A Modest Proposal | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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A Modest Proposal | Context


Satire as Political Writing

"A Modest Proposal" is a well-known work of English satire. In satire, authors critique social issues using these strategies:

  • Sarcasm communicates contempt for the subject at hand. As a result, readers must often reverse the author's words to determine meaning. For example, Jonathan Swift is not literally proposing Englishmen eat Irish babies. Instead, he is critiquing inhumane and destructive policies.
  • Hyperbole radically exaggerates existing situations to show innate stupidity or weakness. Swift uses hyperbole throughout this essay, starting with the opening paragraph where he describes poor mothers as spending "all their time" begging.
  • Extended analogies indirectly draw attention to flawed situations. Swift uses this technique when he compares the way the rich devour the poor economically to them doing so literally.
  • Symbolism also indirectly represents current social issues. This strategy allows satirists to protect themselves from backlash, especially if they are criticizing powerful institutions. This strategy may also make their critiques more universal. The idea of eating the poor which runs throughout the essay symbolizes how the rich (especially the English rich) treat the Irish poor inhumanely.
  • Humor criticizes society to stimulate thought and action. Swift's humor is very dark in this essay, but he uses humor throughout the essay, such as when he suggests husbands will treat their wives better once they are able to sell their children, because they'll be more like livestock.

Because satirists don't write literally, audience misunderstanding is often an unintended effect.

The Essay Form

The essay emerged as a distinct genre roughly 100 years before Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal," in the work of the French author Michel de Montaigne (1533–92). Montaigne's essays took their name from the French verb essayer, which means "to attempt or try out." The essay form developed along with a growing emphasis on the individual self. From the start, essays reflected the author's personal position, opinion, or perspective. Montaigne published his Essais in 1580. In the following century, various English writers followed, adapting Montaigne's French model to their own topics and needs.

Swift lived at a time when the English essay was coming into its own, driven by a thriving newspaper trade and adopted by powerful English and Irish writers such as Joseph Addison (1672–1719) and Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729), authors of the periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. In addition to newspapers, authors also published essays as pamphlets, which stood alone but were also part of a larger back-and-forth discussion on many topics.

The Pamphlet

"A Modest Proposal" was published as a pamphlet, a work that's just a few pages long. Rather than being bound with a hardcover like a book, a pamphlet is unbound or loosely bound. This form of publishing was very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. People used them as part of religious and political debates. They were an inexpensive way to get a single piece of writing into circulation, and many writers wrote back and forth in a kind of war of ideas.

In this more tolerant political climate, readers would have been familiar with the format of "A Modest Proposal," as well as the practice of an author making a focused argument on a single subject. Swift, like most writers of pamphlets at the time, published his work anonymously.

Critical and Popular Reception

Swift's reputation spread beyond England, and his work was translated into many other languages. However, much of that reputation rested on his most famous work, Gulliver's Travels (1726). That work dominated commentary on Swift so much so that 20th-century scholar George Wittkowsky notes the silence of critics and scholars on "A Modest Proposal." Wittkowsky argues critics underestimated the work, treating it as only a complaint about conditions in Dublin when it was really a reflection that Swift had read emerging economic thinkers and was responding to them.

Nineteenth-century English author Leslie Stephen praises the tract's powerful rhetoric as "the most complete expression of burning indignation against intolerable wrongs." Writing in 1968, American professor of English Samuel J. Rogal argues the essay is timeless because the power of its rhetoric markedly outweighs its subject matter. Writing in 1974, Thomas Lockwood calls the essay "the perfect work of its kind: breathtakingly to the point, unnerving in the extreme." In short, scholars agree on the work's intense and striking rhetoric. Where they differ is in pinpointing the specific target of Swift's rage: is it rationality, lack of compassion, current politics, the lazy Irish, the English landlords, or economic thinking?

