A contradiction between the literal and the intended meaning, “A Modest Proposal” brings to mind a “Hansel and Gretel” aspect of fattening someone for slaughter. However, this aspect is far from the immediate message of the satire, or so it seems.
” I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London; that a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve as a fricassee, or ragout.” Undoubtedly, a strange saying unless one considers the irony of the stage set for era and country where famine played the lead role. With children left to starve in the streets, might it not have been simpler to “sell” them for nourishment of other bellies? At least, Swift seems to cry out, they would serve a purpose for having been born in the first place.
It is interesting to note that the very quotation mentioned above should be the one selected by William Makepeace Thackeray while leaving out “fricassee, or”, while, calling it a “pretty joke” argued with “perfect gravity and logic.”
If Jonathan Swift could have lived in a computer age, dissecting children into “sort-of” stews might have been conveniently reduced to mathematics instead of “. . . disobliging England.” Still, 1667-1745 computed a satiric use of imagination much in style with the twentieth century, bringing to mind a successful cartoon: two missionaries half-boiled in an iron pot, with happy natives dancing about, and caption reading: “Heavens, they forgot to say grace!”
If there is humor in Swift’s tale, it borders on the macabre rather than the satiric in which vices, abuses, follies and so forth re held up to scorn, derision or ridicule. For, little is there to ridicule of children being sold like swine. According to Ricardo Quintana . . . who praises Swift’s style . . . he still separates the writer from the written matter in many more ways than one. It is a “humanistic projector” who writes “A Modest Proposal.”
Essentially, Swift is an exhibitionist who unveils bone, lifting flesh. But he is not a maggot — he slaughters fast, and kosher, not like Cromwell who traded Irish lands to secure soldiery. English laws near the end of the seventeenth century virtually ruined the Irish economy. English parliament kept passing laws protecting the English producers by prohibiting the exporting from Ireland into England of all cattle, swine, sheep, and the edible products thereof. Under Elizabeth I, Ireland suffered from other economic abuses. And, in addition to everything, therecame a failure in grain crops, some three years prior to Swift’s “A Modest Proosal.” Consequently, the truths upon which the irony is based, deserve the reader’s full attention. The inhuman proposal thrusts forth a positive exposition of ideas only near the end of his work. Otherwise, the ironic axis of Swift’s essay is left to decipher by the reader.
Generally defined, irony is the difference between what actually is true and what a person either thinks or pretends to think is true. Swift creates a fictive author to be his spokesman whom readers refer to “the Modest Proposer.” One of Swift’s ironic devices is to use his opponent in such an argument as the model for his persona and then to expose the opponent’s position as the character and mind and values of that persona are gradually revealed to the reader. Thus, the Modest Proposer talks for England when he says: “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 and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for preserver of the nation.”
It is Swift’s clever artistry that continues to attract. Louis A. Landa had this to say “. . . A modest proposal is seen to be another protest, in Swift’s unique manner, against the unqualified maxim that people are the riches of a nation. The tract was written for a public in whose consciousness the maxim was firmly implanted, in the expectation that the ironic impact would thus be greater.”
Populousness, however, can only be a blessing to a country where care is taken to keep unemployment under control. And any person who does not fit in economic or political society or is unallowed to function therein makes the nation poorer. There is no evidence that Swift did any extended or systematic reading in economic theory according to the Sales Catalogue reprinted by Harold Williams in Dean Swift’s library (Cambridge, 1932). Where population growth is often encouraged by more liberal immigration laws, counting “that people are the riches of a nation . . . ” Swift with unusual knowledge of or insight into economic matters points out that Ireland was at least one country where populousness was not a virtue.
Swift’s essay was meant to be a “shocker” not only for its satiric value, but the fact that lack of work and overpopulation were treated with total neglect, a state of affairs that perturbed Swift greatly. When he witnessed children left to starve in the streets, he cried out in sarcasm: “. . . why not eat them?” At least they would serve a purpose other than satisfying worms beneath rotting level of upper earth. Thus he mentions “. . . the poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own” taking into consideration that corn and cattle had already been seized and that money was “a thing unknown.”
In its very cool and analytical, distant, unemotional and logical form, the essay makes people shudder . . . and Swift achieves in his effort to make the unthinking man “sit up and listen” to a degree that may make him a good Samaritan, and possibly helping the human race survive.
Yet while Swift himself must have been emotionally involved with getting the message across to his reading audience, he lets the proposer not only underplay his proposal and his arguments to justify the proposal but also underplays his emotions. The horror of this irony hits one even harden when realizing that the proposer, in his naivety, intends his words to be taken literally. Swift’s repetition of key words serves as a hammering-in motif especially where the proposal violates on of the most fundamental of human relations — the child-parent relationship. Adding the suggestion of cannibalism, Swift draws a proposal of such monstrosity that there is hope for a solution to the problem of poverty . . . the main rhetorical strategy in the essay.
There is no denying that Swift’s style does achieve an easy and direct conveyance of meaning — or rather the style he has created for “A Modest Proposal.” And while Swift did not succeed in doing something about the lamentable situation, he did, however, succeed in producing a clever piece of literature in ironical form.
Charles Beaumont among other critics, praises the classical form of the essay itself as an important constituent of Swift’s irony.
Swift regularly undercuts his sentences with fine irony, concluding the whole essay with a subdued minor point which is almost an ironic aside: his reference to the fact that his wife is past child-bearing.
The very fullness of meaning that Swift’s irony suggests saves the tract from the flatness of propaganda; the Modest Proposal implicates more and more of us in his own madness.