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A Modest Proposal
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Interim Readings > Swift, A Modest Proposal

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message 1: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Fresh off the heels of Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver's Travels, we thought it would be interesting to do another satirical piece—probably the most famous satirical piece in English Literature, Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal. In this short essay, Swift turns a scathing satirical gaze on England’s treatment of the Irish. Born in Dublin of English parents, Swift was a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class and had allegiance to both Ireland and England.

A brief historical context might help situate the reading.

The contentious history between Ireland and England goes back many centuries beginning in the early 1300s with King Edward III. Over a period of several centuries, the British systematically stripped the Irish Catholics of their land, denied them political and religious freedoms, and increased control over Ireland and its people. In the Poyning Act (1494), the British forbade the Irish Parliament to hold a session unless it had been authorized by the king of England. Irish land was confiscated and given to English landlords in the Act for the Settlement of Ireland, 1652. The Irish were forbidden to practice their Catholic religion. The Treaty of Limerick (1691) excluded Irish Catholics from owning property, denying them political power since access to public office depended on property ownership.

Irish land continued to be confiscated for many years, with much of it owned by absentee landlords living in England. Within the space of about 100 years, eighty percent of the land in Ireland had changed ownership. Between 1697 and 1746, the Irish parliament passed a series of laws which privileged Anglican Protestants and deprived Catholics of civil rights and political participation. Only Irish Anglicans were eligible to become members of the Irish parliament. The Sixth Act (1719) and Declaratory or Dependency Act (1720) empowered the British Parliament to dictate laws for Ireland even without the consent of the Irish Parliament, rendering the latter legislative body virtually redundant. Severe restrictions were placed on Irish trade, thereby cementing the economic as well as the political subordination of Ireland.

Swift became actively involved in Irish causes during the 1720s. He made repeated appeals to the Irish parliament to tax landlords and provide funds for Irish industry and agriculture to foster economic independence. His pleas were ignored. He died in 1745 and is still venerated in Ireland as a national hero. He wrote the following words for the epitaph on his tomb:

Here lies Jonathan Swift’s corpse, Doctor in Sacrosanct Theology and Dean of this Church Cathedral, where the savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Depart, traveller, and imitate, if you can, whom fought with all his might to defend liberty.

It is against this context of an Ireland suffering from poverty, overpopulation, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and land confiscation that Swift published A Modest Proposal in 1729.

I found two copies of the essay online:

http://www.readwritethink.org/files/r...

https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pd...


message 2: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments What sort of person is the narrator? What image is he projecting of himself?

At which point in the essay did you begin to be suspicious of the narrator?

What methods does he use to present his argument? Why bother making an argument this way?

Why is it called a “modest” proposal?


Aiden Hunt (paidenhunt) | 253 comments First, I like the choice of interim reading. As interesting as GT was, I just don’t find as much to discuss when it comes to satire. Swift’s “modest proposal” is perfectly complimentary, especially following Gulliver’s dim view of humanity by the end.

The narrator is presented as a reasonable English thinker, trying to provide an answer to the demographic “problem” of an abundance of starving Irish Catholics, mortal enemies of the ruling English Protestants, having the temerity to starve to death so close to them and ask for lifesaving alms while promising no return on investment to the English.

The first cause I see for suspicion of the author’s intentions is when he begins to refer to the Irish mothers and children in livestock terminology:

“It is true, a child just dropped from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings.”

The husbandry calculations with regard to starving mothers (compared with horses) and children foreshadows a callousness that intensifies as he calculates how the suffering can be turned to the benefit of the English and reaches its peak with the author’s ironically-titled “modest proposal” of using their giving of alms to fatten the starving children to be sold or literally eaten by the rich.

Satire is at its most powerful when it shocks the mind of the reader into a paradigm shift. By callously dismissing the suffering of mothers and children, Swift’s narrator causes the reader to question whether they are so callous themselves if they are debating the problem in such terms. The ultimate suggestion that the “solution” to the problem of starving children is feeding them only so that they can be used for food themselves is absurd enough to make the reader question the logic of their own transactional arguments for or against humanly compassion.

The master stroke comes with the author’s preemptive refusal to listen to the more reasonable ways to help both peoples while pointing them out, making them seem all the more rational compared to the author’s extreme solution.


message 4: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Aiden wrote: "First, I like the choice of interim reading. As interesting as GT was, I just don’t find as much to discuss when it comes to satire. Swift’s “modest proposal” is perfectly complimentary, especially..."

Thanks, Aiden.
A great post.

