Jonathan Swift: "A Modest Proposal" Notes by Dr. Honora M. Finkelstein   According to the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Swift in "A Modest Proposal" is indicting the English for inhumanity, the Irish for passivity, and those who might propose economic remedies for moral blindness. But for hundreds of years, and certainly throughout Swift’s life, Ireland had literally been a cattle farm for England, without its people ever being able to taste the meat of the cattle raised on their homeland. In 1720 Swift became a vociferous supporter of the Irish against English exploitation, thus earning him the everlasting respect of the Irish. Many critics consider this essay to be the greatest piece of ironic writing in the English language. To satirize the situation in Ireland where the people could barely support themselves, Swift takes on the voice of a rational economist who is proposing a solution that will earn money for support of the poor. He begins by saying there are many beggars, particularly female, in Dublin, Ireland, with lots of children in arms or at the skirts of their mothers. But he’s going to offer a solution to more than just beggars; he will include all children of a certain age whose parents cannot really afford their upkeep. At one year of age, he says, when children can no longer be sustained by mother’s milk alone, they can become useful in feeding and clothing others. His proposal will have the further advantage of preventing mothers from practicing abortions of unwanted children or murdering their bastards once they’ve come into the world. The majority of children, he says, find it difficult to learn handicrafts or agriculture, and they generally cannot even become proficient at stealing for a living much before age six. And by age twelve, a child will already have cost more than he/she is worth in terms of food and clothing. However, a year-old child would be delicious and nourishing, cooked in any fashion. So he proposes cannibalism, and specifically that Irish babies be turned into food, just as cattle are. With the mathematical precision of an agricultural economist, he proposes reserving annually 120,000 such children for breeding, a quarter of them males, as that many males will be sufficient to impregnate the females. He assumes a birth weight of 12 pounds per child, and a fully filled out "eating" weight at one year of 28 pounds. He says these children would be especially good food for landlords, who have already devoured their parents. Infant flesh will be in season all year, but especially in March. Popish infants are three to one over Protestant infants in the population, so using them in this fashion will have the advantage of reducing the number of Papists. The charge of nursing a child is reckoned to be about 2 shillings per annum; a carcass of a fat child will get 10 shillings, so the mother will net 8 shillings for the sale of her child. It is also possible to flay the carcass and make gloves for ladies or boots for gentlement of the child’s skin. Swift also discusses the relative merits of eating babies versus teens and says there are more advantages to using the babies for food. He lists the following, by way of summation of the advantages of his proposal: 1. It would greatly lessen the number of Papists. 2. It will help poor tenants pay their landlords rent. 3. It will eliminate the maintenance of 100,000 children aged two and up and instead increase the nation’s stock by 50,000 pounds per annum. 4. Constant breeders will free themselves from maintaining their children after a year and will net 8 shillings per child. 5. It will improve the custom in taverns. 6. It will induce marriage, as well as competition among women to see who could bring the fattest child to market. Men would treat their pregnant wives as well as they do their cattle. Finally, he says he doesn’t want other economists to offer him their alternatives without first examining his proposal seriously and determining its feasibility. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily