“I am 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, and I make no doubt, it will equally serve in a fricassee, or ragout.”
This is, perhaps, the most famous quote from Swift`s satire, A Modest Proposal; published in 1729, it was Swift at his acidic best, or worst, depending on the cut of your moral aggravation. He outrageously proposed that the impoverished Irish might ease the economic burden on the family purse if they sold any one year old children deemed surplus to requirements, as food for rich gentlefolk, to spice up their jaded palettes. It has to be admitted that he didn`t like children, seeing them as a nauseous necessity for the promulgation of the species; it also has to be assumed that he wasn`t serious in suggesting children be cannibalized to trim the population explosion, while alleviating economic hardship for the destitute. Or was he?
Swift is a satirist, who makes his living by poking fun at other people`s expense; his proposal is a satirical broadside towards the ordering of society, and the lack of concern and amendment of the crushing burdens imposed upon the majority under class by the powers that be, sitting in their gilded cages on high. In Swift`s day, the printing industry was well established, and the weapon of choice for the political and religious controversies of the age to be aired in public, was through pamphlets and satirical verses. The modern world`s free democracies have to thank the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell for the convenience of an unbridled and free press; before the English Civil War, criticism of the establishment could, and did result in unpleasant consequences; but war allowed the unexpurgated written word in all it`s awesome glory to be unleashed upon fertile ground, and open ears, thirsting for information.
Swift served a long apprenticeship as a pamphleteer, first for the Whigs, and later for the Tories; even if one does not accept the demonic premiss of A Modest Proposal, there is always an air of reasonableness about Swift`s verbal salvo, against the baleful tendency of rational economists to confine the human spirit in a straight jacket of arithmetic argument. Swift`s pamphleteer persona rejects a whole raft of humane and sensible proposals aimed at alleviating social degradation in Ireland – arguments which Swift in reality supported – but of course, he is having fun at the establishment`s expense.
” For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principle breeders of the nation as well as our dangerous enemies……..”
If the children are eaten, there will be fewer Catholics to breed and contend with. By writing this, Swift was intentionally exposing the religious prejudice which permeated through society from top to bottom; Swift is writing in the “voice” of an extreme English Protestant bigot, in order to expose and mock that bigotry. He shows us the eternal stereotype that the Irish poor conceive like rats, out breeding good, honest, morally upright Protestants to such an extent, that England would soon be over run by them. Swift was not suggesting he believed what he was writing, but was merely trying to show the destructive influence such beliefs entail.
“I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the Kingdom.”
Swift`s prejudiced narrator is suggesting that it`s the moral obligation for any right thinking Englishman who loves his country, to eat Irish children, and save the nation from being out bred by a nation of alien poor; it is “worthy” of Englishmen to preserve the national identity and values by literally consuming the problem. By “worthy” Englishmen, we are talking about the minority who were educated and could read; the people who had a financial stake in the well being of the nation; beggars, paupers, scullions and the itinerant poor could not read Swift; his pamphlets were written for the “chattering classes,” something which he was well aware of. He knew there would be no repercussions from being so outrageous, because the upper classes would simply see it as a comedy.
“A worthy person, a true lover of his country, and who`s virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased in discoursing on this matter to add a refinement upon my scheme.”
Ultimately, we have to come back to the question of whether Swift was being even partially serious in his proposals: the English upper classes saw all the poor as a problem to be feared and treated circumspectly; it`s quite within reason that even someone as urbane and intelligent as Swift could suffer psychological corrosion from constant immersion in the national pastime of xenophobia. Swift is a stupendously dynamic author, who is read with profound shock and awe: you can analyze and criticize his words until the cows come home, in the search for some deeper, hidden meaning; but perhaps, A Modest Proposal should be read as a work of fictional, sarcastic and ironic genius. Swift`s talent lies in enticing us into his maze of words in search of something which, perhaps, isn`t even there: it`s all in the eye of the beholder; first you see it, now you don`t………
The 18th century is the starting gate for modern satire, when the educated classes began to criticize the many problems of society, in the disguise of ridicule. Swift himself described his art:“A sort of glass, wherein holders do generally discover everyone`s faces but their own.” We are invited to follow the white rabbit down the hole into his world of smoke and mirrors; your point of destination is entirely your choice.