Swift's work resonates with the 20th and 21st centuries in ways his contemporaries' work does not. Particularly, the phrase "a modest proposal" has inspired many contemporary "modest proposals" that argue for extreme solutions on topics from e-mail to climate change, such as American author Frank Schaeffer's 1984 A Modest Proposal for Peace, Prosperity, and Happiness, American professor Cal Newport's "A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email," and American political analyst Leigh Thompson's 2015 "A Modest Proposal for a Truly Renewable Future." The usage of the phrase is widespread enough for some dictionaries to include the entry a modest proposal, defining the verbal irony with which the word modest is used to signal something more like "radical" or "extreme."

English-Irish Political Relations

England and Ireland are both located in the British Isles. The relationship between the two nations has been complicated and often tense since the 12th-century Norman invasion of Ireland linked the two countries' histories. The Normans were descendants of the Norse people who settled in France in the 10th century, eventually giving their name to Normandy. They invaded England in 1066 and Ireland in 1169. Several critical historical events shape the English-Irish political context in which Swift published this essay.

In the 16th century, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, founding what would become the Anglican Church. This was part of the larger rise of Protestantism. This split with Rome meant that not only did the official religion of the English become Protestant but also that the Irish, living under English rule, were expected to become Protestant. This expectation was not popular, and religious strife led to rebellion in 1534. When the rebellion failed, the Irish Parliament gave Henry VIII the title King of Ireland. This meant the Irish Catholics were now ruled by a Protestant king.

The Stuarts were the Scottish royal family from 1371 on. After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, the king of Scotland, James VI, became King James I of England. James was a Protestant, and he imposed his views on religion on the entire country. Catholics were not allowed to celebrate mass under James. James moved many Protestants into Ireland through the "Plantation of Ulster" or Ulster Plantation scheme. He "planted" Protestants there to "civilize" Ireland and lead the local Catholics to Protestantism. This established a new aristocracy in Ireland of English Protestants, kept the country divided, and increased splits between ruler and ruled. Not only were the English rulers of a different nationality and religion, they were new to the country and living on lands confiscated from the Irish. By the time Swift was writing, this scheme worked, at least in part. There were now many living in Ireland who were descended from English immigrants, and who were Protestant, as James hoped. Swift was one of these Anglo-Irish. This positioned him well to address this section of Irish society, as well as English Protestants.

Many Irish farmers who had owned their own lands now had to work as tenants on farms owned by English landlords. Other political and economic activity of the period complicated this situation, such as a flood of Scots to Ireland as the highlands were cleared to make room for rapid growth in the wool industry. Wars in the middle and end of the 17th century left the English firmly in charge of Ireland and committed to keeping Ireland weak as an English political benefit. Therefore any humanitarian attempts to improve conditions in Ireland contradicted this British self-interest.

One particular conflict and its aftermath shaped Irish conditions most directly. In July of 1690 James II of England met William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne, in Ireland. William of Orange won handily, leading to what is called "the Protestant Ascendancy." During this period many new restrictions were placed on Catholics governing property ownership and limiting what they could do. These "Penal Laws" denied Irish Catholics the right to vote, practice their religion, or buy land. Anyone who did own land had to divide their property among their sons, guaranteeing Catholics would own increasingly smaller farms. These laws helped create the desperate poverty Swift would address in "A Modest Proposal."

The weather in the years leading up to 1729 made the situation even worse. Throughout the 1720s, harvests were bad, and the winter of 1728–29 was especially brutal, reducing the already poor Irish farmers to literal starvation.

Swift's Relationship with Catholicism

Jonathan Swift was an Anglican clergyman and therefore a Protestant. His first position on religion was therefore pro-Protestant (or pro-Anglican). He also tended to be politically conservative, and saw Catholicism as a threat to a stable English society. He feared restoring a Catholic monarchy would destroy religious liberty in England. Swift therefore opposed Catholicism on both religious and political grounds. As the reasoning in "A Modest Proposal" demonstrates, Swift was also a rationalist, and so opposed any sort of religious fanaticism (a view he demonstrated vividly in his early satire "A Tale of a Tub"). So, while Swift never fully embraced some of the anti-Catholic sentiments of his age, he found Catholicism politically and religiously dangerous.

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