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|A Modest Proposal |
|By Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) |
|A Study Guide |
|Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site |
|.. |
|Type of Work |
|Purpose |
|Historical Background |
|Summary |
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|Complete Title |
|Writing Format |
|Irony |
|Allusions, Vocabulary |
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|Themes |
|Author Information |
|Questions, Essay Topics |
|Complete Free Text |
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|By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005 |
|Revised and Enlarged in 2009 |
|Type of Work |
|......."A Modest Proposal" is an essay that uses satire to make its point. A satire is a literary work that attacks or pokes fun at vices, abuses, |
|stupidity, and/or any other fault or imperfection. Satire may make the reader laugh at, or feel disgust for, the person or thing satirized. Impishly|
|or sardonically, it criticizes someone or something, using wit and clever wording—and sometimes makes outrageous assertions or claims. The main |
|purpose of a satire is to spur readers to remedy the problem under discussion. The main weapon of the satirist is verbal irony, a figure of speech |
|in which words are used to ridicule a person or thing by conveying a meaning that is the opposite of what the words say. |
|.......The essay was originally printed in the form of a pamphlet. At the time of its publication, 1729, a pamphlet was a short work that took a |
|stand on a political, religious, or social issue—or any other issue of public interest. A typical pamphlet had no binding, although it sometimes had|
|a paper cover. Writers of pamphlets, called pamphleteers, played a significant role in inflaming or resolving many of the great controversies in |
|Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, as well as in the political debate leading up to the American Revolution. |
|.......In addition to “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift wrote many political pamphlets supporting the causes of the Tory political party after he |
|renounced his allegiance to the Whig party. |
|Purpose |
|.. |
|.......Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” to call attention to abuses inflicted on Irish Catholics by well-to-do English Protestants. Swift |
|himself was a Protestant, but he was also a native of Ireland, having been born in Dublin of English parents. He believed England was exploiting and|
|oppressing Ireland. |
|.......Many Irishmen worked farms owned by Englishmen who charged high rents—so high that the Irish were frequently unable to pay them. |
|Consequently, many Irish farming families continually lived on the edge of starvation. |
|.......In “A Modest Proposal,” Swift satirizes the English landlords with outrageous humor, proposing that Irish infants be sold as food at age one,|
|when they are plump and healthy, to give the Irish a new source of income and the English a new food product to bolster their economy and eliminate |
|a social problem. He says his proposal, if adopted, would also result in a reduction in the number of Catholics in Ireland, since most Irish |
|infants—almost all of whom were baptized Catholic—would end up in stews and other dishes instead of growing up to go to Catholic churches. Here, he |
|is satirizing the prejudice of Protestants toward Catholics. |
|.......Swift also satirizes the Irish themselves in his essay, for too many of them had accepted abuse stoically rather than taking action on their |
|own behalf. |
|Historical Background |
|.......Over the centuries, England gradually gained a foothold in Ireland. In 1541, the parliament in Dublin recognized England’s Henry VIII, a |
|Protestant, as King of Ireland. In spite of repeated uprisings by Irish Catholics, English Protestants acquired more and more estates in Ireland. By|
|1703, they owned all but ten percent of the land. Meanwhile, legislation was enacted that severely limited the rights of the Irish to hold |
|government office, purchase real estate, get an education, and advance themselves in other ways. As a result, many Irish fled to foreign lands, |
|including America. Most of those who remained in Ireland lived in poverty, facing disease, starvation, and prejudice. It was this Ireland—an Ireland|
|of the tyrannized and the downtrodden—that Jonathan Swift attempted to focus attention on in “A Modest Proposal” in 1720. |
|Summary |
|.......Editor's Note: In "A Modest Proposal," Swift assumes the persona of a statistician. The following summary of the essay greatly condenses the |
|original wording. |
|.......Because so many Irish parents cannot find decent jobs to support their children, they spend all their time walking the streets to beg alms of|
|passersby. Meanwhile, the children grow up to become thieves or emigrants. |
|.......This situation presents a serious problem for Britain, especially since there are so many Irish children. Each year, several hundred thousand|
|babies are born to Irish parents. If you subtract those who are born to well-to-do parents, those who are stillborn, and those who die after birth |
