Unlike most essays, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is written for the reader to see through what the narrator is expressing. The narrator does not want the reader to agree that the solution to overpopulation and poverty in Ireland is to eat babies, he wants the reader to see there needs to be a practical solution. By stating the advantages and objections to his proposal, using ironic words and phrases, he directs the reader not to see the apparent, but the implicit. Swift’s narrative voice metaphorically compares the Irish to pigs and cows, which implies the Irish are being treated subhumanly. Although something seems one way to the narrator, Jonathan Swift wants the reader to see it in an opposite light.
Firstly, the narrative voice begins the essay by describing the deplorable conditions in which the Irish peasants are living. He demonstrates there is a serious problem with a great need for a solution. He then suggests a solution and then lists a whole list of advantages. His propsal of eating the Irish babies is followed by advantages such as “by the sale of their children, the parents would be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year”(14). Another advantage is, as Swift put it, “the poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own”(14). These quotations imply that the poorer tenants have nothing of value and that they would have to resort to selling their own flesh and blood in order to earn an income; they also do not take into consideration that the parents might want to have a family and children who will live with them past the age of one year. A decrease in the meat consumed by Ireland would lead to an advantage of “the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barreled beef”(14). A quotation such as this asks the residents of Ireland to eat human flesh to improve exportation. All the advantages he suggests are true: if his proposal was put into action, these would be benefits, but he is asking the poor to sell their children for consumption. The large population and poor living conditions of Irish peasants are matters which need to be taken care of.
By means of downplaying his “modest proposal,” the narrator leads the reader to believe his proposal is rationale. He even goes as far as saying, “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection”(1) before he introduces the solution of eating infants. Of course there will be objections to this outrageous recommendation as it is a ridiculous notion. The suggestion of eating young children is most definitely not humble. He also proclaims, “he can think of no one objection that will be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom.”(15). There are objections and they include more than just concerns about the population numbers. The Irish are being asked to consider ideas of selling their children for profit and cannibalism. If this idea is to go beyond just a proposal, the values of society should be questioned. If this is to be contemplated as a legitimate solution, the values of society should also be examined thoroughly, I might add.
Throughout the essay, ironic words and phrases are used to make the reader see that there is a discrepancy between the stated word or phrase and the implied meaning. The title of Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal” implies that his suggestion will be one of insubstantial content, something simple and unassuming. As a solution to the poor standard of living of the Irish, the narrator suggests eating children of about one year old. This recommendation is ludicrous and not simple at all. The narrator is asking the Irish to revert to cannibalism, which not just eating other human beings, it includes their own children. When the narrator begins to introduce this preposterous proposal, he comments, “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” (11) He proposes the idea of eating the young and then downplays this ridiculous notion as being humble. Although the narrator is suggesting an appalling idea, he minimizes it as a humble thought by claiming it is something simple or unpretentious and then continues to report that there will be no objections to his way of thinking. The narrator uses the term “carcass” more than once to describe the children being discussed. The Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary defines a carcass as “the dead body of an animal, especially one slaughtered for its meat”(138). By using the word carcass, the narrator exhibits that the Irish peasants are thought of as subhuman. Despite suggesting an outlandish notion, he is trying to make others see that there is a problem and it needs to be solved. Metaphors are used continuously throughout this essay to parallel the Irish peasants to animals. Before introducing the proposal, the narrator compares Americans to savages when he states, “a very knowing American”(11) told him that a child of one year makes “wholesome food”(11). They are treated like animals by the English and their landlords. The narrator also discusses eating the Irish infants, like one would a piece of animal flesh. The Irish peasants are constantly portrayed as animals. For example, “Pigs…are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well-grown, fat yearling child,” (14) compares the babies directly to pigs. While introducing his proposal to the reader, he talks of how “infants’ flesh will be in season throughout the year”(11). This confirms the narrator writing about the Irish as if they are animals that will become a new “excellent nutritive meat”(12) one could pick up at the market. Furthermore, the narrator metaphorically compares the poor treatment of the Irish to animals when writing, “the landlords have already devoured most of the parents”(11) of these children. The landlord have “devoured” the parents in the sense of excessive taxation and collecting high rent. The parents are paralleled to animals and dehumanized by being referred to as “breeders” several times in the essay. Lastly, the children are depicted almost as a form of currency. The sale of the children for food is to pay their parents’ debts. The infants emerge as a form of collateral from this proposal. By using metaphors, the treatment of the Irish peasants as less than human by the English is depicted.
Listing advantages and claiming that there will be no objections, the narrator rationalizes his solution and consequently makes the reader believe his suggestion will be one of insignificant content. He captures the attention of the reader by using irony, which is firstly evident in the title of the essay, “A Modest Proposal.” His tone of voice detaches him emotionally by supporting this proposal with examples of how animals are bred, proposing that children be bred the same way. In conclusion, the narrator is deeply angry about the way in which the English treat the Irish peasants and he thinks something should be done. By stating the problems and proposing an extreme solution, he works with irony throughout the essay to allow his reader to see things on the flip-side. Swift’s proposal is an antithesis to get the reader to see the contrary.
“Carcass.” The Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary. 2000 ed.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Introduction to Literature. Eds. Isobel Findlay et. al. 4th ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 2001. 9-16.