`A Modest Proposal`
Swift’s satirical essay known widely as, “A Modest Proposal,” but in actuality titled “A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” has been long considered one of the most accomplished works of satire in English. Swift’s “Modest Proposal” purports to address the economic plight of the Irish poor and begins in the manner of a serious essay, portraying the plight of the under-class and admonishing the reader to understand that the plight of the poor directly impacts the rest of Irish (and world) society: “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 who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear Native Country to fight for the Pretender in Spain” (Craig, 1924, p. 367).
From this point of departure, the satirical and ironic aspects of the essay begin to manifest. Swift proposes that poor people should sell their young children to rich people to eat. The metaphorical aspect of this satirical conceit is that Swift wants to imply that the class-distinctions in Ireland are an abberation — and that the literal eating of children represents, metaphorically, the way that the upper-class feeds on the lower classes. Swift supplies equations, and linear calculations to demonstrate the economic and social benefits of his “modest proposal.” The simple absence of compassion and decency is the engine which fuels the satirical elements of the essay and this technique more or less poses the question to the wealthy: have you no compassion? Although cannabilism may be viewed, even by the modern reader, as an over-the-top satirical device, there is no doubt that the combination of shock and humor that one experiences while reading Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a magnificent method for compressing the complex issues of classicism and economic fairness into a brief, extraordinarily powerful treatise which — when read sensitively — should bring about a re-visioning of class issues for any but the most hardened and selfish individuals. Swift’s essay should not be regarded as an attack on the upper-class but as an attack on classicism altogther.
Craig, H. (Ed.). (1924). Jonathan Swift: Selections. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.