A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

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Last week I reread Jonathan Swift’s 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 as a part of the Martel-Harper Challenge.

While I was well aware that Jonathan Swift’s short essay is classic satire, I guess because my own chubby one-year-old was crawling around on the floor as I read, I wasn’t laughing out loud at Swift’s well-known call for cannibalism and infanticide.

I’m glad I reread it, though, because I appreciated reading a literary form that I don’t normally read: a satiric essay. I also learned some things about history that I didn’t know.

The Essay in Context

I know very little about Ireland in the early 1700s. But I can deduce a number of things from just the beginning of Swift’s essay. For example, from the first few paragraphs, I learned:

  • The average person in Ireland was very poor and many people were starving; there were many widows without any way of supporting their families.
  • Even these poor families had many, many children, which obviously add to the poverty. (While in the first year the babies might not have extensive food and clothing needs, beyond the first year, they certainly did.)
  • Children of the destitute grew up to be thieves, thus adding to the social problems in Ireland.
  • Mothers had abortions rather than bring additional children into the destitute world.
  • Children were not appreciated or cared for; they were abused.
  • The landlords didn’t treat the workers very well.

With that background, Swift claims that something must be done to save the reputation of the country; apparently, the wealthy were concerned by the “present deplorable state of the kingdom” because of this social problem of the destitute.

That was why Swift offers his own solution:

[I]t is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for [the mothers] in such a manner as instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, [the children] shall on the contrary contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands. … I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

In other words, Swift’s solution was economic: pay the mothers for their children and use the children to solve the food shortage. Then, the children will be appreciated (no more abuse because they need to be in good condition); they will be wanted (no more abortions because mothers want the financial compensation); and they will be useful (no more thievery; instead, they will feed the rich). Swift gives many more reasons, carefully thought out.

The Essay as Satire

While I still don’t know much about Ireland in the 1700s, I can tell you that cannibalism was not an “accepted” way of solving problems at that time. Swift’s essay is satirical.

I felt rather clueless when I sat down to write this review. It’s one thing to read an eight-page essay; it’s another thing to try to write some coherent thoughts about it. While I knew that Swift’s essay is satire, I couldn’t say exactly what satire is. I had to turn to A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman (a favorite reference book from my college days):

SATIRE. A work of manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity. Satirist attempt through laughter not so much to tear down as to inspire a remodeling. If attackers simply abuse, they are writing invective; if they are personal and splenetic, they are writing sarcasm; they are sad and morose over the state of society, they are writing irony or a jeremiad. … Most often, satire deals less with great sinners and criminals than with the general run of fools, knaves, ninnies, oafs, codgers, and frauds. (page 461 of eighth edition; italics added)

In A Modest Proposal, Swift did censure the British people, and he was certainly calling for a remodeling! But he actually wanted the wealthy to change. The poor were in the midst of a downward cycle; the rich, apparently, had been criticizing them but not doing much to solve the huge problems of society.

A Political Call to Action

Obviously, Swift’s humorous solutions to the problems in Ireland in the early 1700s were not reasonable; he knew that no one would sell their infants as the next main dish in order to pay their bills. But he saw problems with the way things were: his essay was a call for change in some way.

I decided to reread A Modest Proposal because it’s on the list of books that author Yann Martel sent to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  When he sent this book, Martel sent a letter, as always. This time, he critiqued P.M. Harper for cutting arts funding. He ends the letter with this:

Mr. Harper: Are you preparing a ragout?

Now, I don’t know much about Canadian politics or national art budgets. But this context showed me that satiric political essays can be relevant today. Martel is suggesting that P.M. Harper’s decisions are going in the wrong direction: cutting arts spending rather than developing the arts is the equivalent of eating our children rather than helping them.

What modern social problems do you think should be satirically mocked today?

Chances are, someone’s probably already doing it. For example, a modern-day Jon Swift has entered the blog world. Check out his best of the best list for some modern satire (although I can’t promise his satire necessarily fits the definition given by Harmon and Holman above).

Online Resources:

If you reviewed A Modest Proposal on your site, please leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on November 17, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Cannibalism! That’s hilarious – I’m going to go and read A Modest Proposal now (thanks for the link to Project Gutenberg). Often, though, I find that Martel’s letters to the poor PM are funnier than anything else 🙂

  • Tuesday, Yes, it is quite funny. At least, I was laughing a lot the first time. Like I said, this time, my own one-year-old was crawling around and it started seeming a bit morbid. 🙂 It’s a pretty political piece, so I thought it fitting that Martel chose it for one of those letters in which he was critiquing the PM’s politics.

  • I found Gulliver’s Travel’s very entertaining, so maybe I would enjoy this essay as well.  I loved the definition of satire.

  • Considering this book has come up in discussion twice just this week, I’m thinking it’s a sign I’m supposed to read it! I don’t know if it’s such a good idea though. I’ve been having baby-eating cannibal dreams ever since I read The Road 😛

  • A Modest Proposal… well I have to say the first time around, I was merely picking it out of my lit book for class right off the syllabus and I had no clue of the background and I being the neophyte that I am (was?) was MORTIFIED.  I couldn’t believe I had to read this for class.    ha ha.. Now I get quite a chuckle out of it.

    As for the Road….no chuckles for me on that one…only bad images that will not leave my mind.

  • Jupiter, well, it’s only 8 pages, very short. Haven’t read The Road so can’t comment on the cannibal thing there, but here, it really is just in jest: keep that in mind….

    Toni, surprisingly, a lot of the things I read said that when Swift wrote it not many people were mortified: they “got it”. Haven’t read The Road. Good to know that not everyone likes it…

  • Rebecca…hummm…  The Road is a conversation for another day probably… ..I read it.. it was well written. … I always say…”maybe it was just a bad time for me to read it.”  I remember posting on a forum and someone commented to me… “maybe you only want puff and fluff to read..”  I don’t think that is the case.  But I think now that anytime for me to read it would have been the wrong time.  It made me really sad.

  • Not a comment, but a question.

    How do you think Jonathan swift manages to sound reasonable while making such a cruel proposal?

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