The identity Crisis of Swift’s Modest Proposer

By Jeremy R. Strong

            The way in which the narrator of Jonathan Swifts A Modest Proposal confronts the unfamiliar idea of utilizing the poor children of the country for sustenance helps us to understand the narrator as completely sarcastic. On the surface it also helps us understand the political situation in Ireland, the situation of the poor, the religious and political beliefs of the writer and the situation of landlord’s price gouging the already poor Irish commoner. But upon further investigation, there are many subtleties hidden within the work that give us a much more layered understanding of the real Swift, hidden behind his Modest Proposer. This paper sets out to prove that a deeper reading reveals a Jonathan Swift that was frustrated and disgusted by the problem of Irish poverty, but one who also suffered from a crisis of identity that heavily influenced the writing of A Modest Proposal. In doing so I would also like to examine how the piece uses an unfamiliar and barbaric concept like cannibalism to make its point.

            I would assert that it must be said that there are two narrators of A Modest Proposal. The first is the narrator as he presents himself, the shallow and horrible version that exists on the humorous side of the proposal. This is the narrator who speaks with inhumanity about the children of Ireland when he states “Whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up as preserver for a preserver of the nation” (Page 417). We know upon further reading that this narrator’s idea of making the children useful is by eating them. Compare this narrator with the narrator that states “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children” (419). This second narrator is markedly different. The voice that breaks through here is the true voice of Swift, a man with deep feelings of sympathy for the injustices carried out on the Irish people. This is not the voice of a man who would suggest boiling and eating children as a sensible solution. 

            It is the second narrator that we benefit most from studying, as the true voice of Swift tells us more about his true intentions in writing A Modest Proposal and gives us some important clues as to his inspiration for doing so. This narrator is so filled with despair and disgust about the Irish situation that he is beyond expressing himself through angry and recriminating attacks, appealing to common sense and human decency. Instead, this narrator, past his initial anger, is able to write satire so biting and so extreme and is able to do so with such skill that we almost believe he is serious.

            What we can learn from the clues in the text is best demonstrated by Ian Campbell Ross, in his article A Very Knowing American”: The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Swift’s Modest Proposal. Ross presents a fascinating account of the highly likely source of Swift’s inspiration for writing A Modest Proposal. This article helps us to understand how astounding amounts of information can be revealed about the narrator, including the title’s allusion to the knowing American. Of the difficulty of pinning down the identity of the narrator, Campbell writes that “Swift himself was capable of adopting the attitude of contempt for the supposedly barbarous Irish-speaking Roman Catholic peasantry” (Page 19) and that Swift “could even do so as (or after) he distinguished himself from the English, whom he held responsible for Ireland’s contemporary political subjection and economic woes” (Ibid). And that encapsulates Swift’s Identity Crisis. Not English, Not Irish. Not a victim and not a victimizer but deeply invested with understanding the problem from both sides and feeling powerless to move anyone to action. In helping us to understand why Swift was so inspired by the writing of Garcilaso, a man who was “both Inca and Spanish (or neither)” (Page 18), Ross helps us to learn more about Swift himself. He writes that it is unlikely “that Swift would not have had a clear sense that the historical source on which he drew was the work of a writer who, like himself, occupied an uneasy position between two cultures” (Ibid). 

            Another scholar in the field has a different interpretation of the inspiration behind A Modest Proposal. In his article Swift, A Modest Proposal and Slavery John Richardson contends that the largest influence on the content of the Proposal was likely slavery (Page 2). Of the voice presented by the narrator in A Modest Proposal, Richardson believes a specific effect was desired by Swift, writing that “The strangeness of the solution ought to resurrect the reader’s sense of the dreadfulness of the familiar situation, and perhaps prompt a determination to seek change” (Page 1). I agree with this statement and think that Richardson is also correct in believing that the “Authors complicity is evident throughout A Modest Proposal” (Page 13). But also that “Swift is not quite the Proposer, since the latter is married and a father” (Ibid). This supports the idea in my thesis that one should not read A Modest Proposal without considering the two different voices used. Of Richardson’s assertion that the main inspiration for the work was slavery, I do not agree. I find Campbell Ross’s evidence that Swift had been a known reader of Garcilaso far more striking than Richardson’s simple assertion that Slavery was happening during that time period. What I do find in my own reading of the piece are some connections to be made to slavery, supporting a more inclusive idea that the piece was inspired in different ways. Such mentions are brief, but could be interpreted as pertaining to slavery such as “I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity; and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange” (418). Other examples are the wives as “breeder” (Ibid) and the processing of child’s meat as “industry” (421). 

            When considering the two voices in the piece, the overwhelming majority is written in the first voice, that of the fictitious narrator. Swift only gives us a few small glimpses of the second voice, as in the example cited above. For our purposes though, the first voice can also tell us just as much about Swift as the second. Herbert Davis, in Jonathan Swift: Essays on his satire and other studies, a comprehensive book on Swift’s satire, in an essay on the moral satire of Swift, writes that Swift was “parodying himself” (Page 159), and that Swift “has learned that he has no longer any power as a politician; he is unable to influence the government…he is unable to rouse the people” (Ibid). Davis goes on to argue that Swift only could have had one avenue of purpose left open in writing A Modest Proposal, and that is “to appeal to the conscience of mankind” (Ibid). Therefore according to Davis, the purpose of A Modest Proposal and by association, the voice of both narrators, is to raise a shocking moral question in order to demonstrate the hopelessness of the situation in Ireland. This is a device that Swift was forced to resort to after years of writing serious proposals that fell on deaf ears and failed to motivate any real change in the Irish people (Ibid).

            Further study of the narrative voice reveals that Swift was also toying with conventional ideas about the nature of the written word and his reader’s trust of it. In his essay Why the Houyhnhnms Don’t Write: Swift, Satire and the fear of the text, Terry J Castle writes of A Modest Proposal that “Swift’s irony devastates precisely because it exploits our conventional, even superstitious assumption about texts—that they are authoritative signs” (Page 66). Of the design behind A Modest Proposal, he writes that it “models for us that dehumanized script which encourages the dehumanization of the reader: its rhetoric is indeed hypnotic” (Ibid). Therefore if Swift was trying to dehumanize through his writing, he was doing so in the first voice, the fictional voice, the voice that demonstrates indifference for human life that Swift doesn’t really feel himself. This is yet another way that even the fictional voice in A Modest Proposal tells us something important about Swift himself and his reasons for writing it.

            A Further example I have found in the text of Swift’s second voice coming through, is when the proposer writes “I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold as to attempt an answer, that they will at first ask the parents of these mortals whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old in the manner I prescribe” (422). This bitter question is proposed by the real Swift, who is saying that unfortunately, in Ireland, a lot of people would be better off dead than miserable and poor. Supporting this interpretation of the voice of the narrator, Nigel Wood writes in the introduction to his book Jonathan Swift, that in A Modest Proposal, “Swift imaged Ireland as a victim from which he quite strenuously strove to distance himself” (Page 12). Also that “The Modest Proposer is as wearied as the historical Swift by suggesting practical schemes to solve Irish poverty” (Ibid 15). So we see that Swift was so fed up with a people that refused to help themselves, that his resorting to the better off dead mentality of A Modest Proposal is a last resort.

            In the same book, in the essay Swift’s Tory Anarchy, Edward Said claims that “A Modest Proposal announces itself as the thought of everyone but Swift, yet it is indubitably by Swift” (Page 38). I agree with this interpretation and feel that it is supported by the following example; in Swift’s Causes of the wretched condition of Ireland he writes of the children that they are “from their infancy so given up to idleness and sloth, that they often choose to beg or steal” (page 423). Compare this with his mention of children in A Modest Proposal “they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old” (418). The two voices here are almost identical, the only difference is that one is speaking in humor and the other is not, but both voices are saying the exact same thing.

            Swift accomplishes confronting the unfamiliar or at least revolting concept of cannibalism by writing as though he were discussing the weather, or the price of grain. This helps shape the way we understand Swift because we already know he has written passionately about the problems in Ireland; Causes of the wretched condition if Ireland and A Short View of the State of Ireland being just two examples. What it helps us to understand is that, as Daniel Eilon writes in his book Factions Fictions “In A Modest Proposal concealed passion [the infamous dispassionate tone] is the product of fierce frustration whose weakness…has been transformed into strength as steely self control” (Page 49). Also, “Although the Modest Proposal may be crazy (goes the familiar argument), it fits the character of the proposer. According to his value system (and, by implication, ours), the scheme is both logical and humane” (Page 143). Here, Eilon has echoed the contention of this paper that there are two narrators and two voices. The crazy narrator is, of course, the first voice, the more obvious one. But Swift is in there too, exhibiting the “Steely self control”.

