A Modest Proposal: Analysis

In 1729, Jonathan Swift anonymously published what would become one of the greatest satirical writings of all time. In less than 3500 words Jonathan Swift captured people’s minds, hearts and imaginations with ‘A Modest Proposal.’ Swift was a Methodist preacher and was fairly outspoken on his position of the Irish poor and the treatment of them; as well as, the treatment of the English to the Irish in general. His writing addressed the situation of poverty in Ireland.

Swift opens his ‘Proposal‘ with a tone that can best be described as insultingly sympathetic, derogatory, and superior. Keep in mind that Swift wrote this 284 years ago…spelling and grammar has changed since then. Though not necessarily for the better.

“It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants…”

This is our introduction to the ‘proposer.’ He keeps his tone in a way that seem as though he is sympathetic but in such a snooty way it comes across as derogatory. Kind of a: “Oh, those poor helpless people. Such a shame they aren’t smart enough to not be poor. Someone should do something.” Or like: “Can restraint be taught? Teenage mothers [shouldn’t] get public assistance unless they jump through some pretty small hoops. Making them live in group homes makes sense. A lot of these girls didn’t have fathers or full-time parents. But there are people-I think we can call them saints-who dedicate their lives to helping kids like this. Whoever they are, and whether they work out of a church, a temple, or some kind of public facility, they deserve all our support.” This was the tone Swift set up. Someone who apparently wanted to help the ‘poor souls’ but would do so in such a disparaging way. Source: The America We Deserve, by Donald Trump, p.107-8 , Jul 2, 2000

Keep in mind, the ‘proposer’ is a character that Swift is portraying. These are not Swift’s actual thoughts and ideas. In speaking through a ‘proposer,’ Swift is able to use sarcasm and satire in order to make his point. With a healthy dose of irony thrown into the mix for fun. Swift needed the anonymity because his stance on poverty was very well-known. By speaking through a character Swift was able to sound like his opposition. Suck them in. Get them to agree with him…until they don’t. He needed a character because he wanted his opposition to hear what they sounded like from his perspective. Swift is not just passionate about poverty in Ireland he is downright angry about it. His anger comes across in the sarcasm. The ‘proposer,’ is someone whom people can love to hate. A top-notch jerk. For sake of clarity, the ‘proposer’ will hereafter be referred to as ‘Jack.’

Jack is someone who is annoyingly superior. Taking the role of someone who is all-knowing and never wrong. “…whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation,” as he states in paragraph two. Something needs to be done and by golly, if someone could find the solution they should be knighted and have a large ostentatious statue in town square. Honored by the people for all time. Guess who has such an idea.

So by paragraph three, Jack has effectively established his opinions of the poor in Ireland. Jack has an idea, and not only will it help the poor starving children but also “those who demand our charity in the streets.” Paragraph four is so horribly cold and calculating that one could forget Jack was actually referring to human beings. He mentions that he has spent years pondering the subject…then he callously calculates how much a child costs in its first year of life. “…they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.” Here, Jack is referring to the poor Irish children and how, through his plan, cease to be a burden on society. This is a foreshadowing of Jack’s proposal, which will come in a few more paragraphs.

Jack is making himself out to be a superior statistician and economist. He’s building to his point by making the reader aware of how large the problem is. Furthermore, Jack states that his ‘scheme’ will

“…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 expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.”

Apparently, in 18th Century Ireland abortion was an issue as well. Not only is Jack able to solve the problem with the poor but he is able to solve the problem of abortion as well. What a guy! Able to solve all the world’s problems in one simple solution. He even takes the time in paragraph six to crunch the numbers himself. This way he can go, “See, it’s all right there. I have done all the work, all you have to do is implement solution.”

“I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity…” Now is where we start to turn. After detailing in the previous paragraph the cost associated with child rearing Jack makes the point that selling children into slavery is not an option because it is not cost-effective. Wait, what?! By this point Swift should have your attention. Jack has actually considered slavery as a viable option to deal with the poverty problem. This is another little tell that what is to come is quite a doozy. If the guy can actually, consider slavery then what in the world could his solution be.

Paragraph eight. Short, simple and sweet. Probably one of the most sarcastic and ironic lines ever written. “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” There has been nothing humble about Jack. If anything, he used the first two pages to show off his knowledge and intelligence. He has been horribly superior and does not hesitate to point out the flaws of others. He continues the statement to point out that he feels there is no way people should object to his proposition. Given what he reveals his proposition to be in the very next paragraph, this last bit is so sarcastic one cannot help but laugh.

