A Modest Proposal for Babycakes

How would you solve world hunger? Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” has an answer, but it might not be one you’d expect. In what is one of the most renowned and outrageous works of satire in the English-speaking world, Swift modestly proposes that for Irish babies to be “beneficial to the publick,” 20% of them should be reserved for breeding while the rest should be plumped up for a year and then sold as food.

It sounds ridiculous, but Swift parodically provides reasonable sounding arguments.

First, babies are in season at all times of the year (Swift, the raging Protestant, adds that they are especially abundant in March, which during that time was nine months after Lent). Selling and eating babies also gives people in poverty something they can do to make money and allows them to spend less on raising children. People would have to deal with fewer animal carcasses, since having roast baby would make for an impressive main course at a nobleman’s party. Swift even goes as far as to claim that this practice will foster friendly competition between women to see who can bear the largest child, and further prevent husbands from committing domestic abuse against their pregnant wives. Swift ends his proposal by saying that he offers this as a solution for the good of Ireland and laments that he cannot sell any of his own children, as they are too old.

A delicious meal

As Ian McBride’s article, “The Politics of A Modest Proposal: Swift and the Irish Crisis of the Late 1720s,” illuminates, at the time of Swift’s writing this proposal, Ireland had just gone through three consecutive years of low crop yield, and people were struggling with food insecurity throughout the country. To make matters worse, England had put trade restrictions on Ireland, leaving them without any aid from their closest neighbor and the rest of the British Empire. Thus, “A Modest Proposal” is both a satirical solution to the rampant hunger in Ireland and a critique of the Irish ruling class and British imperialism, as shown in lines like “For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.” The work also plays on the belief originating with the ancient Greeks that the ancient Irish practiced cannibalism by including English people living in Ireland among those who would commit such a savage act.

I’m Jonathan Swift and I approve this message

A more modern short story that clearly takes cues from “A Modest Proposal” is Neil Gaiman’s “Babycakes” (1990). In this piece, all animals have mysteriously disappeared, so humans make do with babies instead. However, they don’t just use babies for food — they also make leather out of their skin to use in clothing and test toxic products on them. In the end, the babies disappear too, and the narrator assures the reader that humans will come up with something to replace them.

Despite the similarities between the two works, this dystopia was created with not only hunger in mind, but animal rights as well. It draws the reader’s attention to the fact that it’s hard to read about babies being “scarred,” “scalded,” “burnt,” etc., but these things happen to animals in product testing labs to this day. It also begs the question — why did the animals disappear in the first place? There are many different possibilities of course, but as I read the story as a dystopian future, I attributed the disappearance to climate change and human intervention, two factors that cause animals to go extinct today. It is a frightening, yet conceivable, future in which resources have become so sparse that all of the animals have died off and left humans to struggle alone to survive.

A solution has been modestly proposed for over 290 years, but if the choice has to be made, as it is in “Babycakes,” could we do it? Would we have a choice?

— Sierra Grubb

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6 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for Babycakes

  1. Hi Sierra,

    Cool post! Not going to lie, I was a little disturbed as I skimmed the beginning of the piece not realizing the satirical roots of the piece. But I suppose part of that is the point of A Modest Proposal and Babycakes.

    I agree that the connection here to animal rights is powerful and important. It’s interesting to me though that, as you mention, this critique has been out there for so incredibly long and it is only until recently you hear more widespread dialogue on our culture of animal consumption. I’ve found the relation to climate change to be particularly interesting as it is only once we as humans are threatened that we begin to reconsider our patterns of exploitation and consumption.

    Your article also brought me back to the piece of discussion on Thursday about crickets and other bug consumption as an alternative food source. On top of this, I’ve also heard interesting arguments and similarly toned pieces advocating for dog meat consumption. Apparently, we euthanize a bunch of dogs every year as strays ext. then proceed to spend billions on factory farming of other animals for consumption.

    I’m rambling around a bit here but I really enjoyed your piece. I’ll be interested to see if we tackle the questions you brought up a bit more in class!

    – Oliver

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  2. I don’t think I could eat babies. That being said, I’m vegan, so I already avoid eating things that can feel pain (animals).
    I hope that the piece at the time wasn’t taken too seriously. I believe it could be a kind of satire that aims to demonstrate how far humans will go to put ourselves first.
    Indigenous cultures respected nature as its own entity. They did not face hunger issues; by treating the land with proper respect (sustainable practices), they avoided famine.
    It makes me wonder if “civilized” places are really all that civilized. Perhaps reconnecting to nature is the most civilized form of life.

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  3. I loved your blog! You managed to make this extremely dark topic fun to read about. World hunger is such an intricate and complex issue that it can be difficult to conceptualize, but these satirical works help us understand the gravity of the situation. I am curious about what actionable policy steps could potentially be taken in America and elsewhere to prevent a future such as Swift’s or Gaiman’s. I think comedic satire like a Modest Proposal is particularly useful because it is often more palatable to the public than dark dystopias like Babycakes. While both genres are effective in inspiring fear and incredulity, I think satire is a great way to gain widespread concern for an issue through a humorous lens. Today, we have satirical news sources like The Onion doing just that. I am curious to learn more about how this genre functions in modern society and how it might impact policy. Thanks for a great post!

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  4. I remember reading “A Modest Proposal” years ago and being both horrified at the piece while simultaneously wondering how a piece so obviously satiric could have created controversy. Through this lens, it’s really interesting to hear that there’s a more relevant and modern version! And while animal rights in our era isn’t as pressing of an issue as mass starvation in 1729 Ireland, the use of such a solution for these issues still effectively shows the desensitization towards objectively terrible situations. And while my reaction was to be somewhat satisfied that governments aren’t as cruel to their citizens as the British were to the Irish, the fact is that there are still authoritative governments who commit human rights abuses against their own people. An example would be the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against rebels in 2018, injuring and killing civilians in the process (https://nyti.ms/2m4QUXK). It’s pretty depressing that these atrocities are still occurring more than 200 years later than when “A Modest Proposal” was published, although they don’t happen as often. We’ve come far, but there’s still room for improvement.
    -Jessica P

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  5. Great Post! Your use of humor and satire, which was a little shocking at first immediately grabbed my attention on the topic. While we conclude that its inhumane and has to be avoided as soon as we see the term ‘baby cakes’, we often neglect the over-consumption of other animals and ignoring their rights, simply asserting that they’re nothing but food sources. In a world where food resources is still abundant (relying on eating other animals) it reveals humans’ cruelty and indifference in treating lives. It makes me wonder if the situation was as bad as proposed in the satire, humans would reveal the same kind of cruelty and insensibility among themselves. Does survival come first, or does humanity?

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  6. I remember the first time I read Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” At that point in my life, I was simply reading it for fun and enjoying the satirical nature of the piece. I did know about the circumstances in which it was written; however, I did not think about how it could be applied in the modern age, especially as far as animals go. I understand the argument as far as it’s connection to Gaiman’s “Babycakes,” but I find “Babycakes” to be less impactful. While the satirical tone is present in this story as well, it seems to be darker, focusing more on the story itself and less on the social issues it was trying to combat.

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