I think his diction is also very telling. He uses the word "dam;" "breeder;" "no salable commodity" to refer to girls and boys less than twelve years old; one male to "serve" four females; etc.

He reduces them to animals.


message 5: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments The narrator says:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled . . .

I'm wondering why is Swift taking a jab at Americans here.


message 6: by Aiden (last edited Sep 16, 2020 01:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Aiden Hunt (paidenhunt) | 253 comments Tamara wrote: "I'm wondering why is Swift taking a jab at Americans here."

I wondered about that, too, but I think it’s important to remember that when this was written America was still 13 colonies along one coast and a huge, untamed expanse to the West for 2,500 miles. It also would have included hostile and not-well-understood Indian tribes on its borders. He may have just used the handy designation of New World (i.e. savage) ideas.

Also, it was a world of chattel slavery.


message 7: by Tamara (last edited Sep 16, 2020 02:59PM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Aiden wrote: "Tamara wrote: "I'm wondering why is Swift taking a jab at Americans here."

I wondered about that, too, but I think it’s important to remember that when this was written America was still 13 coloni..."


I think England used to send its convicts to America at one time, and after the American war of independence, England started shipping its convicts off to Australia. So until around 1775, America was used as the repository for England's convicts. That, too, may have something to do with Swift's jab at America.


message 8: by Lily (last edited Sep 16, 2020 03:17PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments Cphe wrote: "Strange that he nominated breastfeeding for a year. Breastfed babes are not normally fat."

Most babies not nursed by their mothers were wet-nursed in that day, no?


message 9: by Tamara (last edited Sep 17, 2020 08:49AM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Cphe wrote: "Not sure Lily - always thought the wet-nurse was for the benefit of the well-to-do. Mums B/F would have given some protection against various diseases though."

I think you're correct, Cphe. Those who could afford it hired wet nurses to feed their babies. Families living in poverty didn't have that option.

The narrator is also thinking in terms of the economic drain on poor families to keep the baby for longer than a year. The costs are minimal to breast feed the baby for a year. It is when the infant starts requiring food and becoming an economic drain on the family that the narrator proposes to relieve the family of the financial burden of having another mouth to feed.

It is true, a child just dropped from its dam may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may
certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, t. . .



message 10: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Does anyone see any similarities between the narrator of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver or any of the other characters in Gulliver’s Travels?


message 11: by Lily (last edited Sep 17, 2020 10:05AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments Cphe wrote: "Not sure Lily - always thought the wet-nurse was for the benefit of the well-to-do. Mums B/F would have given some protection against various diseases though."

All I was saying was that, until able to eat some level of solids, breast milk was basically the only nourishment offered a baby, rich or poor. And, yes, there was undoubtedly some dependency on the nourishment of the provider offering her breast?


message 12: by David (new)

David | 2710 comments Tamara wrote: "Does anyone see any similarities between the narrator of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver or any of the other characters in Gulliver’s Travels?"

That is a great question. I hope someone can answer it.


message 13: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1738 comments It strikes me that Swift does not so much as mention the natural horror and disgust at the idea of eating babies, even to say that it must be suppressed for the greater good. That increases the effect.


message 14: by Tamara (last edited Sep 19, 2020 07:26AM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Roger wrote: "It strikes me that Swift does not so much as mention the natural horror and disgust at the idea of eating babies, even to say that it must be suppressed for the greater good. That increases the eff..."

Good point.

I also think the way he manipulates numbers and statistics enhances the effect. He calculates the number of "breeders," subtracts from those the number who miscarry to arrive at 120,000 babies, and then subdivides the number by reserving "only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine . . ."

By manipulating figures, he exploits the reader's instinctive respect for statistical demonstration as if that will somehow override the horror of his proposal.


message 15: by Donnally (new)

Donnally Miller | 101 comments David wrote: "Tamara wrote: "Does anyone see any similarities between the narrator of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver or any of the other characters in Gulliver’s Travels?"

That is a great question. I hope someo..."


The narrator of A Modest Proposal almost makes me think of a Houyhnhnm thinking what would be the most reasonable thing to be done with the Yahoos.


message 16: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Donnally wrote: "The narrator of A Modest Proposal almost makes me think of a Houyhnhnm thinking what would be the most reasonable thing to be done with the Yahoos..."

I see it the same way, although I do see the Houyhnhnms as being more humane.