Now is the time for shock and awe. Paragraph nine, the proposal itself.

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.”.

By this point, even if you came in knowing nothing, you should have figured out that this is not a serious piece. Though if you took it seriously you are not alone…so did the Queen of England.

A bit more about this paragraph, it is important to note that the information about the wonderful taste of children was made by an American. This is where the pre-Revolution context kicks in. America too, was a British colony and despite how pathetic, heretic, and barbaric the English thought the Irish were it is nothing compared to how they felt about Americans. Jack needed to have a source of information that was believable. The source would never have been English, too distinguished for that. The source could also not be Irish because no one is going to believe a group of people would recommend eating their own young. But an American…yeah, I’ll buy that. This is also the reason why Swift published anonymously. But not for why you would think.

Swift was not worried that people might actually think he would eat babies but instead worried that they wouldn’t take the piece seriously. Swift was very outspoken on the treatment of the Irish poor. No one would ever buy Swift speaking like the ‘proposer’ and they would never believe that he would come up with that solution.

Now, if you remember a couple of articles back I told you to keep Stephen Colbert in mind. This is why. Swift is writing as a character…our Jack. An outrageously contemptuous character whose views are so farfetched and crazy that no sane person would ever take him seriously. Like Colbert. Colbert plays a character so right-wing it is ridiculous. And that is their point. Neither Swift nor Colbert mean what they’re saying. They are the exact opposite of the characters they present and that is the irony. So, if it helps, just continue to read Swift as though he is Stephen Colbert. If you do it in his voice it becomes really, really funny.

I have this image of Swift. Sitting at his desk, building to his climax. He has created a disgustingly superior character. A character that sounds like his opposition. He gets to the moment where he is supposed to reveal his plan. He sits back and thinks, “Shit! Okay, what is the most offensive thing that I can have this asshole propose that idiots cannot possibly take seriously?” He runs his fingers through his hair, yanking at it in frustration. Suddenly, he throws his hands in the air in a ‘eureka’ moment, he shouts, “Eating babies!” Immediately, he gets back to work. Now, I have no idea if this is how it happened but I really like the idea of Swift struggling with the question. Then a victorious snap of the fingers and we have…eating babies. Writer level: epic.

Now, back to the piece. With some distasteful reasoning, Jack determines how many we should set aside for breeding and the number of meals he reasons a small child should make. Even being so gracious as to denote the number of breeding females allowed is more than is given to livestock. From here on Jack will continuously make the comparison between the two. He is just beginning to dehumanize them. Jack justifies this comparison given that poor children rarely are “the fruits of marriage.” To calculate poundage Jack averages, “that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds.” This is just a side point and has nothing to do with the analysis at hand but holy crap they had big babies back then. Now it seems a woman has to be cut open because a nine pound baby is too big to deliver. That is another post, on another blog but I find the statement amusing.

“…therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” SNAP!! Oh, damn! This is where Swift’s voice starts to come through. Horrifically sarcastic, Swift says that the landlords have taken everything from the parents, reducing them to this situation in the first place, that they might just as well eat their babies too. This comment, nestled against all the sarcasm and irony, is incredibly hard-hitting. Swift, not Jack, is pointing his finger at the landlords. Swift is more than insinuating the outrageous rents they charge Irish residents are to blame for the problem. This is him wagging his finger saying, “This is your fault.”

As though nothing has happened, Jack is back with some more proselytizing. “…it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.” In a callous way, Jack assumes more babies are born in March so that will be a boom time in the market. He assumes more babies will be born in March because it is precisely nine months after Lent. Since fish aids in procreation and since all Catholics can manage to do is procreate lots of babies come in March. And since it is the dirty Catholics who can’t feed all those kids not only will this solve the poverty issue but…BONUS…it decreases the Catholic population as well. Swift is commenting, rather sharply, on the religious tensions in Ireland.

Jack has done the math and figures that one year of raising a child will cost “two shillings per annum, rags included.” Rags included is kind of a double entendre here…but without the sex. Jack is speaking of diapers but by using “rags” he diminishes the poor further. Then he figures the “carcass of a good fat child” would bring ten shillings at market. Thus, “the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.” A couple things here. First, Jack is insinuating that a woman with a child is not capable of work. On top of that, we get the feeling that Jack feels a poor woman is only good for working and breeding. But let us get to the most important phrase, “carcass of a good fat child.” The use of the word carcass brings up images of livestock. Jack is animalizing the children making them into a commodity. Pretty cold. Pretty effective on Swift’s part.

