A Modest Proposal: Satire On Ireland’s Society
In times of significant disparity, individuals who are trying to make a difference have found that an effective way to grab the attention of others is not necessarily through political refutation, but through humour. This strategy is also known as satire, a technique used by writers to expose and criticize folly and corruption found in society through humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule. In A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift conformed to the conventions of Juvenalian satire to criticize the exploitative English rule present in Ireland in the 18th century. At the time of production, Ireland was suffering from intense poverty and famine across the country, which created a greater distrust between the citizens and the ineffectual Irish government. Prior to this work, Swift made multiple appeals and proposals to the Irish Parliament in an attempt to influence a change, but after being consistently ignored, turned to satire instead. Hence, Swift’s proposal portrays satirical conventions through his matter-of-fact tone, extended metaphors, and irony to comment on themes of dehumanization, power, and criticize political policies.
Swift begins his proposal by explaining how babies are a great inconvenience to society; specifically to their mothers, who are forced to give up their livelihood to sustain their ‘helpless infants’ who have no future anyway. Accordingly, Swift asserts that ‘a child just dropped from its dam’ is worth about two shillings, which he then refers to as a solution by making infants ‘useful members of the commonwealth’ [Swift]. The use of the word ‘dam’ when describing a womb is generally employed when describing one of an animal, resulting in the dehumanization of human babies to further support his cannibalistic proposition. In addition, by assigning a specific value to an infant of a particular age, adding to his view of children and their mothers being solely quantifiable and considered only under economic terms. He repeatedly refers to the impecunious Irish population, but only by means of statistics, to which he simply subtracts fifty thousand from ‘for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year’ [Swift]. The author’s use of fake statistics is not only to establish false authority but also represents the ruling class’s apathetic view of those suffering in poverty. Ultimately, Swift applies a matter-of-fact tone and strips infants from their human characteristics to expose the landlords’ lack of concern for the poor.
Being that his main argument for Ireland’s society to prosper is through the consumption of children, the entirety of Swift’s political pamphlet consists of an extended metaphor. One of the metaphor’s primary functions is to criticise the political greed found in Ireland’s landlords, seen when the author contends that ‘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’ [Swift]. By describing most Irish citizens as ‘devoured’ by landlords, Swift alludes to their impoverished situation in comparison to the landlords who therefore should have ownership over their children. The authors choice of diction to describe the infants as a delicacy contributes to the convention of being grotesque: a common factor found in satirical works. The narrator goes on to list all of the benefits his plan would bring, the second one being how it would provide the ‘poorer tenants’ with ‘something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress’ as it would help them economically. Swift suggests that not only will the wealthy aristocrats’ appetites be satisfied; the poorer tenants will also gain power by receiving this new source of income. In both cases, Swift’s extensive use of metaphors to support the devouring of babies is a source to catch the reader’s attention as well as convey the gap in power between the wealthy and those suffering in poverty.
Accordingly, this piece of writing consists of political satire perpetually by virtue of the irony he uses to condemn contemporary political policies and imply the need for change. He does so when stating his first argument: ‘[…] whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation’. Swift emphasizes on the British parliament’s only priority at the time: their economy and state of wealth, by mocking their approach to public policy. He does so again by the end of his proposal when he claims no man should consider, ‘taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound, […] [or] teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants’ [Swift]. The irony is found in his suggestions since, according to his previous works, Swift was known to argue for an increase in taxes and supported the change of what was a bureaucracy. By making these false statements, he ironically displays British and Irish policymakers as being mercenaries and points out the measures they should be enforcing.
After numerous attempts of getting his arguments across, Swift decided to take on the conventions of a political satire in hopes of finally catching the Irish Parliaments attention. Additionally, A Modest Proposal is considered a Juvenalian satire due to its harsh language intentionally in place to make the poor Irish citizens angry at the English policies in place. Swift takes on the role of a ‘practical’ economic planner, pretending to be unbiased and prudent through a matter-of-fact tone, extended metaphors, and irony to protest against a purely statistical view of society as well as the attitudes and policies that kept the people of Ireland poor.
- Swift, Jonathan, 1667-1745. A Modest Proposal. Champaign, Ill.: Boulder, Colo.