In its simplest manner, community is defined as a grouping of people in an area who share similar characteristics; this could include socio-economic status, religion, race, and even past trauma. Communities are important, because the typically invoke a sense of belonging, togetherness, and support. They can become dangerous when they attempt to ostracize all others who do not look, think, believe, or act like they do. In spite—although sometimes because of the outside world, communities go through cycles of hardship and regeneration. Under the intense periods of pressure these communities will either band together or tear each other a part in an innate sense of self preservation. In Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal he presents an idea that is not so modest, and even malicious in its existence. While serving as a satirical piece, it provides an hyperbole that has withstood the test of time. Written in 1729 when the Irish were in need of a solution to a food shortage despite having an excess of mouths to feed. The timing of his ‘modest’ proposal was detrimental to the survival of the entire community because not only was he discussing a shortage of supplies (food, sanitation, etc.), he was also discussing the carelessness shown towards the poor. It is here that he chooses to point out the lack of community—where there is no support or togetherness.
He begins his essay by giving the reader and authentic look at what the community they share looks like. While most see it every day, it had simply become the way things were. By simply setting the scene in the opening paragraph he is making sure there is no confusion about the main issue in his work. He states “it is a melancholy object to…see the streets, roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning over every passenger…” (Swift, 174). While this illustrates the struggle of the mother to provide for her children, it also depicts the generational poverty that is being taught to her offspring, as well as the callousness of those who continue to pass them by. It is here that he presents his ‘modest proposal’, which suggests that at a year old these babies of beggars should be sold, fattened, slaughtered, cooked, and fed to the community like cattle. To any sane person this would be such a heinous act that it would absolutely destroy the idea of community, and potentially lead to chaos, confusion, and civil war. In this manner, the idea of community is both built up and destroyed in this body of work.
From one perspective Swift has given a whole new outlook on the idea that all life is purposeful and full of meaning. He explicitly states the only outcome for these children is to become beggars like their parents, or thieves, or slaves to another country. By following his proposal, these children would be providing the gifts of sustenance and continuance. They would be sustaining an entire community of people with their bodies (lives), while also supplying their parents and/or families with income. If one were to look at his proposal as a legitimate one, they would be overwhelmed by the sense of purpose he has given to these newborn children.
On the other hand, the idea of community here is presented as bleak and limited in upward mobility because such a large portion of its population is unable to sustain themselves. He draws attention to the stark, grave differences between the wealthy and the lower class in this essay, which speaks volumes that there are two to three sections within one community—which implies that there is no community at all. He begins to utilize the word breeders (175) someway through the essay, which dehumanizes the poor even more. Prior to anyone agreeing or supporting his proposal he has already stripped the humanity, autonomy, and position within the community from the poor families (mainly the women).
It is here, and with great ease, that he begins to describe the different, “delicious” kinds of meals that these infants can serve as for those fortunate enough to be able to afford them. The entire body of work does a wonderful job at exploiting the divide between ‘us and them’—the wealthy and the poor. It is satirical in the hyperbole, but very much real in the sarcasm used to chastise all of the illogical manners in which others had tried to solve the economic, social, and emotional burden of poverty and the great economic divide. He is attempting to show what it looks like when the community chooses itself over the individual. Rather, he is depicting the potential outcome in sacrificing the those who are draining the resources of the community, instead of implicating the make-up of said community. His making fun of the lack of moral judgements is beneficial, because it causes those who do look down on the poor to question who they are. While they would quickly defend themselves in saying they would never take the life of a child to sustain themselves, he challenges them with the idea that they already are by not sharing their wealth and/or providing logical, equitable solutions.
This body of work illustrates how easily society can overlook the importance of the individual in the community. How one could decide to slaughter, boil, and devour one person’s child over another is sure to unfair and unjust. In a very overarching manner, community in this work is established by presenting those reading with a moral dilemma. Swift intentionally calls into question the morals of those who are not poor, by making them see that the less fortunate and their families deserve an equal chance at surviving and thriving in life. In the end he makes a mockery of truly sensible solutions to the inequality in the Irish land but deems them too “innocent” to truly be effective. When in actuality the things he refuses to hear, such as just treatment of tenants, patriotism, and self-servicing, are viable means of reestablishing a sense of community where everyone feels connected.
Swifts proposal helps to establish community because (in the end) it satirically proposes methods in which a community is supposed to interact and support itself. He promotes ideas that are heinous and egregious in hopes of sparking commitments to community uplifting.