The unforgettable satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift is an example of an extremely powerful satire. “It was published in 1729 as an anonymous author’s essay in a pamphlet first” (Go, p. 775). The essay had painted a live picture of the tremendous poverty of Irish people in the early eighteenth century. Swift has lashed at several sectors of people directly related to and responsible for this disgraceful situation of Ireland and the inability of the political authority to do anything constructive and effective for the population living in utter distress. The language throughout has been amazingly controlled but extremely sharp and witty which succeeds to establish his point through creating exaggerations commonly seen in satires. Bullit (2003) indicated that at a point in the text the satire became extreme, when the author suggested buying the poverty driven children to ease the pressure in the government (Bullit, p. 45). This suggestion of mothers selling their children is also mentioned by Phidian (1996) and it is considered as a great satirist approach (Phidian, p. 605). Thus, the focal point of this paper is to evaluate the role of satire in the presentation of the conditions of poverty and population problems that hit Ireland in the 17th Century.
About the Essay
The pain to see the utter distress of the people of Ireland has provided sparks for the creation of such a fiery satire. The sight of female beggars with a number of infants and older children with them on the roads of the city Dublin presented the melancholy of the lives of Irish people living in shear poverty without the bare minimum of sustaining life. No food to eat, wearing rags in place of clothes and hardly any work to earn living, huge number of people were left with no other option but begging in the streets in the 18th century (Jones, pp. 141-161).
The beginning of the essay does not at all give any idea about what actually was the “Modest Proposal” as it read “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” (Swift, p. 1). It appears as if some one with patriotic feeling has given some suggestions regarding poverty eradication. But as the essay progresses the biting sarcasm unfolds. The reader gets a shock when the author suggests selling infants to rich people saying “a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout” (Swift, p. 5). The shock mounts with the proposal of processing the infants’ skin to make gloves for rich ladies and boots for gentlemen and it almost becomes suffocating when he says “I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs” (Swift, p. 7).
The essay might confuse the reader about the intention of the author at first. But when it is read through it becomes clear that the shear disgust of Jonathan Swift for people making worthless suggestions to eradicate poverty, incapable political authorities, inhuman behavior of the rich people towards poor, improper behavior of England towards the Irish Nation and the thoughtlessness of Irish people themselves had prompted him to create such a piercing satire. He indicated the unfortunate fact that the living condition of Irish peasants and laborers was such that the children of these poor people would be relieved from the lifelong agony to be alive if they are not allowed to live more than one year. Go stated that the rich people “extorted the poor in such a manner that it could be compared with cannibalism only” (Go, pp. 775-788). So seemed to be a better option to eat them physically when tender rather than repeating what they had done to their parents before them. Death was also better for the “infants of begging mothers and young people without job, money and food” (Go, pp. 775-788).
The causes of Distress in Ireland
The peasants and daily laborers of Ireland at the time of the creation of the essay were leading a disgraceful life with literally no support to live life. They had no control over the production of children which immensely increased the population of these poor people. This voluminous population of infants, young and older children became burdens to their families and the nation as well. As a result as Swift had pointed out the women of those families did not have time to look for work leaving the children behind. They had no other choice than begging in the street with the children in their laps and backs. These children when grown up either would starve to death without work or would take the path of crime. Swift has definitely pointed out to this population boom as one of the reasons of poverty in Ireland (Jones, pp. 141-161). Another reason contributing to the increase in population was the number of illegitimate children increasing among the poor people. Gruesome act like killing the baby by the mother has been pointed out. It also seems that beating wife was a common practice.
Swift has marked another reason which added to the agony of the poor peasants is the inhuman treatment to them by the Absentee Landlords of England. The poor Catholic peasants were squeezed to the extreme by these landlords. With this kind of life they could only become poorer (Go, pp. 775-788). The other deprived population seen on the roads of Dublin was the laborers. They were more in number and work was lesser. Most of the time, they were left without any work. They had either to beg or to steal to make a living. Even when they had work the wages were so small that it could hardly suffice for the big families with so many children.
Poverty was there but there was no effective attempt to make the lives of these poor people a little better. Only useless suggestions were made through pamphlets as if that was a pastime. And if any useful suggestions were at all made they were neglected. The state was wreathing under the pressure of poverty but there were no visible solutions to come out. Filled with disgust, Swift made a satirical suggestion like this to make the authorities to take note of the never ending distress (Jones, pp. 141-161).
Historical Truth about the Distress
The picture that Jonathan Swift had drawn in his “A Modest Proposal” definitely has historical truth regarding the poverty stricken condition of the Irish people. The early 18th Century when the essay had been written was the era of industrialization of England. The humane values were put aside and the ill treatment of Irish peasants by the English Landlords was also a historical fact. England had behaved with Ireland like a stepchild and the Irish people were denied the minimum rights for themselves. For England Irish people were nothing but commodities that could be used to bring riches to English Rich class but could not afford food and clothes for their own children. No humane values were assigned to them (Go, pp. 775-788).
Jonathan Swift had presented the picture of the grim state of Ireland with such a cutting satire that it is sure to make a deep mark in the reader’s mind. Though this was a satire, grave questions like “how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs” (Swift, p. 14) have been put forward in a straight language. This essay points to his deep concern towards the situation of Ireland that time and an urge to see something effective happening. This is satire at its best no doubt.
- Bullitt, John M. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire: A Study of Satiric Technique. Cambridge: Harvard, 2003.
- Go, John. The ‘New’ Sociology of Empire and Colonialism. Sociology Compass, 3.5, (2009): 775-788.
- Jones, Ronald. Unsettling Geographical Horizons: Exploring Imperialism. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95.6, (2005): 141-161.
- Phiddian, Robert. Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 36.3 (1996): 603–621.
- Swift, Jonathan. A modest proposal. London: Plain Label Books, 1969.