Review of Modest Proposal

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“A Modest Proposal” is an evocative essay written by Jonathan Swift in 1729. It effectively addresses one of the great ills of the time – the economic meltdown and endemic depravity afflicting Ireland, via the creation of Swift’s persona of an Anglo-Irish landowner who believes he has the solution to Ireland’s immense social problems. The purpose of this satirical masterpiece was sparked by the fact that masses of people died due to starvation brought on by the leeching absentee landlords, who drained the Irish economy and through their callous nature brought Ireland to the brink of collapse.

Political publications were particularly popular as it was a method of gaining support regarding several proposals in an attempt to purge Ireland of its complex social evils. However, what makes Swift’s satire, “A Modest Proposal” truly effective is the usage of the persona’s or Proposer’s viewpoint to shed light on the exploitation of the poor. The Proposer within “A Modest Proposal” is an Anglo-Irish landowner who at first seems to have a great sympathy for the Irish poor by devising a novel idea to tackle the various social ills in Ireland.

This is shown in the way he describes the plight of the people: “It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great Town…when they see the streets…crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms” (218). He goes on to say that the mothers are “forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants” (218).

The use of increasing numbers builds to an effective climax exemplifying Ireland’s huge population and more crucially the bleak picture of the existence many of these poor children will live – a life full of immense poverty. This is effective as it reveals to the contemporary reader the stark conditions of the people, as they may have been oblivious to the predicament of the Irish poor.

The Proposer continues the idea of sympathy for the poor when he puts forward his proposal, one of his many arguments for is that “it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children: alas! Too frequent among us: sacrificing the poor innocent babes” (219). The effective use of emotive language throughout the essay – “poor innocent babes” (219) demonstrates the gross immorality of the Irish in that those unable to provide their children with food or shelter must resort to the ost horrific of actions to eliminate the burden of extra children, murder.

The persona adopted by Swift humbly introduces his real proposal as a means of tackling the complex social ills coursing through Ireland: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food” (219). The sheer nature of the proposal is revealed and frankly it is an extremely disturbing image.

Even more upsetting is that the Proposer and his heavily ironically titled “modest” believes that cannibalism is truly the way forward to solve Ireland’s starvation crisis. The darkly comical and grotesque imagery of eating babies is further pondered when he describes the vast versatilities of babies’ flesh and that they can be “stewed, roasted, baked, boiled” (219). He continues these extremely sadistic, borderline psychotic ideas by expressing the idea of how they could “make admirable gloves for ladies” (220).

Even more shocking is that the Proposer seems completely genuine regarding his cruel proposition to solve Ireland’s dense social afflictions. This disregard highlights the great coldness and blatant lack of any sound moral judgment of the absentee landlords. Swift’s purpose in writing this satirical piece was to exemplify the lack of feeling towards the Irish by the wealthy landowners and politicians in England and Ireland. Using the cannibalization of the poor Irish by the rich people is a very effective metaphorical analysis of the situation.

This serves to shock the reader into realizing the full extent of the serious situation. The Proposer, who represents all landowners and politicians, says that he “offers it for public consideration” (219). This expresses the fact that the landowners not only own the land, but believe they also own the people too. They do not think of consulting them about anything which has an effect on them. Also when firstly proposing his method, the Proposer states beforehand that it is a “cheap and easy”(218) way of solving the problem. The fact that it is cheap and easy emphasizes how selfish the landowners are.

They would only be prepared for a way that would not have them spend much money or time on resolving the true issue. Throughout the essay, The Proposer appears to have a great deal of contempt for those in poverty; this view is expounded in the way they are described. The Proposer’s effective description of babies dropping “from its dam”(218) highlights how he feels about them. They are livestock and an exploitable resource. He continues to dehumanize the Irish poor through the effective extended metaphor created by the use of the animalistic term – “breeder” (221).

However this great mistreatment is not just applied to the times when “A Modest Proposal” was written. The idea of the shameless exploitation of the poor by those of elevated status is one to which still exists in society today. An example of this is coffee growers in the extremely impoverished Third World nations are poorly paid and mistreated by the rich landowners. This emphasizes the effectiveness of the proposal. Despite the fact that it was written almost 300 years ago, it still has a prevalent modern relevance.

The mask of the Proposer completely slips revealing Swift for what he truly is – the complete antithesis of the typical Anglo-Irish landowner. He then puts forward his true proposal for tackling the endemic poverty within Ireland: “taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: of using [only] what is of our own growth and manufacture: of utterly rejecting materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury…of learning to love our country” (223). These are Swift’s real solutions for eradicating poverty in Ireland.

He introduces the idea of sweeping tax reformation, which would involve increased taxes on absentee landlords as a means of balancing their economic drain, to import only the necessities and to buy domestic products only as a means of rejuvenating the sagging economy. And most importantly, he suggests installing an idea of patriotism and unity amongst the Irish population. In conclusion, Swift, via the creation of the Proposer of an overly callous, frankly sadistic landowner who sees it fit to exploit the Irish poor for profit, effectively highlights the great social ills afflicting the Irish population.

He has effectively achieved his goal within the satirical masterpiece “A Modest Proposal” to emphasize what must be done to help his country recover from the grave negligence of the absentee landlords. What makes “A Modest Proposal” standout from all of the other satirical works is that this essay explores a universal theme which today, unfortunately, is still in existence – the shameless exploitation of the poor by those of elevated status.

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