Swift's persona highlights the economic inequality in Ireland and England with “A Modest Proposal.” In the beginning of the essay, he expresses great sympathy for the beggars of Ireland, describing their destitution in detail. His solution of eating babies applies primarily to the babies of the poor; the title of the piece states that this is a proposal for making the “children of poor people” ultimately “beneficial to the public.” The writer suggests that the landlords ought to eat the babies, as they have already “devoured” their parents. The writer here is implying that the rich metaphorically “devour” the poor, achieving success largely at the expense of the lower classes. The writer states in his final paragraph that his intention is not only to “relieve the poor” but also to “give pleasure to the rich.” Swift’s other satires, too, mock the rich. “An Argument Against the Abolishing of Christianity,” for example, is narrated by a somewhat foppish narrator in order to expose the frivolities of the wealthy.
Cultural Arrogance and Colonialism
The narrator of “A Modest Proposal” is English, but he is making prescriptions for the Irish. With this structure, Swift reveals the cultural arrogance of the English and the political subjugation felt by the Irish. Swift mocks the view of the English as civilized and the Irish as an uncivilized “barbaric” or “savage” people. Rumors had been circulating in the eighteenth century about cannibalism among such “inferior” groups as the Irish and Native Americans. Claims like these were used to support England’s right to rule over these peoples and colonize new territories. Swift has an American suggest cannibalism in "A Modest Proposal," as Americans (especially Native Americans) were seen as a savage, culturally inferior group compared to the English.
Almost every satirical work in this collection deals with the matter of religious excess in some form, especially A Tale of a Tub and “A True and Faithful Narrative.” A Tale of a Tub portrays three brothers, who represent the three branches of Western Christianity, as all naturally licentious and without true religious conviction, having only outward appearances of conviction. “A Faithful Narrative,” too, portrays a largely sinful town thrown into displays of repentance when the people believe a comet is coming. “A Modest Proposal” mocks anti-Catholic religious prejudice, as the narrator calls the Irish babies “papists" because they are Catholic.
Satire of Literary Style
Swift’s satires do not merely comment upon certain political, social, or religious beliefs; they are also commentary about how those beliefs are expressed. Swift’s satire is always also literary satire. Swift wrote “A Meditation Upon A Broomstick” to mock not only Robert Boyle’s Puritanism but also Boyle's writing style itself, calling Boyle a “silly writer.” “A Modest Proposal,” too, sought to mock the “can-do” attitude of many writers of the day, who thought that only one simple solution was needed to cure large and complex problems. In addition, Swift’s use of flowery language to suggest strange or wild things generally serves to mock the use of such language.
Ancients vs. Moderns
“The Battle of the Books” begins with a quarrel between two factions, the Ancients and the Moderns, and soon spirals into literal combat between the groups of books. The Ancients represent the literary classics of ancient Greece and to some extent Rome, characterized by investigation into the nature of things, for instance as espoused by Swift’s contemporary and good friend Alexander Pope in his satirical poems. Moderns who appreciate the Ancients and do not merely go off in new directions also can be said to be on the side of the Ancients. The Modern faction represents newer, scientific, reason-centered Enlightenment thought based more in theorizing than in reality, and with a strong sense of self-reliance. The factions, respectively, are figured as a bee and a spider.
Family is a theme in both A Tale of a Tub and "A Modest Proposal." In A Tale of a Tub, the father of the three brothers, when he gives them their respective coats, requests that they always live together as brethren. This is an allegory for the ecumenical Christian "family" of one Church, despite doctrinal differences. The suggestion is that Christians, although of different specific beliefs, are "brothers" and should act as such. In "A Modest Proposal," too, family is a theme with broader implications; in this instance the larger "family" is that of the Irish people, which Swift's narrator offensively calls a "breed." The narrator says that poor parents will support his proposal because it would relieve them of the burden of caring for their young. Swift's narrator suggests that family is nothing to the Irish, exposing British prejudices yet reinforcing the idea of communal Irish struggle.
The Moral Dangers of Scientific Advancement
“A Modest Proposal” hints at the dangers of certain types of new knowledge. At the time Swift was writing, many political thinkers had started to apply new theories of science and mathematics to their social ideas. Swift parodies this view by dedicating a few paragraphs of “A Modest Proposal” to calculating the number of babies available for consumption. By doing so, he demonstrates the perils of seeing things only in terms of numbers. Swift suggests that this new kind of social math leaves no room for humanity; people are not numbers. With the calculations present in “A Modest Proposal” Swift expresses his unease with taking reason and scientific advancement too far and forgetting the human side of policy. The bee and the Ancients similarly criticize the spider and the Moderns in "The Battle of the Books."
A Modest Proposal and Other Satires Questions and Answers
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Swift's proposed solution to poverty, overpopulation, and starvation is the selling of young children as food. His proposal, is of course, an exaggerated joke.... it is most certainly preposterous, but he's make a point.... not a serious...
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