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While reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal, consider the essay from both credibility and...

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slopezvalle | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted January 28, 2012 at 12:02 AM via web

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While reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal, consider the essay from both credibility and political perspectives.

How do these contexts individually and collectively contribute to how you perceive Swift’s argument?

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docholl1 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted January 28, 2012 at 3:26 AM (Answer #1)

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By the time Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal" in 1729, he had written several polemics on "the Irish question," including "A Letter to the Tradesmen, Shop-Keepers, Farmers, and Common-People of Ireland (1724), "Drapiers Letters" (1724), and "A Short View of the State of Ireland" (1728).  As a highly-educated, well-placed clergyman born in Ireland, Swift was relentless in his criticism of England's economic reign of terror on Ireland and its failure to acknowledge and address the devastating economic and cultural problems England created.

From the standpoint of credibility, there are no other 18thC writers of Swift's caliber and reputation who were more credible on Irish problems than Swift.  In his works addressed to the people of Ireland in the early 1720s, Swift clearly believes that the Irish themselves have a chance of correcting some of the problems the English, with some Irish help (over population, for example), created.  By the time he writes "A Modest Proposal," however, it is equally clear that he has lost any hope of the Irish helping themselves and, worse, or the belief that the English can be reasonably moved to address Ireland's problems.  He is forced to deal with Ireland's distress with saeva indignatio--savage indignation.

The purpose of "A Modest Proposal," a satire based on plans produced by scientific "projectors" to solve economic and cultural problems, is to shame both the Irish and the English into taking action to relieve Ireland of its two most devastating problems--economic devastation and over population.  Swift's proposal will, he says, show how children will cease to be a burden:

instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or  wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives; they shall . . . contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Cloathing, of many Thousands.

By rendering (no pun intended) children into a commodity to be bought and sold like any product, he makes the prospect of using them to both feed and clothe the populace downright reasonable--until, that is, we remember that we're not discussing cattle or pork or chickens.

Equally important is the solution to the vile habits of Irish parents who abort and murder their children, "the poor innocent Babes," to avoid the expense of raising them.  Swift's proposal, like all well- thought-out plans, will result not only in food and clothes but also keep Irish parents from committing mortal sins.

On a political level, the satire in "A Modest Proposal" has an interesting position and effect.  Because it humorously (or grotesquely) identifies and solves a real problem, its audience can either ignore it (laugh it off as sick humor) or take it seriously but not personally.  Even though it implicitly condemns England's treatment of Ireland and the Irish, Swift doesn't name names--he names people generically like aristocrats, land owners, and landlords--and therefore does not indict a particular person, either English or Irish, he indicts, in a veiled and indirect way, the guilty people (and they know who they are) in two countries.

 

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