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.


Is Victorian literature predicated on a fascination with the theme of progress or a preoccupation with notions of decline?

The Victorian era was a time of great change – technology was advancing rapidly, and changes in society soon followed. It was a period of time that many saw not only as the dawn of a new age, but the death of an old one as well. The most prevalent themes one could argue that emerged in the literature of the time were those of progress and decline: progress on a technological and scientific level, and decline on a moral and societal scale. Yet as with many notions being developed with the advent of the 20th century, nothing was truly clear.

As the last completed era of English literature, which ran for as long as the reign of the Queen who gave it it’s name (1837-1901), the Victorian period was marked with a rapid rise in population (London itself rose from a population of 2 million to 6 million in just over sixty years), and industrialization was running rampant throughout the British Empire, particularly the British Isles themselves. In it’s wake came prosperity for a fortunate few but misery for many more (factory owners as opposed to factory workers). Charles Dickens is one of the most well known authors to deal with these issues, in works such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times.

Probably the most famous of Dickens’ works, Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan struggling to survive in Victorian London, witnessing it’s crime ridden underworld as well as achieving the possibility to progress in his social station and find acceptance and a family. The novel was published in 1838 and was most known for it’s unromantic portrayal of criminals and their lives. Throughout the novel, Dickens offers a grim look at the London that has arisen in the shadow in industrialization, such as how orphan children were considered by society:

“he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his place at once- a parish child- the orphan of a workhouse- the humble, half-starved drudge- to be cuffed and buffeted through the world- despised by all, and pitied by none.”

Orphan children were often put to work in order to support themselves, and child labor was an issue that many contemporaries of Charles Dickens highlighted. There was no service in place to care for such outcast children, leaving them to be exploited by others, as portrayed in the novel by Oliver’s association with Fagin and his gang. This is similar to the rather grim viewpoint portrayed in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, in which he writes:

“Thus violent deeds live after men upon the earth, and traces of war and bloodshed will survive in mournful shapes long after those who worked the desolation are but atoms of earth themselves.”

Yet throughout the novel there are also rays of hope, showing that Victorian sensibilities and values have managed to survive through this time of change, and that the decline so feared by many is not as inevitable as thought. The story of Oliver Twist, though mired in satire and the grim trappings of industrialized London and all of it’s exploitation and misery, is at heart a kind of fairy tale – the main character remains virtuous despite the evil around him, and is ultimately rewarded for it. On the way to this ending however Dickens takes the opportunity to explore the kind of life an orphan would have in London at the time.

Though the view that society was in decline was a commonly expressed sentiment in the Victorian era, the general theme of Oliver Twist (of an orphan achieving a family and increasing his social standing) is ultimately that of progression and hope. This is reinforced throughout the novel by the notion of love and caring, simple human virtues that persevere even in the face of cold and unfeeling industry:

“my heart is set, as firmly as ever heart of man was set on woman. I have no thought, no view, no hope in life, beyond her; and if you oppose me in this great stake, you take my peace and happiness in your hands, and cast them to the wind.”

“The persons on whom I have bestowed my dearest love, lie deep in their graves; but, although the happiness and delight of my life lie buried there too, I have not made a coffin of my heart, and sealed it up, for ever, on my best affections. Deep affliction has but strengthened and refined them. ”

Both of these segments are said by different characters, yet both exemplify the same good nature and morals that many Victorians feared were declining. We can see further examples from the contemporaries of Dickens, such as Elizabeth Gaskell. It is interesting to note that the Victorian era did see the rise of female writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as the Bronte sisters and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. This alone is an interesting indication of progress from the previous era’s when women writers were widely looked down upon. Indeed, many of the women writers during the Victorian era utilized pseudonyms to get their works published under male names (such as Currer Bell in the case of Charlotte Bronte when publishing Jane Austen).

Gaskell is most widely known for her fourth novel, North and South, published in 1855, which deals with industrialization in a much more direct manner than Oliver Twist – dealing with the relationship between workers and industrialists from the industrialist viewpoint (having already dealt with the viewpoint of the workers in Mary Barton, published in 1948). The novel itself is primarily based around the relationship between Mr. John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills and Margaret Hale, an outside observer to the clash between workers and Thornton, resulting in a strike that severely damages Thornton’s wealth. Like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, North and South shows a celebration of a personal victory happening despite the society around the characters – though the living standards have declined (a surprisingly large amount of characters die in the book, from overwork to cotton dust inhalation), industrialists are still people who have compassion and can work with the workers beneath them to make improvements in Victorian society. Margaret is the virtuous female who represents the changing woman in Victorian Britain, becoming a regular factory worker alongside the men, but still exemplifying wisdom and a stoicism that was highly valued by the contemporary readership:

“Loyalty and obedience to wisdom and justice are fine; but it is still finer to defy arbitrary power, unjustly and cruelly used-not on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of others more helpless.”