In paragraph 15, Jack goes even farther than referring to the children as carcasses. Their skin can also be useful for they “will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.” He furthers the horror, by suggesting that not only could the children be eaten but worn as well. Yuck! We have horror movies with this plot. People have been jailed, executed, and demonized for enacting the ‘solution’ Jack proposes. The total ‘ick’ feeling that comes with that is deliberate. Swift wanted to make sure the reader was really disturbed.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse comes paragraph 16. Here Jack suggests appointing ‘shambles’ to handle the slaughter. ‘Shambles’ is an area of the city where the butchers go about their business. Outside. The smell and associated mess of the butchers’ leftovers, usually tossed or drained right into the street, is why a giant mess is often referred to as a ‘shambles’. But that is not the most disturbing part. “I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.” Once again Jack is animalizing the children by comparing them to pigs.
Not only that, he is also saying the children should be eaten immediately after slaughter. Because, you know, fresh child meat is the best.

Next, we are introduced to “a very worthy person,” who proposed an idea to Jack. Since deer had been overhunted, perhaps they could be replaced by twelve to fourteen year old children. Regarding the second ‘proposal’ Jack very politely dismisses that idea. Jack’s ‘American acquaintance’ has told him that the meat is too tough and lean in young boys. As far as the girls are concerned, Jack thinks “with humble submission” that they would be a loss as they could soon become breeders. So, no hunting children because their meat sucks and it would negatively affect the breeding program. Pretty heartless. We also continue the theme of Jack making not only the animal comparison but also the idea that Jack is very ‘humbly’ proposing these solutions. It should also be noted that Jack knows about poor meat quality of adolescent males from the savage American. Wow, people must have thought very highly of Americans. However, the primary reason Jack turns down the idea is this:

    “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.”

Apparently, Jack feels that some may object to this practice (though not of skinning children). His aside is probably the best. (although indeed very unjustly) This tells us two things. First, that Jack finds no moral objection to this idea. Second, this addresses the criticism of the opposition. Regardless of the political viewpoint each side accuses the other of ‘unjust’ moral objections. Funny how some things never change.

However, the most important take away is this: “which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.” Swift is coming through again. This means, regardless of the intention, some ideas border or cross the lines of cruelty. This is Swift’s objection. Basically, Swift is saying to his opposition, “Look, as cruel and ridiculous you find this idea, that is how I feel about your solutions. This is how you sound to me.” It’s kind of pointing out, “Do you really want to be this guy?”

Naturally though, Jack cannot have a ‘friend’ who holds such an opinion as hunting adolescents. The excuse is, it’s not his friends fault. See, once there was this islander…do you see where I am going with this? Once again the blame for the idea gets shoved off on some ‘savage’ from some far off place. Only, instead of America it is Taiwan (Formosa in the text) and it is the Chinese (mandarins) who eat children. Savage beasts.

Paragraph 19 deals with possible objections to the proposal. Jack presumes that there are a despondent few who wonder what his plan will do about the “aged, diseased, or maimed.” How will he “ease the nation of so grievous an incumberance?” Jack’s response is one of the most heartless things he ever says. “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 be reasonably expected.” In other words, they’ll all die off eventually.

The first thing that came to my mind when I read that line was Mitt Romney’s gaff about not being “concerned about the very poor” in the 2012 election. Now, I am not suggesting Gov. Romney ever insinuated or thought, “Meh, they’ll all die soon anyway.” What I am saying is, regardless of the intent the statement came off as being callous and cruel. This goes back to what Swift mentioned before about the perception of an idea despite the intentions. It is the “road to hell” argument. Despite the intention of the idea it is perceived as cruel. Jack does not set out to be cold and cruel; but to find a solution to poverty. (Ok, yes, Jack is fictional and Swift went out of his way to make him as callous as possible but work with me here.) His plan sucks but his intentions are very noble. I think the same could be said of Gov. Romney and many other modern politicians. Their intentions might indeed be very noble but instead their words and ideas come across as cold and callous. Swift is arguing that the ‘solution’ has to be placed in equal nobility to the intent, else the perception will cause it to be dead in the water. A little sad to think that 284 years later politics has changed so little.

