‘The Modest Proposal’ written by Jonathan Swift in the year 1729, is a straight faced satire, whereby the author employs motifs and symbols to enlighten the reader about the plight of the impoverished people of his land. In this pamphlet the narrator urges people to sell young children of the Ireland for hard cash, so that they can be served as a food to the upper class people. In this way, he proposes to lighten the economic burden of taking care of young children, and what more earn some profit out of them. Obviously, the author is not seriously advocating cannibalism, but he is just driving home his point by shocking his audience. The essay starts with describing the predicament of the poor in Ireland, then goes on to say how the British Aristocracy have no time to attend to their problems, and then mocks the many improbable schemes discussed for the betterment of the society that would never work when implemented. For this satire to be successful, the reader has to work out himself, why the scheme of feeding on young children is entirely wrong. And for this to happen, the character of the narrator should be a reflection of the mindless schemers, who see people just as numbers and not as living beings. Let us explore how the characterization of the narrator is the main component for the success (if not socially, at least as a literary piece) of this satire.
The fictional author of this pamphlet transforms the already audacious content into something even more preposterous, which is what Swift clearly aims at doing. And Swift achieves this feat by developing the character of the narrator into somebody, who is entirely similar to the upper class society on whom the satire is aimed at. He is nonchalant about the sufferings of the poor and seems to be looking for economical advantage even in the adversity of others. The narrator does not talk about morals or ethics anywhere in his narration. These two components are conspicuous by their absence. The author has the extraordinary knack of stressing on those core values of humanity by simply not mentioning them. Here is an individual who views small, innocent children, who are the hope for the future and who are to be loved and nourished, as mere commodities, and does so without exhibiting any remorse whatsoever. By portraying this quality of indifference of the narrator, Swift makes the society realize, how they are so used to treating the poor in an offhand manner, that they no longer see it to be an inhumane act.
“I grant this food will be somewhat dear and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” (Swift, 1729)
The other most important aspect of the narrator’s characterization is his methodical approach and clear cut computations. The tempo of the narrative reaches its peak, when the children are weighed in terms of their nutritional value. This statistical and arithmetic appraisal of the proposal clearly highlights the, cold and calculative approach of the ruling class towards the problems of the Irish community. Sure, they would not have contemplated on exporting children meat, but the satire clearly implicates that the aristocracy of that era, viewed the people of their nation just as commodities to be ruled and made profit out of, rather than subjects whose well being was their responsibility. The narrator as the representative of such a cruel faction of the society exhibits, all the traits which make them so detestable, prominent of them being cold blooded and calculative approach to social problems. Thus through the character of the narrator, the author succeeds in getting through to an indifferent and complacent audience, getting their attention in an entertaining way, so that they are compelled to connect with the story and in turn wake up to the serious message told through the story.
Jonathan Swift. (1729) 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 Publick. Retrieved from <https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/872/modest.pdf?sequence=1 >