Sentence Structure and Juxtaposed Ideas in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"
Alicia Young '06, English 171,Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, Autumn 2003
Jonathan Swift could never be accused of writing too simply. "A Modest Proposal" brims over with complex sentences and mountains of subordinated clauses, combining and juxtaposing Swift's stated opinions with those of his acquaintances. Swift begins his treatise by describing in general terms the overpopulation and resultant indigence of Ireland and his plan for a solution:
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt 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 may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands. [ . . . ] I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
Swift then juxtaposes his own proposal with his acquaintance's idea of supplanting teenagers' flesh in place of venison within the national diet, admitting that he finds this idea cruel:
A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service: And these to be disposed of by their parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest relations. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school-boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves: And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.
1. What is achieved by Swift's many details, considering the topic of his proposal? Do you think the proposal would be effective if it were written differently (e.g., with direct, simple sentences)?
2. Why would Swift bother to bring up his friend's approach? How does this digression contribute to Swift's own purpose?
Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal." Accessed 28 Jan. 2005. Last updated 27 Dec. 2004. http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/swift/modest.html.
Last modified 9 February 2005