A Modest Proposal Versus Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Comparative Essay

May 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Enlightenment vs. Romanticism shows two different aspects of history. In the Enlightenment period (1685-1800) the world was more focused on decisions that were rational not emotional, whereas in the Romanticism period (1800-1850) it dealt more with the emotional aspect of writing. Even though these are two separate time periods the writing texts do have similarities. In A Modest Proposal written during the Enlightenment period by Swift, focuses on how to solve an overpopulation of Ireland. Though in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave which was written during the Romanticism period discusses the life and treatment of Frederick Douglass as a slave. Both of these texts are similar as they represented postcolonialism due to them both showing how social structure and economic dominance are impacted during this time.

Social structure must first be addressed as decisions and comments are made in the texts due to the standings the writers had during the time. In both texts there is something called Marxism which essentially identifies that there is an upper (Bourgeoisie) and lower class (Proletariat). With that there is a set of beliefs that are expected of that social class. For example the bourgeoisie must oppress the proletariat. This example can be seen in both A Modest Proposal and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. The bourgeoisie in A Modest Proposal are the British as they move to Ireland to take over hundreds of acres away from the proletariat also known as the “Irish peasants.” Swift says that his proposal will “incur no danger in disobliging England…would be glad to eat up our whole nation” meaning that with his proposal England would not be upset as Swift is referring to England taking over Ireland for its own. Even though A Modest Proposal is a satirical piece it is written to prove a point to the British that there is an issue with society. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave it also wants to show the issue with the class system. The bourgeoisie are the slave owners and the proletariat are the slaves. Frederick Douglass discusses some of the abuse that occurred during his life as a slave “I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill …My feel had been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.” This quote shows that Douglass and most likely every other slave might not have much due to what their “owners” give them.

That shows that there is an economic dominance that the bourgeoisie have over the proletariat. A Modest Proposal shows how the British are trying to gain a profit over the Irish who have little to give. So in order to make ends meet for their families most of the mothers/ females become beggars to try and help their children. While the children grow up they “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” to try and help/ survive themselves. Swift also addresses “that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.” Meaning that raising a child takes a lot of resources that the Irish don’t have, but keep getting farther into the hole because they are trying their best. In order to provide they have to take the risks that could either set them even further in the hole or get them out. The weak/children without the proper nutrition will not survive.

Survival is also critical in Douglass’s text as in order to survive one must rely on the master. His text shows the economic dominance as the slave owners in order to show how wealthy they must have more slaves. More slaves means more money that one must make in order to provide the bare minimum for them. To do this, owners only gave out food provisions once each month and clothes out once a year to every slave. The adult slaves were given “eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal” for their monthly food provisions where as “Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes, the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars.” Now for children survival was even harder. Adults could work to make up for the money and food that was provided for them whereas children were unable to work. So children were only given “two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day.” Children also were not given their monthly provisions, instead it was given to their caretakers. Usually all the children would eat something called mush which was made by their caretakers than “was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down on the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons.” The children that got the best spots by being strong and eating fast usually left full while other usually didn’t. This shows that the ones that are weaker or couldn’t keep up with everyone else would not survive.

These two texts show postcolonialism as it shows the impact of colonizing people and their land. A Modern Proposal shows how it is connected to postcolonialism by talking about how the British took control over Ireland. Which caused a social class of the British being better than the Irish. Whereas for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave it shows its connection to postcolonialism for similar reasons the slave owners, usually white Americans, are forcing the slaves to do the slave owners bidding. Both A Modern Proposal and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave are discussing how another colony is taking advantage/making use of a colony that they have taken over, which the colony taking over treats the original colony like they are less than what they are.


  1. Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.” The Norton Anthology World Literature, Shorter Third ed., vol. 2, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013, pp. 517–539.
  2. Swift, Jonathan. ”A Modest Proposal.”


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