“A modest proposal” or “A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public” is a satire written by Jonathan Swift in 1729. In this essay, Swift suggests fighting poverty, hunger, and disenfranchisement in Ireland by having the poor families sell their new born babies as food items to the rich.
In the first half of the Eighteenth century, Ireland has been occupied for over five centuries. The colonisation of Ireland is nevertheless only completed in the Sixteenth century. Then, with Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, things became even worse : not only did the Irish have to bear with English and Scottish settlers, mainly in the North of Ireland, they had to suffer tens of thousands in casualties, directly from war, but also from starvation, as a consequence of war, and what is often conveniently forgotten, tens of thousands of Irish men, women or children were sent to the West Indies as slaves during the Seventeenth century. At one point, the majority of the slaves to the West Indies sold to English settlers were white, and they were Irish. Over the period preceding Swift’s “Modest proposal”, the Irish population was probably halved from roughly a million and a half to about six hundred thousands). But it was never enough ; not content with having massacred hundreds of thousands of Irish through war, colonisation, disease, or sold them to slavery, the English rulers focused on stigmatising more firmly the Catholics and dissenting Protestants. No wonder Ireland was not in great shape at the beginning of the Eighteenth century : this is the background behind the writing of the “Modest proposal”.Retour en haut de page
Swift goes to great lengths to describe in the first part the terrible situation that Ireland finds itself in : “It is a melancholy object to those who walk thought this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.”. By then Irish population seems to have already gone back to the one million and a half which it had been in the seventeenth century, and estimates of the number of new born babies to poor parents are around a hundred and twenty thousand a year. Swift then asks the pivotal question : “How this number shall be reared, and provided for ?”. Following this introduction, he then 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 ; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.” From this point, he details his project very seriously, with a “straight face”, backing his arguments with the help of famous people such as the famous Salmanaazor from Formosa, lists the reasons, the benefits, and explains why this would be the best and most humane solution to his knowledge. Examples : “Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year”, “it will have another collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us”, “no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child”, “butchers we may be assured will not be wanting ; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.”, “the want of venison might be well supplied by the bodies of young lads and maidens…”… At the end, imitating the classical structure of a serious essay, he then recaps, point by point : there will be less Papists, poor people will have something of value to sell, the commerce of children will enrich the population, the breeders won’t have to maintain the charge of the babies after the first year, this food will bring great custom to taverns, it would improve the quality of life, as mothers will have more time to take care of the children they don’t sell, and the fathers will take care of their pregnant women…. And then he concludes : “I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country…”.Retour en haut de page
Juvenalian and Horatian satire
“A modest proposal” is a Juvenalian satire. Classical literature differentiates between Horatian and Juvenalian satire. While Horatian satire is often light-hearted, optimistic, funny or self-deprecating, Juvenalian satire is sometimes not so funny, dark, pessimistic and very abrasive. “A modest proposal” is one of the best examples of this type of satire : Swift takes the mechanical logic of his contemporaries and pushes it to the limit, reaching the realm of the absurd. Real-life examples of the situations Swift denounces still abound nowadays unfortunately ; some inspire despair, others laughter : constantly trialling dead people through the media, proposing to castrate sex offenders chemically, developing perfect war weapons such as anti-demonstration heat devices, developing tracking devices for unfaithful husbands, taking health benefits away from unhealthy people etc. The list never stops ; this is always what happens when some people (in Swift’s time, scholars or scientists ; nowadays, government bureaucrats or politicians) pretend to know better than other people and have no qualms imposing their most absurd views for the so-called good of those who don’t know so well. Let’s bring the Juvenalian satire back, and let’s re-read Jonathan Swift’s “A modest proposal” : we will be all the better for it.
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