Cannibalism is the last taboo. In ‘Alive’ and ‘A Modest Proposal’ Jonathan Swift and Piers Paul Read approach the subject with completely different purposes in mind. What do you consider to be the purpose of each author, and say how he achieves this? A Modest Proposal is a scathing attack on the economic oppression of the Irish by the English. During Swift’s lifetime tremendous suffering was caused by English practices in Ireland. However, it is incorrect to say that cannibalism is the theme of ‘A Modest Proposal. ‘ Swift was a Protestant writer in Ireland at the time of The Great Potato Famine.
The article is a clever satirical device to draw attention to the plight of the poor. He infiltrates the opposition, the rich Protestant landlords, in order to put their torturous ideas to ridicule. Swift attacks his own Protestant, English community by creating a narrator who considers himself a reasonable and compassionate character, but one who combines a repulsive anti-Catholic bigotry, with a ‘modest’ proposal, that is, rather, a ‘final solution’: he, the narrator, advocates cannibalism as a means of countering Irish Catholic poverty abortion, and the high birth rate.
The narrator, in a frighteningly rational and level-headed tone condemns the English for being inhumane, the Irish for being passive, the speaker for being morally blind, and the reader for accepting intolerable situations in the world around him; for this piece was accepted and believed by many, at the time. On the other hand, Piers Paul Read, in his biographical ‘novel’ ‘Alive, rather than indirectly giving answers to a problem, asks questions.
He tells of the experiences of the survivors of an Andean plane crash in 1976, who, in the remoteness, and the harshness of their environment, the lack of a consumable source of food, and the quickening exhaustion of their own limited amounts of chocolate and wine, have no where to turn except, in their desperation, to eat the meat from their fellow, dead, company. They have only their plane’s wreckage as shelter, which has come down from 14,000 feet.
Both literary pieces, although their purpose, style and audience are different, jolt the reader out of their complacency, and encourage them to think of things they thought weren’t necessary to be thought about! However, it is necessary to understand that the two texts have been written hundreds of years apart, and society, of course, has evolved. Swift has reached out across the religious and ethnic divide to champion the ignorant, impoverished Irish Catholics.
The bigotry of Swift’s narrative is so convincing and grotesque, that Swift himself is sometimes mistaken as his narrator, an anti-Catholic bigot! On the contrary, Swift’s essay harshly attacks the ‘Christian’ commitment of Ireland’s wealthy Protestant absentee landowners, and his unflattering ‘cannibal’ is made in their image. P. P. Read meanwhile, attacks not the opposition, but gives a balanced and meaningful account of the plane crash and the tales that followed, and examines the human spirit to stay alive, and questions what is ‘civilized’ and ‘human.
‘ Yet, simultaneously, Read, almost in the opposite of Swift, advocates cannibalism. Read turns the views of cannibalism as a taboo on its head. Rather than associating it with savagery and being primitive and irrational, he questions logic, and seems to state that the ban is the primitive thing, that is not based on reason. In one paragraph alone, he writes, “we grappled with emotions,” and “we did not think it wrong” twice.
While Swift attacks the Landlords by linking their greed to their “devouring” of the Irish Catholics, and satirizes cannibalism to the extent that it is no longer seen as ironic, only distasteful, Read, using a character ‘Canessa’, reasons cannibalism out. He talks of nourishment and energy, and of course, eventually wins his company. Their decision is based on logic and reason, and the ability to use these makes us civilized. Although I do not feel that Swift’s narrator’s views are plausible, Read using a variety of effective techniques, convinces the reader.
Swift shows how the English projected their own blame onto their victims- destitute Irish Catholics, that, Swift suggests, have been ‘cannibalized’ by the rapacious greed of absentee landlords. Swift is hoping to shame them into being more compassionate. However, as what happened when I read it for the first time, because Swift and his narrator are so tightly intertwined, readers often emerge from their reading, confused, perhaps unable to take in the implausibility of his case.