            But what of this first narrator, the fictional voice, convincing us that cannibalism is the best solution for Ireland’s woes? What else can we learn about Swift from this voice and how does forcing the reader to confront the unfamiliar shape our understanding of him? In his humorous article Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal, Robert Phiddian writes that “the essay is grotesque without being canivalesque, and the feeling it induces in readers is one of unease rather than of pleasure or release” (603). So though parts of the piece are funny, Swift was not trying to make us laugh, but rather hoping to make us uncomfortable with the ease with which the narrator rattles off lists of ways to cook children. Phiddian also notes that “The Modest Proposal is simply too aggressively alienating to be successful as a hoax” (605) underscoring ideas discussed earlier of Swift’s true reasons for writing the piece.

             John M. Bullitt writes in his book Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire, that the narrator is “acting in ignorance of his condition” Page 61) and that he “is not consciously malevolent” (Ibid). He then goes on to assert that because the narrator absolves himself of personal interest resulting from the proposal, he has “the total absence of any personal involvement in the realities of misery” (Page 62). But the real narrator, Swift, is the exact opposite of all these things, so are we to infer that Swift is consciously malevolent and therefore desired the genocide of the poor Irish?  I don’t think that we should, given the small clues in text mentioned earlier that prove Swift cares about the way the Irish have been treated. But perhaps Swift did feel anger towards the Irish for allowing themselves to live in squalor and allows this anger to flow through his second identity in the form of such disdain for life.

            So far we have learned that the confrontation with an unfamiliar concept, cannibalism, has shaped the way we understand the narrative voices. But what can we glean from the satire regarding the idea of Swift’s identity crisis as mentioned earlier?  In his essay The Character of Swift’s Satire, Claude Rawson states that the proposer “had in the past, he tells us, proposed “other expedients,” sound measures for Ireland’s benefit that we recognize as those Swift himself had fought for in the 1720s, in vain” (Page 78). So we see that Swift has been in both positions, writing with a real hope to affect change and now, with A Modest Proposal satirizing the fact that he can’t bring it about through sensible means. To this end Rawson also writes that “The essential characteristic of the Modest Proposal is indeed despair” (Ibid 160). Then asserting that although Swift is attacking England in the piece, the main target of his satire is “the selfishness and apathy of the people of Ireland themselves; it is the impossibility of arousing them to effective action” (Page 162). At the same time, Rawson also identifies that same seeming lack of identity in Swift’s A Modest Proposal, pointing out that “this pity for their wretched condition is unaccompanied by any sense of community” (Page 163). This seems to echo the argument of Campbell Ross; that Swift suffered from a lifelong identity crisis caused by his difficulty fitting in with either the oppressive English, or the oppressed Irish. 

            To conclude this investigation into the narrator of A Modest Proposal, I would like to re-iterate that I do believe the piece is best examined as having two narrators. If the word play as Rawson calls it is an “ironic game of self-concealment and then aggressive self-disclosure” (Page 188), then that clearly supports my theory of identity crisis. Because the narrator in the piece retains a cool, dispassionate demeanor, but also “appears to make directly ironic remarks” as Everett Zimmerman points out in his book Swift’s Narrative Satires (page 69), we are forced to listen to both voices. And that is what has made A Modest Proposal a work of such timeless interest. It is complex and continually revealing more and more about Swift as scholars become more interested in the question of his transient identity. 

The ease with which the narrator discusses cannibalism is confrontational and challenges us morally. Phiddian aptly captures this tension, describing how we are “stretched between the polar claims to authority made, on the one hand, by the delinquent and lunatic proposer, and, on the other, by an angry and fugitive Swift” (205). This tension underlines how grappling with the unfamiliar helps shape our understanding of the two narrators.

Works Cited

Bullitt, John M. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire. 1961. 

            Harvard University Press.

Davis, Herbert. Jonathan Swift: Essays on his satire and other studies. 1964. 

            Oxford University Press.

Eilon, Daniel. Factions Fictions. 1991. Associated University Presses.

Phiddian, Robert. Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal. 

            Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, (36:3), 1996 Summer, 603-21.

Rawson, Claude. The Character of Swift‘s Satire. 1983. 

            Associated University Presses.

Ross, Ian Campbell. A Very Knowing American”: The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and 

Swift’s Modest Proposal. Modern Language Quarterly; Dec. 2007, Vol. 68 Issue 4, p493-516.

Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal, Causes of the Wretched Condition of 

            Ireland,and A short View of the State of Ireland. In The Broadview Anthology

             of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Ed. LePan,

             Don. Broadview Press. 2006. p417-426.

Wood Nigel, ed. Jonathan Swift. 1999. Addison Wesley Longman Ltd. 

Swift’s Tory Anarchy by Edward Said. Why the Houyhnhnms Don’t Write: Swift, Satire and the fear of the text by Terry J. Castle.

Zimmerman, Everett. Swift’s Narrative Satires. 1983. Cornell University Press.

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