A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
This entry presents criticism of Swift’s 1729 satire A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents, or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. See also Gulliver's Travels Criticism (1726).
A Modest Proposal is considered one of the finest examples of satire in world literature. Written in the persona of a well-intentioned economist and published in the form of a popular pamphlet, the tract argues that the problem of poverty in Ireland can best be remedied by selling the children of the poor as food for the wealthy. This outlandish thesis is a manifestation of Swift’s outrage at what he saw as the scandalous economic and political policies of the Irish and English governments, and the author uses the assumed voice of the economist, an abundance of detail, literalized metaphors, and other ironic and parodic techniques to devastating effect. At the same time Swift directs his satire at Protestant-Catholic divisions, contemporary economic theories, and other targets. A Modest Proposal has long been judged an incomparable work of rhetorical brilliance, and it continues to garner new readers and additional critical attention to this day.
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667, to Abigaile Erick Swift, seven months after the death of his father, Jonathan Swift Sr. Swift graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1686. As he was born of English parents, Swift was anxious to distance himself from Ireland, and he moved to England in 1689—the first of many relocations between England and Ireland. While living at Moor Park in England, Swift served as a secretary to Sir William Temple, and it was there that he began his writing career. After receiving his Master of Arts degree from Oxford University in 1692, Swift was ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1694 and was stationed as prebendary of Kilroot, a poor town in northern Ireland. He disliked the experience, and two years later he returned to Moor Park, where he remained until Temple’s death in 1699. Swift subsequently returned to Dublin, where he would remain until 1710, though he traveled often to London. Although he originally supported the Whigs, Swift was eventually won over by the Tories due to their support of the Church of Ireland’s position regarding taxation. Swift served as the Tory ministry’s main political writer, culminating in 1710, when he was asked to take responsibility for directing the Tory journal The Examiner. In 1713 he was appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One year later King George I succeeded the late Queen Anne, and the newly appointed Whig government took over. Swift was left with no opportunity for further political involvement and therefore returned to Dublin, where, over the next two decades, he became increasingly engaged in the Irish political landscape and wrote the majority of his most influential political satire. Swift, a longtime sufferer of aphasia and Ménière’s syndrome, remained at St. Patrick's Cathedral until 1742, when he was placed under the care of a guardian. He died in Dublin on October 19, 1745, and is buried in the middle aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In A Modest Proposal Swift adopts the persona of a concerned economist who suggests that, in order to better combat the poverty and overpopulation of Ireland, the children of the poor be sold as food to the wealthy. As a result, he argues, not only will the population be reduced, but the income of the poor will increase significantly as they...
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sell their children. In developing this outrageous thesis, Swift provides abundant detail, projecting the costs of child rearing (which will be saved if the child is eaten), estimating the portion of the population affected, and even providing specific ideas regarding the number of servings a child might provide. He suggests that the meat of the children of Ireland would be considered a delicacy to both the English and to Irish landowners, and would therefore be highly sought after for feasts and special occasions. Throughout, Swift’s satire relies on the persona of the economist, an ostensibly well-meaning visionary whose sympathy for the poor leads him suggest a remedy of murderous cruelty. His arguments, rationally presented, support a profoundly irrational proposition, and their appalling callousness radically undermine their benevolent intent.
Swift uses the absurd thesis of A Modest Proposal to attack contemporary English and Irish politics. He focuses on the metaphorical “devouring” of Ireland’s resources by England’s policies and by wealthy Irish landowners, literalizing the metaphor to attack the positions of both parties. At its core, his suggestion is that the English and the wealthy landowners of Ireland are causing the poverty and misery of the population. Swift’s satire is by turns oblique and direct; in one instance he suggests that, while the meat of children likely could not withstand preservation in salt for long sea voyages, he “could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.” His allusion to England (deriving from its close proximity) also directly assaults the English misuse of Ireland. Swift does not spare Ireland, however. At one point he presents a list of alternative solutions to Ireland’s problems, none of which were ever attempted. In the process he emphasizes the number and extent of Ireland’s social ills and the indifference and neglect with which they have been treated. At the same time, through the use of the adopted persona, Swift also satirizes those who propose solutions to political and economic issues without consideration of the human cost involved. With devastating irony, Swift shows the inhumanity of schemes for alleviating the suffering of the poor that are solely based on rational principles.
Somewhat surprisingly, A Modest Proposal received little sustained critical attention until the twentieth century. Most early critics extolled the work but treated it only briefly, judging it to be in a unique class of its own and therefore difficult to analyze. In the twentieth century, scholars began to see the tract as more than a simple attack on particular conditions in Ireland but as a penetrating interrogation of the political and economic theories that gave rise to those conditions. In his 1943 analysis of A Modest Proposal, George Wittkowski argued that the work’s comedic parody obscured for earlier critics its examination of political affairs. Since then, sociopolitical interpretations of Swift’s satire—such as those by Oliver W. Ferguson, Robert Mahoney, and John Richardson—have vied with analyses of its brilliant deployment of rhetorical strategies—including those of Samuel J. Rogal, Denis Donoghue, and Wayne C. Booth—to account for its enduring power. By consensus, however, A Modest Proposal is deemed a masterpiece and a stunning example of the satirist’s art.