Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (essay, non-genre, satire, free): Solving the "problem" of poor children!

Note: Some online research after posting this piece found that this is a very well read & commented on piece; I've added new "See also" section below after learning this. But you need to be prepared before taking up this piece. My rant on JBU stays: it came at a place in the magazine where you normally would expect an entertaining story! I've left rest of original post unchanged, but added the download link.

This is the second time I've picked up a story from the Classics section of Jim Baen's Universe - after Jack Williamson's "Born of the Sun". Both have been utter disappointments. Between these two, we have very well known authors who have actually delivered good to great works - why choose their worst!!

After making this post, I found this story is already available at Project Gutenberg. ISFDB lists it as an essay rather than a story.

Story summary.

While obviously a satire targeting politicians & guardians of society, & written in a humorous vein, I found the story rather sickening.

Here is a social problem: too many children born of poor parents - badly cared for in childhood, & a burden on society when they grow up! Solution: sell them for meat & skin their hides like cattle when they are 1 year old!

Saying this in jest is one thing. Here we have detailed profit calculations (mothers of kids will earn so much on sale), breeding program, different ways they can be cooked, etc. Disgusting for me, but it was written in a different era & in a different culture...

See also.

This appears to be a well commented upon piece online, as I found after making my post - though the comments worth quoting are few. Here are some interesting ones I could find in a limited-time search:
  1. The Erudite Lit-ite's's "End of the school year gems": "It's an example of trickery to get people to listen to his story."
  2. Wikipedia article on the subject is may be as long as Swift's original. While it adds stuff for those familiar with history of Ireland & England, a quote here made me realize a familiar subtheme I'd noticed when I first read Swift's original: seeds of one of the major campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi. To attack your colonial overlords, attack its economy by refusing to buy goods manufactured there - even when the alternative is relatively shoddy local goods. Another significant point made by this article is the relationship between this story by Swift & "Tertullian’s Apology" (130 AD) - "a satirical attack against early Roman persecution of Christianity". I've not read Apology.
  3. Andrew Moore's "A Modest Proposal - study guide" is a very long study guide for students. It gives some background on the economic conditions in Ireland at the time Swift's piece appeared. See section titled "About A Modest Proposal".

Collected in.

  1. Jim Baen's Universe, #13 (June 2008).

Fact sheet.

First published: 1729 as a pamphlet.
Rating: B
Download full text.