Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Swift's A Modest Proposal. Notes

Swift's opening paragraph offers a starkly realistic, although compassionate, portrait of families of beggars in Ireland. The first sentence gives a fairly straightforward and un-ironic description, but by the second sentence the author begins to offer judgments and explanations about this rampant beggary: the mothers are unable to work, and have been "forced" into their current poverty and disgrace. Swift's language here reverses the prevailing sentiment of his day, which held that if beggars were poor, it was their own fault. The reader is unsure at this point whether to take Swift's professed compassion for the beggars as earnest or ironic. The issue never becomes completely clear. In this passage, and in the tract as a whole, he tends not to choose sides; his stance is one of general exasperation with all parties in a complex problem. Swift is generous with his disdain, and his irony works both to censure the poor and to critique the society that enables their poverty. The remark about Irish Catholics who go to Spain to fight for the Pretender offers a good example of the complexity of Swift's judgments: he is commenting on a woeful lack of national loyalty among the Irish, and at the same time critiquing a nation that drives its own citizens to mercenary activity. He makes a similar stab at national policies and priorities with the aside that takes for granted that poor Irish children will not find employment, since "we neither build Houses,...nor cultivate Land."

The reader is inclined at first to identify with the "proposer," in part because Swift has given no reason, at this point, not to. His compassion in the first paragraph, the matter-of-fact tone of the second, his seeming objectivity in weighing other proposals, and his moral outrage at the frequency of abortion and infanticide--these characteristics all speak out in his favor as a potential reformer. Yet the depersonalizing vocabulary with which he embarks on his computations is calculated to give us pause. He describes a newborn child as "just drooped from its Dam" and identifies women as "Breeders." Against this language the word "souls" (which ought to make sense as a way of talking about hapless human beings) takes on a wry tone when applied to Ireland's now strictly statistical population. This language offers an early indication of the way the author's proposal reduces human beings alternately to statistical entities, to economic commodities, and to animals.

It becomes clear fairly quickly that this will be an economic argument, although the proposal will have moral, religious, political, and nationalistic implications. Despite his own moral indignation, when the author suggests that most abortions are occasioned by financial rather than moral considerations, he assumes that people's motivations are basically materialistic. This is not, of course, Swift's own assumption; he presents a shockingly extreme case of cold-blooded "rationality" in order to make his readers reexamine their own priorities. Swift parodies the style of the pseudo-scientific proposals for social engineering that were so popular in his day. His piece is partly an attack on the economic utilitarianism that drove so many of these proposals. Although Swift was himself an astute economist, here he draws attention to the incongruity between a ruthless (though impeccably systematic) logic and a complexly human social and political reality. Part of the effect will be to make the reader feel that the argument is bad, without knowing quite where to intervene--to pit moral judgment against other, more rigidly logical kinds of argumentation.


The irony of Swift's piece turns on the assumption that his audience, regardless of their national or religious affiliations or their socioeconomic status, will all agree to the fact that eating children is morally reprehensible. The reader registers a shock at this point in the proposal and recognizes that a literal reading of Swift's pamphlet will not do. Swift is clearly not suggesting that the people of Ireland actually eat their children, and so the task becomes one of identifying his actual argument. This involves separating the persona of the "proposer" from Swift himself. The former is clearly a caricature; his values are deplorable, but despite his cold rationality and his self-righteousness, he is not morally indifferent. Rather, he seems to have a single, glaring blind spot regarding the reprehensible act of eating children, but he is perfectly ready to make judgments about the incidental moral benefits and consequences of his proposal. The proposer himself is not the main target of Swift's angry satire, though he becomes the vehicle for some biting parodies on methods of social thought.

The proposal draws attention to the self-degradation of the nation as a whole by illustrating it in shockingly literal ways. The idea of fattening up a starving population in order to feed the rich casts a grim judgment on the nature of social relations in Ireland. The language that likens people to livestock becomes even more prevalent in this part of the proposal. The breeding metaphor underscores the economic pragmatism that underlies the idea. It also works to frame a critique of the domestic values in Irish Catholic families, who regard marriage and family with so little sanctity that they effectively make breeding animals of themselves. Swift draws on the long-standing perception among the English and the Anglo-Irish ruling classes of the Irish as a barbaric people. Swift neither confirms nor negates this assumption altogether. He indicts the Irish Catholics for the extent to which they dehumanize themselves through their baseness and lack of self-respect. He also, however, admonishes those who would accuse the poor for their inhumane lack of compassion. And, he critiques the barbarism of a mode of social thought that takes economic profitability as its sole standard.

With the introduction of the idea of cannibalism, a number of associated insinuations come into play. Swift cultivates an analogy between eating people and other ways in which people, or a nation, can be devoured. The British oppression amounts to a kind of voracious consumption of all things Irish--humans devouring humans in a cannibalism of injustice and inhumanity. But Ireland's complicity in its own oppression translates the guilt of cannibalism to a narrower national scale; this is not just humans being cruel to other humans, but a nation consuming itself and its own resources. Swift's aside about the fact that wealthy Irish landlords have already "devoured" most of the poor parents voices a protest against their exploitation of the peasants.

