Reaffirming Culture in Order to Condemn It
Charles Vallely, English 171,Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, Autumn 2003
When Swift's speaker begins to "humbly propose [his] own thoughts," he uses one of the principal devices of satire: he justifies an institution and speaks in its terms in order to expose its failings. In the subsequent passage, he suggests that destitute children -- who "are seldom the fruits of marriage," and thus a disgrace to Irish custom -- can, in fact, nourish Irish culture by literally being consumed by it. Swift presents the proposal as an effort to cure the ills of Ireland but clearly implies that this will only produce a greater (and implausible) offense. But the strength of his satire rests in his language and how he intimately engages Irish culinary culture. Detailing the ways in which children can be prepared -- how one should "render them plump, and fat for a good table," and how they "will be very good boiled on the fourth day" - Swift renders familiar Irish customs an atrocity, instilling the words used to describe them with a new, unspeakable meaning.
Ironically, he has asserted culture in another way that makes the satirical effect even more severe: the children have become "cultured livestock," prepared for the butcher and the consumer alike from the day of their birth.
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.
1. What is the effect of Swift's repeated reference to "calculations" and "computations"? Does he simply use it as a tool to evoke scientific authority, and thus emphasize the ridiculousness of his proposal? Or does it also serve to mock the style and contentions of his contemporaries?
2. What is Swift's religious affiliation? Are his talks of "lessening the number of Papists" and "savages" motivated by sincere disapproval, or are they part of the greater satire, taking a shot at what he anticipates are the beliefs of his audience?
3. What is Swift's aim when he refers to the influence of "a very knowing American" and "the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa," on the development of his proposal? How do other cultures inform Swift's plan for Ireland?
4. What is the importance of the sale of the babies being "offered... through the kingdom"?
Last modified 9 February 2005