Disentangling Irony in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

Jonathan Swift’s most famous Juvenalian satire published in 1729, is a brutal acerbic bit of irony that addresses an enduring problem and offers an extreme conclusion in order to highlight the bankrupt dereliction of English governance. “A Modest Proposal” as a little pamphlet is frank and propositional in tone, while the irony is directed squarely at English ruling class and their dismissive attitudes toward the Irish. Because it draws swords with the ruling class, it is therefore a courageous text. The first section of the essay concerns the hapless plight of the poor in Ireland –mothers without homes, beggarly children, hungry people without employment prospects. Then the anonymous author of this little essay (Jonathan Swift was known to publish his pamphlets anonymously) suggests a viable solution for consideration: a solution which he hopes will not be liable to the least objection:

“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 Ragoust.”

In the tradition of cold and unforgiving utilitarianism, the anonymous author suggests that Irish children could be grown, prepared, and cooked for mass consumption like cattle. The pamphlet offers a deliberately dehumanizing idea which esoterically points to the cruel, careless attitudes of elites like Francis Bacon toward the plight of the Irish (in fact, the idea for the essay came to Swift when a friend referenced the English view of the Irish as little more than a cohort of cannibals). The pamphlet further calculates the gross number of children being born in Ireland and how many could be prepared for food, versus how many might be kept aside for further “breeding.” Indeed he refers to Irish women as mere Breeders. He speaks of humans like mere commodities on a production line.

This shocking document proposes a variety of benefits to society: to greatly lessen the number of Papists (satisfying the Anglicans), it will offer something of value to poor tenants, it will make child-bearing a profitable enterprise. “Breeders” will no longer bear the burden of raising children past infancy, food will serve the economic prospects of taverns and butchers alike, it will be a boon to marriage prospects and mothers as men will grow pleased with their pregnant wives like “Mares in Foal, their Cows in Calf, or Sows when they are ready to farrow.”

The irony of “A Modest Proposal” is that Swift, like Socrates before him, feigns a certain gentlemanly disposition of erudite honesty while subtly and seemingly or unwittingly exposing his opponents’ foolishness. He takes utilitarianism to its extreme conclusion –if the Irish are mere bestial cannibals perhaps their impoverished children can at least serve the broader economic interests of the state? In some ways, it seems we have not managed to escape Swift’s blistering critique in “A Modest Proposal.”

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition (paperback) of Jonathan Swift’s Essential Writings.

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