|as a result of disease or accident, you are still left with about 120,000 babies who have to be supported by poor parents. |
|.......Of course, a mother can feed her child for one year with breast milk. But after that, she must beg food for the child. However, I [the writer|
|of the essay] have a modest proposal to solve this problem. Here it is: |
|.......I have been told by a knowledgeable American that a year-old-infant is a “most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, |
|roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout." |
|.......Therefore, I suggest that of the 120,000 new infants of poor parents, 20,000 be reserved for breeding and the rest be sold to people of |
|quality. |
|.......“A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a |
|reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter . . . .” |
|.......Not only will my plan provide excellent food and relieve the burden on Irish parents and Great Britain as a whole, it will also reduce the |
|number of Roman Catholics, since it is the Roman Catholics who have the most children. In addition, my plan will have the following advantages: |
|.......Inkeepers who serve fat children at their tables will be popular with their customers. |
|.......A mother of a sold child will pocket a handsome profit and be free to work until she has another baby. |
|.......The skin from babies can be used to make gloves for women and boots for men. |
|.......Women will take excellent care of their newly born infants, for they will want their babies to be plump and healthy when it comes time to |
|sell them. |
|.......“Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or |
|sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.” |
|.......Only young, tender children would be sold. Older boys, with years of exercise that develops their muscles, would be too tough to eat. Older |
|girls would be so close to childbearing age that it would be best to let them breed. |
|.......An extremely important part of my proposal is that it would eliminate the need to raise taxes to support the poor, thereby enabling the rich |
|to continue to enjoy all their luxuries. In addition, English landlords would not have to show mercy to their Irish tenants. In turn, the Irish |
|tenants would have enough money to pay their high rents, thanks to the sale of their children. |
|.......I must point out that I am not proposing this plan for personal benefit, inasmuch as I have only one child—age nine and thus too old to |
|sell—and my wife is too old to have another baby. |
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|Complete Title |
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|.......The complete title of "A Modest Proposal" is "A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on|
|their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick." |
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|Essay Format |
|.......In "A Modest Proposal," Swift uses a standard essay format: an opening that presents the topic and thesis (the "modest proposal"), a body |
|that develops the thesis with details, and a conclusion. In the opening, the author states the problem: the deplorable economic and social |
|conditions that impoverish the Irish and prevent them from providing adequate care for their children. Before presenting the thesis, he inserts the |
|following transitional sentence: "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection." He |
|follows this sentence with the thesis, then presents the details in the body of the essay. In the conclusion, he states the benefits that would |
|accrue from his proposal. He begins with the following two sentences: "I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think |
|the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance." He next lists the advantages, using |
|transitional words such as secondly and thirdly to move from one point to the next." He ends the conclusion by explaining why his proposal is |
|superior to other remedies. Keep in mind that throughout the body and conclusion Swift makes his argument with irony, stating the opposite of what |
|he really means. For more about Swift's use of irony, see "Irony," below. |
|Irony |
|.......The dominant figure of speech in "A Modest Proposal" is verbal irony, in which a writer or speaker says the opposite of what he means. |
|Swift's masterly use of this device makes his main argument—that the Irish deserve better treatment from the English—powerful and dreadfully |
|amusing. For example, to point out that the Irish should not be treated like animals, Swift compares them to animals, as in this example: "I rather |
|recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs." Also, to point out that disease, famine, and |
|substandard living conditions threaten to kill great numbers of Irish, Swift cheers their predicament as a positive development: |
|Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been |
|desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that |
|matter, because it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be |
|reasonably expected. And as to the young laborers, they are now in as hopeful a condition; they cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want|
