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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
.......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
.......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.
.......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. Essay Format
.......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.
.......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."
.......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.
.......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.
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.
.......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.
Swift's satirical language also chides the Irish themselves for not acting with firm resolve to improve their lot.
.......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
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 uses carcasses (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.