Laughing Bitterly At Poverty: Satire By J. Swift And J. Gay

Jonathan Swift, writer and satirist said that “satire…is a form of glass” wherein all eyes see the faces of everyone else (Swift). Swift mentions that such beholders use humor to express social and political problems. Swift’s satire A Modest Proposal is a combination of rhetoric, overt exaggeration, insincerity and humour to draw attention to the Irish state poverty. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera also employs satire to point out the hypocrisy in London’s treatment for the lower classes. His piece aims to correct the social, political and economic vices that governed London during the eighteenth-century. Satire can be used to challenge notions of poverty and social class.

A Modest Proposal aims to “find a fair and affordable way” to transform the Irish children who are starving into “sound and useful members” of the commonwealth (Swift 3). Swift starts by praising the miserable lives of poor Irish families who struggle to support their families. This depicts a world with many street beggars including women, and children wearing rags.

It is a sad sight to see people walking through the great city or traveling in the country. They see the streets and roads crowded with female sex beggars, followed by three, four or six children dressed in rags, and begging for alms. Instead of earning a decent living, these mothers must spend their days strolling to provide food for their babies. As they grow up, they may become thieves or leave their home country to fight the Pretender in Spain.

This sentence is a powerful and touching portrayal of the Irish lower class. Unsettling images of hunger, poverty and overpopulation are displayed to the readers. The introduction by Swift 3 shows empathy for women and children. He states that mothers are “forced” to walk, to provide food for their infants (Swift 3) Swift’s use of words like “forced”, “helpless” and “forced” to express sympathy is a way for Swift to highlight the implied notions. The images that Swift leaves behind are of powerlessness. The narrator doesn’t blame these beggars, but it can be inferred.

The narrator proposes that the Irish government kill the children of poor families to make it easier on them. Swift makes exaggerated claims to make political and social commentary. Swift’s absurd proposal causes readers to start to notice its insincerity.

“I think no gentleman would be reluctant to pay ten shillings in exchange for a carcass of a healthy child. The squire will become a respected landlord and will be well-liked by his tenants. His mother will make eight shillings per child and will be ready to work until she has another. If you are more thrifty, as I have to admit the times call for, you may flay your carcass. The skin will be artificially covered and make great gloves for ladies and boots for gentlemen” (Swift 7/8).

The Irish are not capable of solving poverty in their own country so the narrator attempts to motivate them. Swift’s description of the meat of children is very interesting. Swift describes it to be a kind of delicacy which will make four dishes of great nutritive animal meat (Swift7). Swift also mentions how infant skin makes “admirable hands for ladies” as well as “summer boots to fine gentlemen” (Swift 7-8). Swift refers to wealthy characteristics of the poor by using words like “admirable”, “fine”, and “fine” in order to show what can be made out of children.

The “sympathetic” impressions created by the introduction’s suggestion that children are fed to the noblest rather than to their starving families is quickly destroyed. Swift’s text is filled with rhetoric, which gives readers a “love/hate” relationship with his narrator. Swift’s compassion for the poor is greatly alleviated when he feels that the beggars are to blame for their poverty. The poor do not have to be considered powerless. Swift touches upon the idea that beggars may just be lazy opportunists. Swift doesn’t necessarily agree with this notion. However, Swift succeeds in showing the political and social complexities of poverty through satire.

John Gay’s social humor The Beggar’s Opera exposes political constructs. Gay suggests that morality is something only the wealthy can afford. The Beggar says that the play examines the idea of “fine gentlemen imitating the gentlemen in the road” (Gay 91). Gay’s depiction poverty is heavily focused on equality and constant comparisons between the upper and low classes.

“Through all the Employments, Life Every Neighbour Abuses His Brother; Wives and Whores they call Husbands, and Wives. All Professions be–rogue each other: The Priest calls The Lawyer a Cheat, The Legal be-knaves The Divine: And The Statesman, because of his greatness, Considers his Trade as Honest as Mine” (Gay 2).

Gay uses humor to highlight the corruption and dark underbelly of English society in 18th century England. Gay emphasizes their moral similarities, rather than Swift who highlights the clear distinctions between these two classes. They are not portrayed as poor beggars but as people with money. The text is full with humorous equivalencies, such those made between lawyers and priests, as well as statesmen or criminals. Gay makes these comparisons in an effort to expose the fraud within England’s judiciary system and ultimately, to end the social-and political vices that rule the country.

We reduce the superfluities of Mankind. The World is avaritious. Covetous men, like Jackdaws, take what they are not meant to have, just to hide it. These are the Robbers to Mankind. Money was meant for the Free-hearted Generous. (Gay 29)

Matt’s speech clearly illustrates the theme and hypocrisy of the play. It also takes on a socialistic perspective to the rights for man. It may seem prejudiced to distribute wealth among the rich, but the schemes used by the highwaymen to befriend innocent teenagers at a game table and then rob them of their earnings are anything but honorable. Gay, contrary to Swift’s assertions, does not consider the poor guilty of moral lapses. The poor are not immoral but amoral. The lower classes are unable to use morality as a manipulative tool because they live in such poverty.

Satire can be used to challenge the social constructs around poverty and social classes. Swift uses rhetoric, exaggeration, and insincerity in Swift’s modest proposal to portray and reflect the low standard of living in Ireland. He literally implies that the rich “devour”, the poor, and are able to attain success at their expense. Gay, on his part, highlights the similarities between the upper- and lower-classes to expose the pervasive wealth snobbery. Through the use of humor, both authors are able to expose the corruption and hypocrisy within England’s social system.

Works cited:

Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera is a musical satire from the 18th century that follows the life of a highwayman as he attempts to win over the woman he loves. William Heinemann, 1921. Print.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Humble Suggestion.” Web. 5 Nov. 2015.


  • davidwong

    David Wong is a 29-year-old educator and blogger who focuses on helping students learn in creative and interesting ways. He has a background in teaching and has been blogging since 2006. David's work has been featured on a variety of websites, including Lifehack, Dumb Little Man, and The Huffington Post.