The sociological description of Ireland in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

Miguel Ángel Benítez Castro


The sociological description of Ireland in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”
This essay intends to provide an analysis of the main sociological aspects found in one of the most satirical works that has ever been written: A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift. In order to achieve this purpose, first of all I will briefly comment on the reasons that led Jonathan Swift to write this pamphlet. Then, I will present a detailed analysis of the proposal, paying especial attention to Swift’s treatment of a series of sociological issues affecting 18th-century Ireland (working conditions, husbands and wives, children, poverty...). Finally, I will draw some conclusions on the attitude adopted by Swift in a Modest Proposal, and I will try to reflect on the relevance of this pamphlet to our modern society. In his early pamphlets, Jonathan Swift provided several down-to-earth ‘solutions’ to the difficult social and economic conditions endured by Ireland’s population in the eighteenth century. He thought that by realistic proposals, such as the boycott of English imports, he would trigger off a ‘wave’ of social concern which would eventually urge England to remedy Ireland’s poverty and deprivation. His effort, however, was in vain, for neither England nor Ireland seemed to be really willing to take measures to improve the standards of living of the Irish population (especially of the Catholic population). It was then that Swift decided to make a proposal that would stir the conscience of any right-minded person: “a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food” (p.2475). The proposal offered here may result strange and shocking, but we must bear in mind that obviously Swift was not in earnest when he suggested using children as a contribution “to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands” (p.2474); he was using irony and satire as a way of denouncing the situation lived in Ireland during the 18th century. When we start reading the proposal, we find a rather objective account of the plight of the Irish population. Therefore, in these first paragraphs the reader is inclined to think that the proposal is going to be a serious one. Nevertheless, when the “proposer” starts calculating the number of “children of poor parents annually born” (p.2474) in Ireland, the reader becomes somewhat suspicious of the strange and unusual detachment which Swift is employing. It is at this point that the proposal takes on its mask of ‘monstrous’ benevolence, by “humbly” offering a hideous ‘solution’ from which all the social classes would benefit. Taking this into account, it seems that A Modest Proposal is structured around two ‘narrators’: Swift himself and the “proposer”. We can perceive Swift’s ‘presence’ both in the initial realistic and compassionate portrait of the families of beggars in Ireland (“It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town...”- p.2473), and in the final remarks justifying the ‘effectiveness’ of such a ‘modest’ proposal, as opposed to all the other realistic and common sense proposals, which he had provided in his previous works, but which noone seemed to have put into practice (“Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, till he hath at least some glimpse of hope that there will be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them in practice”: p.2478).It is through the “proposer” that Swift takes full advantage of irony and satire. The depersonalizing vocabulary which we come across as we read through the pamphlet’s pages, reducing human beings to economic commodities (“a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no


salable commodity”- p.2475), and even, to animals (“swine’s flesh...which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well-grown, fat, yearling child...” .p.2478) show a cold-blooded and even ‘blood-curdling’ rationality which Swift needed to use in order to make the British and the Irish authorities aware of the ordeal of the Irish population. Swift could have written an essay in which he showed his opinion straightforwardly (‘England is destroying our country!, people are dying in millions, and nobody is doing anything about it!), but, had he done so, he would have been ‘prosecuted’ by the British authorities. Consequently, he could only present these ideas by using an ‘apparently’ objective and detached language, from which the reader must deduce a strong attack on the ineptitude of the Irish and English politicians at creating a minimal prosperity in Ireland. As the title of the proposal states, Swift devotes this pamphlet mainly to the search for a solution “preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country” (p.2473). The social situation was so difficult that begging was one of the only ways many people could find to make a living in 18th century Ireland. The streets were full of mothers begging “sustenance” for their children ,who, deprived of the right to receive an education, were forced to follow their mothers in their ‘nightmarish’ occupation. As one might expect, these children would not have what we may call ‘a promising future’, for they would be sold as slaves, become thieves, or leave Ireland to fight in favor of Catholicism in other European countries (“leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain”: p.2474). The author considers that this “prodigious number of children” (p.2474) is a ‘burden’ which Ireland, a poor country, cannot afford to ‘bear’. The necessity of finding a solution to this social problem is presented in the second paragraph of the text. It is here that Swift states that this solution must be not only “fair” and “easy”, but also “cheap” (p.2474). For this reason, the reader can easily understand that the rest of the pamphlet will be approached from an economic point of view. Swift is dealing with economy because, according to him, people must be useful to society, and as a consequence, to the economy of the whole country. The author’s own “intention”, he says, goes even further than providing for these children of “professed beggars” (p.2474); his proposal includes in its scope all children whose parents, though they have not yet become beggars, are too poor to support them. The solution the “proposer” sets forth in order to tackle the increasing birth rate among the impoverished population of Ireland (most of whom were Catholics) consists in selling one-year old children as a contribution to the “feeding” and “clothing” of the Irish population (p.2474). The author argues that after the first year of life, it is extremely difficult for all those poor families to provide for the sustenance of their children without recourse to begging or stealing; so, according to the author, this ‘modest’ proposal will release all those parents from having to face the potential costs involved in the upbringing of their children, as a result improving their standards of living and contributing to the welfare of the Irish nation. One of the main aims underlying this ‘ironic’ and ‘satirical’ proposal is to denounce a situation which, unfortunately, was too common in those days: child abuse. It is evident that these children had no ‘childhood’, as we may understand it nowadays, for instead of going to school and playing, many children were forced either to work or beg in order to contribute to the ‘deteriorated economy’ of their families (“for we can


neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses nor cultivate land”: p.2474)1. The reader’s outrage increases when he/she discovers that sometimes children were also sold as slaves (“...sell themselves to the Barbadoes”: p.2474). Consequently, it is quite obvious that these children were completely deprived of their human rights, for they were not treated as human beings, but almost as “salable commodities” (p.2475) and animals. As we all know, this situation is a direct consequence of the penury to which the lives of most of the Irish population was reduced. One of Ireland’s recurrent famines was then in progress and poor people were dying in large numbers:
Some people of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people who are aged, diseased, or maimed ... But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. (p. 2477)

The tone adopted by Swift in this passage is that of an upper-class man who does not feel any compassion towards his poor fellow-citizens. Nonetheless, I think that Swift is here ‘putting on’ his ‘satirical and detached mask’, as a way of expressing his concern about the excruciating poverty experienced in Ireland at that time. As is often the case in underdeveloped countries, the poorer people are, the more children they have, and if, besides being poor, the parents are “diseased” or “maimed”, then the less likely these children are to survive. For this reason, many women decided to abort their babies or kill them once they had been born. Swift condemns these killings as a “horrid practice” (p.2474), and he ironically states that his “proposal” will reduce their occurrence. If children’s flesh is accepted by the upper-class society as “a most delicious food” (p.2474), then a new ‘market’ will be established, thanks to which poor families will earn some money which will help them get by. Hence, this economic proposal will be beneficial both to the poorer families, who, by selling their children, “will have something valuable of their own” (p.2477), and to “all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom” (p.2477), who will be delighted by the introduction of a new dish. The mercantilistic and economic approach adopted by Swift in his Modest Proposal could be characterized as both appalling and ‘depersonalized’, in the sense that he likens human beings to livestock. One of the greatest advantages of this proposal is that it will be a “great inducement to marriage” (p.2477); so, it appears that people will not get married for love, but for a purely economic reason (the more children they procreate, the more money they earn). The “proposer” treats women as “breeders”2 (p.2475-76), and as such, their role in the ‘construction’ of the economic welfare of the Irish nation is more important than that of men; for this reason, the ‘monstrous’ proposer says that “one male will be sufficient to serve four females” (p.2475), and then he adds that “this is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine” (p.2475). Swift’s remarks regarding husbands and wives clearly point to the social degradation and discrimination women had to undergo in 18th century Ireland. When Swift says that “Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they

The fact that Swift mentions several jobs in which these children could not be employed makes us think quite the opposite, that is, that this is what really happened at that time. 2 ‘Someone who keeps animals for the purpose of producing young animals in a controlled way’.


are now of their mares in foal...” (p.2477), perhaps, striking though it may be, he means that men treated their mares better than their wives. This assumption is confirmed a couple of lines later, when Swift says : “...nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of miscarriage” (p.2478); women, therefore, were often ill-treated by their husbands (even while they were pregnant). Another important advantage of the proposal is that it will “greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies...”(p.2477). This is one of the passages in which Swift’s Protestant ideology stands out. Swift’s struggle to make of Ireland an economically prosperous country was thwarted by his hatred against the Roman Catholics, whom he regarded as “our savages” (p.2475). Swift thought that the Irish Catholics regarded marriage and family with so little ‘sanctity’ that they themselves were like the animals which they bred (they had many children). The proposal, thus, will help to make the great amount of Catholic children who were born every year ‘beneficial to the public’. Consequently, the starving Catholic population would be fattened up in order to feed the upper-class Protestants. Despite his animosity towards the Catholics, Swift vents most of his anger on England, a country “which would be glad to eat up our whole nation...” (p.2479). Hence, we could say that Swift blames both England and the Irish Catholics for the miserable state of the Irish nation. Last but not least, I would like to comment on the working conditions of the time, as reflected in A Modest Proposal. Throughout the eighteenth century, England had literally ‘looted’ Ireland; English trade with Ireland supplied England and the British Navy with everything they needed in their colonial ‘adventure’ in the West Indies. Since most of Ireland’s resources had been used up, working opportunities were very reduced, for they could “neither build houses nor cultivate land” (p.2474). Not finding any honest way to make a living, most people had to resort to begging or stealing. The situation was even more despairing for those people who, besides being poor, were also ill, for they would “rot by cold and famine, and filth and vermin” (p.2474). To sum up this essay, I would like to remark once again that the only way Jonathan Swift could find to denounce the social and economic deprivation in 18th– century Ireland was by means of irony and satire. A Modest Proposal was a last effort to shock people into attention to an immediate evil. The situation which Swift condemns in his Proposal is not at all unfamiliar to the modern reader, since millions of people nowadays still die of famine and ‘minor’ illnesses (e.g. flu). The streets of some modern underdeveloped countries are as crowded with beggars as those of 18th century Ireland. Even cannibalism is not so alien to us as it could be to an 18th century reader, for, regretfully, the twentieth century showed us the extent to which the limits of humanity can be surpassed (e.g. Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin...)