|of nourishment, to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength to perform it; and thus the |
|country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come. |
|Allusions and Vocabulary |
|Barbadoes (Barbados): Easternmost West Indies island, settled by the British in 1627. When Swift published "A Modest Proposal" in 1729, the island's|
|plantation owners used slaves to produce sugar for European consumption. |
|Dublin: The Irish city mentioned in "A Modest Proposal." It is the capital of Ireland. |
|Flay: Remove skin. |
|Formosa: Portuguese name for Taiwan, a Chinese-inhabited island off the southeast coast of China. |
|Mandarin: High-ranking Chinese official. |
|Papist: Roman Catholic. |
|Pretender: James Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of King James II, who ruled England, Ireland, and Scotland from 1685 to 1688. James II was a|
|Catholic, as was his wife, Mary of Modena. After his accession to power, Protestant factions continually maneuvered against him in the background. |
|When Mary became pregnant, these factions worried that the birth of her child would establish a line of Catholic kings. Consequently, they plotted |
|to oust James II and replace him with Dutchman William of Orange, whose mother was the daughter of an English king, Charles I, and whose wife was |
|one of James II's own daughters. When William marched against England, many Protestants in James II's army deserted to William, and James had no |
|choice but to flee to France. After he died in 1701, the French king then proclaimed James II's young son, James Francis Edward Stuart, to be the |
|rightful king of England. The English Parliament then enacted laws designed to prevent seating another Catholic king. Nevertheless, in succeeding |
|years, James Francis repeatedly attempted to regain the throne, and the British eventually nicknamed him the Old Pretender. |
|Psalmanazar, George: French forger and impostor who traveled widely under different personas. In one of his most famous schemes, he pretended to be |
|from Formosa (present-day Taiwan), of which little was known in the Europe of his time. In London, he published a book about Formosa in which he |
|wrote that Formosan law permitted a husband to eat a wife if she committed adultery. Psalmanazar had never visited Formosa; the whole book was made |
|up. Nevertheless, many Englishmen believed what he had written. |
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|Themes |
|Exploitation of the Downtrodden |
|.......Beneath Swift’s audacious satire is a serious theme: that English overlords are shamelessly exploiting and oppressing the impoverished people|
|of Ireland through unfair laws, high rents charged by absentee landlords, and other injustices. |
|Prejudice |
|.......At the time of the publication of "A Modest Proposal," many British Protestants disdained Roman Catholics--especially Irish Catholics--and |
|enacted laws limiting their ability to thrive and prosper. |
|Irish Inaction |
|Swift's satirical language also chides the Irish themselves for not acting with firm resolve to improve their lot. |
|Author Information |
|.......Jonathan Swift was born on November 30, 1667, in Dublin, Ireland. His father—an Englishman who had moved to Ireland—died earlier that year. |
|Receiving financial assistance from relatives, Swift attended a good school for his basic education and graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in |
|1686. He lived off and on in England, became an Anglican clergyman, and eventually was appointed dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, although|
|he had lobbied for a position in England. His writing—especially his satires—made him one of the most prominent citizens in Great Britain, and he |
|worked for a time on behalf of Tory causes. His most famous work is Gulliver's Travels, a book of satire on politics and society in general. Swift |
|died in Dublin on October 19, 1745. Click here for additional information. |
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|Study Questions and Essay Topics |
|Write a satircal essay that focuses on an issue in your community, your state, or your country. |
|How would you describe the tone of "A Modest Proposal?" |
|To what extent (or ways) was British exploitation of Irish labor an outgrowth of an economic policy known as mercantilism? |
|What historical developments caused the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Great Britain of the 1700s? |
|The language of "A Modest Proposal" is specific and succinct. It is also playfully shocking, as demonstrated in the following paragraph in which |
|Swift usescarcasses (remains of dead animals dressed by butchers) to refer to the remains of children prepared as meat: "Supposing that one thousand|
|families in this city, would be constant customers for Infant's Flesh, besides others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings |
|and christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses, and the rest of the Kingdom (where probably they |
|will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand." |
|Find other passages in the story in which Swift's words seemed designed to shock or amuse the reader. |



