Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” bears the challenge of establishing a profoundly sincere tone for a not-so-modest solution towards Ireland’s problems of poverty and over-population: simultaneously reducing population and increasing food supply by killing and eating newborns. The thought that cannibalism could ever act as a positive force for humanity would never be taken seriously, but Swift (of course) assumes a genuine voice within his satire. However, Swift must breach a fairly large gap in logic while persuading his reader that his objective is to aid humankind through human slaughter, making a linguistic transition between condemning infanticide to proposing a variety of dishes with human baby as the main ingredient. This he does by gradually stripping people of human qualities, first by reducing a population to numbers, speaking casually of projected miscarriages and child deaths, then in the following paragraph referring to children as “saleable commodities” which apparently yield little on the exchange, then finally, most useful as food items:
There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, 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, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.
The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers: As I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.
I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value…
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 in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”
1. Is Swift’s advocacy of cannibalism consistent with his condemnation of infanticide? Does this transition hinder or aid the effect of satire?
2. Swift reduces humanity to laborers, breeders, and commodities with monetary worth, yet does he include himself within this dehumanization?
3. Why does Swift propose theft as a viable occupation, and what does that contribute to his satire?
4. Only once in this passage does Swift specify that he writes specifically about the children of the poor, a fact which results in an entirely different socioeconomic reading of the essay. What effect does this subtlety have on the first and subsequent readings?
Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal."
Last modified 31 January 2011