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Cannibalism and Satire

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    In the article “A Modest Proposal” (1729), Jonathan Swift effectively vents his aggravation in regard to the treatment of the poor in Ireland. Swift is frustrated with the Irish as well in their inability to get themselves out of the state in which they find themselves. Irony is the weapon used in this satirical essay in which Swift writes about his “proposal” of selling infants to wealthy citizens for food.

    The shock value that is delivered in this proposal is not its’ literal suggestion that cannibalism be the answer to a common problem of the day, but that in the beginning of the essay, Swift introduces the problem as if he is about to make a suggestion toward a legitimate solution. Proposing cannibalism in any serious venue will always bring shock to an audience. In the case of “A Modest Proposal” (1729), the intention is to show the ridiculousness that is currently plaguing Ireland by English tyranny.

    James Ward states in his article “Bodies for Sale” (2007) that Swift has found a, “use for a previously unmarketable product”(283). While Ward thinks that Swift’s ideas are an ingenious solution, he suggests that the consumers of that day were struggling with excessive consumption and an urge to help less fortunate people (283). A strong sense of compassion comes to the reader at the beginning of this essay and Swift shares this compassion for the poor people in Ireland, but also feels they should try to further themselves.

    He adds into his essay the judgments of the people toward beggars and opportunists, and shows the economic reality that exists among the citizens of Ireland. It is interesting that he starts off with this description, and it causes the audience to somehow feel compassion for the beggars as well. The children especially who have to work or beg in order to help the family survive, and the mothers’ who resort to prostitution in order to make ends meet.

    Swift’s comedy comes at the expense of Catholic’s in the essay when he says that more children are born in “Roman Catholic countries about nine months after Lent” (357), and that the market should be full by a year after Lent with many fattened up babies. This statement would insinuate that Catholic people abstain from sex during Lent but afterward have many encounters that would breed many children, causing an influx of the “market” of infant selling. Swift seems to be really attempting to solve a problem with his suggestion, but I can imagine there were many people that were upset by the proposal.

    While it is not necessarily true that Swift was really suggesting that Ireland turn to cannibalism to solve a severe economic and social problem, the manner in which he has chosen to submit a solution to a very real problem must have taken many by surprise in 1729. The way that Swift has chosen to discuss this problem would have received much attention, and hopefully did help the plight of the poor in Ireland. The eyes of the wealthy had to be opened to the socioeconomic problem that they were not only contributing to, but not helping at all.

    Swift has done a good job using humor to support his claim while bringing to light a very important topic in Ireland, and no doubt in other parts of the world at that time. Many critics may have suggested that Swift would be looking to further himself during this time and that would be the reason for this essay, but he would not have written in anonymously if that was the case. His taking on a separate persona reveals the characteristics that me may possess, but finds it hard to reveal.

    The persona or “proposer” can be seen by the audience as cold hearted and superficial, but this is what grabs the attention of Swift’s intended audience, and promises that more people will read it in order to attempt to understand what kind of person would come up with such a suggestion.


    Swift, J. (1729). A modest proposal. In A. T. Rottenberg, & D. Haisty Winchell (Eds. ), Elements of argument (9th ed. , pp. 116-119). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s Ward, J. (2007). Bodies for sale. In Irish Studies Review, 15(3), 283-294. doi:10. 1080/09670880701461811

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