Controversies, #11 (Fall 1999)

"Swift's Satire's Unstable Meaning"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #11:   Swift loves to construct satires like lethal piņatas which, when struck from any position ("Oh, it's about that!") will tend to turn upon the reader-player and shower her/him with shocking discoveries.   Beth, while trying to pin Jonathan down, lured Heather, Corey, and Mei-Ling into their own further discoveries of his satiric machinery's plan.  Sometimes, as in "A Tale of A Tub," one wonders whether there is anything in the universe that is not foolish, evil, or both.  For more about satires that seem to leave one no moral center in which to stand, you might want to look at the evolving discussion of "low-norm satire" in Jonson's Volpone, Controversy #6 from Fall 1999

What is Swift's point in "Modest Proposal"?--Beth Allee, 12/5/99

        Swift's essay is obviously a satire, but what exactly is he making fun of? Although I appreciated and enjoyed "A Modest Proposal," I am not quite sure who or what the proposal is satirizing. The poor, the wealthy, England, previous proposals to decrease the population? Any good ideas out there?

...Swift's points in "Modest Proposal"?--Heather Baron, 12/5/99

        I think he's satirizing both the way the English treated the Irish and the way they treated the indigenous peoples of the New World.

...Swift's other points in "Modest Proposal"?--Corey Wronski, 12/6/99

        Another thing I think Swift might be satirizing, besides what we discussed in class, is the state of marriage. He points out that the baby sale profits would cause men to treat their wives well during pregancy (not beat them, etc.), implying that they normally do beat them and perhaps implying that it's wrong.

Satire of the "Modern" and British colonialism--Mei-Ling Johnson, 12/7/99

        The speaker is a Modern. Modern behavior has totally lost touch with the ancient ethical conditions. He thinks up a great idea in order to make money for Ireland. Turning beggars into breeders for the Anglo- Englishmen to devour. The only problem is the soul, the sole distinction between humans and animals. The soul is the part of the mind that allows us to make free moral choices, unlike animals, which have no morality, only instinct. The soul allows human beings to make moral choices that condemn the speaker of Modest Proposal.

    The Barbados pg. 2181: Barbados is an island in the former British West Indies. Poor Irishmen were selling themselves as indentured servants in order to go to the West Indies, or the Carolinas or selling themselves into a seven-year slavery. Barbados was slave island where sugar cane was raised. The Irishmen were working side by side with slaves and so the emergence of the British 18th Century Imperial slave culture is for Swift the perfect symbol of moral bankruptcy of modern economic thinking. There is no way that a "modest proposal" like this one is morally worse than the actual system of slavery that the entire British Empire was based on in the West Indies that existed in fact in Swift's time. He had fairly good reason to condemn the moral bankruptcy of this society which had set up the imperial slave system all over the west Indies, Virginia, South Carolina.

        He also creates a fictional speaker, a persona, to make readers more suspicious and skeptical of such "great" ideas.

Pg. 2181: "…fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation."

Motivation: Fame, Glory, Pride, Money

Whether animals have souls--Beth Allee, 12/8/99

        But has it been proven that animals have no souls? Traditional religious doctrines refute all claims that animals have more than body and instinct, but as far as I know, it has not been proven. Neither has the human soul, for that matter. It also is a concept created by religion, much like the lack of souls in animals. This is not to say that I firmly believe in animal's souls, or humans for that mater, but only that I don't automatically believe in their lack of one. Also, if animal's have no souls then they would not be able to go to the Christian heaven and if there are no animals in heaven, I don't want to have to go there either (and I probably won't at the rate I'm going anyway).

        Since Swift was a religious man, he most likely assumed the absence of souls in animals. But Robert Herrick was also closely related to the church and he was half pagan, giving him views contrary to church doctrines. So, it is possible that Swift is indirectly stating his doubt in the whole soul business, though he probably/hopefully is not being serious about eating babies. Theoretically, though, it is possible to argue that if souls in animals and humans have neither been proven or disproved, we should not be so adverse to the thought of eating humans.

        I know this response focuses on a very small portion of your argument, but I cannot resist the chance to advocate animal rights. And please oh please nobody let this posting get into the current mass email war over dead babies and cocaine--good lord, can you imagine the reactions of those who hadn't read Swift and didn't realize the satirizing? They'd eat me alive! (yes, the pun is intended--snicker, snicker).

Cannibalism taboos, Chaucer and Poe--Mei-Ling Johnson, 12/9/99

        You really have got me there.

        There is no proving of the existence of a soul, or heaven, or who's going there; but decisions based on something higher than plain old animal instinct is worthy of being named something, it's just easier to call it a soul.

        The prospect of animals having souls isn't viewed well in the Norton; Margery Kemp was thought to be a nutcase in her day crying over the whipping of animals. (Not that it was right to whip animals, but that was the view of the period.)

        Chaucer on Page 84, the Prioress didn't exactly look like a good person, living a less than pious life, eating well and feeding rich food to dogs at a time when many human beings were starving.

        Animals sometimes just turn around and eat their young, nothing new really. Humans eating one another is one of the great taboos of all time. What is there to stop us. Only the fundamental belief that it's wrong - attribute that to society or religion if you like.

        (If you really like cannibalism: Take American Lit I, I'll assure you that you'll have a great discussion on the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym )