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During the last tree hundred years, the world has passed through many changes and definitely become more safe, just, wealthy, and humane. However, the problem of poverty still persists in many parts of the world, and, as such, it concerns children who live in underdeveloped countries. The theme of poverty and children has been discussed in many works of different styles and genres. As an example of these works, it will be interesting to compare the article Live Free and Starve by Chitra Divakaruni with the pamphlet A Modest Proposal, one of the famous works by Jonathan Swift. Despite the differences in historical backgrounds and genre, both works develop the same theme of poor children and express the same feeling of injustice and deep regret about their faith. Both authors attract public attention to the problem and call for action and for taking responsibility for the young lives of the deprived children.
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Swift wrote his pamphlet A Modest Proposal in 1729. During that historical period, Ireland, the then part of Britain, was a poor dependent country, and many people were literary starving. English Protestants presented the ruling class, whereas most of Irish were Roman Catholics. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics is not complete even by now, but at that time it had a significant importance. Swift, being a Protestant, felt pity for the oppressed Irish Catholics nonetheless. His work reflects the social and political situation of the time with an inimitable satire.
The scene was completely different when Chitra Divakaruni wrote her article Live Free and Starve. Almost three centuries after the publication of Swift’s pamphlet, poverty and starvation are the fate of many Third World countries, and child labor still exists in the world. The geographical frames were shifted but the problem of assuring general welfare remains. In many countries, children have to work to survive; their parents are not able to support them, and they see their childhood passing by in dark and dusty premises or on plantations and fields. Divakaruni wrote her article in response to the US bill that banned the import of goods from factories where child labor was used.
Thus, historical background and geographic location are absolutely different for the two stories; however, the core of the problem is basically the same. Both Swift and Divakaruni are concerned with the sufferings of innocent children who often have nothing to eat and who have had too less joy in their short lives. Swift’s pamphlet talks about the children of Irish poor men, and the “solution” to the problem that Swift proposes – to sell children’s flesh as meat – discovers the deep roots of the problem, since it is simply a greatly exaggerated variant of the common views of many landowners of that time. Divakaruni does not offer any practical solution but opens our eyes on another side of the problem – the import of goods produced by children may be banned, but it will not help those children. It will rather worsen their situation since they will loose their job and will have no possibility to earn for life thus being forced to beg, or to thieve, or to starve. As Sager (2008) noted in response to Divakaruni’s article, “while Americans hear of children sweatshops, their actions to stop these actually are hurting those they are trying to protect”.
Different genres and styles used by the authors affected their depictions of the problem. Swift’s serious tone combined with the absolute grotesqueness and absurdity of the propositions serves his goal of “ridiculing schemes for reform with which the public was inundated at that time” (A French Comment, 1777). With this satirical pamphlet he attacks the vices of the society using laugh as a powerful weapon. As a result, the problem is not described seriously and in detail, the author’s real thoughts and feelings are hidden under the mask of irony, and no real solutions are proposed. However, the problem is completely understandable even for us three centuries later, and the real feelings of the author are very clear. Therefore, Swift achieved his goal of attracting society’s attention to unrighteous sufferings of children and of awakening readers’ conscience.
Divakaruni’s work is written as a magazine article, and, as such, it has nothing to do with satire or any other kind of entertainment. It directly speaks about the problem, clearly presents author’s position, provides arguments, and makes a reasonable conclusion. It is significantly shorter than Swift’s pamphlet and does not present an elaborated argumentation. Instead, as a main argument, the author tells about her personal experience. However, the message contained in the article reaches the hearts with no less effect than the Swift’s pamphlet does. Thus, absolutely different means help achieve the same goal.
Argumentation provided by the two authors is very different, too. Swift elaborates the set of arguments to support his incredible proposition of eating children. Copeland notes the extreme seriousness of Swift’s tone and his manner of a “well-meaning tradesman”, with which he demonstrates that his proposal is “undoubtedly practical” (cited in Hall, 1970, pp. 47-48). This impression is supported by Swift’s attention to detail. He even describes how exactly the child’s meat may be cooked and how many dishes one child can serve. He counts the money that parents have to spend on their children and calculates that selling the child will bring 8 shillings neat profit for the mother (Swift, p. 673). He also enumerates the advantages of his proposition among which he names the lessening of the number of Catholics and nation’s stock increase by 50 thousand pounds per annum (Swift, p. 675). With all these arguments, Swift reduces his proposition to a complete absurdity and deepens the impression.
Divakaruni recalls her own experience of communication with a poor working child as an argument. She describes a boy who worked at their home in Calcutta because his parents were too poor to support him, and she reasonably declares that without this work his destiny would have been significantly worse. She agrees that “child labor is a terrible thing” (Divakaruni, 1997), but states that banning it will not solve the problems of children in poverty. It would rather bring even more problems to them since they would have no money and, therefore, no food. Some may argue that Divakaruni’s point is similar to the arguments of the famous apologist of slavery, George Fitzburg, who believed that without having some property the men are already dependent on the rich, but being slaves they at least have some food, clothing and shelter (cited in Sandel, 1996, p. 176). However, Divakaruni overturns this accuse by adding a requirement that she believes necessary to make the decision work for better – the requirement to accompany such bans with “programs that will offer a new life to these newly released children” (Divakaruni, 1997). Therefore, she demonstrates that she does not advocate child labor but wants to offer a radical solution and not some halfway measures.
Despite the difference in genres, style, methods of argumentation, and the debated aspects of the problem, the ethical message that works by Swift and Divakaruni imply is in many ways similar. Both authors feel their responsibility for the world they live in and for all misdeeds that are happening in it, and they awaken readers’ sense of responsibility. Both authors condemn the laws under which children may suffer. Both authors call for action in support of deprived children. Through reading both A Modest Proposal by Swift and Live Free and Starve by Divakaruni the readers get a good lesson of love for our neighbors, of grace, charity and compassion.
Therefore, the works by Swift and Divakaruni are totally different in genre and style; they were written in absolutely different historical settings, about different aspects of the problem. However, in essence they are very similar. The major theme they explore is the same: poverty and children. Moreover, the ethical message they imply is the same: they call for action and for our responsibility for the defenseless members of society. The impact of both works on readers’ minds is very strong though achieved by very different means. Both authors are full of compassion to poor children who have to work, or to beg, or to thieve to survive. This is not how childhood should be, Swift and Divakaruni agree.
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