The full title of Swift's pamphlet is "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick." The tract is an ironically conceived attempt to "find out a fair, cheap, and easy Method" for converting the starving children of Ireland into "sound and useful members of the Commonwealth." Across the country poor children, predominantly Catholics, are living in squalor because their families are too poor to keep them fed and clothed.

The author argues, by hard-edged economic reasoning as well as from a self-righteous moral stance, for a way to turn this problem into its own solution. His proposal, in effect, is to fatten up these undernourished children and feed them to Ireland's rich land-owners. Children of the poor could be sold into a meat market at the age of one, he argues, thus combating overpopulation and unemployment, sparing families the expense of child-bearing while providing them with a little extra income, improving the culinary experience of the wealthy, and contributing to the overall economic well-being of the nation.

The author offers statistical support for his assertions and gives specific data about the number of children to be sold, their weight and price, and the projected consumption patterns. He suggests some recipes for preparing this delicious new meat, and he feels sure that innovative cooks will be quick to generate more. He also anticipates that the practice of selling and eating children will have positive effects on family morality: husbands will treat their wives with more respect, and parents will value their children in ways hitherto unknown. His conclusion is that the implementation of this project will do more to solve Ireland's complex social, political, and economic problems than any other measure that has been proposed.

Paragraphs 1-7


The author invokes the "melancholly" and all-too-common sight of women and children begging on the streets of Ireland. These mothers, unable to work for their livelihood, "are forced to employ all their Time" panhandling for food. The children, also for want of work, grow up to be thieves, or else emigrate "to fight for the Pretender" (the son of James II, who lost the throne of England in the Glorious Revolution of 1688) or to seek their fortunes in the Americas. The author appeals to the general consensus that these beggared children are, "in the present deplorable State of the Kingdom, a very great additional Grievance." He supposes that anyone who could devise a way to make these street children into productive members of society would be doing the nation a great service. The author's own "Intention," he says, goes even further than providing for these children of "Professed Beggars"; his proposal includes in its scope all children "of a certain Age" whose parents, though they have not yet resorted to begging, are too poor to support them.

Having considered Ireland's population problem for many years, the author has concluded that the arguments and schemes of others upon the subject are wholly inadequate. They have been, he says, "grossly mistaken in their Computation." He offers some calculations of his own: a newborn infant can be supported for its first year on breast-milk and two shillings, a sum that can easily be obtained by begging. It is after this relatively undemanding first year, therefore, that Swift's proposal will go into effect. "I propose to provide for them in such a Manner, as, instead of being a Charge upon their Parents, or the Parish, or wanting Food and Raiment for the rest of their Lives; they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the Feeding, and partly to the Cloathing, of many Thousands." Another advantage of his proposal, Swift says, is that it will reduce the number of abortions and infanticides. He speculates that most women undertake these highly immoral practices "more to avoid the Expence than the Shame" of unwanted children.

The author fills out the background to his proposal with additional statistical data. In a national population of 1.5 million, there are probably 200,000 women of childbearing age. Out of these, 30,000 might be supposed to be financially able to maintain their own children. That leaves 170,000 "breeders." Of these, perhaps 50,000 will miscarry or lose their children in the first year, leaving 120,000 children born of poor parents each year. "The Question therefore is, How this Number shall be reared, and provided for?" In the current state of the nation Swift asserts it to be impossible. They cannot be employed in a country that "neither build[s] Houses,...nor cultivate[s] Land." Except for the exceptionally gifted, they will not be able to steal for a living until they are at least six years of age, "although, I confess, they learn the Rudiments much earlier." A child under the age of twelve "is no saleable Commodity," and even when they are old enough to be sold into servitude, children bring no very large price--certainly not enough to offset the costs involved in rearing them to that age.


Swift's opening paragraph offers a starkly realistic, although compassionate, portrait of families of beggars in Ireland. The first sentence gives a fairly straightforward and un-ironic description, but by the second sentence the author begins to offer judgments and explanations about this rampant beggary: the mothers are unable to work, and have been "forced" into their current poverty and disgrace. Swift's language here reverses the prevailing sentiment of his day, which held that if beggars were poor, it was their own fault. The reader is unsure at this point whether to take Swift's professed compassion for the beggars as earnest or ironic. The issue never becomes completely clear. In this passage, and in the tract as a whole, he tends not to choose sides; his stance is one of general exasperation with all parties in a complex problem. Swift is generous with his disdain, and his irony works both to censure the poor and to critique the society that enables their poverty. The remark about Irish Catholics who go to Spain to fight for the Pretender offers a good example of the complexity of Swift's judgments: he is commenting on a woeful lack of national loyalty among the Irish, and at the same time critiquing a nation that drives its own citizens to mercenary activity. He makes a similar stab at national policies and priorities with the aside that takes for granted that poor Irish children will not find employment, since "we neither build Houses,...nor cultivate Land."

