Rhetorical analysis on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

Jonathan Swift in this essay wisely showcases the political, social, and theological issues. Swift raises contemporary Ireland’s situation in an early eighteenth century. However, the way Swift points out the problems and brings the scheme to deal with them is quite interesting. Undoubtedly, Jonathan is one of the political satirists of that contemporary time. He even served to Sir William Temple as secretary, a retired diplomat, scholar, and influential politician. Later, he became a clergyman in the Anglican Church. However, he always despised England’s domination over Ireland. There was huge political turmoil between the English and the Irish, which caused Ireland and its people suffer a lot. So, this essay is strong criticism over English domineers and so-called Irish politician. Alternatively, we can say Swift was just satirizing the stingy British approach to dealing with their Irish subjects. Moreover, Swift, through this essay wants to nil the problem of child vagrancy and make them useful in the public sphere. However, his proposal is incredible and sounds awkward but that is not the case what is written in the essay. He writes, “For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and making them beneficial to the public.” When there is not an option for preventing the problem then one must eliminate the factors that create the problem. Thus, he suggests the government butcher the children, who are obviously the burden to the nation and the parents, so they would be handy for both: parents and the country.

To make his argument precise, Swift uses the variety of rhetorical strategies. He first elucidates that the children of poor people are the garbage for the country. He puts forward that these children will soon turn out to be the thieves in the future or prostitutes or they will leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain (the son of James 2nd, who lost the throne of England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688), or sell themselves to the Barbadoes. Thus, to avert these things from happening and make these street children into productive members of the society, he brings the scheme to the welfare of the nation. However, his proposal is antihuman. How can one imagine the babies to be boiled and the innocent children butchered?  He even asserts that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled. No one can conceive the children to be slaughtered: He commodifies the children and states the rates of the child: it is true a child just dropped from its dam may be  supported by her milk for a solar year with little other nourishment, at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother certainly get, or the value in scrap, by her lawful occupation of begging, and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to

Rhetorical analysis on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

provide for them, in such a manner as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting and raiment for the feeding and partly to the clothing of any thousands. He further states that his scheme has a great advantage, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children. This is to avoid the expense than the shame. This way he convinces the country’s authority to apply his proposal because mushroomed problems created by the millions of vacant people and their children are the huge loss to the nation. Therefore, to maintain the problem he asks the government to ponder about his idea of butchering and chopping down the children that are highly satirical because the authority is not able to manage the turmoil created by wayward population.

Jonathan Swift is highly distinguished as a renowned satirist of that era. This essay is against the weakness of the government of Ireland, which could not deal with England, and to tell the truth, he was no fan of the English rule, as he made abundantly clear in a series of political pamphlets against British hegemony in Ireland. Likewise, to lessen the riddle he emphasizes on the slaughtering of the children. The author fills out the background to his proposal with additional statistical data. In a national population of 1.5 million, there are probably 200,000 women of childbearing age. Out of these, 30,000 might be supposed to be financially able to maintain their own children. That leaves 170,000 breeders. Of these, perhaps 50,000 will miscarry or lose their children in the first year, leaving 120,000 children born of poor parents each year. The question, therefore is, how this number shall be reared and provided for? In the current state of the nation Swift asserts it to be impossible. They cannot be employed in a country that neither builds houses nor cultivate the land. Except for the exceptionally gifted, they will not be able to steal for a living until they are at least six years of age, although, they learn the Rudiments much earlier. A child under the age of twelve is not saleable commodity, and even when they are old enough to be sold into servitude, children bring no very large price. To support his position Swift mentions the advantages of his proposal. He chronologically puts the benefits of his plan. First of all; he says, it will greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on a purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good protestant.  Secondly, the proper tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress, and help to pay their landlords pay rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and the money a thing unknown. Thirdly, the kingdom will be benefitted if the money circulates within the country, if the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture. Fourthly, the constant breeders will be rid of the charge of maintaining their children after a year of their birth by gaining eight shillings sterling per annum. Fifthly, this food will bring a great custom to taverns and the skilful cook and the gentlemen who love eating will be pleased. Sixthly, it will make husbands treat their wives tenderly and mothers will also be more caring about their children.

However, this piece of writing is satirical and harshly satires on so-called political leaders and who endorse the colonial tendency because of whom civilians have to suffer. Nevertheless, one who does not understand what irony means would grasp this text directly and find it as misanthropic behavior. Although, Swift’s intention is to bring changes in bureaucracy and other political arenas the way he presents his proposal is indeed very unsympathetic. For instance, he recommends buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife as we do roasting pigs, boiling them in a hot water, chopping them into pieces and so forth. He believes by doing this, I mean by doing the trade of human flesh the country would be in a better condition. His computation of the children is beneficial if only the intention were right and humane.

Throughout the text, Swift is endeavoring how the kingdom would get rid of the problem of poverty. The problem is created by the poor people and their savage children which is one of the major factors of the degradation of the nation. Actually, he was involved in both Tory and Whig party writing the pamphlets for. He even became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. He had well known in the field of politics as well. The Encyclopaedia Britannica regarded him as the foremost prose satirist. Thus, his proposal of slaughtering the innocent children for preventing them from being a burden to their parents or country is ironic. However, a reader needs to venture into the depth to figure out what Swift is trying to convey. His most celebrated works such as A Tale of a Tub (1704), An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1712), Gulliver’s Travel (1726). All these notable creations of him display the very ironic picture of human society, life and most importantly filthy politics.

To be honest, it is a very toilsome job to comprehend what Swift’s stand is. All the solutions he affords are, at first-hand sound very controversial and absurd because nobody endorses the killing of the people to eliminate the problems. However, his proposal is intentional not to slaughter the children but aware the mean politicians. As we know, politicians only promise the moon but they deliver nothing. Hence, this is what presumably, had happened in Ireland at that era, thus he wrote this essay with best objectives to shun the challenge of poverty.


Nevertheless, the solution for the problem sounds lunatic but this is very harsh criticism to the English interference in the affair of Ireland. Likewise, this essay earned the title of misanthropic by many critics during that period. Nonetheless, it also satirizes the authorities or politicians by whom the problem ought to be solved but did not. Consequently, this essay would work to abolish or lessen the problems because it provides the shame and guilt on British notion of colonization. At last, he confesses that he does not have any personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing. Thus, Jonathan Swift seems to be very empathetic upon the contemporary Irish whereabouts. He even is ready to sacrifice his child, but cannot that is why he seems to say about, to endorse strategy he brings about that is the tremendous satire to the people who long to sustain this problem for their appropriation.


Rhetorical analysis on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”

Author: Ganesh Rai




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