In his satirical essay “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift makes the not-so-modest proposal that the English eat Irish children as a solution to the poverty and overpopulation of Ireland. Throughout the essay, Swift presents a lurid and grotesque description of what this course of action would entail, including potential uses for the meat and computations of the potential numbers of children that could be provided annually and how many they could feed. In the course of the essay, Swift uses satire to make the point that the English are metaphorically eating the Irish through their greed, that the Irish are suffering at the hands of the English and are unable to improve their lot because of that situation and that the practical steps that can be taken by the English to help the Irish out of their poverty are being avoided because of the former’s greed.
Swift’s metaphor of the English “eating” the Irish is a particularly strong point throughout the essay and the basis of the satire. Swift begins the essay with essentially this point. In the first few paragraphs, he describes the horrors of the poverty the Irish under the rule of the English, whom he sees as the source of Ireland’s troubles through their oppressive policies. One of the most poignant and ironical of the sufferings he describes is the commonness of “voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women” practicing infanticide on their own “bastard children” (Swift 315). The point is clearly made that the English are responsible for the deaths of Irish children anyway; so why not, Swift goes on, at least find some use in their deaths?
Swift satirizes the greed of the English in his cold and calculating discussion of his proposal to eat Irish children. He discusses eating Irish children in the same way that a businessman might discuss profit and expense or a cook might discuss flavor. Swift’s point is that this is precisely how the English are treating the Irish.
As Swift concludes his essay, he offers a short list of actual practical courses of action that could be taken by the English to lessen the suffering of the Irish and to remedy their poverty. He includes on his list, for instance, such items as “utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury; … curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women;” and “introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence, and temperance,” among other ideas (319). He includes this list, however, with the warning “let no man talk to me of other expedients” such as those he lists and rather than his own proposal for the English to eat Irish children. Of particular effect is his comparison following this list of the English with the Jews of first century Jerusalem, who infamously practiced cannibalism on children during the siege of Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 AD, which concluded with the destruction of that city.
Through his satire and unflattering comparisons, Swift makes clear his belief that the English are “eating” the Irish through their greed and mistreatment of the Irish. For Swift, the English are the oppressors of the Irish and the Irish deserve the pity and desperately need the help of the English. Swift’s conclusion with a real list of potential courses of action the English could practically take to help the Irish is perhaps the most important part and the zenith of the essay, driving home the point and simultaneously calling for real action.
Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 315-320. Print.
He asked me what were the usual causes or motives that made one country go to war with another. I answered, they were innumerable; but I should only mention a few of the chief. Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern; sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration. Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Part IV, Chapter V