The reader is inclined at first to identify with the "proposer," in part because Swift has given no reason, at this point, not to. His compassion in the first paragraph, the matter-of-fact tone of the second, his seeming objectivity in weighing other proposals, and his moral outrage at the frequency of abortion and infanticide--these characteristics all speak out in his favor as a potential reformer. Yet the depersonalizing vocabulary with which he embarks on his computations is calculated to give us pause. He describes a newborn child as "just drooped from its Dam" and identifies women as "Breeders." Against this language the word "souls" (which ought to make sense as a way of talking about hapless human beings) takes on a wry tone when applied to Ireland's now strictly statistical population. This language offers an early indication of the way the author's proposal reduces human beings alternately to statistical entities, to economic commodities, and to animals.

It becomes clear fairly quickly that this will be an economic argument, although the proposal will have moral, religious, political, and nationalistic implications. Despite his own moral indignation, when the author suggests that most abortions are occasioned by financial rather than moral considerations, he assumes that people's motivations are basically materialistic. This is not, of course, Swift's own assumption; he presents a shockingly extreme case of cold-blooded "rationality" in order to make his readers reexamine their own priorities. Swift parodies the style of the pseudo-scientific proposals for social engineering that were so popular in his day. His piece is partly an attack on the economic utilitarianism that drove so many of these proposals. Although Swift was himself an astute economist, here he draws attention to the incongruity between a ruthless (though impeccably systematic) logic and a complexly human social and political reality. Part of the effect will be to make the reader feel that the argument is bad, without knowing quite where to intervene--to pit moral judgment against other, more rigidly logical kinds of argumentation.

Paragraphs 8-19


The author begins detailing his proposal, saying that he hopes it "will not be liable to the least Objection." He offers the information, derived from an American he knows, that a one-year-old child is "a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled." Based on this fact, he proposes that the 120,000 Irish children born in a year should be disposed of as follows: 20,000 should be kept for breeding and continuance of the population, but only a fourth of these are to be males, in accordance with the practice common among breeders of livestock ("one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females"); the other 100,000 are to be fattened and then sold as a culinary delicacy. He proceeds to offer suggestions as to the sort of dishes that might be prepared from their meat.

After this quick outline, the author moves on to the specifics of the proposal. First, he discusses the price of the meat. Since a one-year-old baby weighs, on average, only twenty-eight pounds, the flesh will be relatively expensive. These children, therefore, will be marketed primarily to Ireland's rich landlords, who, as Swift points out, "have already devoured most of the Parents" anyway. Second, he speculates that the new foodstuff will be in season year-round--with perhaps a particular surge in the springtime. The cost of nursing a "Beggar's Child" to marketable age is 2 shillings a year. The cost of the meat will be ten shillings, and the profits of the sale will be mutual: the mother will make eight shillings, and the landlord who buys the child will not only have "four Dishes of excellent nutritive Meat," but will also enjoy an increase in his own popularity among his tenants. In times of need, the skin could also be used for leather. The author does not doubt that there will be plenty of people in Dublin willing to conduct these transactions and to butcher the meat.

He then tells of a friend's proposed "Refinement on my Scheme," which was that, in light of the shortage of deer on the estates of Ireland's wealthy Gentlemen, teenage boys and girls might be butchered as an alternative to venison--especially since so many of these young people are already starving and unable to find employment. Swift, however, resists this idea, protesting that "their Flesh was generally tough and lean...and their Taste disagreeable." He also speculates that "some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty." The author follows this up with an anecdote about the natives of Formosa and their cannibalistic practices. He then acknowledges a general concern about the vast number of elderly, sick, and handicapped among the poor, who are no more able to find work than the children. Having been asked to consider how the country could be relieved of that burden, Swift declares himself unworried--these people are dying off fast enough anyway.


The irony of Swift's piece turns on the assumption that his audience, regardless of their national or religious affiliations or their socioeconomic status, will all agree to the fact that eating children is morally reprehensible. The reader registers a shock at this point in the proposal and recognizes that a literal reading of Swift's pamphlet will not do. Swift is clearly not suggesting that the people of Ireland actually eat their children, and so the task becomes one of identifying his actual argument. This involves separating the persona of the "proposer" from Swift himself. The former is clearly a caricature; his values are deplorable, but despite his cold rationality and his self-righteousness, he is not morally indifferent. Rather, he seems to have a single, glaring blind spot regarding the reprehensible act of eating children, but he is perfectly ready to make judgments about the incidental moral benefits and consequences of his proposal. The proposer himself is not the main target of Swift's angry satire, though he becomes the vehicle for some biting parodies on methods of social thought.

