Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (anonymously published in 1729) is a powerful political satire about the economic and social conditions of the poor in Ireland under British rule. The essay is rich with references to political events in England and Ireland in the 18th century. Swift takes ‘irony’ as the best weapon to attack on all kinds of vice and injustice prevailing in the society. Now we will see how Swift criticizes the society in his essay.
Before, entering into our discussion we are to know something the miserable condition of that Ireland. Actually the misfortune of Ireland begins when, in 1541, the Irish recognizes England’s Henry viii, a Protestant, as king of Ireland. The protestant landlords acquire almost ten percent of estates. Meanwhile, a law is enacted limiting the rights of Irish to hold government office, purchase, real estate and get education. Consequently, many of Irish flee away and those who remain live in poverty disease and starvation.
The essayist, at the very beginning of the essay, states the deplorable economic condition and social picture of Ireland under the British rule. As the author says:
“IT is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms.”
Moreover, the author fears that, when the infants of these beggars 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 the Barbadoes.”
This miserable situation is, in fact, resulted by the indifference of English administration and the oppression of landlords. Instead of solving the problem the British government shows a great carelessness to the repeated appeals to feed those hungry mouths.
Now, swift, as an English patriot finds out a “fair, cheap, and easy Method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the Commonwealth”. He wants to come with a proposal in such a manner, as he says:
“… as, instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives; they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Cloathing, of many Thousands.”
Swift criticizes the authority by prospecting that this scheme “will prevent those voluntary Abortions, and that horrid Practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children” which is “too frequent among us”. His criticism towards the English administration becomes more clear when he doubts that, the poor innocent babies are killed “more to avoid the Expence than the Shame”. The author mocks the intellectuals and the policy makers of the time by proposing his grotesque proposal in the most formal manner with a great gravity. As the essayist comments:
“I SHALL now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts; which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.”
Now we will have a look on his proposal. In his proposal Swift suggests that a significant portion of Irish children should be slaughtered and their carcasses should be sold to the wealthy as well as landlords so that the poor parents can be economically benefited and get rid of the burden of the maintenance. The essayist criticizes the brutal mentality of the authority, as they never considered Irish as human being. To indicate their meanness, the essayist uses such words which are best suitable for the animal not for the human being. He uses the word, for example, ‘carcasses’, remains of dead animals dressed by butchers, to refer the remains of children prepared as meat.
Again, the essayist equates the oppressors with the butchers as they mercilessly snatch away the bread from the hand of the Irish children and rush them to the way of death. As the author says:
“…and Butchers we may be assured will not be wanting”
The essayist also criticizes the landlords for their aggressive attitude to the poor Irish. As Swift remarks:
“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.”
Swift stabs the authorities for their mistreatment to the Irish poor prospecting that, they will be very glad to eat human flesh as they have lost their sense.
“I could name a Country, which would be glad to eat up our whole Nation without it.”
The author also criticizes the fashionable ladies and the so called gentle folk of the society. As he says:
“THOSE who are more thrifty (as I must confess the Times require) may flay the Carcase; the Skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable Gloves for Ladies, and Summer Boots for fine Gentlemen.”
Swift, in order to criticize the society, ironically shows six benefit of the proposal.
Firstly: it will reduce the total number of Catholics, the enemy of the Protestants.
Secondly: the poor parents will get some money with which they can pay landlords rent.
Thirdly: the money will circulate among the Irish and increases national income.
Fourthly: the mothers will get rid of the charge of maintaining the children after the first year.
Fifthly: the empty taverns will be full with a huge number of customers.
Finally: it will be a great encouragement to marriage and increase the care and the tenderness of mother to their children.
Actually Swift’s proposal shocks every reader even the cruel barbarian can not think of such a cannibalistic idea of eating man’s flesh. Everyone with common sense can easily understand that out of extreme agony the essayist gives such suggestion. He wants to say beneath this proposal that government should take this proposal if they can not solve the problem immediately.
At the end of the essay, the bitter criticism is clear when the essayist terminates the proposal ensuring the readers that he has not least interest rather the public good of his country. As he says:
“I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and my Wife past Child-bearing.”
Swifts, by this easy, very successfully draws the attention of the authority as well as the readers. Robert Phiddian has written an essay entitled “Have You Eaten Yet” after reading this essay.
Some scholar argues that, “A Modest Proposal” is largely influenced by Tertullian’s “Apology”. James William Johnson points out the same central theme in both of the essay. Both of the essays are similar in their tone and the use of irony.
Last of all, it can be said that Jonathan Swift very successfully uses his mighty pen against the English oppressors by ridiculing their so called vanity as the writer knows that, the devil is brave in the face of threat, strong hearted before the tears and vulnerable only in the Achilles’ heel of his vanity.