Material culture, according to Oxford Dictionary, is “the physical objects, such as tools, domestic articles, or religious objects, which give evidence of the type of culture developed by a society or group.”
In his essay “A Modest Proposal,” noted satirist Jonathan Swift attacks the wide gap between the British upper class and the Irish lower class using several weapons of material culture and persuasive methods. Before explaining the use of one object of material culture in Swift’s essay, I will give a brief background so the following fictional story is not confusing. The link to the essay is here if you would like to read it: https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/modest.html
Swift, like any other satirist, observed society. He noted the pitfalls and proceeded to place them in a public spotlight through his essays. In “A Modest Proposal,” he speaks through a third person narrator, arguing that to fix the problem of streets overpopulated with poor Irish mothers, many of who cannot provide for their children, is to take the babies who are one year old and feed them to the wealthy British. Of course, Swift does not actually think this is the appropriate solution to the overpopulation, but to illuminate the divide between social classes, he makes this proposal and uses logical reasoning to support it. For example: introducing Irish babies as a new cultural dish would not only flash off the riches of families who could afford this new delicacy, but it would also encourage Irish mothers on the streets to continue having babies to earn the eight shillings they would receive as profit. In addition, this would simultaneously reduce the population. In one of his reasonings, Swift claims that incorporating “crème babée” into the menus of frequented taverns would bring more customers and income, not to mention another cultural meal. People in Swift’s time who read his essay would understand that by mentioning taverns, he provided a visual aid in dividing the two social classes. Wealthy men frequented taverns, usually in groups belonging to elite clubs, to drink wine while partaking in refined conversation. Poorer men, however, went to alehouses to obtain the same entertainment, drinking beer instead of wine (since wine typically suggests a specific level of sophistication). In sarcastically proposing to serve on platters babies of the lower class to upper class men in taverns, Swift hoped to grab the attention of readers across Ireland and England and help them realize that the divide between social class was a trivial matter in the face of our shared humanity.
This satirical attack on one of society’s flaws is one of many in “A Modest Proposal.” It is easy to see Swift’s line of thought as he sets up his argument and supports it with logic. Therefore, in the interest of trying to get into the mind of one of most famous satirists, I have written the following piece from Swift’s point of view. The setting and plot is purely fictional, but hopefully we will get a better understanding of where Swift got the inspiration to write “A Modest Proposal.”
It was detestable, really.
Not their appearance. Not their manners. Not their language.
But the way they sat around the long table, talking and laughing and sipping fine wine—the finest wine they could buy—as they neglected to look out the windows twenty feet away.
As the club continued with their talk of political problems that would never be solved, I stared out those windows from the corner seat I occupied at the table. I watched as raggedy mothers—with their children lingering by their legs—stumbled around under the overcast sky. I watched as their faces remained overcast themselves, the sunshine of a smile only appearing at a brief joke or the brush of their child’s warm hand against their own dirty one.
“It’s absolutely preposterous, you know,” stated George, “that Dunbard would even maintain the slightest amount of courage to suggest that gentlemen refrain from purchasing goods from abroad.”
“He obviously forgets that the higher price ensures a higher quality that cannot be found from within our own borders.” James shook his head as he raised his hand to beckon over an attendant. “Bring out another bottle of the most expensive wine you have and another platter of the entrée.” The attendant nodded and scurried off in the direction of the kitchen.
The rambling continued, and my eyes lingered on the scene outside—at a mother standing in the shadows of a building across the way. A baby—probably no more than a year old—was wrapped in some sort of rag, sleeping soundly against her shoulder. Looking up from beneath her lashes, the mother glanced up and down the street, as if waiting for someone to arrive. Maybe a husband. Maybe a friend. Maybe a better life.
At some point, the attendant gently set the wine and entrée on the table. He went around and refilled glasses of wine. The men laughed at a joke said at the expense of someone in the lower class I hadn’t heard of.
I tore my gaze from that mother and her frail baby on the street and focused it upon the platter of food. Focused on how it could feed her and her baby for months on end. Focused on how she probably did not have an eighth of the amount of money needed to purchase it.
The irony stirred in the air, riding on the swirling rafts of roasted meat.
And that’s when my eyes widened, and I—in my imagination—reached up and gently took ahold of that slippery current of irony.
I stood to excuse myself and apologize for my sudden departure, declaring that I had urgent business to attend to.
So, I walked out the door, leaving behind the wine and the laughter and the arrogance. Ideas churned in my head, pressing to get out and onto paper once I arrived home.
As I passed that mother swaddling her baby, I looked her way and dipped my head in silent greeting.
Her wan smile increased my pace. And when I finally arrived home and collapsed into the chair at my writing desk, the ideas rained down upon the paper. Only the whisper of the pen and the roar of thunder outside interrupted the silent room as abstract ironies became tangible words.