Swift's “a Modest Proposal” Model 18th Century Wit and Satire Essay
Seeing as that we are in a country that is well on its way to being as overcrowded and poverty-ridden as Dublin, Ireland in the early 1700’s, if you had the money would you buy and consume another person’s child just for the sole purpose of eating good food? In “A Modest Proposal”, Jonathan Swift displays a model treatise of 18th century wit and satire by mocking the major problem the Irish have of overcrowding and beggars not being able to take care of their children, by suggesting that they sell the infants as meat to the wealthy people of the kingdom.
This proposal is thought by many to be the one of the greatest examples of satire in the English language. It was written by Jonathan Swift in 1729 during which time Ireland was going through harsh religious and economic problems where the well off English-Protestants were inflicting abuses on the Irish, along with severe famine and over populating by the peasant people of the kingdom of Dublin. Swift broke nearly 20 years of silence and this pamphlet became one of the most well known pieces of satirical literature throughout the land.
Satire is a literary manner that blends a critical attitude with humor and wit for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity and used to inspire and encourage change. As you begin to read Swift’s proposal, you assume that he is dead serious, because he starts out by explaining the major problem that the people of Dublin are having, which is the beggars and lower end of society have a plethora of children and not being able to afford to take care of them.
He says that whoever can come up with a 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 341). Which at the time of the writing would be a very good reward for the person coming up with the method, and after this line you assume that he is going to purpose a serious and legitimate method as to turning the young children into productive members of society.
Then Swift throws all his readers for a loop by out of nowhere suggesting that “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 fricassee or a ragout” (Swift 342). For those of us such as I who are not very familiar with Swift’s work assume at first that he is being entirely serious about killing the infants and eating them as some sort of a delicacy. Even his title to the pamphlet is satirical and exaggerated in a large degree.
He uses the word “modest” which after reading only about 6 or 8 paragraphs you notice there is no modesty in the literature at all. While, as you continue to read on you see that he is not serious at all and that he is downright mocking the problem of over-crowding and the Irish taking abuse from the English. He does not even suggest a decent price on the carcass of a child, he says that “no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good gat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat” (Swift 343).
Ten shillings is worth 70 cents American today, which even back in that day ten shillings could only feed a small family for a week or two. This is such a low price for the life of a human, which is a good indicator that Swift is trying to be witty. And even after that you know that he is using a mocking tone because he tells the readers that “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 343).
It is very hard to take someone serious who writes that you need to filet children alive with a hot knife. It is very witty though that he compares children to that of a pig, because later in the reading he tells us that pregnant women were valued less than pigs. With that being said he does put a lot of thought and effort into showing the reader that he is being witty. He tries to tell the readers that “those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentleman” (Swift 343).
He mocks the seriousness of the economic struggles by saying people can curb some of the hardship by turning baby skin into gloves for women and summer boots for gentlemen. His wit is something that you have to learn to pick up on, because even though it is all over the work, it might be a little tough to pick up on for the untrained eye. Swift also suggests that his proposal will make pregnant women useful and able to bring in income for the family.
During these times pregnant women were not regarded as highly as they are today, and husbands saw their pregnant wives as being somewhat of a burden, because they could only perform a few house duties and no manual labor whatsoever. Although in the proposal if women were selling their children for a profit, he says that “men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when they are ready to farrow” (Swift 345).
It is deplorable that at this time men saw their pregnant wives as being less of a creature than theirs horses, cows, or pigs on the sole fact that their wives could not make them any money while they were pregnant. Swifts proposal also says that it will rid the practice that husbands have of “beating or kicking them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage” (Swift 345). It is horrible that at this point in time men could get away unpunished with beating their wives, much less their pregnant wives to the point that they miscarry the child.
In Swift’s pamphlet he says the only reason the husbands will stop beating there pregnant wives is because risk of miscarriage and the loss of 8 shillings net profit. On the other hand, after the entire satirical and witty piece, Swift leaves us with a serious last line stating, “I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing” (Swift 347). In this line he is calling the people of Dublin brainless for having more children than they can care and provide for.
This line is also to serves to show that he has shown them what the problem is, but it is the poor Irish-Catholic people that must become inspired in order to do something to stop their own problem and to stop taking abuses from the English-Protestants. In closing, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is anything but modest, although it does serve as a perfect example of 18th century wit and satire. It continues today to be one of the most well known satire pieces from that time period. You would have to be as dumb as the Irish-Catholics that had too many children to not think that the piece of literature was funny