Criticisms in Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’
A satire is a literary work in which human foolishness and vice are criticized.
Satire employs humor and wit to ridicule human institutions or humanity itself, in order that they might be remodeled or improved (Random House). A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift is a prime example of a satire. Throughout the piece it is difficult to know exactly whom and what Swift is criticizing. This is because Swift criticizes three groups of people and uses metaphors to make the satire work.
Swift ridicules the English for economically oppressing the Irish, the Irish for being passive and allowing the English to oppress them, and the reader of the piece for representing all the wrong doings in society. Many of the images that Swift paints for the reader are images that he witnessed firsthand while he was in Ireland. He was able to feel what the people were going through and he put that feeling into his work.
The main group of people that Jonathan Swift indicts is the English. Swift blames the English for creating the environment that the Irish are living in. He witnessed the Irish people living in poverty while their absentee landlords were acquiring great wealth. “The poor tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress and help to pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown” (Swift).
Swift illustrates how the British politicians were making laws, to govern the Irish, from afar. Rather than directly accusing the English of economically oppressing the Irish, Swift implies it. He uses metaphors to convey his thoughts. The entire and significantly horrible idea of cannibalism is a metaphor that Swift uses.
The British felt that the laws that they were passing were good and just laws, when in actuality all they were doing was making the landlords gain more wealth. “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).
This is an example of the distancing effect that Swift puts on the metaphor. He distances the reader from the actual feelings that he should be experiencing. The vocabulary that Swift employees, forces the reader to focus on economic opportunities rather than the necessities of the poor. In the same way that Swift felt the English had been doing all along.
Using the word “devoured” is very powerful and it goes beyond the ordinary language associated with economics. It demands that the reader interpret the text in the manner that Swift has decided he should.
The cruelty of the text continues on throughout the quote. This reader is shocked by the violence that is created by the economic situation. It makes the landlords appear as if they are actually devouring their tenants rather than protecting them.
By using language Swift is able to go a step further and create double meanings out of the words. For example in the last quote from the proposal, the word “dear” can be taken two ways. The first meaning, as it appears, a precious thing. The second meaning of the word dear can be taken as a key to the value of money, something the English keep taking from the Irish. By selling the children, economic gains can be made to profit the English and Irish alike. Swift choose his word carefully in order to convey what he witnessed in Ireland. The English were devouring the Irish and sending them into devastating depths of poverty.
The second party that Swift criticizes is the Irish. By saying that the Irish can sell their children on the market for money implies two things: One that the English have oppressed them beyond a limit of rationality and two that the Irish are letting the English take advantage of them. Swift paints the Irish as a group of pushovers that would sell their children for money rather than stand up for their rights.
Swift makes the point that the Irish have been so harmed by the laws that they take more care in their livestock than their families. Swift indicts the Irish when he says that if the children were put to market, men would treat wives with more respect and child would have better care.
“We should see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. 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, their sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage” (Swift).
This example shows how the Irish were passively allowing the English to oppress them. By taking more care of their livestock then their families, the Irish played the game that the English wanted them to. If a man were to put more effort into his wife and children than his animals, he would not be able to make enough money to satisfy the government. Swift wanted the people to see what was going on. He wanted them to wake up. Swift was making the point that the Irish did not stand up to the government, thus allowing the English to continue doing what they were doing.
The third party that Swift indicts is the reader. As the piece begins the reader will soon become aware of the problem that the Irish face, poverty. The readers are forced to make a moral decision on the matter. Swift highlights that a changes need to be made in order for the problems to be taken care of.
“I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, 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).
This demonstrates a central theme in any satire. The way that Swift connects the reader to the problem puts the reader in a state of unease. It bothers the reader for example when they get to the long list of advantages that come from Swift’s proposal. The list continues on long after the reader has accepted the fact that it should never have began.
“For first, as I have already observed, it would lessen the number of papists… Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own…Thirdly…the nation’s stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per annum…Fourthly…constant breeders…will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year…Fifthly, This food would bring great custom to taverns…Sixthly, this would be a great inducement to marriage…” (Swift).
The state of unease that Swift puts the reader into is the result of pure guilt. The reader begins to understand that they are somewhat accountable for the problems that the Irish face. The reader understands that he has quietly sat back and let the English establish laws that oppress the Irish. Swift says it is inhumane to let fellow humans be treated in the manner that the English treated the Irish.
Jonathan Swift has a knack for making others feel uncomfortable. In much of his work he was able to make the readers uneasy. Using his wittiness and creativeness, Swift makes his readers face their “moral inadequacies” (Norton). “He actually compels us to enjoy the process of being brought to such awareness” (Norton). The literary gifts that Swift has make him an effective satirical writer. He has a way of making the most extreme statements appear disguised in the abstraction of metaphor.
Using his ability he is able to indict the English for economically oppressing the Irish, the Irish for allowing the English to oppress them, and the readers for letting members of their race be taken advantage of in A Modest Proposal.
1.The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol. 2. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995) 427-430, 483-489.
2.Swift, Jonathan, A Modest Proposal, published in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, vol.2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995) 483-489.
3.Webster’s College Dictionary, 3rd ed. (New York: Random House, 1995) 1193.
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