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The Irish author, satirist and journalist, Jonathan Swift, was born in Dublin by a lawyer father working for the British civil service. He was left with his penniless mother after the father died some short months before his birth. It was left to his uncle to raise him. Literary connections have been noted in his family relationships to notable literary figures of that time such as Sir Walter Raleigh. He learnt in Dublin eventually gaining his bachelor and masters from TrinityCollege. He was not noted for any academic brilliance but his obstinate personality was already a concern for his teachers (Glendinning 9).
He shifted to England to escape the 1688’s Anti-Catholic revolution’s aftermath. Though he secured work as a secretary of a relative of his mother, he was dissatisfied with the work of a servant. Swift was ordained as an Anglican priest or pastor though he was not a religious man and was smitten by a young lady, Esther Johnson otherwise known to him as Stella, who was once his student or pupil. Their relationship created a lot of speculations. After her death, when Swift was a vicar he was rejected as a marriage partner by a lady, Jane Wairing, whom he had a romantic dalliance. According to Glendinning (50), Jonathan Swift seems to have had unfulfilling love affairs.
Through his essays he became famous and was an integral part of the London’s literary and political life. He contributed essays to various magazines and news letters of the day, apart from being co-founder of literary clubs with other notable personalities of the time. He tried his hand in politics joining the Tories after a short flirtation with the Whigs but withdrew to Ireland after the Tories had lost power. In his withdrawal to Ireland he attracted a young lady very much younger than him, whom he christened Vanessa in the poem ‘Cadenus and Vanessa. However this time he is the one who broke the relationship, in the process devastating the lady.
Swift later developed mental problems after he became the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral though he had hearing problems from a young age. He died in Dublin leaving a legacy of literary works even penning his epitaph. He initially wrote using pseudonyms such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, M.B Draper and sometimes anonymously. He is widely regarded for his satire but not so much for his poems.
A modest proposal, a satire in which Swift proposes that children whose parents cannot take care of them should be turned into dinner for so called gentle folks. Satire is a type of literary style where the author uses irony and sarcasm to ridicule a person, event or situation. In the hard hitting booklet he outlines how catholic Irish families should be used as breeders of plumb children for the consumption of wealthy protestant gentry. By so doing the society will solve problems besetting it such as poverty, beggars on the streets, unsightly sight of emaciated children, the mushrooming of the papist population and at the same time create wealth for the economy (Swift 3).
The juvenalian satire used by Swift is savagely sarcastic unlike the Horatian satire which is making fun of situation or event. A Modest Proposal was written anonymously by Swift at a time when he had virtually gone to exile in Ireland after his hopes of acquiring a prominent position in the English government were shattered (Glendinning, 76). Thus the venomous tone and brutal graphics of the narrative can be traced to his state of disgruntlement. The ‘melancholy object’ he refers to at the start of the satire can be used to describe Swift’s feelings. After describing the plight of the poor, one expects the solution proposed by Swift to be a humane plan to help alleviate this poverty. However the solution he proposes is outrageous as to shock the mind and make the reader to take pause. The blatantly shocking solution is a major reason the satire has continued to generate interest.
It is a satire that can be misinterpreted as a true intention of Swift to advocate for cannibalism. However once the irony and sarcasm are an appreciated it comes out as an uncompromising indictment of the Irish society, its treatment of underprivileged people and the discriminatory policies of the British government. Though he was English and a protestant (Glendinning 35), Swift identified with the Irish as he was born in Ireland hence he wanted to highlight the unfairness of the land owners who did not value the life of their tenants. By proposing that their children should be made fat to be eaten he was lamenting the fact that their lives were so devalued that maybe the only value they would have is as food.
It is a major contribution to the literature of exploitation, injustice, discrimination, prejudice and the friction between the societal classes, problems that have perennially exercised the sanity of the society. Through brutal exposition of the problem and the extreme proposal that is deliberately as ‘modest’, one is left wondering the type of society that will pay its less privileged citizens money to sell their children to the well off. By enumerating the advantages of his proposal, Swift underscores the way human life has been reduced to being a commercial product. Human life is shown as not worth living if it does not bring any commercial benefit.
By deliberately being obnoxious and unsympathetic the author drives the reader to take the side of the Irish who are seen to be in the grips of monsters who have use the as source of meat. It is a powerful propaganda tool for the fight for Irish emancipation at a time the Irish laborers were being oppressed by the English land owners. The Irish laborers worked the all day for negligible wages that were not enough to pay rent to the same land owners. The workers were left with few options; work was hard to come by, even with that work, the wages were just enough to scrape a living. Hence they roamed the streets begging for sustenance and their children became thieves.
At this time, there was economic hardship, the reason the proposal is introduced as a panacea of the hard times. When he proposes that, therefore let no man talks to him about other expedients and goes ahead enumerating them, he is actually talking of his real views on the subject. The speaker is used by Swift to lay open what is wrong with the Irish society and represent the revulsion the author as indeed the readers feel towards that society and the prevailing conditions.
This pamphlet elicited a lot of heated criticism towards the author with accusations of barbarism (Glendinning 82). Ironically this is exactly what the author was trying to show the readers about the state of the Irish society. His point was that the readers ought to be disgusted with the situation that was prevailing where human life cost nothing and can be compared with pigs being reared for the dinner table of gentlemen. This is the essence of satire, by ridiculing issues the reader or audience is led to see how a situation is outrageous.