I first read “A Modest Proposal” in high school. At the time, I thought it was absolutely hilarious, and I didn’t read too much into it. Reading it now with a more mature mindset, even though the paper is satirical, I can see past the humor to understand the desperation and fragility that the paper tries to convey. The opening sentences of the paper set a tone: a starving population in a cold, poor setting—even settings that hadn’t been poor prior to the famine.
My initial thoughts to this paper is pity, what Jonathon Swift is asking for is not absurd or obscene. He wants to genuinely help people. As you read further into the paper, it begins to take a more impractical approach, giving examples of how to cook the children, how much they would cost, and eventually in the end even telling the reader that Swift himself has no intentions of participating in what he has proposed. This is at the point of the work when it begins to turn from a true “modest proposal” to one that is ludicrous and abhorrent.
The paper begins without a proper backdrop, but a brief Google search will tell you that “A Modest Proposal” was written in 1729, which was eleven years before an Irish famine in 1740 which killed thirteen to twenty percent of the population due to lack of grain harvest, milk production, and damage to potatoes. It was also written sixteen years before the Great Potato Famine of Ireland, which killed another million people within the country.
So one might ask, why was “A Modest Proposal” written if there was nothing truly terrible happening, and wouldn’t happen for another eleven to sixteen years? David Cody, an associate Professor of English at Hartwick College, wrote an introductory analysis about the paper in which he spoke about a much different Ireland than the one we know today. He paints a picture of this broken country: one where Ireland isn’t even a country, but a colony of Britain, in which it was “politically, militarily, and economically dependent upon England.” (Cody) This was a land that is kept passive in order for England to keep control over their lands, especially in a time where the thirteen colonies of the New World weren’t being kept well under control. Ireland was a poor country, overpopulated, with famines and heavy taxes and no say in politics.
This is the Ireland Jonathan Swift returned to after spending years in England and ending up exiled to the colony after Queen Anne took a strong disliking to his previously written works. Swift made a name for himself in England by writing genuine proposals to a government that didn’t share his beliefs in politics.
Although the exact motives of Swift’s writing are impossible to truly know, many believe that these factors led to the writing of “A Modest Proposal” which is in itself, a satire of Swift’s previous works and an analytical perspective of the way England exploited the Irish. The essay started a discussion in which many asked why England wasn’t caring for Ireland like they cared for America—and for God’s sake, why are they eating babies?
What could be construed as the most appalling part of the essay is how the discussion of cannibalism seems to be portrayed as synonymous with normalcy. It’s normal to eat a child, Swift claims. This is how a child will be cooked, how much it will be sold for, where it will be taken for the slaughter. Swift discusses preparing children for meals as you would prepping a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. He talks about entertaining guests and still having leftovers—enough to just have to use salt and pepper to season the leftover remains on the fourth day. There is even a paragraph in the work that discusses how to use the skin for gloves and boots.
Swift also spends time talking about how this practice is beneficial for women, who he refers to as “breeders.” He states that for the first time, poor women will have something valuable to take care of—a newborn child and the future food of the richer who could afford it. He mentions a world almost unheard of during the time period, where women are able to bring in their own income and not just rely on their husbands. A working woman will fight with other women to make sure their child is the fattest on the market, and the older children (the ones that are kept) will be more loved by their mothers. Swift goes on to include that husbands wouldn’t beat their wives as much, since they would be carrying precious cargo and they wouldn’t want to risk a miscarriage.
Cannibalism is not a new concept, nor was it new at the time of “A Modest Proposal’s” writing. The word was coined in the 17th century after the Island Carib people, when they recorded their legends of eating the flesh of their own people. Cannibalism was practiced in New Guinea, Fiji, to even the Maori people of New Zealand. Neanderthals were also believed to practice cannibalism, and they are thought to have been eaten by modern humans. Cannibalism has also been practiced as a sort of “last resort”, such as proposed in the essay, in times of famine—the Donner Party was reported to have participated in cannibalism. The practice of eating human flesh had not been unheard of, but was definitely surrounded in controversy.
So for a paper to politely suggest cannibalism, especially a paper written by a noble man such as Swift himself, it was quite obvious to be passed off as satire, and the emotions provoked throughout the essay could range from humor, to anger, to disbelief. It could possibly be portrayed as a serious work, if given to the right audience by the right performer. But the words used by Swift are never written in an absolute satirical manner—they are written seriously, and it’s the inappropriateness of the subject that gives it away.
In conclusion, “A Modest Proposal” does a fantastic job at evoking emotions of not only absurdity but uncertainty. Was Swift genuinely proposing to eat the children of the poor in order to survive the famines? Did those who initially read the essay pass it off as satire simply because of the subject of the paper? Or did he truly and elaborately pull off one of the greatest satirical essays of all time? It’s a question we might long ask ourselves, or maybe we can just eat babies and see if it works.