The proposal draws attention to the self-degradation of the nation as a whole by illustrating it in shockingly literal ways. The idea of fattening up a starving population in order to feed the rich casts a grim judgment on the nature of social relations in Ireland. The language that likens people to livestock becomes even more prevalent in this part of the proposal. The breeding metaphor underscores the economic pragmatism that underlies the idea. It also works to frame a critique of the domestic values in Irish Catholic families, who regard marriage and family with so little sanctity that they effectively make breeding animals of themselves. Swift draws on the long-standing perception among the English and the Anglo-Irish ruling classes of the Irish as a barbaric people. Swift neither confirms nor negates this assumption altogether. He indicts the Irish Catholics for the extent to which they dehumanize themselves through their baseness and lack of self-respect. He also, however, admonishes those who would accuse the poor for their inhumane lack of compassion. And, he critiques the barbarism of a mode of social thought that takes economic profitability as its sole standard.

With the introduction of the idea of cannibalism, a number of associated insinuations come into play. Swift cultivates an analogy between eating people and other ways in which people, or a nation, can be devoured. The British oppression amounts to a kind of voracious consumption of all things Irish--humans devouring humans in a cannibalism of injustice and inhumanity. But Ireland's complicity in its own oppression translates the guilt of cannibalism to a narrower national scale; this is not just humans being cruel to other humans, but a nation consuming itself and its own resources. Swift's aside about the fact that wealthy Irish landlords have already "devoured" most of the poor parents voices a protest against their exploitation of the peasants.

One of Swift's techniques is to let abstract ideas resonate in multiple ways. The word "profit," for example, refers at various points to economics, morality, and personal indulgence. When Swift looks at who stands to profit from the sale of infant flesh, he includes not only the family that earns the eight shillings, but also the landowner who will earn a certain social status by serving such a delicacy, and the nation that will obtain relief from some of its most pressing problems. In this way, Swift keeps reminding his reader of the different value systems that bear on Ireland's social and political problems.

Paragraphs 20-28


"I have too long digressed," says Swift, and so he continues to enumerate the advantages of his proposal. It will reduce the number of "Papists" (Catholics), who form the majority of the poor population and who tend to have large families. He identifies the Catholics as the enemies of the nation--or of its wealthy Anglo contingent--accusing Irish Catholics of subversive political activity, while contrasting them with the many Protestants who have left the country rather than be forced to "pay Tithes against their Conscience."

The proposal also means that poor tenants, once their children become a valuable commodity, will be better able to pay off their debts to their landlords. The arrangement will be good for the national economy, turning what had been a liability into part of the national product--not to mention the added national benefit of a new dish. In addition, the parents of these now-marketable children will reap a profit beyond just the eight-shilling sale price, since they will be relieved of the expense of caring for the children after the first year. The new food will undoubtedly improve business in taverns. The proposal will have the moral benefits of encouraging marriage and increasing mothers' love for their children. It will also likely spur a healthy competition among parents as to who can "bring the fattest Child to the Market," as well as reducing domestic violence, at least during the time of pregnancy, "for fear of a Miscarriage." An indirect consequence of eating children's flesh will be an increase in exportation of beef, and well as a rising standard for other meats, which "are in no way comparable in Taste, or Magnificence, to a well-grown fat yearling Child." Swift speculates that one fifth of the "carcasses" will be consumed in London, and the rest elsewhere in Ireland.


The author identifies himself as a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, who were predominantly Anglican. His picture of embattled Anglicans forced to leave the country is an ironic one, however. Swift is denouncing the practice of absenteeism among Irish landlords, who often governed their estates from abroad, thus funneling all the fruits of Irish peasant labor out of the Irish economy and into the English coffers. The proposer's allegiance is to the interests of the wealthy, and it is at the upper classes that Swift aims his sharpest barbs. Swift's contempt for the irresponsibility, greed, and moral indifference of the wealthy is matched only by his disgust at the utter failure of Ireland's political leaders. Swift begins moving away from the faux-economics of child-breeding in order to hone in on the realities of Ireland's economic crisis. Many of the arguments the proposer advances here have to do with the very real problem of building a viable Irish national economy. Swift reveals that his objection is not so much with the basic mercantilist idea that the people are the most valuable resources of a nation, but rather with Ireland's failure to value that resource in any meaningful and nationally constructive way.

