Jonathon Swift: A Modest Proposal
Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a parody on the economic situation of the society in which he attempts to “find out a fair, cheap and easy method” (Swift) for the children in poverty to be put to good use for good of Ireland. This is seen right away in the full title of the pamphlet, “A Modern Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents, or the County, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick.” The reader begins to realize that Swift does not actually wish to implement these ideas of a baby being “a most delicious nourishing, and wholesome food” (Swift) once this extreme idea is proposed.
Through this extreme proposal of cannibalism and breeding children to solve poverty and overpopulation, he makes the reader vulnerable while also eager to find out more. As entertaining as this text is, it is more than just a comic. Swift wishes to relay a much deeper meaning to the reader. In Robert Phiddian’s article, Have You Eaten Yet., Phiddian recognizes “the moral-political argument being carried out by means of parody.” (Phiddian) The moral issue, here, is poverty and the political issue is population, yet rarely do these issues remain as clear and separate as intended.
While Swift initially makes the reader chuckle several times throughout the text, he is venting about the societal ills that go unnoticed daily. He is aggravated by the hypocrisy of the wealthy trying to help the poor by coming up with such outlandish ideas that they think will supposedly solve poverty. Poverty is inevitable in a free market therefore with the money that the poor would receive “may be liable to distress and help pay their Landlord’s rent.” (Swift) Swift wants the reader to realize that no matter how great the ideas of the wealthy are, their motivation is to make a buck from these plans that they devise in their parlors over a cup of tea. “There is nothing higher than selfish greed within the terms of economic discourse” as Phiddian points out. Even in society today, there are always those people that wish to solve the issue of poverty, but can’t seem to realize that these implications are not easily resolved and are part of society.
Swift had compassion for the Irish people and felt for them in their severe state, but he also shows disgust with the people of Ireland for not even trying on their own behalf. Prior to Swift writing A Modest Proposal he had written several sermons, which provide a background into the state of Ireland and how the people ended up in this predicament. “The members of this class are being called to their responsibilities and reminded of the guilt they share for the condition of their country.” (Phiddian) Swift leaves no stone unturned in the text and does not excuse any party from the awful state that Ireland is in at this point in time. Swift manages to target most of the groups in Ireland including the politicians, aristocracy, and even the poor.
These and outside causes like that of England are included in the parody. Essentially, Swift trying to get the reader to understand that not one person can solve the problems of poverty and overpopulation. In fact, it is part of society and has been for centuries. The struggles are apparent before Swifts time and even now. He is able to address two sets of readers in a sense; one of his time and one of the future, our time. “While people continue to starve and to live in abject poverty, an analogy exists between Swift’s readers’ situation and our own.” (Phiddian) The reader is able to identify with the subject and the point that Swift is trying to make of the societal ills of the time through this “moral-political argument.” (Phiddian) in turn see that behind the gore and obscene ideas that he has come up with, there is a voice that needs to be heard.
What would normally be a boring economic update or a political argument over what the country needs to do has been transformed by Swift into a masterpiece that peeks the interest of those other than the politicians. He is able to catch our attention as a reader by many surprises and then able to make us think critically about policies, values, and society as a whole in general.
Robert Phiddian Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 36, No. 3, Restoration andEighteenth Century (Summer, 1996), pp. 603-621 Published by: Rice University