But, I digress, and so did Jack. Now we come back to the initial proposal. “I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.” A bit more of tooting his own ‘modest’ horn and Jack will spend the next several paragraphs illuminating the benefits of his plan.

The first bullet point is, of course, that the Catholics (Papists) would decrease in number. Since, “we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation.” Again, playing off the religious tension. But this time Swift gains a voice, “our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender.” Swift is criticizing the Irish. The poor he is fighting foor. He is saying, “What are you doing? How can you just sit there and let them do this to you? How can you be so complacent? Fight, damn you.” He is questioning not only their national pride but also their pride as human beings. Swift knew that some rules and practices were unfair to the Irish. But what was worse, at least in Swift’s mind (and mine to should anyone ask), was that he also knew the Irish knew they were being screwed over and yet did nothing about it. Swift perceived the Irish as just sitting there and taking it and that pissed him off. Swift hated the complacency. The Italian poet Date once wrote, “”The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” It was true for Swift then and it is true for us now.

Jack’s second point is the tenants will finally have something of value. Thus, they can “pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.” Here Swift interjects himself again. Now he goes after the landlords. “Look, they have no money and you already lay claim to their crops and livestock. How much is enough?” Swift is practically beating them over their heads with words, screaming, “Your rents are too high!!!”

Plus, Jack argues, this marketable scheme will not only make us all richer but we shall also produce a solely Irish commodity. No imports are needed. All the money stays in Ireland. Swift is criticizing the lack of manufacturing in Ireland. How can people get jobs if there are no jobs to be had? How can we expect to create jobs when we import everything? Eerie, isn’t it. I think perhaps someone should have given this document to the candidates of the last election. Could have saved us all a lot of time and frustration.

But, wait, there’s more. Jack is back to point out that not only will the “constant breeders” make money, they also don’t have to worry about their kid after the first year. BONUS!! You get to enjoy all the fun happy baby stuff then sell them to slaughter before they can talk back. Then you get to do it all over again. Because every mother knows pregnancy and the first year are the easy parts. Honestly, who wants to keep them around longer anyway? Yes, that is sarcasm…and irony.

But we can’t forget the taverns. People will be knocking each other over to get into the doors. Owners will have to hunt for the best recipes. This creates competition and competition will drive up the economy. A great chef could make bank. Sometimes, I do wonder if Jack was referring to his own time or ours. Sad how the arguments continue to replay themselves.

Jack’s next argument is, by far, the most ridiculous and callous. What a reason to get married this is! And moms would be so much kinder to their children (because they only have them for a year). Instead of being an expense to the public they could turn a profit. Heck, “We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market.” I mean, mothers love to pit themselves against each other anyway, right? Hell, men would actually “become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal” and because of this they will also not “beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.” Simmer down ladies. Yeah, this one is pretty harsh. So, women can now be compared to breeding horses. The animalizing continues. This plan is so good it will even reduce domestic violence. Damn, look at all the problems eating babies solves.

Now, paragraph twenty-seven. By far, the best benefit to baby eating. Roast is damned tasty. Since babies are good roasted we can sell the beef for profit. Also, if we roast babies we don’t have to roast pigs. If we don’t have to roast pigs we can make more…BACON!! Yes, ladies and gentleman, Jack is stating one of the benefits of eating babies is we can have more bacon. Now, if there was ever a reason to eat babies this would be it. I mean, who is going to turn down more bacon? Seems that even in 1729 bacon was awesome!

There are, of course, many other advantages but since Jack is “studious of brevity” he must omit a few. Ah, irony. At no point is Jack brief. We are already 2500 words in. Another point for ‘modesty’ here and another reference that ‘Jack’ does not exist. The best part is, in the next paragraph, but for the sake of brevity, Jack points out that babies would do well to be served at auspicious gatherings…like weddings and christenings. Wait, what? Now that is irony. Go to a baby’s baptism (a celebration of a child becoming part of Christ’s family) where the main dish is…baby. That’s not just ironic, that’s creepy.