One of the truest reflections of attitudes at the time – combining the traditional Victorian values of loyalty and obedience with an intolerance for the unfairness that had arisen with the industrialization of production, putting many people out of work and forcing them to move to the cities in search of jobs, resulting in the rapid urban growth of the era and the exploitation of many workers by those who owned the workhouses. It is also key to note that during the Victorian era, there was a major shift in regards to the notion of childhood. Rather than being expected to work and act like adults as soon as they were able to, the idea that childhood should be a time of joy and innocence began to emerge. This change was mostly brought about by social reformers and philanthropists, driven by the Christian values prized in society, and reacting to the phenomenon of children working in dangerous factories. As the idea of childhood developed, it gained widespread support eventually leading to such legal measures as the 1833 Factory act which banned children under the age of 9 from the workplace. This increased amount of freedoms for children resulted in a progression in the notions of parenthood, as is stated by Mr. Hale in North and South to his daughter Margaret:

“a wise parent humours the desire for independent action, so as to become the friend and adviser when his absolute rule shall cease.”

The constantly changing situation had led to a decline at first, with parents sending their children to work in the dangerous factories simply because the children were expected to work, and the parents themselves had worked when they had lived in the rural farming communities. However such a practice was of little use in the industrialized cities, which all too soon became overcrowded. Still, many Victorians looked to the future with a resolute stoicism that has come to exemplify the people of that period, a trait that is clearly present in all sympathetic protagonists in the novels written during Queen Victoria’s reign. In North and South this trait is clearly one valued by the narrator, as they state that “the future must be met, however stern and iron it be.”

It ought to be mentioned though that there is a dark side to this widely accepted notion of stoicism and forthrightness, which is portrayed by Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times. The novel begins with a bold speech stating:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Since the Victorian era was an age of scientific discovery and progress (boasting such people as Charles Darwin, Alexander Melville Bell and Charles Babbage), and new labor laws introduced compulsory education for children, a great focus developed on developing knowledge to continue the trend of scientific progress. Some however feared that there would be a focus on knowledge at the expense of traditional values and compassion, a reflection on the loss of jobs to machines, of industrialization taking over not just livelihood but even thoughts. This fear was also presented in Hard Times, as a consequence of the fact based education:

“You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.”

The loss of basic humanity in the face of machinery is also reinforced as a theme in the novel by the narrator pointing out that whilst it is easy to measure productivity, it is impossible to use that same knowledge to judge a person’s character:

“It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions.”

From this it is clear to the reader that Dickens values moral integrity, like any Victorian gentleman would, and is warning of the potential costs of embracing industrialization without considering the consequences – in this case making people cold to each other, and jeopardizing simple interactions. This can be linked to the concerns regarding anonymity in large cities, a result of the rapid population growth, as expressed in Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. In the novel, the main driving force of the plot is the mystery surrounding the identity of Lucy Audley, a governess from the country who is actually a murderer who disguises herself as someone else in the large community that is the city. In a typical community a lie such as that would have been figured out swiftly from the correlation of information between the various members. However, a city lacks the communal ties of a smaller settlement such as a village, allowing criminals to more readily flourish in the proverbial shadows – similar to how Fagin’s gang manage to evade capture in Oliver Twist. In this manner, darkness can also be claimed to be a motif of Victorian literature, specifically relating to the decline of morals, and the most often cited example of this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A famous example of a novel dealing with the theme of imperialism and colonialism, it comes across at first like a story of adventure (which were popular at the time), detailing Marlow’s journey up the Congo in pursuit of the mysterious Kurtz. It can be more accurately described as a deconstruction of the popular fiction of the time, actually focusing on the “unspoken” elements of adventure novels, as pointed out in Heart of Darkness itself:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

The novel makes much of this premise (the reality of things as opposed to the romanticized view many Europeans held), as it was a common belief at the time that European settlers were providing indigenous cultures with progress in the forms of social reforms and greater scientific knowledge. Conrad instead writes about a fictionalized version of his own experiences to show how this is not what was occurring. The novel primarily shows how the stations (outposts in remote regions) are subverting their purposes, and rather than being a “beacon on the road toward better things, a center for trade of course but also for humanizing, improving, instructing” is instead a place of savagery and oppression. Yet Conrad takes measures to ensure that this is not seen as the fault of the natives corrupting the sensibilities of the white settlers, but is rather a flaw in the human soul itself, the proverbial “darkness” within. The most striking display of this notion is right at the end of the tale, when Marlow looks out over London:

“I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

From which it is clear to the reader that for all the veneer of civilization that Europeans wear, at heart they are like all men, and just as fallible, if not actually more corrupted their ideals than others.

The Victorian Era was a time of great change. A new century was dawning, and technology and science were progressing at a rapid pace. The blank spaces on world maps had been filled in, and the world was fully in the grasp of humanity. And though knowledge had progressed, many feared that it had gone too far, and that society had to progress before it could fully harness and use what it had discovered. Instead, it seemed as if society was declining, the traditional norms and values of the Victorians slowly giving way to the efficient and mechanical minds of businessmen seeking to increase profit, as well as the desperate workers beneath them who lost ties of community and became anonymous within the giant cities. In addition to this, more and more people came to question what few beliefs had carried over from previous times (such as the superiority of Europeans) and how true they actually were, championing progress towards more modern thinking and understanding regarding issues such as racial and cultural identity. In the end, it is perhaps best to say that Victorian literature was obsessed with the notion of an ending, and a new beginning.