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Swift’s Modest Proposal

Historical Events that Characterize the Period

In the 18th century, Ireland was in economic ruin. Swift, in the “Modest Proposal,” recognized this reality, with the following observation: “it is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town (Dublin)…when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of female sex, followed by three, four or six children in rags (Swift 287).” At the time, the Irish peasantry was living in dire conditions. In the 1720s, the peasantry was suffering from hunger and famine due to poor harvest, while the wealthy were overexploiting the peasantry, further contributing to their destitution (Phiddian 73). The mercantilist theory that informed policies in Great Britain at the time held that colonies should be governed purely to further the interests of the colonial masters. Britain, the colonial master of Ireland, had implemented a range of restrictions on the Irish economy, with the goal of protecting English Agriculture and trade (Phiddian 73). These restrictions included trade restrictions, which meant that Ireland could not be able to trade with other European nations, with England banning the export of animals and animal products to other European countries. At the time, Ireland was a major exporter of wool, which meant that the restrictions effectively crippled the economy (Phiddian 73). The resultant event is that the peasants in Ireland were destitute and poor.

In the Modest Proposal, Swift recognizes the dire economic conditions at the time and suggests that the only way Ireland would solve its economic problems is by allowing the rich to consume the children of the poor. Such a move would not only reduce the number of children in the streets but would also provide reprieve for the poor women who were begging in the streets of Dublin. However, Swift intention was to point out the selfishness of the rich and leaders and relies on irony and satire to point out the failures of existing policies and exploitation of the poor. The goal was to ridicule the heartless attitude towards the poor and the policies that the British policies had made the economic situation in Ireland worse.

Theme or Stylistic Characteristic from the Period

The Enlightenment era was characterized by writings that valued reason and fact due to largely the rise of scientific knowledge. During the era, there was an epidemiological shift, which gave way to the rise of new forms of discourses that were based on reason and facts (Prendergast 3). These discourses had a significant influence on the use of writing genres, which were critical to the author success in the booming literary market. Some of the genres that thrived at the time included scientific writing, historiography, journalism and travel writing. These new discourses produced the impression, authenticity, truthfulness, and facticity through the use of scientific methods, reportage language, reason, objectivity, verisimilitude, measurements, geometry and statistics (Prendergast 3). For the contemporary readers at the time, these discourses created the perception of the emergence of a society that valued reality, fact and truth. Swift, in the Modest Proposal, inverts this relationship by relying on satire and irony to point out the failures of the aristocracy in Ireland and Britain. The satiric prose that he uses inverts, entwines, and entangles the linguistic codes of the time, and juxtaposes reality with fantasy, and makes truth far stranger than fiction. In this way, he subverts the common thinking of the time, that satire, while uncommon at the time, could be replaced by the scientific method that arose in the Enlightenment era.

Contributions to Humanity

Swift, in ‘Modest Proposal’, shows that satire can be used reliably to point out the ills in society. His ability to use satire and irony to point out how aristocrats contribute to the suffering of the poor and the peasantry points out the power of satire in raising concerns about the welfare of the poor and destitute. Importantly, Swift’s parodic and satirical art brings into focus the blindness of the social and political arithmetic. It provides a way of deconstructing dishonest claims, allowing people to reconsider and test their own standards. While the Modest Proposal does show how satire can deconstruct half-truths, it also provides an avenue for focusing on what is considered invisible in society. Perhaps, Swift’s most important contribution to society is that artists should be able to recognize the ills of society and use artistic forms of writing to point out those ills.

Works Cited

Phiddian, Robert. “Political arithmetick: Accounting for irony in Swift’s A Modest Proposal.” Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal vol. 9, no. 5, 1996, pp. 71-83.

Prendergast, Harriet. “Subversion of enlightenment discourse in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.” Master’s Thesis. 2021.

Swift, Jonathan. “A modest proposal.” Swift, Jonathan. The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift, D.D., Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin, Volume 9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1801. 287. Print.


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