In Swift's "A Modest Proposal," what problem does the speaker describe in the first two paragraphs?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The speaker in this satirical essay describes a number of problems in the first two paragraphs.  All of them are related to poverty and excess of population.  Here is what they are:

  • Too many female beggars, most of whom have at least a few children following them along.  He mentions that it is a problem that they are able to find work.
  • Their children grow up so poor that they either A) steal for a living, B) go fight as mercenaries for Spain or C) sell themselves as indentured servants in the Caribbean.

All of this is in the first paragraph.  In the second, he just says that if anyone could solve these problems, it would be a good thing -- so good that such a person should get their statue put up.

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 2) Educator

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The speaker describes the problem of poverty in Ireland, which he attributes to the lack of opportunities to earn money. He writes of mothers, trailed by hungry children, forced to beg for food, and of people forced either to steal or to sell themselves into slavery or as mercenary soldiers in foreign countries so that they will not starve. The narrator characterizes this as a "deplorable state," and notes that the person who could find a reasonable way for the children of the poor to earn money would deserve to have a statue in a public square. 

From the speaker's tone and the way he raises the reader's emotions of pity and empathy in his descriptions of the plight of the poor, the reader is led to expect a compassionate proposal to solve the problem of poverty, only to be all the more surprised later in the essay when the narrator's idea is to butcher poor one-year-olds as delicacies to be eaten by the rich. It's also worth noting that the speaker, although he calls his proposal "modest," seems to think a statue should be erected to him for such a "fine" solution to the problem of poverty. It's important to remember that this speaker is not Swift, the author of the piece, but a clueless bean counter, and that Swift expects us to be horrified by his ideas. 


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