One of Swift's techniques is to let abstract ideas resonate in multiple ways. The word "profit," for example, refers at various points to economics, morality, and personal indulgence. When Swift looks at who stands to profit from the sale of infant flesh, he includes not only the family that earns the eight shillings, but also the landowner who will earn a certain social status by serving such a delicacy, and the nation that will obtain relief from some of its most pressing problems. In this way, Swift keeps reminding his reader of the different value systems that bear on Ireland's social and political problems.


The author identifies himself as a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, who were predominantly Anglican. His picture of embattled Anglicans forced to leave the country is an ironic one, however. Swift is denouncing the practice of absenteeism among Irish landlords, who often governed their estates from abroad, thus funneling all the fruits of Irish peasant labor out of the Irish economy andinto the English coffers. The proposer's allegiance is to the interests of the wealthy, and it is at the upper classes that Swift aims his sharpest barbs. Swift's contempt for the irresponsibility, greed, and moral indifference of the wealthy is matched only by his disgust at the utter failure of Ireland's political leaders. Swift begins moving away from the faux-economics of child-breeding in order to hone in on the realities of Ireland's economic crisis. Many of the arguments the proposer advances here have to do with the very real problem of building a viable Irish national economy. Swift reveals that his objection is not so much with the basic mercantilist idea that the people are the most valuable resources of a nation, but rather with Ireland's failure to value that resource in any meaningful and nationally constructive way.

Swift also elaborates on his critique of domestic mores among the Irish poor. The fact that they need an economic inducement to marry, to love their children and spouses, and to refrain from domestic violence are obvious strikes against them--although probably against the bigotry of the proposer as well since, for Swift, there are multiple sides to every story.


The author's account of his long and exhausting years of wrestling with Ireland's problems might be taken as Swift's own. His catalogue of supposedly unrealistic alternative solutions marks a turning point in the pamphlet and a break in the satire. The ideas the proposer rejects represent measures that Swift himself had spent a great deal of energy advocating, to exasperatingly little effect. They are a set of steps by which the Irish might hope to break out of their cycle of victimization without the need for England's cooperation. Swift's is a program of civic-minded, patriotic, and principled behavior designed to effect change from the inside. The audience is confronted with the fact that there are real and practicable solutions to Ireland's national discomposure, in which they themselves, in their greed and self-indulgence, are culpable.

In emphasizing that this remedy is designed only for Ireland, Swift is calling attention to the extremity of his country's backwardness, as an index of how bad things have gotten. The author's statement that much of the population would have been better off dead is exaggerated, perhaps, but not ironic; it is meant as testimony to the dire national consequences of such rampant civic neglect. Only in Ireland, he seems to say, could a policy of cannibalism possibly be considered a social improvement.

The author's closing statement offers a last scathing indictment of the ethic of convenience and personal gain. We are urged to believe in his disinterestedness not because of his moral standards or his high-mindedness, but because he happens not to be susceptible to the particular fiscal temptation that might compromise his position. The manner of his assertion here reminds us that the author's unquestioned assumption throughout the entire proposal is that anyone with children would in fact be perfectly willing to sell them. This declaration also undercuts, once again, the separation between the level-headed, wealthy, Protestant author and the Catholic masses. What unites the unruly and unscrupulous mob with the social planner is the fact that their priorities are basically economic.





In A Modest Proposal, Swift vents his mounting aggravation at the ineptitude of Ireland's politicians, the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the tyranny of the English, and the squalor and degradation in which he sees so many Irish people living. While A Modest Proposal bemoans the bleak situation of an Ireland almost totally subject to England's exploitation, it also expresses Swift's utter disgust at the Irish people's seeming inability to mobilize on their own behalf. Without excusing any party, the essay shows that not only the English but also the Irish themselves--and not only the Irish politicians but also the masses--are responsible for the nation's lamentable state. His compassion for the misery of the Irish people is a severe one, and he includes a critique of their incompetence in dealing with their own problems.

Political pamphleteering was a fashionable pastime in Swift's day, which saw vast numbers of tracts and essays advancing political opinions and proposing remedies for Ireland's economic and social ills. Swift's tract parodies the style and method of these, and the grim irony of his own solution reveals his personal despair at the failure of all this paper journalism to achieve any actual progress. His piece protests the utter inefficacy of Irish political leadership, and it also attacks the orientation of so many contemporary reformers toward economic utilitarianism. While Swift himself was an astute economic thinker, he often expressed contempt for the application of supposedly scientific management ideas to humanitarian concerns.

The main rhetorical challenge of this bitingly ironic essay is capturing the attention of an audience whose indifference has been well tested. Swift makes his point negatively, stringing together an appalling set of morally untenable positions in order to cast blame and aspersions far and wide. The essay progresses through a series of surprises that first shocks the reader and then causes her to think critically not only about policies, but also about motivations and values.




24/03/2011
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