satire can be realized through its rich use of wordplay, which is particularly apparent in “A Modest Proposal”. Bengels (2006) reasoned out that Swift’s essay subterfuge irony with his “concern over England’s economic strictures evokes a most recurrent and vicious pattern of imagery through the seemingly harmless vehicle of clothing”:
Right from the first paragraph, he begins alluding to the sartorial state of the Irish as he writes of “Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags”. By the fourth paragraph, he incorporates a double meaning when he writes of children “exactly at one-year-old […] who instead of wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their lives; they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Clothing, of many Thousands”. It is impossible for us on first reading to see “clothing” in this context as a noun rather than as a verb; on second reading, however, his (Swift’s) real meaning is clear–and horrifying. Throughout the rest of the essay, there are at least seven references to clothing as clothing, per se: in paragraph 7 he speaks of “the charge of Nutriments and Rags”; in paragraph 18 he refers to the “foreign Fineries” of the “several plump young girls in… Town; in paragraph 32, he worries about how other projectors will “find Food and Raiment, for a Hundred Thousand useless Mouths and Backs” (Bengels 2006, p. 14).
According to Bengels (2006), Swift used the representations of clothing to identify the outright exploitation of its usage in his essay because his subject deals with the “ultimate exploitation of children–and of man’s ultimate misuse of man”. Bengels (2006) suggested that ordinarily, dressing one’s child is synonymous with caring, with the outward manifestation of love and pride, as well as the flaunting of social class. However, Swift’s essay toyed with the concept of clothing as he used it to show Ireland’s degradation: Ireland, without the ability to manufacture its own goods, must go in rags. But then Swift takes it a step further and uses the image of dressing in a far more perverse fashion. He eventually suggested dressing up in Ireland he made the most morally depraved passage of the entire essay: “I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs” (Swift, p. 217). This insensitive suggestion is what Swift means. The final symbol of what he meant is that if Ireland only takes care of beggars and their children, there will be no degradation of society, where only a promise of profit will encourage mothers to attend to their offspring.
Indeed, Swift’s essay has a vested purpose and the effect was “propagandistic”, as it made a presentation of biting social criticism as a dark and deeply alienated joke. Here, Swift presented the relations of the tyrants and slaves. The familiar assumption is that slaves deserve to be slaves and they are can be put to good use for Ireland’s ailing economy. Like cows or swine, they can be sold as meat. The irony expects not only that butchers will be ready to prepare the children and that rich tyrants will be ready to buy them, but that mothers will be ready to breed and sell. Swift dwells upon the profits that will fall to the ‘constant Breeders’ and argues that the likelihood of a future profit will increase the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children (Richardson 2003, pp. 134-136).
The nature of how “A Modest Proposal” was written is that it attempts to engage its reader to the subject, that is, one of the worst famines of the century. We should be aware that this essay was written during the time of Swift, where many citizens became beggars because of the dire economic conditions of Ireland. In particular, Swift expects the reader to recognize the horrors of cannibalism, infanticide, and of reducing people to saleable commodities. That expectation is embedded in the aggressive rhetoric of absurd ideas, in order to wake up the rich people to help these unfortunate people. Swift tries to get at the reader by assuming that he or she will not object to the sale of babies for meat, and his attack only works if the reader is horrified. In other words, he tries to exploit a deep-seated objection in his reader not only to killing children but to trading in people. Thus, Swift takes up an effective method of shocking his readers into disbelief and relies upon the reader’s recognition of the cruelty of trading in people. The negative reaction that will be elicited would definitely engage his readers (during that time) to lift a finger and help these beggars and children away from the bleak future they are facing. Ultimately, Swift provoked in this essay that every one of us is responsible for the outcome of society because this is a wake-up call against the apathy of the rich against the poor people.
- Bengels, Barbara. “Swift’s A Modest Proposal”, The Explicator, 65.1 (2006): 13-16.
- Richardson, John. Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay. New York: Routledge, 2003.
- Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal”. Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, pp. 217-218.