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Swift’s Criticism of Society in “A Modest Proposal”

Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (anonymously published in 1729) is a powerful political satire about the economic and social conditions of the poor in Ireland under British rule. The essay is rich with references to political events in England and Ireland in the 18th century. Swift takes ‘irony’ as the best weapon to attack on all kinds of vice and injustice prevailing in the society. Now we will see how Swift criticizes the society in his essay.

Before, entering into our discussion we are to know something the miserable condition of that Ireland. Actually the misfortune of Ireland begins when, in 1541, the Irish recognizes England’s Henry viii, a Protestant, as king of Ireland. The protestant landlords acquire almost ten percent of estates. Meanwhile, a law is enacted limiting the rights of Irish to hold government office, purchase, real estate and get education. Consequently, many of Irish flee away and those who remain live in poverty disease and starvation.

The essayist, at the very beginning of the essay, states the deplorable economic condition and social picture of Ireland under the British rule. As the author says:

“IT is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country; when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms.”

Moreover, the author fears that, when the infants of these beggars grow up, “either turn Thieves for want of Work; or leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.”

This miserable situation is, in fact, resulted by the indifference of English administration and the oppression of landlords. Instead of solving the problem the British government shows a great carelessness to the repeated appeals to feed those hungry mouths.

Now, swift, as an English patriot finds out a “fair, cheap, and easy Method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the Commonwealth”. He wants to come with a proposal in such a manner, as he says:

“… as, instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives; they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Cloathing, of many Thousands.”

Swift criticizes the authority by prospecting that this scheme “will prevent those voluntary Abortions, and that horrid Practice of Women murdering their Bastard Children” which is “too frequent among us”. His criticism towards the English administration becomes more clear when he doubts that, the poor innocent babies are killed “more to avoid the Expence than the Shame”.

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