Would you consider Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to be a literary piece or more directly political in nature and why?
First published in London in 1729, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a famous piece of satirical writing which criticizes the attitude of the establishment of England towards Ireland as a whole and in particular to the poor people of Ireland. The history of England’s relationship with Ireland has for centuries been fraught with controversy and frequently marred by violence, even in the modern era. From an Irish point of view, England has been guilty of treating Ireland as a colony and of regarding the Irish themselves with prejudice – because of their ethnicity and because of their adherence to the Catholic Church. Swift was a Protestant Englishman, but lived, for the majority of his adult life, in Dublin, and looked upon the Irish with compassion and kindness. “A Modest Proposal” uses literary devices, but its main purpose is political: to draw attention to the economic plight of the poorer classes in Ireland, but, more importantly, to satirize the attitude of English society towards Ireland and its people.
Satire is a literary genre and device, purpose of which is to criticize established views and habits of thought. Swift’s central proposal - that poor Irish people should sell their babies as food to the more prosperous members of society – is clearly barbaric and offensive to a modern audience, but it is intended merely as the logical outcome of the prevailing English attitude to the Irish. The English impoverishment of Ireland is so pernicious, Swift is implying, that the poor might as well sell their babies for food, and, furthermore, the English attitude to the Irish is so prejudiced that English people – who viewed the Irish as sub-human and barbaric – are capable of believing that the Irish are so uncivilized that they would be prepared to sell their babies for food. A key to Swift’s intention lies in his statement after he has broached his proposal when he writes: “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”. This is directly political: Swift is attacking the largely absentee English landlords who set rents so high that ordinary Irish people could barely survive economically.
Through “A Modest proposal” Swift uses irony. Even the title is ironic as a plan to sell babies’ flesh as food and completely reform the Irish economy can hardly be described as “modest”. Part of the irony is that Swift parodies the way a political or economic treatise might be written and he adopts a persona – that of the concerned observer who claims that he has the best interests of Ireland at heart. We see examples of this parody in his precise calculations of the population, the nutrition required to produce a plump baby, the possible price of baby flesh and even in the various ways it might be cooked. Because he has adopted a persona of reasonableness, his proposal, when it comes is even more shocking, because it is unexpected.
Irony and the adoption of a persona are literary devices, but his use of statistics and his careful construction of an argument are not – they are more typical of an economic or political essay, and they reveal that Swift’s intention is political, not primarily literary.