Review of “A Modest Proposal” (1729)


Jonathan Swift (writer).

Read in 2020.

Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.

The one serious flaw of the essay is its claim of inspiration from “the famous Psalmanaazor”, i.e. the imposter George Psalmanazar, whose claims were debunked and confessed as false more than two decades earlier. Instead of crediting the imposter’s exotifying claims against East Asians, Swift—who was writing pseudonymously—should have gone with something closer to home. One of his chief arguments is the virtue of opposing Catholicism, so he could have used a religious argument for his scheme. For example, he could have referred to Psalms 136, which is a thank-you note to Yahweh for, among other things, killing the firstborn of Egypt with a love that “endures forever”. It’s a story every bit as fictitious as and even more racist than Psalmanazar’s, but far more relevant to suffering in Swift’s time and place.

text fiction