Monday, August 6, 2012

Analysis of Swift’s "A Modest Proposal"

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Swift begins A Modest Proposal with the goal of “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, 466). Sounds great to me! Where can I sign up? These were my original thoughts when I began reading this piece. In fact I though this would just be another boring lecture on what is going wrong, in which Swift would bring up ideas which sounded wonderful and poetic but could not be feasibly carried out. I even began to question the reason for A Modest Proposal’s place in a text book. I had no idea what was in store for me.

A Modest Proposal is satirical writing at its finest. It describes in detail Swift’s “modest” idea that to help to ease the suffering of the poor, and to stimulate Ireland’s floundering economy, Ireland should turn babies into a commodity. Swift suggests that if babies were to be eaten there would not only be another source of income for poor mothers, but a delicious delicacy that could be eaten on special occasions by the rich and well-off. I chose this piece because of Swift’s sense of humor. I could see him as someone I could get along with. I also really enjoy when someone is able to get their point across though humor and wit, because I know how hard that is to do.

The first thing that caught my eye about this proposal, aside from the fact that Swift is suggesting the eating of thousands of young infants, is who gave Swift the idea for his proposal in the first place, an American. Swift says, “I have been assured by a very knowing American…that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food” (Swift). When I first read over this passage I thought little of the fact that Swift mentioned an American as a source for this horrific idea. However, as I read over it a few more times and paid more attention to the footnotes, I realized that there was more to the reference than chance. This passage says a lot about the attitude towards the American colonies at the time. The average citizen in England really thought that Americans were some savage, barbaric race that had left their homeland to live in the undiscovered wilderness. I think Swift really proves that fact when he uses an American as a tool for satire. He calls the American “well knowing” and that, to the English, would probably have been laughable. It introduces the satire of the piece and makes it easier for the reader to identify with the proposal because they already understand America’s “barbaric” ways. This passage is not only interesting because of its satirical content but also that of its cultural significance. It is unusual to hear the English voice in regards to America, it makes you think that maybe we were not always as cultured as we sometimes think we are.

Swift is also courageous enough to satirize England. Swift states that he “could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it”(Swift). Swift suggest that England has already done all that they can to the citizens of Ireland, they might as well eat them. Swifts anger is justifiable. At the time Ireland was completely controlled by England, who had severely limited the power of the Irish government, as well as making it almost impossible for any sort of fair trade to be established. They had taken advantage of Ireland to the fullest and were willing to sacrifice the welfare of an entire country for their economic development. With just a brief history on the political tensions of the time it is easy to see why a work such as this would be very influential and thought provoking to the men and women who read it. It is interesting looking back on all the political pieces of this time period because they all are based in some sort of satire. Today, although satire is still used as a political tool, it seems that it is not as effective or powerful as it once was. Personally I believe satire is one of the more elegant and insightful ways to get a point across.


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The portion of the piece that I was most taken with was within that last page or so. For the majority of the piece Swift’s tone could be described as witty, maybe even whimsical. However, in the last section of "A Modest Proposal" Swift abruptly jumps into a tirade of anger and truth aimed at those who scoff at any real and thoughtful proposal that people have brought up. The interesting thing is that even though Swift has changed his tone almost completely he never loses his satirical style when he writes

"Let no man talk to me of other expedients of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound; of using neither clothes nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture" (Swift).

Here Swift takes the side of those who had denied him before, and shows the absurdity of their argument. He demonstrates how easy it is to make a significant difference in the state of Ireland while pointing out the “pride, vanity, and idleness” of the upper class men and women at the time. Swift had written numerous serious proposals earlier in his career and all had been denied. This is where the true satire of the title comes out as well. Swift suggests that “a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance” is too dear a thing to ask people to put forth, but rather that the only modest and reasonable thing to ask is that they eat the children of the poor.

Works Cited

Sherman, Stuart. The Longman Anthology of British Literature The Restoration and the 18th Century. New York Addison-Wesley, 2000



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