Critical Analysis of “A Modest Proposal”
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift was a Neoclassical piece of literature aimed to expose the poverty crisis among poor Irish families who were at the mercy of the ruling English class. Swift appealed to the reasoning of the public by using scathing satire in his critique of the idle aristocrats of England. Arising from the Enlightenment period, “A Modest Proposal” proposes to improve Ireland’s social and economic problems by implementing the wild and outrageous cannibalistic solution of converting children into “useful members of society” by proposing them as food. This extreme solution was “easy to carry out, fair to all members and inexpensive to both the rich and poor.” Disgusted with the injustice the Irish faced, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal,” which served as his searing condemnation of the apathy with which the English viewed the Irish struggle.
The literature of the Neoclassical period was largely defined by its focus on social concerns. At the time of “A Modest Proposal” the predominantly Catholic Ireland had been ruled by a Protestant England for close to 500 years and suffered social and economic restrictions. During Swift’s life, the poor fought for the survival of their families while the rich, who lived in opulent luxury, looked upon the struggle of the Irish with indifference. It was “a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town…when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin-doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms” (Swift 367). Instead, the ruling British obsessed over proving their “good taste” by spending their time searching out leisure and entertainment: “A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish” (Swift 369). This in time lead to the popularity of coffee houses, newspapers, and essays which lead to the birth of the modern novel we know today. The exposure of these injustices led to what became known as the Enlightenment period, where people began to draw their focus to logic, rationality, and order, like that of the classical Greeks and Romans.
During the Enlightenment period, the population strongly believed that human emotions and natural passions should be strictly controlled. Rather than emphasizing the importance of caring for individual needs, social concerns were upheld as more significant. Human affairs, politics, and morals became the concern that preoccupied the vision of man and the overall view of human life as seen in “A Modest Proposal.” The common belief was that humans were imperfect and limited in their achievements. “The question therefore is, how this number shall be reared, and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossibly by all the methods hitherto proposed, for we can neither employ them in handicraft, or agriculture” (Swift 369). This is seen in the way Swift presents struggles the poor are facing without showing anger because he accepts the fact that humans are flawed. “The remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the person of quality, and fortune ” (Swift 369). His proposal to sell children as meat presents Ireland a moderate goal that would be achievable by the entire society.
Finally, “A Modest Proposal” can be classified as a Neoclassical piece because it draws attention to man’s flawed logic. During the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, both religious beliefs and the morality of acting rightly toward thy neighbor were based on reason. Ideas were rationally systematized and advocated coherent norms within the society. Yet anyone with a right mind could not come up with such an idea unless they set their mind solely on purpose. Swift uses reason to support his ideas yet his real intention is to share his thoughts about the rich, ruling English class. He uses a key Neoclassical element, satire, to show how self-serving their structure was: “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” (Swift 371). The irony with which Swift points out that the English are literally eating the Irish parents to such a point of desperation is key in illustrating his anger; the sarcasm is palpable. Swift scorns England for their constant incongruity with Ireland and shows this by comparing children to swine that eat trash and live in filth. Swift suggests that sending children to slaughterhouses for butchers to carve would be as simple as “roasting pigs” (Swift, 1924). Swift used this comparison to evoke disgust and horror because it means that those children had no more worth to the elites than a common hog whose value equated to a meal. Swift wielded the satirical sword with efficiency and purpose in order to illuminate the bogus logic that the English used to justify their actions.
The Neoclassical period is perhaps known as the world’s greatest age of satire. The satire in “A Modest Proposal” was employed to get a public reaction to the problem at hand: “I do therefore humbly offer it to the public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed” (Swift 283) as well as incriminate the self-serving governing English class. In proposing that the offspring of poverty-stricken parents have the same value as pigs, Swift sheds light on the apathy of the elite toward the most helpless members of society: children. They had no more control over the poverty into which they were born than the rich did. By “humbly proposing” to sell kids for food, Swift makes clear that the treatment of children in Ireland is deplorable because their value is so low in the eyes of the public. The “over the top” approach of “A Modest Proposal” is meant to shed the light on the horrible attitude and treatment of poverty-stricken individuals, and ultimately, causing a shift in that attitude.