Eighteenth Century

“A Modest Proposal”: Its Historical Context and Relation to “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

While I read Jonathan Swift’s satirical “A Modest Proposal,” I assumed it was written in the mid to late eighteenth century since cannibalism is its main solution to the poor economic conditions in Ireland. Therefore, at the end of the article, I was surprised to see that it was published in 1729 because the first Irish Famine occurred from 1740-1741, then Great Potato Famine occurred from 1845-1852 (“Irish Famine (1740–1741), “Great Famine (Ireland)”). Consequently, I was curious about what promoted Swift to write it, and then noticed after the essay, the editors of our textbook included excerpts from two sermons he wrote prior to his proposal in order to give us its context (422-26). Surprisingly, many of Swift’s complaints deal with Ireland’s economy rather than its people’s survival. Now, it is absurd to differentiate between the two too much. However, I do think it is significant that in “A Modest Proposal,” he constantly addresses a human’s need for food while in the two sermons he is more concerned with urbanization, international trade, politics, gender roles, and class, and only directly references food twice, both times regarding agriculture (423, 424-5).

Additionally, since Swift also wrote “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” there was an obvious connection of both concerning women, and when I examined it closer, I found some similarities and differences. One similarity is his mockery and disdain of the process it takes for a woman to beautify herself. However, in his essay he addresses it somewhat differently because he urges the Irish to reject “the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury; [and cure] the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women” (421). In other words, instead of ridiculing the process, he criticizes the expensive imported products that women use in their lives (421).

On the other hand, a significant difference is his comments about women’s reproductive rights. Specifically, in his essay, Swift believes that preventing abortions is a great advantage of his scheme because in “sacrificing the poor innocent babes,” it would be better “to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast” (418). That is, because abortion is another form of murder, it would be better to avoid the expense of raising a child past a year old than trying to avoid the shame of an abortion (418). Therefore, in order to accomplish the former, a woman should choose to give birth to the baby with the promise of an eight-shilling reward when she sells it for food after feeding it breast milk for one year (418).

Although I knew “A Modest Proposal” was a satire, it was quite strange how Swift’s rhetoric was professional and his arguments were well supported with references to respected people and well-known articles. Nevertheless, since it was a black comedy, I thought the last paragraph was the most amusing because he assures us that his proposal is completely selfless since he does not have any children to sell: “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” (422).


Discussion Question

On Wikipedia, I read that he originally published the article anonymously, but I could not find when he finally took credit for it, so I’m curious if he claimed it during or soon after the first Irish Famine (“A Modest Proposal”)? If so, does that make the essay any more or less significant and/or satiric?


Works Cited

“A Modest Proposal.” Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 24 October 2012. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal&gt;.

 “Irish Famine (1740–1741).” Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 29 October 2012. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Famine_(1740%E2%80%931741)&gt;.

“Great Famine (Ireland).” Wikipedia.com. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 19 October 2012. Web. 30 October 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)&gt;.


One thought on ““A Modest Proposal”: Its Historical Context and Relation to “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

  1. I also rather enjoyed the satirical format of Swift’s work. He uses legitimate arguements to chastise the so called “honorable and distinguished” members of society into taking a closer look at their own codes of morality. He uses something as outlandish as the cannibalism of children to show how atrocious the acts being perpetrated against the poor really are.

    “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.” (pg. 419)

    So, how can one possibly overlook the one, while prescribing to the other? The article drips with loathing sarcasm and yet I believe it justly delivers its point.

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