Swift also elaborates on his critique of domestic mores among the Irish poor. The fact that they need an economic inducement to marry, to love their children and spouses, and to refrain from domestic violence are obvious strikes against them--although probably against the bigotry of the proposer as well since, for Swift, there are multiple sides to every story.

Paragraphs 29-33


The author now anticipates an objection to his proposal--that it will too drastically reduce the national population. He admits this, reminding the reader that such a reduction was in fact one of the goals. The proposal, he emphasizes, is calculated specifically with respect to Ireland and its circumstances, and is not meant to be applicable to other kingdoms. He offers a catalogue of the various remedies others have suggested: taxing absentee landowners, buying only domestically-manufactured goods, rejecting "foreign luxury," reforming the morality of Irish women, instilling "Parsimony, Prudence, and Temperance" in the people, as well as a healthy patriotism, abandoning factionalism and internal strife, refusing "to sell our Country and Consciences for nothing," encouraging landlords to treat their tenants justly, and enforcing honest practice among merchants. The author disdains these measures as naive and unrealistic. He tells of his own weariness after years of struggling with such impracticable ideas, and his final relief and excitement at hitting upon his current proposal, which "hath something solid and real, of no Expence, and little Trouble," and which will not run the risk of angering England. It will have nothing to do with England, in fact, since the flesh of human infants is too delicate to withstand exportation. He hints that there might be a country that would be eager "to eat up our whole Nation," even without preservatives.

Swift insists that he is not unwilling to hear alternative proposals, if they are "equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual." They should also be sure to consider the two urgent issues that his own proposal addresses so thoroughly. First, it must indicate how 100,000 "useless Mouths and Backs" are to be fed and clothed. And second, it must address the extreme poverty of the vast majority of the Irish population, whose misery is so great that they would "think it a great Happiness to have been sold for Food at a Year old." Swift reinforces that he has only the "publick Good" in mind with this proposal for "advancing our Trade, providing for Infants, relieving the Poor, and giving some Pleasure to the Rich." He is himself entirely disinterested, having no children by which he can earn money, since the youngest is already nine-years-old.


The author's account of his long and exhausting years of wrestling with Ireland's problems might be taken as Swift's own. His catalogue of supposedly unrealistic alternative solutions marks a turning point in the pamphlet and a break in the satire. The ideas the proposer rejects represent measures that Swift himself had spent a great deal of energy advocating, to exasperatingly little effect. They are a set of steps by which the Irish might hope to break out of their cycle of victimization without the need for England's cooperation. Swift's is a program of civic-minded, patriotic, and principled behavior designed to effect change from the inside. The audience is confronted with the fact that there are real and practicable solutions to Ireland's national discomposure, in which they themselves, in their greed and self-indulgence, are culpable.

In emphasizing that this remedy is designed only for Ireland, Swift is calling attention to the extremity of his country's backwardness, as an index of how bad things have gotten. The author's statement that much of the population would have been better off dead is exaggerated, perhaps, but not ironic; it is meant as testimony to the dire national consequences of such rampant civic neglect. Only in Ireland, he seems to say, could a policy of cannibalism possibly be considered a social improvement.

The author's closing statement offers a last scathing indictment of the ethic of convenience and personal gain. We are urged to believe in his disinterestedness not because of his moral standards or his high-mindedness, but because he happens not to be susceptible to the particular fiscal temptation that might compromise his position. The manner of his assertion here reminds us that the author's unquestioned assumption throughout the entire proposal is that anyone with children would in fact be perfectly willing to sell them. This declaration also undercuts, once again, the separation between the level-headed, wealthy, Protestant author and the Catholic masses. What unites the unruly and unscrupulous mob with the social planner is the fact that their priorities are basically economic.


In A Modest Proposal, Swift vents his mounting aggravation at the ineptitude of Ireland's politicians, the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the tyranny of the English, and the squalor and degradation in which he sees so many Irish people living. While A Modest Proposal bemoans the bleak situation of an Ireland almost totally subject to England's exploitation, it also expresses Swift's utter disgust at the Irish people's seeming inability to mobilize on their own behalf. Without excusing any party, the essay shows that not only the English but also the Irish themselves--and not only the Irish politicians but also the masses--are responsible for the nation's lamentable state. His compassion for the misery of the Irish people is a severe one, and he includes a critique of their incompetence in dealing with their own problems.