Paragraph twenty-nine is the single most important paragraph in the entire piece. As it begins, “I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal.” Again, we have Jack stating that his ‘modest proposal’ is so good that you simply cannot argue with it. Though he does point out that his solution will only work in Ireland. “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: (those who claim residence in Ireland but live in another country) Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: (making our own crap and not wanting so much foreign crap) Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: (give the women something to do or they will spend all of the money) Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: (stop being so damn greedy) Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: (have some pride, be more like the Laplanders [tribe persecuted by the Swedes for being savage yet they clung to their way of life] or even the Topinamboo [a tribe of actual cannibals from Brazil]) Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: (stop fighting amongst ourselves or we will be over-run [referring to the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE]) Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: (prudence, people) Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. (If no one can pay your rents they are too high, assholes) Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.” (Regulate the damn businesses, tax those who buy foreign goods, give breaks to those who by local and create laws so that they businesses cannot team up against the government to take advantage of it)
Swift! This is what he wants. This is what he has been fighting for. This is what he had been told was unreasonable. The plans that could not possibly work…at least in the minds of Swift’s opposition.

Swift is saying, these points could work. They are not as ridiculous and farfetched as some claim. This proposal about eating babies is crazy…these proposals are not. “Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.” Swift is criticizing those who won’t even discuss these ‘actual’ solutions because, “It will never be done anyway.” His goal is to get the discussion going. A real discussion, not ridiculous propaganda. Ah, how times have changed.

    Back to Jack again. He points out that he has spent years tackling this problem. “Despairing of success” until this proposal came to him. It costs nothing. Is not complicated. Best of all, “we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt.” Everything happens within Irish borders so England can’t get mad. After all, it wouldn’t travel well unless highly salted. Now, Swift is back for a nice little bite, “although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.” Slam to England. England doesn’t need salt to eat the whole of Ireland. They are already doing so. Ouch! That one stings a bit.

Now, Jack/Swift are gearing up for the close. Jack is open to other ideas. “After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual.” Yes, he is. Jack is bent upon his own opinion because he just spent the last thirty-one paragraphs spouting off how his proposal is so good no one could possibly argue it. Swift feels this is the way his opposition behaves. That they are so wrapped up in their own little worlds they are not willing to see another view. There is no room for compromise because the other guy is wrong. It’s my way or the highway. As a result nothing gets done. Swift is critiquing the sensibleness of these kinds of politics. (Is anyone else getting depressed yet about how closely this mirrors our society?)

     “But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points.” Yep, modest, not “bent to his own opinion” at all. To sum up: I am more than willing to listen to other ideas but let me remind you how awesome mine is. First, as things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. I figured it out, how are they going to? Look at all those useless people we have to take care of. There is no way you can do that without eating babies.
The word useless here is very important. The dehumanization has come so far that by this point the poor babies are useless. They are born useless. Will always be useless. Swift is attacking all of those who denigrate the poor. Swift is insinuating this type of proposal is what happens when you go so far as to degrade an entire group of people. This is his warning. If you treat people as worthless, count them as worthless, and speak about them as worthless someone, somewhere is going to think these people are actually worthless. When that happens people do bad things like eating babies…or genocide. Swift is using the most innocent among us to make the point that no human life is ever worthless.

    “And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect.”

Look at the derision here. Jack is no longer trying to make nice and sound sympathetic. These people do nothing but live off of the government. We, the tax payers, have to take care of them and it is putting the whole country in debt.
It is the 18th Century version of the makers and takers argument. Yep, same argument different century. Isn’t humanity great?

“I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, (respond, I dare you, respond) that they will first ask the parents of these mortals (mortals, no animalism here. Swift is reminding us that we are talking about humans), whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, (ask any parent if they would trade years of hard work and frustration by killing their children before they became too great a burden, go ahead and ask) by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.” This is all Swift.

The poor are being oppressed. The landlords are unfair and charge high rents but take away any means of making money and leaving them nothing left to trade. The people are hungry. There are too many homeless subjected to poor weather. A parent risks having a child grow up to suffer the same miseries or of things being even worse. There is little hope their children could have a better life. Wouldn’t these poor kids be better off dead? Wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t exist? Haven’t we already heard similar arguments? The poor breed too much, shouldn’t be allowed to have children, etc. Is this not saying the same thing? This is what you want isn’t it? It sounds that way. You just want the problem to go away and act like the poor don’t exist. That is exactly what this proposal does. Since, you cannot possibly be expected to give up anything to help these people, here is a solution you can only gain from. Is that not what you wanted?

“I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.”

Jack has nothing to gain and everybody wins. His wife can no longer have children and the children he does have are too old to be sold. He is only doing this for the good of Ireland. Taking care of the problem and “giving some pleasure to the rich.”

