In his dark, satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathon Swift advocates the most outlandish and radical solution imaginable for Ireland’s poverty travails. He “modestly” proposes that beggar mothers in his homeland should bear children, feed them so that they become plump, and then sell them upon their first birthday as a food delicacy. His elitist, crude and misogynistic vision for helping to alleviate his country’s widespread poverty is the antithesis of modest; cannibalism on a wide scale is hilariously and brazenly proposed.
Swift loftily laments the widespread plight that he sees on a daily basis in his beloved, green homeland of Ireland in the early eighteenth century. Beggar mothers and their pitiful, threadbare children are running rampant like free-roaming vermin. Instead of forwarding genuine empathy or sympathy, Swift concocts a grand and hideous solution for the plight of his countrymen and his country. He combines the principles of economics and culinary delight to form an exquisite yet simple plan for his commonwealth’s ills. Instead of letting children mature to the status of thieves or dead weight, he proposes that they be harvested and sold at the tender age of one for their meat and their hides. Thus, the yearlings can contribute to the common good and their “breeder” parents can profit from the fruits of their human cultivation.
Swift’s brash proposal spares no sensibility as he brutally and simply lays out his culinary and economic model to cure the Irish economic plight. With a twinkle in his eye and with his nasty tongue firmly pushed into his cheek, Swift states that “a young healthy child, well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled.” One cannot help but chuckle at the cold precision of his human yearling assessment. With proper care and nurturing, the yearling infant can attain a wonderful weight of twenty-eight pounds as he is readied for slaughter and consumption.
Children are not the only target of Swift’s brutal views. Misogyny and elitism run roughshod and rampant through his warped mind. The poor mothers, or “breeders” as Swift dubs them, are nothing more than fertile vessels. For her efforts, the mother “will have eight shillings net profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.” The mother will receive a pittance as she offers up her offspring and will happily toil until she is ready to give birth again and renew the homicidal cycle. Adolescent females are not spared from the glory and hatred of Swift’s proposal because the “kingdom would not be the worse” if “the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town.” The irony and sheer lunacy of his macabre vision is matched only by the author’s self-assuredness and loftiness. Again, chuckles are elicited as Swift warmly embraces his modest proposal. “I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.” Swift is very sure of himself, and one can only marvel at his imagination and facetiousness.
Sound economic principles are at the root of his evil vision for capitalizing on Ireland’s young. Instead of importing beef and other foodstuffs, the commonwealth can grow, harvest and consume domestic infants. This renewable cycle is endless, and it encourages marriage while it discourages illegitimacy. Married parents will receive remuneration for their offspring, and the homeland will enjoy the fruits of the breeders’ efforts. Misogyny again throbs to the surface as Swift pits mothers against each other for the most prized and succulent infants. “We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market.” Like veal, the infants’ flesh is not the only product it has to offer. The yearlings’ skin will be coveted and marketed as well. Swift matter-of-factly posits that one “may flay the (infant) carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer-boots for fine gentlemen. Hitler may have taken notes from the haughty and ingenious Irishman, Mr. Swift.
Fittingly, Swift humorously excludes himself, his wife and his children from his grand plan. He laments the fact that his particular family circumstances prevent him from helping the common good and collecting a fee for his children. He regrets to inform us that “I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.” It is a pity that he and his loving wife cannot participate, though surely the benevolent Swift would like to offer up his brood if only they fit the stringent requirements and specifications that he painstakingly laid out.
One must marvel at the brilliance and depth of Swift’s grand vision. He is only thinking of others and of the welfare of his cherished Ireland as he modestly proposes the harvesting of his country’s young. He holds “no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich.” In Swift’s warped and hilarious mind, wife-battering by congenitally violent husbands would be curtailed for fear of revenue-robbing miscarriages and the pure spirit of competition would thrive in his green homeland. Yearling human babies would be figuratively “thrown to the wolves” in the interest of solving the dreadful, beggar-strewn landscape.