Political pamphleteering was a fashionable pastime in Swift's day, which saw vast numbers of tracts and essays advancing political opinions and proposing remedies for Ireland's economic and social ills. Swift's tract parodies the style and method of these, and the grim irony of his own solution reveals his personal despair at the failure of all this paper journalism to achieve any actual progress. His piece protests the utter inefficacy of Irish political leadership, and it also attacks the orientation of so many contemporary reformers toward economic utilitarianism. While Swift himself was an astute economic thinker, he often expressed contempt for the application of supposedly scientific management ideas to humanitarian concerns.

The main rhetorical challenge of this bitingly ironic essay is capturing the attention of an audience whose indifference has been well tested. Swift makes his point negatively, stringing together an appalling set of morally untenable positions in order to cast blame and aspersions far and wide. The essay progresses through a series of surprises that first shocks the reader and then causes her to think critically not only about policies, but also about motivations and values.


Posted by Nicole Smith,Dec 6, 2011FictionNo CommentsPrint

Before beginning this summary of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, it is important to clarify that this is a satire and thus Swift is using symbols and motifs to present the themes he wishes to discuss and is not seriously advocating this demise of children. In short, to summarize, “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift begins by discussing the dire poverty that is rampant in Ireland and hints at how the country’s position is not helped by mighty England. The narrator of “A Modest Proposal” by Swift is very cold and rational, despite his somewhat sympathetic early description of the poverty he witnesses although this narration is the key to the presence of satire and irony in “A Modest Proposal”. He believes in a cycle of poverty where the parents are too poor and thus their children remain poor and thus useless to society and his only offering is that these children be put to use. Shockingly, the “use” these children are designated for is food…yes, that means that they would be eaten. The narrator of “Modest Proposal” backs up this frightening statement with economic rationalization and concludes that the children will contribute to the feeding and clothing of Ireland’s massive population.

In this not-so-modest proposal, the narrator of “A Modest Proposal” goes on to further to suggest all of the ways such a system could work. Since he has the belief that every poor family has a price, he is convinced that mothers would gladly carry and then sell their children for 8 shillings, that the rich would find the youngsters to be an excellent delicacy, and with the extra money going to the landlords (the rich of Swift’s time) the whole economy would be benefit, the population and poverty problems would be solved. The state would no longer be responsible for these poor children’s welfare and Ireland would no longer be reliant on England. Although there have been a few rather gruesome details omitted in this summary of “A Modest Proposal” (such as the passing over of teenagers since they might not taste very good) the general idea one should walk away with is that Swift’s satire is meant to point out the flaws inherent to a strictly rational way of dealing economic and social problems in A Modest Proposal. He is also suggesting that the Irish people are not necessarily the victims—that for personal economic gain they would “sell out” their families and go along with such a disgusting proposal

Although “A Modest Proposal” is a very short satire, it is nonetheless loaded with political, moral, and economic questions worth exploring. In general, I would advise the first-time reader of this text to go over it twice fully. The first time, just try to appreciate the humor and language that comprise the brilliant satire of “A Modest Proposal” …have fun with it without driving yourself nutty thinking about the implications of what the narrator/Swift is saying on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The second time, do a little bit of research beforehand about the Age of Reason, especially as it relates to rationalist approaches to state management. Think about how the Irish are being represented and question whether or not there are any “good” points that the narrator makes. Consider the role of England, the Catholic versus Protestant representations, and the way the poor of Ireland are not shown to have much initiative (or even dignity.)

An aphorism is an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic (concise) and memorable form.[1] Aphorism literally means a "distinction" or "definition", from Greek ἀφορισμός (aphorismós), which is from ἀπό (apo) and ὁρίζειν (horizein), meaning "from/to bound". The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. The oft-cited first sentence of this work (see Ars longa, vita brevis) is:

|“ |"Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgement difficult." |” |

The term was later applied to maxims of physical science, then statements of all kinds of philosophical, moral, or literary principles. In modern usage an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation cleverly and pithily written.

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