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Perspectives: Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal

E.F. Watley
October 24, 2005

There are few if any works of satire in the English language as well known as Jonathan Swift's infamous 1729 essay, A Modest Proposal. In this work Swift, a passionate supporter of Irish human rights, suggests with straight-faced aplomb that the most economical way to deal with Ireland's simultaneous problems of famine, poverty and overpopulation would be to sell and eat surplus children. The concept was repellent, of course, and many readers failed to understand the irony, putting Swift's patronage in jeopardy. While many today have probably heard of the work, it is not widely read outside literature classrooms.

But this piece bears a second look for those involved in online satire and parody, because it is a classic example of the technique most widely used today: the reductio ad absurdum, disproving the validity of a notion by pursuing it to absurdly logical extremes. Swift was reacting to the subtly pervasive dehumanization of poor Irish by showing the potentially horrific consequences of overt and complete dehumanization. How many sites today adopt the same technique?

But few satire news articles today have the shock value of Swift's detailed discussions of how to sell babies by the pound and prepare different cuts of meat for different days of the week; we prefer our news (real and specious) in shorter, more digestible portions (no pun intended). Truly repellent ideas are rare, and when they are invoked, they are more easily dismissed as absurd. For this reason, A Modest Proposal is a valuable cultural reference: the text is powerful, inciting a visceral reaction from readers even today. And behind this power lies a deep and sustained anger, Swift's fury at the social injustices which served as the first steps down the road to complete dehumanization of a group. All satire is ultimately driven by anger at some level: it has a purpose, intended to not only entertain but to drive change. A Modest Proposal is a reminder of these roots.


Excerpts from 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, by Dr. Jonathan Swift (1729)

It is a melancholy 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. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they 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.

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them... it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them 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, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing 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 fricasie, or a ragoust... A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter...

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.

Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us...

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. 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.

The full text of A Modest Proposal is available from Project Gutenberg.

E.F. Watley is the current administrator of Humorfeed. His own site is The Watley Review.




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