LBB8: ‘A Modest Proposal’ by Jonathan Swift

Written in 1729 ‘A Modest Proposal’ is Swift’s (1667 to 1745) biting satire about how to solve famines in Ireland. More specifically, as per its subtitle, this is a modest proposal “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.”

The whole thing is very amusing. Swift draws you in with his profession that he has come up with a great plan, with numerous (euphemistically explained) benefits: “instead of being a charge on their parents, or the Parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives; [one year old babies] shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly the clothing of many thousands.”

Swift then does a bit of maths to compute the size of the current problem in Ireland: 1.5 million people in Ireland, approximately 170,000 child-bearing women, subtract 50,000 for children who will die through a miscarriage or disease in the first year, leaving about 120,000 new children each year to look after. He says that’s a lot of mouths to feed and bodies to clothe, and children can’t start any kind of useful employment, such as pickpocketing, until they’re at least 6. 

After a little more waffle, he then hits you with the bombshell line:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a healthy young child, well nursed, at a year old is a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie or ragout.” 

He then goes on to explain the various benefits of this novel combination of infanticide and cannibalism. 

What shocked me most, far more in fact than the proposed cannibalism (of which I was of course forewarned, this being a very famous piece of writing) was the fact that it would be specifically ‘Gentlemen of Fortune’, rather than the parents themselves, who would be eating the babies. Irish babies are to become a delicacy for the aristocracy’s Sunday lunch tables.

More than this, under the Proposal the babies become an economic asset, one by which a mother might make a profit of “not less than 8 shillings a year”. Like Enron in 1990s California, out of nowhere Swift creates a market for these babies, even suggesting they could be used as security for paying rent or over property. With real relish he concludes that Ireland’s annual wealth would be improved by over £50,000 a year due to the fact of not having to take care of these 100,000 small children. 

It’s this capitalist co-option of one of modern society’s greatest taboos, cannibalism, that is so  shocking. Under the Proposal, babies are more than ‘just’ food as well. In the opening the maker of the Proposal mentioned that some of the children would ‘provide clothing’, and he later elaborates that “those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcase, the skin of which, artificially dressed will make admirable gloves for ladies and summer boots for fine gentlemen”. 

The hilarious American friend, clearly an experienced cannibal,  later pops up again to explain how, from ‘frequent experience’, he has ascertained that the flesh of boys around twelve or fourteen years of age is generally ‘lean and tough, like that of our school-boys, through continual exercise’. He does not therefore recommend extending the scope of the Proposal wider than one year old babies (not to mention that this plan might be seen “as a little bordering on Cruelty”).

Finally, as a conclusion Swift lays out six of the principle benefits of his Proposal. The sixth of these is that the Proposal would be an inducement to marriage, and encourage husbands to treat their wives well and not “to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage”. Well, quite! 

Moreover, I think the stipulation that all children aged exactly one year old be eaten has mawkish echoes of King Herod’s order for the execution of all male children under two years old (see Matthew 2:16). 

An interesting Proposal, to say the least, but one which I’m glad none of our politicians have (yet) suggested adopting.
PS This is the eighth in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week or so I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.

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