    Swift really hits the closing hard. He is submitting a harsh critique of the wealthy who are not willing to give an inch to help out their fellow man. He is screaming at all those who won’t discuss an option that ‘does nothing’ for them, regardless of how successful it may be. He is going after everyone whose argument is, “What’s in it for me?” He is providing a cautionary tale about the road Ireland is on. He is telling everyone to be careful how you treat people. How you talk about people. Because someday someone might take you literally. Jack is the tale. He is the one Swift is pointing too. Swift is saying that if things don’t change Jack’s proposal could actually be taken seriously someday.

Rhetoric v. Literature

It is a sad, sad time in education. Schools all over America are considering kicking literature out the window in favor of speeches, articles, ads and other forms of rhetorical writing. Modern rhetoric is replacing literature. If anyone, adult, teacher, or student has to ask how Shakespeare is still relevant it is obvious that they missed the boat. And, in my opinion, shouldn’t be teaching. Classics are only old and stuffy if you present them as such. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with modern works (this highly depends on the work) there is nothing that will teach you about the horrors of poverty and the unfairness of the law towards the impoverished like Les Miserables. No, the musical is not enough, you really do need to read the book. If you didn’t know it was a nineteenth century novel that only furthers my point that literature must be taught in our schools.

As we begin to move away from teaching literature not only do our schools continue to fall but our society suffers as well. It’s not just schools either but the homeschooling community is becoming just as bad. Some popular, though admittedly Christian conservative, home school curriculums have such reviews as: “The only thing I have to say that I don’t like about it is the old english they use in the poetry and many stories” or my favorite, “…since A Beka is a famously conservative Christian publisher and most extant Eastern documents are unchristian philosophy and religion, [the lack of such texts] is understandable. Which illustrates an important element of this course for many—you don’t need to worry about your kids encountering anything offensive here.” So, literature is offensive now. One reviewer actually said: “If you simply want your kids to read as much great literature as possible, this is probably the course you’re looking for (unless you prefer to just buy them a Norton or Longman anthology, but those will be over the heads of most high schoolers, and uncensored).” My goodness, how could we even consider letting high school kids read uncensored material. Um, first, it is only ‘over (their) heads’ if they haven’t been properly instructed in the first place. And heaven forbid we let our kids read anything ‘offensive’ or ‘uncensored’. Yet we will continue to cry about the continuing fall of our society. In my opinion, the increasing lack of literary education and the fall of society are entwined. Nothing should exemplify this more than the recent successes of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. We are losing storytelling as an art form. And it is art. Literature is defined as being the art of the written word while rhetoric the art of discourse. The beauty and awesome power of just the right words strung together in such a way that the resounding impact is felt for generations.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A pivotal speech, a wonderful moment…inspiration that will continue for centuries. “Someday I want my kids to be judged by who they are not what they are.” While having the same meaning this simply doesn’t have the same pull as King’s words. Not because (at least not solely because) of who spoke them but because of the words themselves. Sadly, in today’s society King’s epic moment would most likely be boiled down further to something more akin to: “Haters be hatein’.” Catchy, sure, but it just doesn’t have that cross-generational appeal.

The thing is, cross-generational, hell, cross-cultural appeal is the reason classics are just that: classics. To anyone who doubts that relevance can still be found in classical works I would first love to direct you to anthropology. Odd? Not really when you think about it. In studying anthropology I was given an article entitled: Shakespeare in the Bush by Laura Bohannan. This is such a fantastic example of cross-cultural appeal that I was also given the article in my literature studies as well. This article is about the ‘teaching’ of Hamlet to an African tribal community. Long story short, the article shows that while certain aspects of the story are perceived differently, the basic and general meaning remains the same. It lasts because it holds a certain truth that can apply to everyone, at every time, everywhere. To skip teaching these lessons altogether can only be a detriment to our society.

History is vital to the continuance of our society. History allows us to look at the mistakes of the past and choose a different path. Literature is a part of history. To fully understand a society you not only have to know the historical facts but also take a look at the writings of the time. The literature. This gives you a richer understanding because you are hearing about an event, time, and society directly from someone who lived it. The question that should be asked is whether a student learns more about the horrors of the French Revolution from facts in a history book or from reading A Tale of Two Cities? Do we learn more about the horrors of poverty from numbers in a sociological text or from reading works like Oliver Twist, Les Misereables, or the Grapes of Wrath? Placing a human perspective on such issues is far more memorable than a history book. One wonders if all students were taught A Modest Proposal, an example of the combination of rhetoric and literature, if we would be having the same discussions regarding poverty that Swift wrote upon two centuries ago.

One argument for a solely rhetorical curriculum is that high school students ‘LOATHE’ reading. Sure, but high school students also ‘loathe’ math. Hell, high school students ‘loathe’ school. Sounds like a good idea to ditch the entire system. Yes, read current articles from the NY Times but not at the expense of Shakespeare. Believe me, there is so much to learn from the Bard that the Times cannot even begin to cover.

Another argument is that most kids use Sparknotes, Cliffs Notes, other students, etc. and don’t do the work themselves anyway. Great, so because kids cheat on their homework we should cease teaching it all together. Honestly, it sounds more like a parenting problem then a curriculum problem.

I fail to see how eliminating an entire subject because it is ‘hard’ and kids don’t like it can in any way aid our educational endeavors. Literature is pure, original and for goodness sakes should be uncensored. Our textbooks are more pathetic every edition in an attempt to dumb down the material so that it barely even resembles facts anymore.

Reading takes time and effort. It should take time and effort. Education should take time and effort. Why? Because life takes time and effort. Because work takes time and effort. The problem is, no one wants to put any effort into anything anymore. It has become a culture of entitlement. I should pass because I worked really hard. I failed because it was the teacher’s fault. The class is just too hard, I have to actually—gasp—think. Then, by all means, change the curriculum.

Now, I am not saying that writing shouldn’t be a focus. It should. Dear lord, please focus on that…but in conjunction with literature so kids can learn to write well. How could you possibly learn to write well if you cannot read well? I was a TA in college. I read freshman papers. And yes, there were kids whose writing talent was so poor I constantly wondered how the flip they graduated high school much less accepted into college. But I also knew kids who couldn’t comprehend a single fracking paragraph, any paragraph, much less the political intrigues of the 1960’s. I knew students who read so poorly, in college, that, on several occasions I thought that stabbing myself in the eye with my knitting needle would be less painful. Reading literature is so very much more than reading a story someone wrote a really long time ago. Reading literature not only teaches us to comprehend what someone from a different cultural and historical background is saying; it also teaches us about the time in which it was written. But this is America, so let us solve the problem of kids going to college unprepared for college level writing by sending them to college without ever having touched a book more challenging than Lord of the Flies.

Now comes the ‘fun’ part of the arguments. That the classics are irrelevant, useless. That things taught from literary works have no fundamental place in the real world. You know things like metaphors and allegories. Pointless, so why waste time on them. Works like Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby don’t connect with modern sensibilities; there isn’t much of an underlying message; it’s hard for modern people to appreciate; kids will get more out of books with a relatable moral problem than ones so distantly removed from modern experiences…seriously, WTF!!!! First of all, box office success of the movie adaptation of Gatsby says you are wrong about that one. Now, let me tackle the ‘lack’ of an underlying message or relatable moral problem. Now, we are talking about the same Gatsby right? The Gatsby that points out that when success and happiness based solely on the amount of money one has dooms it to inevitable failure. But, sure, how could that possibly be relevant to life today in the midst of an economic downturn. That would take a book about the ’20’s and the crash of ’29…oh, wait! Great Expectations, true, how could a novel about how thoughts and opinions formed as a young person change as we get older and come to the conclusion that our initial assessments were flat-out wrong; that the life we thought we wanted wasn’t really what we wanted and the life we ran from was the life we really needed could possibly be relevant. Seriously, read the damn books.

There is plenty of contemporary ‘stuff’ that is far more interesting. Classics take a lot of time to read but ‘I read Twilight in like 2 days.‘ Yeah, that last bit is, like, an actual quote on a forum. And one that had me literally, (I know what the word means so yes, I really did) facepalm headdesk. Again with the damn Twilight. Twilight is the number one reason that literature classics should not only be taught but expanded. Are you honestly telling me that you can learn to write from reading opening lines like this?

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt –sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka. In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America.

Seriously, people are going to sit there and tell me that that is better than this?

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

See, unlike Twilight, Gatsby gives you some semblance of a character relationship and an idea of where the novel is heading. Gatsby offers substance and detail…Twilight just offers detail. Pages upon pages of pointless detail.

