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Laughing Bitterly at Poverty: Satire by J. Swift and J. Gay

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Writer and satirist Jonathan Swift stated that “satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own” (Swift). Such beholders, as Swift mentions, use satiric narrative to convey social and political plights. In his satire A Modest Proposal, Swift uses rhetoric, overt exaggeration and insincerity in order to capture the audience’s attention regarding the state of poverty in Ireland. John Gay also uses satire in his piece, The Beggar’s Opera, to highlight the hypocrisy surrounding the treatment of lower class society, hoping to correct the social and political vices that governed London in the eighteenth century. Satire is used to challenge the constructs concerning social class and poverty.

A Modest Proposal is an attempt to “find out a fair, cheap, and easy method” of transforming the starving children of Ireland into “sound and useful members of the commonwealth” (Swift 3). Swift begins by deploring the miserable lives of the poverty-stricken Irish who struggle to provide for their families. The exordium illustrates a world in which streets are full of female beggars, followed by children dressed in rags:

“It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes” (Swift 3).

The opening sentence offers a vivid and compassionate depiction of lower class society in Ireland. Readers are presented with unsettling images of poverty, overpopulation and hunger. In his introduction, the narrator is empathetic towards women and children, stating that the mothers are “forced to employ all their time in strolling, to beg sustenance for their helpless infants” (Swift 3). By using words like “forced” and “helpless”, Swift uses language to emphasize the suggested notions of sympathy. Readers are left with images of powerlessness. It can be inferred that the narrator does not assign fault to these beggars for their current position in poverty.

As a solution to the harsh realities, the narrator suggests killing the children of the poor families and serving them on the tables of the rich, thus easing the economical problems in Ireland. Swift uses outrageous exaggerations in order to confer social and political commentary. Readers begin to pick up on Swift’s insincerity due to the overall absurdity of his proposal.

“I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants; the mother will have eight shillings net profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child. Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass; the skin of which artificially dressed will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen” (Swift 7-8).

As the Irish are incapable of finding a logical solution to the poverty within their country, the narrator is hoping to inspire them to act rationally and act upon the pressing issue. The language Swift uses to describe the children’s meat is particularly interesting. He describes it as a sort of delicacy that “will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat” (Swift 7). Furthermore, Swift comments on how an infant’s skin would make “admirable gloves for ladies” and “summer boots for fine gentlemen” (Swift 7-8). By using words such as “admirable” and “fine” to represent what can be made from the children, Swift is attributing wealthy characteristics to the poor.

With the proposal that the children are fed to the nobility rather to their starving parents, the “sympathetic” impressions within the introduction are quickly shattered. Swift therefore employs rhetoric throughout his text, giving readers a “love-hate” relationship with the narrator. Swift’s compassion towards the lower class is strongly alleviated by the sense that beggars are responsible for their state of poverty. The poor are no longer perceived as powerless. His language here touches on the popular belief that beggars are nothing but lazy opportunists. Although he does not completely associate himself with this notion, Swift is successful in demonstrating the social and political complexities through the use of satire surrounding the issue of poverty.

In his social satire The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay criticizes political constructs by suggesting that morality is a luxury only available to those who can afford it. In the words of the Beggar, the play explores how “the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen” (Gay 91). Gay’s representation of poverty revolves heavily around the concept of equality and the constant comparisons he makes between the upper and lower class:

“Through all the Employments of Life Each Neighbour abuses his Brother; Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife: All Professions be-rogue one another: The Priest calls the Lawyer a Cheat, The Lawyer be-knaves the Divine: And the Statesman, because he’s so great, Thinks his Trade as honest as mine” (Gay 2).

Gay uses wit and satire to shed light on the dark and corrupt structure of eighteenth century English society. Unlike Swift who highlights the obvious distinctions between the two classes, Gay brings the elite down to the level of the poor by accentuating their immoral similarities. Rather than portraying the poor as lowly beggars, they are seen equally as those with money. The text is rampant with comical equivalencies between the upper and the lower class, such as those made between priests and lawyers, and statesmen and criminals. By making such comparisons, Gay is exposing the fraud that exists within England’s justice system, ultimately hoping to eliminate the social and political vices that dictate the country.

We retrench the Superfluities of Mankind. The World is avaritious, and I hate Avarice. A covetous fellow, like a Jackdaw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the Robbers of Mankind, for Money was made for the Free-hearted and Generous, and where is the Injury of taking from another, what he hath not the Heart to make use of? (Gay 29)

Matt’s speech effectively illustrates the theme of hypocrisy that exists throughout the play, taking on a socialistic approach to the rights of man. Although it is deeply prejudiced that riches be distributed among the wealthy, the calculating schemes used by the highwaymen – befriending innocent youth at a gaming table only to rob them from their earnings – is anything but honorable. Contrary to Swift, Gay declines to judge the poor for their moral lapses. It can be concluded that the poor are not represented as immoral, but amoral. Living in such poverty, the lower class has little use for morality, other than as a tool of manipulation.

Satire is used to challenge the constructs surrounding social class and poverty. In his not-so-modest proposal, Swift uses exaggeration, rhetoric and insincerity throughout the text to represent and reflect on the poor living standards in Ireland. He is quite literally suggesting that the rich “devour” the poor, achieving success at the expense of the lower class. Gay, on the other hand, reveals the similarities between the upper and lower class in order to disqualify the pervasive snobbery of the rich. Both authors, however, are successful in exposing the hypocrisy and corruption within England’s social structure through the use of satire.

Works Cited:

Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. William Heinemann, 1921. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Web. 5 Nov. 2015.

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Laughing Bitterly at Poverty: Satire by J. Swift and J. Gay. (2018, August 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from
“Laughing Bitterly at Poverty: Satire by J. Swift and J. Gay.” GradesFixer, 05 Aug. 2018,
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