The houyhnhnms as rational beings give serious consideration to the Yahoo problem. They dismiss the Yahoos as degenerate, deformed, malicious, and thoroughly useless creatures that cause more trouble than they’re worth. They debate whether the Yahoos should be exterminated but then opt for the more humane solution of castrating them, thereby ending the species without actually having to kill them.

Similarly, the narrator of MP projects himself as a rational, well-intentioned, circumspect individual who has given serious consideration to solving a problem. Although he lists “other expedients” which are moral, just, sensible, and practical solutions to the Irish situation, he dismisses them because he doubts there will ever be a sincere attempt to implement them. He opts for the extreme solution by basing his argument on the premise that since English policies are rendering the Irish politically powerless, depriving them of their rights, and gobbling up their wealth, we may as well cut to the chase and gobble them up literally.


message 17: by Tamara (last edited Sep 21, 2020 07:21AM) (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments What is Swift’s purpose in writing A Modest Proposal? Is it just to vent his anger? To attack? To persuade? To shame? Are there any risks with taking this approach?


message 18: by Donnally (new)

Donnally Miller | 101 comments Political pamphleteering was quite fashionable in Swift's day. There were countless tracts and essays advancing solutions for Ireland's economic and social ills. Swift clearly went to an extreme to make sure that his entry in this field would stand out and be remarked by an indifferent public.

Obviously he is expressing his horror at England's exploitation of the Irish people but IMO he is also venting his despair at the Irish masses whom he sees as bearing some responsibility for their fate. He has compassion for them, but it's what I would call 'tough' compassion.


message 19: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Donnally wrote: "Obviously he is expressing his horror at England's exploitation of the Irish people but IMO he is also venting his despair at the Irish masses whom he sees as bearing some responsibility for their fate..."

I'm not sure Swift holds the Irish masses responsible for their fate. I'm wondering what they could have done in this situation.

I can see Swift holding the Irish parliament responsible because it allied itself with the English parliament and did nothing to alleviate the suffering of the masses. But I don't know what the impoverished, starving, disenfranchised masses could have done. It seems to me the Irish masses were stuck between a rock and a hard place. There may have been pockets of resistance to oppression, but those were snuffed out pretty quickly by the British.

I see Swift wanting to work within the system to bring about change through the parliaments in Ireland and England. I see him venting anger and despair at those two bodies. Short of taking up arms, the masses were powerless. And I don't see Swift advocating for armed struggle against oppression.

Of course, the Irish did eventually take up arms many decades later during the Irish Civil War.

Did Swift say anywhere what he wanted the Irish masses to do knowing, as he did, their options were very limited?


message 20: by Roger (last edited Sep 27, 2020 08:00AM) (new)

Roger Burk | 1738 comments On a completely different Level, note that Swift capitalizes every Noun. I've noted common Noun Capitalization before in the seventeenth Century, but not so systematically. I wonder if it was really the Style at his Time, or if he did it only to add a little Pomposity to the Essay. Capitalizing all Nouns is standard in modern German, but in no other Language that I know of. I'm just as glad it didn't catch on in English. It makes me want to stress all the Nouns, and also erases the Difference between common and proper.


message 21: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Roger wrote: "On a completely different Level, note that Swift capitalizes every Noun. I've noted common Noun capitalization before in the seventeenth Century, but not so systematically. I wonder if it was reall..."

An interesting observation that sent me rummaging through my English Lit. text books.

I pulled out my complete edition of the works of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Johnson Prose and Poetry to check the capitalization. The texts are reproductions of the contemporary texts. The Note on the Text states the following:

The reproduction of the contemporary texts deprives this selection of any consistency in spelling, capitalization, punctuation and so forth. In some pieces, the initials of substantive nouns will be found to be in capitals; in others, they are lower-case letters.

Johnson’s essays are littered with capital letters all over the place. Barely a noun escapes unscathed. It looks mighty weird until you get used to it. As you suggested, it can be very distracting. Most texts standardize the writing, as in Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763 which states the following:

In the present edition, which has been prepared for wide general reading, the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation have been reduced to accepted modern norms . . .

It looks as if Swift’s use of capitalization was pretty standard for the times.


message 22: by Donnally (new)

Donnally Miller | 101 comments I've looked at some reprints of the original texts of some of Benjamin Franklin's writings, and Ben capitalized every noun. So I have the feeling it was a pretty common practice.


message 23: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Donnally wrote: "I've looked at some reprints of the original texts of some of Benjamin Franklin's writings, and Ben capitalized every noun. So I have the feeling it was a pretty common practice."