Now, in all fairness, I have to admit that I have never actually read Twilight. Not that I haven’t tried, mind you. But I never make it much farther than chapter two before I have the unhealthy desire to throw book, computer, Kindle or any other device I’m using across the damn room. Why? Because I’m on chapter fricking two and I have absolutely no idea who the hell the main character is (ie personality) but I sure as shit know the color of her kitchen cupboards, how they got that way and what she had for breakfast. Holy crap on a cracker. Oh, and I know that the weird, loner kids are pretty. I mean really, really pretty. As if America isn’t shallow enough, this is what passes for a good book these days.

To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t mind a curriculum including Twilight. It has several fantastic examples of run-on sentences with no semblance of point or structure.

The office was small; a little waiting area with padded folding chairs, orange-flecked commercial carpet, notices and awards cluttering the walls, a big clock ticking loudly.

Being one example. But no, they are not even going to study Twilight. Nor or they going to study modern works like Harry Potter, The
Hobbit, or The Da Vinci Code. Nope, they want to study newspapers, advertisements, and speeches. Forgetting, of course, the fact that some of the best journalists and speechwriters have a very strong background in classic literature. Like Hemingway. Like Martin Luther King. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is full of beautiful prose and is considered a masterwork of rhetoric. But did you know the line: “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”—is actually an allusion (note literary term) to Shakespeare’s Richard III?

‘High school is for the essentials, and learning how to communicate and read modern writing seems far more useful.’ Of course it’s useful but so is learning to evaluate a piece of material removed from you own culture and narrow world view. Learning how to use metaphors, allegories and other literary devices are also useful. If I want someone to write me a paper on the history of American economics I am going to want a few literary devices in there. Again, I will go back to the ‘I have a dream’ speech, tell me which you would prefer to hear. Do you want a generation of lackluster, self-absorbed, know-nothing speech writers and journalists or do you want epic, moving speeches in your future? Do you want to read newspapers and hear speeches with lines such as:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.” (Churchill)

or

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'” (Reagan, quoting ‘High Flight,’ a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee)

Or do you want an entire generation full of:

“He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”

Because I know which I prefer. Seriously, if you want to learn how to speak properly first learn to read poetry. By studying the rhythm of poetry you learn where to place correct emphasis, where to pause, how to build to a climax and in general, how to speak to the public. Some of the world’s best orators are those that have studied poetry.

In fact, poetry was a central component to the study of rhetoric in the Middle Ages after the fall of Rome. Analyzing poetry has been a tenant of rhetorical training since Ancient Greece. Cicero, a significant rhetorician, held the belief that an orator should be well-versed in all areas of human life and culture. This is the reason we have ‘required studies’ in schools. Cicero’s view most definitely included poetry and literature. Poetry was included in rhetoric of old. Chaucer is one example of an author who combined the two. The literary analysis of poetry is essential in the understanding of rhetoric.

Literature is not pointless. It teaches us what sounds right as well as giving us an insight to a cultural or historical perspective that a history book can’t offer. Though, even when all the benefits are pointed out one by one you will still get responses like this (which I am sharing because it hurt oh, so bad): Modern literature has all of those too, but classics seem to me to be over hyped. I mean take Shakespeare as an example, most of the story tellers back in his time told stories verbally, for all we know Shakespeare could of been equated in his time to a smutty mass produced romance novelist, but because his writing survived and is old we are like “omg he is a master”.


I nearly screamed out loud…before I began laughing my head off. But the ‘author’ of this little gem just proves all of my points as to why literary education needs to continue. For perhaps if the author had been well-educated in literature he would have known that the oral tradition had long been on the wayside, the written word had been well established, Shakespeare was not the only author to survive, he was both ‘low brow’ and well-respected in his day, and most importantly, the correct phrasing is ‘could have.’

The purpose of this blog will be to expand upon literary ideals. To show all the ways in which the classics are not only still relevant but beneficial as well. Hopefully, I will even make the reading of such classics enjoyable, understandable and amazingly awesome to those who had not seen them thus before. Literature has a wealth of knowledge to teach us, and while the modern novel should not be ignored there is a depth as well as a historical value to the classics that modern literature doesn’t have. This is not a detriment to modern literature but merely a fact that modern literature cannot have historical perspective…at least not yet.

This is an open discussion. Feel free to ask questions, question anything and everything. Give recommendations and suggestions on what works you think I should address. Need help trudging through ‘a stuffy, boring old book.’ Work with me and we can find a way to make it enjoyable, entertaining and more importantly, educational.