The Social Frustrations of Jonathan Swift in “A Modest Proposal”

February 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Eating babies would be the last resort of a country in turmoil. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” outlines the plans of a solution to resolve Ireland’s current deplorable state, which is to eat the children that can’t be supported by their parents. Swift begins by introducing all of the problems of the country, and the specific goals that his plan will achieve. He doesn’t introduce his plan until almost halfway through the text, and after doing so he continues to give reasons and evidence as to why his plan would work. While Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is generally seen as a satire on political legislation, the text also serves as an outlet from which Swift vents many of his frustrations on societal issues in Ireland, such as the dominance of the rich, the liabilities of children, the lowly regard of marriage, and the religious tensions in the country.

In the paragraph where his proposal is revealed, Swift criticizes society by comparing children to animals, and drawing a distinction between the rich and the poor. Swift says that the “savages” of his country do not highly regard marriage, and thus most of the children will be bastards rather than “fruits of marriage” (1115). This is used to justify having just one male “breeder” to serve four females. Swift is criticizing his society’s marital values; he argues that because people tend to play off the importance of marriage and people will sleep with whoever they want, so it is perfectly fine to have one male serve four females in breeding because people are practically already doing that. The recurring theme of comparing children to animals is also prevalent in this passage. Swift says that children practically have the same usefulness as animals, but they are only one step above livestock because his plan still allows more males than breeding with “sheep, black cattle, and swine” (1115). The children, just like animals we eat, are allowed to “suck plentifully” before they are slaughtered to “render them plump and fat for a good table.” Swift then says that the “fore or hind quarter” of these children will make a very “reasonable” dish (1115). This analogy of comparing children to livestock could suggest that Swift thinks the majority of children born in his country are worth no more than farm animals. Another detail in this passage is that Swift says the children will be sold to “persons of quality and fortune” (1115). The children that are being sold are all “children of poor parents,” which is mentioned earlier in the text (1115). Along with the animal analogy, Swift is saying that the rich literally eat up the poor, and this characterization of rich people eating the poor people’s children occurs in other places in this text as well. This plays well into the children as animals analogy because Swift is likely criticizing how the rich upper-class have control over the poor.

In a passage leading up to the actual proposal, Swift spits out some numbers and computation to support his plan. This can be overlooked as simply the logos aspect of Swift’s satire of an argument, but there are underlying critiques of society that Swift mentions in this passage. For one, he flat out states that there cannot be as many children sufficiently supported “under the present distresses of the kingdom” as projected; according to Swift, only thirty thousand out of two hundred thousand couples have the means to support their children (1115). Swift says that one-fourth of the fertile women will “miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year” (1115). These statements are straightforward and simple; it is clear that there is a major issue with childbirth in Ireland. Swift brings up the issue that the vast majority of people who have children aren’t able to support these kids, while many don’t even get the chance because of children dying early. Swift conveys the idea that people who shouldn’t be having kids are having kids, and this is worsened by the state of the country.

Swift continues this passage by posing a question about the usefulness of children. He mentions that perhaps the only way that children can make a living is by stealing, which is not very morally just. Swift says that children can’t be employed in “handicraft or agriculture,” and “very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing” (1115). Because he even mentions making a living off of being a thief, Swift asserts that there is a problem with thieves, and the problem may be that there is no other feasible way to make a living. He elaborates on the topic of stealing, saying that only children above the age of six can become proficient thieves, although these children “learn the rudiments much earlier.” He continues by saying that it is unlikely that children under six can be proficient thieves, “even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art” (1115). Swift describes robbery as if it were a respectable skill, characterizing it as an “art” with “rudiments.” It seems clear that Swift and other people of country are far too familiar with robbery; he acknowledges it as a way to make of living, and just like any other career, the workers must learn the skills necessary for the job.

Phrases from the text suggest that Jonathan Swift was in the middle to lower class seeing the tyranny of the rich. Swift brings up the idea of the rich eating up the poor in one passage. He says that baby meat is “very dear for landlords” because they have already “devoured most of the children,” so the landowners should “have the best title to the children” (1116). The problem that Swift is pointing out is that landlords and the upper-class have all the power, while the tenants and lower-class may as well give up their children to the landlords because they have nothing else to lose. Swift is likely not upper-class because he criticizes landowners and wealthy people plenty of times in this text, so it seems that Swift is of a lower social standing and he sees the struggles of dealing with oppression by the rich.

Swift also seems to be an Anglican, worried about the Catholic presence causing religiou turmoil in Ireland. Later on in the same passage, Swift introduces and addresses the Catholic problem in the country. He never directly says that Roman Catholics are bad, but he does mention that an unnamed French acquaintance has informed him that, in a Catholic country, “a year after Lent, the markets [for babies] will be more glutted than usual” (1116). Swift claims this as a win-win situation because while there will be more baby meat available for sale, these babies are all papists. Swift seems to have a distaste for Irish Catholics, as he suggests that it’s a good thing his plan has an added benefit of lowering the popish population. This passage addresses Swift’s concerns with the religious tensions in the country, and he may be scared that the Catholics would overtake the country because he states that “the number of popish infants is at least three to one in this kingdom” (1116). Swift later reiterates on this point, saying that the papists are overrunning the country because they are the “principal breeders of the nation,” but they are also “our most dangerous enemies” (1117). The other major religion in Ireland was with the Anglican Church, and Swift’s suggestion of eating the Catholics shows that he is likely an Anglican that views the Catholics as a threat. The array of people that Swift belongs to—middle class Anglicans—seem to face challenges with other people of the country—the rich and the Catholics,—and Swift highlights some of these issues of society in “A Modest Proposal.”

At the end of the list of benefits from this proposal, Swift says that his plan will “be a great inducement for marriage” (1117). Swift mentioned earlier that the people of Ireland don’t value marriage very highly, so this plays into a possible solution for that. Ironically, Swift claims that women would “increase care and tenderness” towards their children when selling them for food rather than raising them. Swift is pointing out the stinginess of these people; they will work harder if there is a monetary gain rather than deep gratification. The problem that Swift identifies is that, to the Irish, children are simply an just an expense. Swift brings up the theme of children being animals again later in this passage. He says that mothers will see who can bring the “fattest child to the market,” and fathers will become “as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, their sows when they are ready to farrow” (1117). Swift says that parents will treat their child like livestock, but another problem Swift identifies here is within marriage. He implies that fathers are more fond of their livestock than they are of pregnant mothers, and beating and kicking mothers “is too frequent a practice” (1117). Swift explains how the Irish clearly don’t have good marital practices, and mothers are treated worse than animals; this idea elaborates on how stingy and money hungry the Irish people are.

On the surface, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” seems like a satirical play on government proposals and legislation, although there are subtle passages and phrases that Swift weaves in the text which display Swift’s discontent and his critical judgement of society. Although several issues are directly stated, such as husbands beating wives, other issues are not so straightforwardly proclaimed, such as the all to frequent thievery. “A Modest Proposal” isn’t simply a story about the merits of baby meat, but also an outline of the frustrations and social issues that Jonathan Swift sees in his country.

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