An Analysis of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift
Written in 1729, ‘A Modest Proposal’ was a reaction to the times in which the author was living. In it, Swift uses satire to bring out his conception of, and disgruntlement with, the ills afflicting Ireland at the time. His tone is scornful towards those he considers responsible for the appalling situation of many of the Irish and of the country as a whole. He claims to present a solution when in fact what he writes is a mockery. The scheme is described in gruesome detail which makes it all the more ironical as it is a cruel proposal.
Some of the headiest issues Swift addresses are poverty and unemployment. The economic situation he describes as forming the context for his proposal is very dire. There were not only many beggars but also many poor people who could barely afford to sustain themselves or their families. Many were living in squalor and deprivation and yet there was little being done to assuage this. Swift uses both humor and description to bring this out. He says the streets were “crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for alms.” (Swift)
He seems to couple the matter of poverty with that of population increase. He refers to people as ‘breeders’ and also mentions the rampancy of abortions occasioned by the financial incapability to sustain children. Bitterly, Swift complains of those poor people being slowly killed by famine and cold. It can be gleaned from his attitude in his writing that he is greatly distressed by the way their dreadful state is lamented but ignored, yet there have been other workable proposals made of ways to alleviate the suffering.
Swift speaks of the exploitation of Irish people by English Lords. His allusion to this is a little more subtle than his references to the economic condition of Ireland but it is still clearly put forward. He says of the English landlords when proposing that the expensive meal of children will suit them, that “they have already devoured most of the parents,’ and therefore ‘seem to have the best title to the children” (Swift). The mention of the use of children’s skin to make gloves for the ladies and boots for the gentlemen may also be a reference to the English lords who at that time formed the gentry.
He partly blames these landlords for the grim circumstances in which many Irish are languishing. He indirectly accuses them of ‘devouring’ Irish resources without regard to the Irish themselves.
The article also brings out the disdain with which Irish Catholics were viewed. He sarcastically comments that among other advantages, his proposed plan “will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of papists among us” (Swift). This is an apparent outcry against the insinuations that there were too many Catholics in Ireland. The ironic allusion to the suggestion that there are more Catholics born after Lent is also evidence of this.
Taken as a whole, the article presents its readers with an explosive discussion of matters pertaining to economic and social exploitation, political incompetence and religious discordance. The satire employed makes the staging of issues even more compelling than if they were stated plainly.
Jonathan Swift opines that, despite the current economic crisis, the mothers can nourish their babies with their milk for a year round, by using as little as two shillings or scrapping. He opines that he can only provide for them after they are over a year old. Swift continues to pipe soberly that the mothers, whom he refers as “breeders” abort not because of trying to avoid shame rather than more to avoid the expenses.
Swift puts it aptly in his social opinion that the beggars cannot be employed in the agriculture sector nor in handcarts simply because, they neither build their country not till the land. Therefore, the children when they attain the age of six they resort to stealing when they attain an age when they can be looked after by probationers.
In his religious opinions, Swift puts it that the “breeders” kill when they abort their children, “women murder their bastard children and sacrifice the poor babies” (pg 499).
Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal . New Hampshire : Forgotten Books, 1979.
Swift Jonathan,( 1729).A Modest Proposal: For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public. Viewed 19 July 2011 http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html.