Save the world, eat children. A “Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift would not be so modest it it were no for the obscene language to make the idea seem less abominable – that is to say – because of the use of obscene language, the tone of the dilemma does seem modest or even a bit comical at times. These reaction or sympathies are created with Jonathan Swift’s use of diction and syntax; he takes two unwanted objects (children and poor people) and confers vulgar language upon them to convince us to side with the lesser of the two ‘evils.’ It is this obscene literature that diverts the attention away from the actual ideas in the proposal and converts the idea of devouring poor children into an economical and viable opportunity.
Swift first proposes the problem with complete anti-veneration towards the poor: “the children of poor people [are] a burden to their parents or county.” His usage of negative language invites us to have the same disdain for these ‘poor children’, or burdens, as he calls them. First he finds a common ground to unite the people and then he charges poor children as the enemy. He has chosen a common enemy and is now attacking them with negative ideas. But attacking children and making them seem useless is kind of hard to do; people have morals and won’t stand for the abuse of children. Swift realizes this and then deploys scatology in order to distract us as readers. From this point on, Swift treats these children as commodities or trade-able objects and realizes that it would be vein to just kill children, so he then justifies this case by stating that grown people need to eat as well. He appeals to our survival instincts, eliciting the “better you than me” mentality which is natural to humans.
Swift takes the conscious and taboo topic of poverty and presents the arguments that wealthy or working people can agree with. He does this by proposing to turn these children into a ‘livestock’ which is a business and process that all people are familiar with. This serves as a euphemism to disguise the idea of harvesting children and makes the explicit implicit in seasonal foods. Stating that “a good fat child” can serve up to four people with “nutritive meat” is an example of a logical appeal made to us readers. “A good fat thicl” sounds disgusting at first but when contrasted with nutritive meat for you and your family, the argument seems a bit more plausible. Clearly, Swift’s use of vulgar comparisons serves as a platter for serving improper grossness as a permissible delicacy.
Swift counters the negative with a kind of humility when he states, “I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration…” So Swift is proposing a very immoral idea yet it doesn’t seem so bad, after all, this is a humble offer isn’t it? With words such as humble or modest to counteract the negative charges, the ideas once again don’t seem as horrific. This is why swift repeats himself multiple times by presenting this proposal as humble or modest.
Another counter action in this proposal would be Swift’s references to everyday people (his American friend), French physicians, and famous formosans, George Psalmanazar. With these cases, Swift has us asking of ourselves: if this is common knowledge to the rest of the world and well known to renowned scientists, then why not hear out this modest proposal? He places ideas into perspective; from the common man to the Irish man.
To defend his argument, Swift invites others to oppose his scatology and still be able “to find food and raimnet for an hundred thousand useless mouths and backs.” Once again, he is using reverse psychology to challenge an individual to defend those “useless mouths and backs.” If anybody does challenge Swift, then they are subject to supporting poverty, useless bodies and contributing to the laziness of those who “wish to deliver the Kingdom to the Pretender.”
When this proposal is not acting humble, it is firing off into the direction of comical dissolution to the victimization of children, or as Swift would put it, the salvation of a country and a people. When studied closely, one can see that it is the art of scatology that makes this proposal plausible, implicit and modest.
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Patrick C. Harrison wrote a story. “Blame Jonathon Swift”, in Cerberus Rising. It is a wickedly sharp tale of satire and horror. Highly recommended.