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How is the idea of 'Expressiveness' expressed in Swift's "A Modest Proposal"?Eighteenth...

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daniel0989 | Honors

Posted January 19, 2012 at 12:55 AM via web

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How is the idea of 'Expressiveness' expressed in Swift's "A Modest Proposal"?

Eighteenth century writers assumed the superior importance of the social group and of shared opinion.  'Expressiveness', in their view, should provide an instrument for articulating the will of the community, not the eccentric desires of the individual.  Please concider this in the question above.

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted January 19, 2012 at 2:33 AM (Answer #1)

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The power of Swift's satire in "A Modest Proposal" is directly tied to the sincere and thorough analysis of the proposal that the Irish eat their own children.  The value of the presentation hinges on the proposer's good-faith solution to a problem, and, more important, the audience's approval of this solution to very tough problems--the over-population and consequent famine and poverty in Ireland.

Swift's proposal is fundamentally based on his belief that, despite the horrific solution he satirically proposes, it is a solution that is consistent with how England has treated Ireland and he is, therefore, speaking for English society and its government.  England's confiscation of Ireland's land and products has produced a perverted cycle in which the only items left for food are, sadly, Irish children, too expensive even for their parents: "I grant this Food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for Landlords; who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children" (112).

It is grotesque in the extreme to propose that the Irish eat their children, but the logic of this solution (forget about the morality issues) is inescapable.  In Ireland's present circumstances, because of widespread devastating poverty and over-population among the working classes, women are often forced to either abort their children, commit infanticide, or abandon infants in order to sustain themselves and their families.  Eating their children is only slightly qualitatively different.  As I noted above, one of the primary reasons for this situation is England's voracious appetite for Irish land and whatever of value the Irish produce.  The proposal, therefore, is not only reasonable given the circumstances but also morally acceptable to the English, who have already "raped" Ireland for two centuries.

The satire, based on real proposals to problems from countless "projectors" in England, is designed in its tone, diction and syntax, to replicate any number of actual proposals: "I Do therefore humbly offer it to publick Consideration, that of the Hundred and Twenty Thousand Children, already computed, Twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed. . . ."  This is the language of dispassionate commerce--the projector not only has a solution, but it's also a solution based on calculations.  He goes on to note that "one Male will be sufficient to serve four females," thereby confirming that he has completed what we today call a "cost-benefit analysis"--the Irish achieve economies of scale by raising more males for food because males feed more people.  How can one argue (again, forget about ethics and morality) against such logic?

In essence, Swift's satire angered and embarrassed many thoughtful readers in England because they understood that Swift's solution, horrific as it is, is the natural consequence of England's long-standing exploitation of Ireland and the Irish, leaving only one marketable commodity--children.

 

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