Thanks for the follow up, Donnally.


message 24: by Lily (last edited Sep 25, 2020 10:58PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...

I just enjoyed this discussion of A Modest Proposal, even if I might well quibble (deeply) with some of the comparisons made. (Sort of a reflection on what do we see when we look about us and how differently do we respond to the seemingly the same stimuli?)


message 25: by David (last edited Sep 26, 2020 09:26AM) (new)

David | 2710 comments The first thing I noticed, after having read Gulliver's Travels, was the consistent criticism of the projectors:
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation.
I am not sure if the connotation is the same, but I like his referring to the projector's ideas as schemes instead of plans

What is a modern equivalent of a projector? In Gulliver's Travels a projector was more like an out out touch science advisor. Here in A Modest Proposal a projector sounds more like a city planner.


message 26: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments I am curious as to the views of you contributing here as to comparing the role of satire in 1700's Britain-Ireland to its role in 2000's America. I've probably always had too much of a "serious side" to be open to satire until my son in particular has made me more aware of its relevance, at least in providing perspective to the world around us. I have come to enjoy voices as diverse as Saturday Night Live, Noah Trevor, cartoonists for some of the major newspapers and magazines, .... But, I've never really thought about how the traditions compare across time -- let alone cultures....?


message 27: by Donnally (new)

Donnally Miller | 101 comments Tamara wrote: "Donnally wrote: "I've looked at some reprints of the original texts of some of Benjamin Franklin's writings, and Ben capitalized every noun. So I have the feeling it was a pretty common practice."
..."


This has no bearing on "A Modest Proposal", but I can't help from quoting (with the original capitalization) a remark on the benefit of education from Ben Franklin's Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, published in 1749:

"The End of Masters should be, to improve their Hearts and Understandings, to protect their Innocence, to inspire them with Principles of Honour and Probity, to train them up to good Habits; to correct and subdue in them by gentle Means, the ill Inclinations they shall be observed to have, such as Pride, Insolence, an high Opinion of themselves, and a saucy Vanity continually employed in lessening others; a blind Self-love solely attentive to its own Advantage; a Spirit of Raillery which is pleased with offending and insulting others; an Indolence and Sloth, which renders all the good Qualities of the Mind useless."

Alas, some characters seem to be always with us.


message 28: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Agha-Jaffar | 1625 comments Donnally wrote: "Alas, some characters seem to be always with us."

Thanks for the quote, Donnally. I think it has a bearing on A Modest Proposal because we are still grappling with some of the same issues and characters that gave Ben Franklin pause 270 years ago.


message 29: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments Tamara wrote: "some of the same issues and characters that gave Ben Franklin pause 270 years ago. ..."

Modest Proposal -- 1729
Gulliver's Travels -- 1726

From Donnally: "...Ben Franklin's Proposals for the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, published in 1749..."

I continue to be confounded (in the sense of "abashed") by the insights on humans and human institutions that come out of that period of (English speaking?) history/literature.


message 30: by Donnally (new)

Donnally Miller | 101 comments I was just struck by something very ironical. The result of the Proposals from which I quoted was the creation of the institution for higher education which was to become the University of Pennsylvania, and Donald Trump is a graduate of the Wharton School of that University.


message 31: by Susanna (new)

Susanna | 163 comments Trump still capitalizes most of his nouns on Twitter.


message 32: by Lily (last edited Oct 01, 2020 04:17PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments Lily wrote: "Tamara wrote: "some of the same issues and characters that gave Ben Franklin pause 270 years ago. ..."

Modest Proposal -- 1729
Gulliver's Travels -- 1726

From Donnally: "...Ben Franklin's Proposa..."


"Swift was alive during a time of revolutionary change, when a king was deposed in a sensational revolution, the modern political system came into being, and Britain became a world power. It was at that time that an Irish national consciousness was born, in opposition to control by England, and Swift’s was a crucial voice in forging it."

Leo Damrosch Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

(Since Charles I was executed in 1649 and Swift wasn't born until 1667, the exact references by Damrosch are rather fuzzy from this clip alone, but the point does seem to be made that these were turbulent times. Damrosch does seem to be referring to "The Glorious Revolution of November 1688, (Irish: An Réabhlóid Ghlórmhar, Scottish Gaelic: Rèabhlaid Ghlòrmhor or Welsh: Chwyldro Gogoneddus), or Revolution of 1688," which covered the events leading to the deposition of James II and VII, and replacement by his daughter Mary II, and her Dutch husband, William III of Orange. Source: Wikipedia.)


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