Swift's motives for writing "A Modest Proposa" (text), which appeared in 1729, were complex. He felt, for his own part, that he had been exiled to Ireland when he would have much preferred to have been in England, and his personal sense of the wrongs he had received at the hands of the English only intensified the anger he felt at the way England mistreated Ireland. Though he was most concerned with the plight of his own class, the relatively prosperous Anglo-Irish who were members of the Church of Ireland, rather than that of the Irish Presbytarians of Ulster or that of the Roman Catholics who made up the largest, and the poorest, segment of the Irish population, he spoke, in the end, for the country as a whole. He lived in an Ireland which was a colony, politically, militarily, and economically dependent upon England. It was manifestly in England's interest to keep things as they were: a weak Ireland could not threaten England, and the measures which kept it weak were profitable for the English. As a result Ireland was a desperately poor country, overpopulated, full, as Swift said, of beggars, wracked periodically by famine, heavily taxed, and with no say at all in its own affairs. England controlled the Irish legislature. English absentee landlords owned most of the land which was worth owning. Irish manufacturies were deliberately crippled so that they could not compete with those in England.
Swift was enraged at the passivity of the Irish people, who had become so habituated to the situation that they seemed incapable of making any effort to change it. The Irish Parliament ignored numerous proposals which Swift made in earnest — proposals to tax absentee landlords, to encourage Irish industries, to improve the land, agricultural techniques, and the quality of manufactured goods — which would have begun to rectify things.
"A Modest Proposal," then, is at once a disgusted parody of Swift's own serious proposals, as well as those of less disinterested "projectors," and a savage indictment both of the exploitive English and of the exploited Irish. Rhetorically, it is enormously sophisticated; requiring that we accept and reject its central premise at one and the same time. In it Swift owes a debt to Defoe's "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters": behind the role-playing, behind the semblance of quietly realistic humanitarianism and calm reasonableness lies a savage indignation directed at the exploiter as well as an implicit compassion for the exploited. Behind the "Modest Proposer," that is, stands an enraged and sardonic Swift, asking both sides whether the whole matter is not merely a question of degree; a question of the extent to which a human being — the manipulator or the manipulated — can be dehumanized. Once the process of dehumanization gets underway, as it obviously is, in a country in which no one — not even the unfortunates themselves — seems to mind or object to the fact that tens of thousands of human beings starve to death each year, where can one calmly, sanely, and logically draw the line and say thus far and no farther? "A Modest Proposal" is a manifestation of Swift's sense of anger and frustration, and as such it is merely the most savage, the most brutal, the most heavily ironic, of the numerous tracts which he produced during the early eighteenth century in an attempt to shame England and to shock Ireland out of its lethargic state. It is a ghastly masterpiece, cunningly devised, horribly plausible, deviously manipulative: it remains for the reader to come to terms with it, to comprehend it, and to determine the extent to which, oddly enough, it might be relevant in our own world.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000