A look at Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a Juvenalian satirical essay that was written and published in 1729, and is regarded by critics such as Wittkowsky, Baker and Landa as one of the finest works of satire in English literature. It is widely accepted as having been created to act as a commentary on the state of Ireland during the 18th Century, when British landlords would repossess great amounts of the laborers wealth, leaving them with little choice but to starve.

Many of the Protestant landlords acquired their lands after confiscating them from the Catholic Irish, with only 14% of Ireland left in Catholic hands by the 1700s. Also, an act was passed in 1704 to prevent Catholics from buying land, further crippling the Irish and making them wholly dependent on the whims of the British landlords. Swift never directly draws attention to this, instead focusing on the plight of the poor Irish; he invokes the “melancholy” sight of women and children begging, adding that the mothers “are forced to employ all their Time” trying to find food for their starving infants. Throughout the pamphlet, Swift maintained an air of decency and reason, despite the frankly monstrous notion he proposes: that the poor should eat their own young to survive. Not only does this notion repulse many readers of the pamphlet, but it also effectively symbolizes the Protestant landlords devouring Ireland’s future, by driving many workers into poverty and essentially killing them. The critic Wittkosky also remarks how this satire is “directed against conditions in Ireland rather than against a set of theories and attitudes which rendered such conditions possible.”

The reason for such conditions stems from, what Wittkowsky calls, “a philosophy of economic statism which regarded labor as a commodity” What this means is that during the 18th Century, the state and its welfare were seen as most important, and the plight of the working classes was a necessary sacrifice for the betterment of the state in terms of economy. The prevalent nature of this attitude prevented Swift from criticizing it, so instead he focused on the appalling conditions in Ireland, partly to illustrate the suffering such thinking brought about, and partly due to his Irish heritage. The result is, as Ricardo Quintana puts it, “not only the greatest of Swift’s Irish tracts; it is also the best introduction to his satiric art.”Swift’s fame as a satirist stems not only from A Modest Proposal, but also Gulliver’s Travels, a novel concerning itself primarily with parodying travel fiction, which also contains criticisms of the British treatment of Ireland, and is much more often the target of critical analysis.

As Wittkowsky has stated, “toward the Modest Proposal, a major work by a major English writer, scholars have been definitely coy.” Whilst it is a valid argument that Swift’s work was highly influenced by the context in which it is set, with poor quality of life in Ireland, English exploitation of Irish workers on religious grounds, it must also be remembered that Swift was well-known for his satire even at the time of penning A Modest Proposal, when, as Quintana puts it, Swift’s satire “attained its most perfect expression.” The result of this reputation is that most of the readers at the time knew that Swift’s ultimate purpose in creating the pamphlet was satire, and would have instantly recognized that “a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food,” is a satirical phrase, though the target would have been harder to identify for a contemporary audience, since as Marshall puts it, “by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the view that poverty was caused primarily by low wages had fallen into dis-repute.”. Yet Swift follows up on this remark with a statement that clearly portrays his views and reasoning behind them, in a beautiful remark that is easily recognized as a punishing attack on the landlords of Ireland; “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.”

This kind of language, an aggressive attack on the roots of Ireland’s problem, makes A Modest Proposal too “alienating to be successful as a hoax”, and Robert Phiddian expands upon this idea, suggesting that “the text does not make a serious attempt to lull us into a false sense of security. Rather, it attacks us”. Due to the satirical nature of the text, it is unsurprising that it does this to the reader as well as the causes of the conditions it is criticizing, making the reader question their own role in such events. A contemporary audience during the 18th Century would be as equally repulsed by the notion of cannibalism as a modern audience, and both would also be expecting the test to be a form of satire due to being penned by Swift. However, a contemporary reader would be far more affected by the criticism on a personal level, most probably being exposed to the plight of the Irish in some form and merely disregarding it, rather than viewing it as a part of history as is the case for a modern reader. This makes the Juvenalian satire much more bitter and harsh to the contemporary reader, therefore making it more effective in conveying the writer’s bitter opinion of the state of affairs.

 

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