Swift’s Satire: A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is one of the greatest satirists in English literature with his harsh and unforgiving tone. Satire is a literary technique which is used for criticizing people, government or society through literary tools such as verbal irony, sarcasm, ironic tone, and the use of mocking. Swift uses a specific satire called Juvenalian. It means "any bitter and ironic criticism of contemporary persons and institutions that is filled with personal invective, angry moral indignation, and pessimism" (Britannica, 1998). In his works, The Battle of the Books, A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver's Travels, A Journal to Stella, A Modest Proposal and the others, Swift raged at the shallowness, arrogance and phoniness that he observed in intellectual and moral life. A Modest Proposal was penned with Swift's dauntless criticisms and biting satire on the political and social problems of Ireland, which was completely dominated by England.

Note: The Portrait of Jonathan Swift by Michael Dahl (1734). Located at Finnish National Gallery.

At that time, the Catholic majority in Ireland could not receive an education, buy land or vote. Associate Professor Maria Monova in her article called "A Modest Proposal in the Context of Swift’s Irish Tracts" concludes that these restrictions, along with the economic crisis, led people to poverty. Hence, the Catholics in Ireland, as the most oppressed group, were under social and political discrimination and disadvantage (Monova, 2010). Outraged by the ill-treatment from England and by the helplessness of poor people, Swift began his proposal with these words:

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 (Swift, 1726, p. 2).

Note: To mark the 350th anniversary of Jonathan Swift’s birth, Salvage Press reprinted A Modest Proposal, with lithographs by David O’Kane (2017).

Swift uses the humanitarian projector as the narrator, who represents a critic, to convince his readers that his "modest" proposal is the best option to solve social and economic problems such as poverty and starvation in Ireland. However, the presence of Swift, who raged at the inaction of the government, also can be sensed in the satire. He begins his piece by describing the political situation, poor children, beggars, and the horrible circumstances people live in. Swift claims that the cost of raising children is more than the profit they can make under the circumstances in Ireland. The fact that parents are not capable of supporting their children results in the endless cycle of begging and poverty from generation to generation.

The children of poor families died and rot from cold and famine; therefore, they were nothing more than useless mouths for both the families and the country, the projector goes on. Approximately one hundred twenty thousand children of poor families were born in a year. They could not get employed or cultivate a land, and even if they found a job they did not have enough strength because of famine. At some point, they would build their livelihood on stealing. Therefore, the projector offered a proposal to make these children useful members of the commonwealth. What Swift proposed as a solution was simply the cannibalism of babies of poor families, "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 clothing, of many thousands" (Swift, 1726, p. 3).

Note: The other lithograph by David O’Kane to mark the 350th anniversary of Jonathan Swift’s birth (2017).

Swift advised mothers to let their babies suck plentifully especially for the last month to raise a child being "plump and fat for a good table" (Swift, 1726, p. 4) since a healthy well-nursed child, who has the potential to make four dishes, is the most nourishing and delicious food whether it is boiled, roasted, baked or stewed. In order to convince the readers that his proposal is the easiest and fairest method of making these children useful, Swift lists many advantages of his "proposal".

Swift states his own proposals to help Ireland in his satire as well; yet, the projector dismisses them, just like Swift's peers had been doing at that time. Swift actually names some of his own proposals, such as: the Irish must only use products made in Ireland, they must stop quarrelling with each other or landlords should be a little merciful. Hence, A Modest Proposal is full of true irony: making the proposal of the projector more efficient, sensible and reasonable compared to Swift's own proposals. As one of the greatest satirists and also a man of reason, he managed to criticize the inactive Irish government in the face of conqueror England since it led thousands of people, prominently the Catholic majority, to starve at that time. By presenting the problems of the poor and offering a "modest" proposal which is for poor families to eat their own children, he formed a shocking wave of several opposing emotions in his readers.

Note: Before his death, Swift wrote his epitaph in Latin and W. B. Yeats translated it poetically.

SWIFT has sailed into his rest;

Savage indignation there

Cannot lacerate his breast.

Imitate him if you dare,

World−besotted traveller[sic]; he

Served human liberty. (Yeats, 1929, p. 12-13)

Bibliographical resources

Beaumont, C. A. (1960). Swift’s Classical Rhetoric in “A Modest Proposal.” The Georgia Review, 14(3), 307–317. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41395720

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (1998, July 20). Juvenalian satire. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/Juvenalian-satire

Hedrick, E. (2017). <em>A Modest Proposal</em> in Context: Swift, Politeness, and <em>A Proposal for giving Badges to the Beggars</em>. Studies in Philology, 114(4), 852–874. https://www.jstor.org/stable/90014752

Moneva, Ruiz Maria-Angeles. (2010). A Modest Proposal in the Context of Swift’s Irish Tracts. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.cambridgescholars.com/resources/pdfs/978-1-4438-1662-5-sample.pdf

Swift, Jonathan. (1729). A Modest Proposal. Ed. by Staff and Research Assistants at The University of Virginia, John O'Brien, Sara Brunstetter. London. Retrieved from https://anthologydev.lib.virginia.edu/work/Swift/swift-modest-proposal.pdf

Yeats, B. William. (1929). The Winding Stair and Other Poems. Blackmask Online. Retrieved from http://public-library.uk/ebooks/109/49.pdf

Visual sources

Dahl, Michael. (1734). The Portrait of Jonathan Swift. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Dahl_-_Portrait_of_Jonathan_Swift_-_S-2005-57_-_Finnish_National_Gallery.jpg

O’Kane, David. (2017). Splendide Mendax. [First Lithograph]. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-modest-proposal-for-21st-century-ireland-1.3195727

O’Kane, David. (2017). Splendide Mendax. [Second Lithograph]. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-modest-proposal-for-21st-century-ireland-1.3195727

Author Photo

Melis Güven

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