“A Modest Proposal:” A Flexible, Before-the-Exam Approach

“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” (that’s the full title!) was written by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) and published in 1729. “A Modest Proposal” confronts Ireland’s poverty issue head-on, proposing that the best way to alleviate child poverty is to consume (yes, eat) young children that cannot be taken care of adequately. Swift uses satire and light tone to make readers question their instant revulsion to this text.

Moral sense theory consists of the immediate, emotion-driven judgments that may conflict with the rational explanations offered to account for their responses” (Herron 418). This directly applies to “A Modest Proposal” (and you can use it on the theory section of the exam!), as Swift offers countless explanations for (and benefits of) his seemingly horrifying proposal:

  • “There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us! sacrificing the poor innocent babes I doubt more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast” (paragraph 5).
  • “But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can reasonably expected” (paragraph 19).
  • “It would increase the care and tenderness of mothers toward their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the public, to their annual profit instead of expense” (paragraph 26).

Shane Herron’s article “Dark Humour and Moral Sense Theory: Or, How Swift Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Evil” focuses on the sweet spot in which “A Modest Proposal” uses moral sense theory to its advantage. In other words, Swift expects this natural revulsion to occur and therefore uses his light tone and detailed explanations to make us question ourselves, creating this satire. As Herron writes, “A Modest Proposal” “[satirizes its] target through a hyperbolic mimicry designed to evoke strong negative feelings…the dark humour emerges from the ironic contrast between the intuitive horror and disgust readers experience, and the blandly cheery factuality that conveys the disturbing material… [the text employs] an idiom of folksy collegiality to underscore the familiarity and sociability of the characters, which contrasts sharply with the strong feelings of revulsion they generate in readers” (419). Just as a note, Herron refers often to Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was a contemporary of Swift (they both lived in Dublin in the 1720s), and he wrote  An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725). Unlike Swift, who believed that mankind was inherently selfish, Hutcheson believed that humans were naturally benevolent.

As for the exam, you can use the materials I have presented here (moral sense theory) and discuss “A Modest Proposal” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” This turns out to be really interesting because in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator is only attempting to use moral sense theory to justify his killing his neighbor, but it never makes us question whether the man’s eye was ever truly evil. Conversely, although we are repulsed by “A Modest Proposal,” the significant amount of statistics does support his argument in a sick way. You can also work this text into a discussion about Bhabha’s “unhomeliness,” although this text will work slightly differently from the others. This “unhomeliness” is actually how we feel about the text, not how a character in the narrative feels. More generally, you can work this text into a discussion about satire (using The Importance of Being Earnest) or even history, using the disagreement between Hutcheson and Swift in some way.

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