Oct 2, 2009

'A Modest Propoal' by Jonathan Swift

After Kafka, it was time to read another European's masterpiece. A main reason to read it was that the extended title of the essay was the inspiration for the movie Borat's extended title, both of which were damn funny. Jonathan Swift uses satire to arguably the highest extent possible to prove his point in 'A Modest Proposal'. His proposal seems quite shocking at the first instance and upon reading further, one can realize that he intentionally uses that dark humor to deliver a strong message. His proposal: Sell the impoverished children of Irish parents, esp. those of single mothers, to rich gentlemen and ladies as food.

His tone at the beginning of the essay came across as being sarcastic, notably evident where he talks of beggars having 3, 4 or 6 children. His leaving out the intermittent number 5 is, I feel, intentional, to show a typically large number of children. His sincere concern for the poor of Ireland is what has made him to write this pamphlet and we can sense it in several places. For example, his use of the word “melancholy” to describe the state of female beggars gives testimony to that. In several places, his anger can be felt too. Swift writes that “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”. We can also find the angry tone when he describes the economy-minded England, the extreme rich and the beggars of Ireland.

I was perplexed by the usage of the word “dam”. Though its archaic meaning is ‘A mother’, it has often been used to denote the female parent of household animals. The very idea of this disturbing correlation apart, Swift’s usage of that word to denote a mother, in the same sentence where he uses the word “mother” is indicative of something meaningful. Either he agrees with the gentlemen who had no trouble correlating a human mother to a domestic animal one; or the author is satirically suggesting that the human mother was indeed treated that way. His usage of the word “dropped”, in “dropped from its dam” is also non-traditional. Since the childbirth is considered to be a delicate process, the birth of a child being called a ‘drop’ sounds, to me, quite rude and insensitive.

Swift’s use of strong words in his discussion of unmarried mothers contributes to his angry tone. This tone suggests his anger he has on the unmarried mothers, which is reflected in the usage of words such as “horrid practice”, “murdering”, and “bastard children”. He considers it immoral and shameful for women to conceive without being married. Though a man is also certainly responsible for such a pregnancy, the absence of preventive measures those days meant that it was hard to control the pregnancy and the woman had to bear the brunt of it by being a subject of shame both before and after childbirth. If the thoughts of a reformist writer were this harsh towards such women, one can understand how the society must have treated those women.

Swift uses unconventional ways to describe the state of poverty in Ireland. By saying that only thirty thousand couples out of two hundred thousand are capable of maintaining their children, Swift means that about 85% of the country’s population is in dire straits. His usage of the word “only” in “There only remains one hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born” is again quite satirical, since he describes a huge number of one hundred and twenty thousand as if it is minuscule. By saying “we neither build houses (I mean in the country)”, he means that the countryside is in so pathetic a state that new houses are seldom built there, but that is not the case with cities. This suggests the urban-rural divide that was the norm of 19th century Ireland. Also, his mention of the age six as the time the children start stealing is disturbing. While the thought that a child at that age is unknowingly criminal enough to carry out such an act, his satirical tone saying that even younger children are getting into that act is reflective of the deteriorating situation in several parts of the country.

The author uses mostly long sentences, most of which are easily understandable during the first reading while a few of them required revisits. Since he describes several events of the early 18th century Ireland, several passages appeared to be strange and confusing. For example, the phrases “or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.”, “this expedient was put into his head by the famous Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London above twenty years ago”, and “Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo” equire a prior knowledge of Irish history, without which it is not possible to understand the overtone, given his satire-filled rhetoric. His usage of Shakespearean English in a couple of places, “increaseth” and “hath” and certain other words, such as, “cloaths” and “glympse” was unexpected.

Having observed satire in a few movies and in stand-up comedies, it was a unique experience to read a famous writer’s work with a large quantity of satire in it. It made me realize that there are more than one ways to drive home any message. It requires a natural sense of humor by the writer, and the clever play with words to make even a dour message sound funny and memorable.