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A Modest Proposal
Transcript of A Modest Proposal
and Mitsue Tanno About the Author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is considered to be the foremost author of satire in the English language. An Irishman born to English parents, he was also a prolific poet and pamphleteer. He is perhaps best known today for his novel "Gulliver's Travels" (1726), and for "A Modest Proposal."
Despite living in England for a great part of his life, and feeling more English than Irish, Swift became a fervent supporter of Irish causes. In the 1720s, Swift became an active participant in Irish politics, and would contribute to the debates of the day using satire. Historical Context of the Essay At the time of "A Modest Proposal," Ireland had been effectively controlled by England for nearly five hundred years. The Stuarts had established a Protestant government to rule over the relatively poor Catholic Irish, and the population continuously suffered under England's trade restrictions. Years of drought were exacerbated by a crop failure in 1729, which caused thousands of Irish to starve to death. About the Essay "A Modest Proposal" was written by Jonathan Swift in 1729. This satirical piece is a response to the devastating droughts and crop failures that plagued his native Ireland. In it, he suggests that the poor Irish sell their year-old babies as food to the wealthy as a means to make money, eliminate household expenses, and curb population growth. It is one of the greatest examples of sustained irony in the history of the English language. How Swift Makes His Argument Sound Rational He uses mathematical "calculations" to show the financial benefits of his scheme. "The charge for nursing a beggar's child [is] 2s. per annum...and I believe that no gentleman would repine to give 10s. for the carcass of a good fat child....the mother will have 8s. net profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child." "Whereas the maintenance of 100,000 children from two years old and upward, cannot be computed at less that 10s. a-piece per annum, the nation's stock will be thereby increased £50,000 per annum." He appeals to "ethos." "But in order to justify my friend, he confessed that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa...and in conversation told my friend, that in his country..." "My American acquaintance [A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem] assured me from frequent experience that their flesh was generally tough and lean..." He uses a clear and organized method of argument. "I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many.....Thirdly, Whereas the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old and upward, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a-piece per annum, the nation's stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per annum, beside the profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture." "Fourthly, The constant breeders, beside the gain of 8s. by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year....Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns.....Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards or enforced by laws and penalties. It would increase the care and tenderness of mothers toward their children..." How Swift Employs the Art of Satire He uses shock value. Swift begins the essay describing the horrible plight of the poor Irish, so it comes as a shock to the reader when he so indifferently suggests cannibalism and infanticide. The serious and calculated tone of the essay also highlights the absurdity of Swift's claims. "It is a melancholy object to those [who] see the streets, the roads, and cabin 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 strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants..." "...a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled..." He targets those who believe that the plight of the Irish can be resolved with a single, cure-all solution. "After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion as to reject any offer proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual." He uses paralipsis. "Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness..." So, What is Swift Actually Trying to Say? He is criticizing:
The treatment of the Irish by the English;
The ineffectiveness of the Irish politicians;
The hypocrisy of the wealthy;
The seemingly unchanging, deplorable living conditions in which he sees so many Irish living. "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." "I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it." "....it is very well known that [poor people] are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected." He shows that he has nothing to gain from his plan. "I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public 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.' "As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of other projectors..."