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Essay on 'A Modest Proposal'

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In one of his many attempts to address Ireland’s deteriorating state of religious, political, and social crisis, Swift reportedly wrote to Alexander Pope in 1729 that his country was ‘absolutely undone, as I have been telling it often in print these ten years past,’. In his essay A Modest Proposal, Swift satirizes the worsening condition of famine in Ireland and the maltreatment of the poor. A suggestion is as diabolical as cannibalism and is put forward mockingly as a considerably ‘better’ proposal to any previous solutions made by the government. Swift emphasizes the lack of human ties within society- more predominantly the lack of social responsibility between the upper class and the working class. Written from the perspective of a narrator completely detached from his ties and compassion for humanity, Swift’s critical argument that the government, and others, are treating the poor as less than human is made apparent.

The first human tie addressed by Swift is presented through the dichotomy of the rich and the poor people of Ireland. Through his utilization of Juvenalian satire, Swift suggests that the relentless pursuit of luxury that persists amongst the elite social groups has evolved into a flavor for almost unconceivable delicacies. The extreme exploitation of the poor is referenced through the hideous satirical image of ‘skin of which artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen,’ which accentuates the upper class’s desire for life’s fragilities and items of material value. This image is somewhat reminiscent of the cruelty in animal leather and fur trades, where animals are captured, tortured, and exploited for their hide, conjuring the initial motif of the poor as compared to animals. It is questionable whether Swift intends to critique animal rights issues here, however, it is observable that the speaker is commenting on the futility of such materialism- why should a species have to suffer for another to be satisfied? Despite the utter grotesquery in this statement, it is notable that Swift recognized the upper class as the most appropriate audience for A Modest Proposal, having the ability to transform Ireland’s excessive poverty and the depressive economic circumstances that materialized alongside their decadence. Acknowledging Irish literacy records in the early eighteenth century, (72 percent of the population were estimated to be illiterate) most of the working class would not have been able to read or even comprehend such a deeply satirical essay, again reinforcing that the wealthy class was Swift’s primary target. Before starting the proposal explicitly, the narrator explains the compensations of his solution, for example using the convincing phrasing ‘another great advantage in my scheme,’ (p.20) almost creating the caricature of a salesman. The essay form almost ridicules eighteenth-century governments and politicians who would raise similarly structured proposals and issues with the same surety and matter-of-fact expression. This mockery is again shown in the hypocrisy of the proposer, who explains that his solution will ‘prevent those abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas, too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes,’ (p.20) when murdering ‘innocent babes,’ is part of his own proposal. This ironic tone is embedded to exemplify the ongoing passivity of the Irish government as the speaker acknowledges that ‘[they] can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal’ (p.28). As Nokes argues “The key to the proposal is the voice of the proposer,” which appears to be that of a practical economist who is concerned with numbers and statistics rather than human beings. On the other hand, Gunnarsdóttir argues that ‘The humanitarian projector in the proposal is concerned about the welfare of the impoverished Irish public and he presents a solution to poverty and starvation.’ This is debatable, given that the projector himself shows no real concern or empathy for the poor, instead taking the role of the unconcerned withdrawn figure to indicate the lack of human ties existent in society. It is conceivable that when Gunnarsdóttir references that of a ‘humanitarian projector,’ this description is in fact more applicable to Swift himself- a moralist- who is simply masking his concern through a veil of satire. This is again shown in referring to children as 'no saleable commodity,’ (p.21) which connotes the image of a product or object, indicating again how the narrator is focused on monetary value rather than the circumstances of the impoverished.

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There seems to be a human tie that develops between the speaker and the reader throughout. Swift urges us to question our own moral compasses as the disregard for any social conscience is highlighted in the mistreatment of the poor throughout the proposal. He places rhetorical questions near the middle of the essay, to which he begins to state his proposal, not only using satire to question the government and people of his intelligence but also the morality of us as the reader. The proposer contemplating “How this number shall be reared, provided for?” (20) almost directly criticizes the lack of attention to poverty-stricken people, overpopulation, and unemployment. Yet, paired with the outrageous solution of selling children into a meat market Swift encapsulates audience attention and concern more effectively. Contextually, it is likely that the concept of A Modest Proposal was established in an act of desperation. McBride discusses the politics within A Modest Proposal and clarifies that Swift had raised proposals concerning the lamentable state of Ireland and poverty multiple times with no further success. In his essay An Answer to a Paper, Called a Memorial of the Poor Inhabitants, Tradesmen, and Labourers of the Kingdom of Ireland (1728), ‘“Swift recalled his vain attempts to rouse Irish public opinion at [his] own peril for several years past’”. Therefore, it is no wonder that Swift published his piece of satire- a proposal this appalling and inhumane would inevitably raise public attention.

A Modest Proposal criticizes the human ties between the Irish and English, examining the discriminatory system of aristocracy, and despite the absurdity suggested in the proposal not being a reflection of Swift’s true ideas, there is a clear human tie between the narrator and Swift. Both the narrator and the speaker share the same opinions on impecuniousness in Ireland and the political hegemony England had over the country. Ferguson and Fleischmann propose that “in their conception of the Irish as beasts, Swift and the projector are one”. This dislike of Irish politicians, England’s exploitation, and the complicit wealthy are reflected in Swift’s earlier works also. ‘The Drapier’s Letters’ notably explores Ireland’s lack of autonomy in comparison to England, for instance in the statement “Am I a freeman in England, and do I become a slave in six hours by crossing the channel?” which expresses his dislike to the absence of sovereignty in his country. There are several anti-colonial attitudes expressed also by the speaker, one being the “very knowing American of my acquaintance in London” who assures him ‘that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food.’ (21) This presents the polemic that a concept so barbaric as cannibalism derived from ideology belonging to America and American colonies. Swift’s contempt for this hierarchy is expressed in his ‘devastating satire and total rejection of ruling-class culture, and in his passionate quest for a society free from exploitation and domination,’ throughout the essay.

Overall, A Modest Proposal is a revolutionary example of satire. In agreeance, McBride argues that ‘Swift’s Modest Proposal (1729) is widely regarded as the most brilliant satire in the English language’. The utilization of Juvenalian satire expresses Swift’s own disdain towards the landed elite and English colonizers and their descendants. By using deliberate irony and hypocrisy Swift convincingly portrays a caricature matched to the likes of a government MP. Detaching the speaker from any human emotion and creating a nonchalant persona allows Swift to effectively mimic the lack of concern towards famine from government officials at the time. Dehumanization is a fundamental motif throughout the essay. To reduce and objectify the impoverished to nothing more than economic data, the poor are reduced to less than human, comparable to slaves. Animalistic imagery likewise indicates the poor’s treatment; they are ‘commodit[ies]’ (p.21) to be bred like farm animals. Ultimately in reducing their ties to humanity, Swift presents them as insignificant in the eyes of the rich. In summary, it is the lack of social responsibility for humanity that is suggested as the primitive problem by the proposer. As a moralist, Swift stresses that Ireland’s excessive poverty and the depressive economic circumstances in the country have to be improved, however, it is the lack of human ties preventing this transformation.

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Essay on ‘A Modest Proposal’. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
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