Compare and Constrast Essay on A Modest Proposal

This essay has a total of 2569 words and 10 pages.

A Modest Proposal


Have You Eaten Yet?: Swift's Final Solution

As a lately favored eighteenth century essay, Jonathan Swift's "Proposal" has been
canonized as a satirical model of wit. As will be discussed shortly, Swift's essay is
often seen as an allegory for England's oppression of Ireland. Swift, himself and Irishman
(Tucker 142), would seem to have pointed his razor wit against the foreign nation
responsible for his city's ruin. Wearing the lens of a New Historicist, however, requires
that we reexamine the power structures at work in Swift's society. We must delve into not
only Swift's "Proposal," but also into other of his correspondence, and even into
discourse of the epoch in order to gain a thick description of the many levels of
understanding present in Swift's "Proposal."


As a model of rhetorical discourse, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the
Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and
for Making them Beneficial to the Public" is unique among the plethora of pamphlets which
circulated Ireland in the early eighteenth century. However, it is imprudent to think of
the work as having emerged purely isolated from the pressures of the society in which
Swift wrote. While propositions such as "A Modest Proposal for the More Certain and yet
More Easie Provision for the Poor, and Likewise for the Better Suppression of
Theives…Tending Much to the Advancement of Trade, Especially in the most Profitable Part
of It," (Author Unknown, Cited in Rawson 189) were commonly circulated in order to
postulate solutions to the crises of the day, Jonathan Swift's "Proposal" has been read as
a parody of this sort of pamphlet (Rawson 189). There can be no solid support for such a
thesis, and it would be wrong to infer that what is at work in Swift's "Proposal" in any
important sense is a burlesque on project concerning the poor or on the titles of certain
types of economic tracts. The mimicry of these things which Swift employs is but
seasoning, and not the main point. Likewise, to suggest that Swift was radically attacking
the notion of economic planning of human affairs, or even that his attitude on certain
central questions was humane or liberal is misleading. The majority of interpretation of
Swift's proposal points us to an understanding that Swift was not really proposing infant
cannibalism, rather that he points to an analogy between his "proposal" and the actual (or
actually alleged) destruction—consumption—of Ireland by a voracious England, the
parent-kingdom eating up its child-colony. There are major impediments to this approach.


The Proposer is "clearly in Ireland, addressing an Irish audience with an account of
circumstances which are as real as they are horrible." (Rosenheim 204) England's
consumption of Ireland is mentioned expressly, but in a single clause which certainly does
not inform but transiently exploits the great central conceit at work in the "Proposal":
"…although I could perhaps name a country that would be glad to eat up our whole nation
without it [preserving the flesh of the infant carcasses]." (Swift) The structure and
progress of the Proposer's argument, both as a whole and in it particulars, seem in no way
derived from any analogical or allegorical perception. Rather, at least some of Swift's
irony, if not the largest portion thereof, is directed at Ireland, not England.


The proposer states that "Infants flesh will be in season throughout the year…" and that
a large quantity of infant flesh will be consumed. He indicates that cooks will vie with
each other in preparing new dishes of this food which is "a most delicious, nourishing,
and wholesome food." (Swift) The proposer next exhausts the list of ways one can prepare
this food in order to emphasize that the food will incite a continuous craving in the
people who devour it. The proposer also derives by-products from the infants' flesh;
clearly, he is establishing a major industry which will use a lot of infant flesh. The
enormity of the business is again seen in regard to the actual slaughter, for he says


"Shambles may be appointed for this Purpose, in the most convenient of Parts of [Dublin];
and Butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I


rather recommend buying the Children alive, and dressing them hot from the

knife, as we do roasting pigs." (Swift)

After the enormity of the business has been indicated, the proposer solidifies his attack
on Ireland when he states that the Irish have 100,000 infants to sell each year. He
continues that a quarter "seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled
on the fourth day." (Swift) Because an infant will last four days by making four meals for
the average family, "the dimensions of the proposer's plan begin to be quantified."
(Hozeski 54) The crucial point in determining the proposer's aim occurs when he ponders
"Supposing that one thousand families in this city would be constant customers for infants
flesh. I compute that Dublin would take off, annually, about twenty thousand carcasses..."
(Swift) "With each family eating one child every four days, 91.25 infants each year are
consumed. The thousand families in Dublin would, then, actually consume 91,250 infants
annually, not twenty thousand, as computed by the modest proposer." (Hozeski 54) This
obvious error causes us to question Swift's target in his essay. According to the proper
calculations, the Dubliner's and the "others who might have it at merry meetings,
particularly at weddings and christenings," (Swift) would consume additional infants until
the Irish eventually became extinct. The attack, then, has ultimately been leveled against
Ireland, not England as is sometimes thought (Hozeski 55).


The idea of cannibalism attributed to Swift may in fact have been suggested in official
correspondence from Archbishop King to Edward Southwell, the Irish Secretary of State. The
Archbishop writes, "…but where [the money] will be got God knows except we flea the
people & sell their skins." (Coleborne 132) This exasperation of finances creates a
rhetoric of exasperation that Swift ameliorates into an entire proposal. Between 1709 and
1725, Ireland had created a £300,000 debt, one of staggering proportions to the poor
nation. "It is a commonplace of Irish pamphleteering of the 1720s that the country had the
potential for richness of a kind that would have turned aside the hideous face of its
poverty and misery." (Coleborne 133) The crucial passage in the "proposal" which
underscores the bitterness which Swift feels towards the poor he allegedly is advocating
through satire is the one in which the speaker asserts that the prescriptions for infant
cannibalism is calculated only "for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland," and urges,
"Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five
shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor household furniture except what is of our
own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that
promote foreign luxury," (Swift) and so on, through a catalog that repeats precisely those
steps to betterment which Swift has repeatedly urged upon his compatriots, who have
repeatedly ignored them. (Rosenheim 208) This is the point in the essay where the proposer
turns from barbarous plan and becomes the accuser, confronting his Irish audience with a
devastating assessment of their own condition and, at least obliquely, of their own guilt.
In each of the other "expedients" itemized by the proposer lies the power of the Irish to
better their own situation; by rejecting them, the Irish have left the door open to no
alternatives other than the present interminable wretchedness or the cannibalism of the
proposal. It is this passage which points to an indication that Swift was not concerned
with satirizing the proposals of other writers on Irish affairs, many of whose schemes he
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