During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the country of England was faced with many social and governmental issues. These issues were deeply rooted in English customs and culture, and finding solutions was often not an easy, or even feasible, task. Government offices were held by people who had no knowledge of governmental procedures, and their systems were very prone to corruption. Legislators were dishonest and heartless, and the poor suffered greatly under them. People soon began to realize that a change was needed in their country. One of these people was the great Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift. In his most famous works of literature, Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal,” Swift satirizes the English government and social system.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes the English political system and the absurdities in English society. He creates Lilliput and its very small citizens as a way to show his views on the ridiculous ways in which the English people win political offices. In England at the time, men were elected to a government office usually because of their prominent name, social status, wealth, or simply their skill in encouraging people to vote for them. Swift satirizes this by creating the story of the Lilliputians and their tightrope walking. Anyone who wishes to hold a political office in Lilliput must first perform a series of tricks on a tightrope in front of the public. The office they are elected to depends solely on their performance of these tricks. In this, Swift is saying that English politicians and legislators are not qualified for the offices they hold, and they have no knowledge of how to run a government. They are merely putting on a show for the public. Swift also creates another civilization, Brobdingnag, in his stories. The citizens of Brobdingnag are twelve times larger than normal people. They are very honest and moral, and they have an ideal governmental system in which the king is a just and generous ruler. The nobles of Brobdingnag poke fun at the English for their system of party politics when Gulliver speaks of the Whigs and the Tories, and also ridicule English fashion. The king is appalled by the governmental practices that Gulliver praises. He states that England is run by a government full of unqualified men who are ignorant and full of vice. The irony of this passage is that Gulliver loves his country and is upset by the king’s attacks, but that country’s government is unscrupulous and its citizens are full of corruption. It is also saying that perhaps the English nobility should be as genuine and moral as that of Brobdingnag.
Jonathan Swift wrote his most famous work of satire, “A Modest Proposal,” to urge social reform and to improve the attitude of the English toward Ireland. At the time, the Irish rarely owned the land they lived upon. Instead, the land was owned by the English, who charged unreasonably high rent. Thus, the Irish remained very poor, while the English became very rich. Swift used his pamphlet to propose a solution to the problem of Irish poverty. He proposed that the Irish would sell their young children for food to their landlords in England. Each child would be sold for ten shillings, leaving eight shillings for profit after the cost of raising the infants. The “breeders” would produce children for money, and thus bring themselves out of poverty. The skin of the children would be used to make gloves for women and light boots for men. Human meat would be in season all year, with a surge generally in the spring. Swift, however, did not mean for this proposal to be taken literally. He is merely suggesting that something be done about the English persecution of the Irish. The English had refused all logical solutions to the problem, and something absurd was needed to draw their attention and to motivate them to work for a change.
Swift states that there are many advantages to his proposals that prove that his ideas are valid. He says that because many of the Irish children are being sold, the families will have a considerably larger amount of money, which would bring them out of poverty. Even the poorest of the poor will have something valuable to possess and sell to bring in money. The amount of marriages will be increased, and since the children are so valuable the rate of domestic abuse will decrease because men will not want to harm their wives or children. Business will increase in taverns and pubs due to the introduction of a new delicacy, and the nation’s beef exports will also rise, as beef will no longer be the only meat eaten regularly. All of these advantages and many others show that there are sufficient solutions to the problem, but that this one is obviously absurd.
Jonathan Swift’s amazing satirical talent in Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal” accurately brings out the worst in English society. He shows these societal problems by making the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels very small to highlight their smallness of mind, as well as to exaggerate the same smallness of mind he sees in the English. The citizens of Brobdingnag are very large to show that they are the quite the opposite of the Lilliputians. They are very moral, honest, and noble, and can clearly point out all the faults of England. They are how Swift feels the English should be. “A Modest Proposal” is titled with the word “modest” in an ironical sense. Swift is saying that after exhausting all other propositions, the English will be appalled by his pamphlet and realize that one of the realistic solutions must be approached. He does not believe his proposal to be modest at all, but believes it to be ridiculous to the point of inducing social change.