Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift, is probably the most famous satirical essay in the English language. It was first published in Dublin as a short, anonymous pamphlet. The essay begins as a seemingly dispassionate diagnosis of the extreme poverty in eighteenth century Ireland. With nary a shift in tone, the essayist discloses his remedy: Render the children of the poor as food for the table. The children of Ireland should be sold and consumed, for sustenance of the destitute, as delicacies for the wealthy, and for the general progress of society. The essayist proceeds to furnish ironically logical reasons in support of this shocking and repulsive proposal.
Swift was born in Dublin in 1667 to English parents. He wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and political tracts, all with a biting satirical wit. His novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726; originally titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships) is a mix of travelogue, fantasy, adventure, and satire, making it one of the world’s masterpieces of literature.
While Swift was advancing in the world of popular and polemical literature and aspiring to literary greatness, he was also rising through the ranks of the established clergy. In 1713, he was appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral in Dublin. There, he saw firsthand the poverty and oppression of the Irish. He wrote tracts, letters, and essays on their behalf, including “A Letter to a Member of Parliament, in Ireland” (1708), “The Story of an Injured Lady” (1720), A Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), “Drapier’s Letters” (1724), and “A Short View of the State of Ireland” (1728). Of these efforts, which would earn Swift a reputation as a champion of Ireland, A Modest Proposal is the most famous.
By the time he wrote A Modest Proposal, Swift’s satirical methods, rooted in the classical techniques of Roman satirists such as Juvenal, had been perfected. His prose style—muscular, compact, sinewy, and expressive—can lay claim to being the most exact and forceful in the English language. His fertile imagination was able to lay down layer upon layer of irony in almost bewildering succession. A Modest Proposal, like Gulliver’s Travels, transcends the political, social, and economic crises that gave birth to it, woeful as they were. Packed with irony and satirical revelations of the human condition, this fantastical tract rises to timeless literature.
A Modest Proposal was published as a short pamphlet of fewer than two thousand words in September, 1729. It was written anonymously, although readers quickly deduced that the author was the master satirist Dean Swift. It is crucial to note that Swift, while the author of the essay, is not its speaker. Rather the authorial voice, perhaps best called the proposer, is an unnamed and unknown personage whose intellectual characteristics and prejudices can be gleaned from his proposals. What is stated in a straightforward manner by the proposer is meant satirically by Swift. The distance maintained between Swift and the proposer is necessary for the many layers of irony in the essay. The proposer, like the narrators in Swift’s fiction, himself becomes a character in the intricate interplay of realism and fable, irony and satire. A Modest Proposal therefore combines Swift’s outrage at the cruelties and stupidities of society with satirical rhetoric and his skill at creating fiction.
The proposer begins the tract by bemoaning the state of the poor in Ireland. Mothers begging for alms, with a crowd of children in their arms, are a common sight. The vast majority of the population is poor, with little useful employment. Poverty drives the youths of Ireland into crime, slavery, or the armies of the deposed Stuart kings in Spain. The proposer has an advantageous solution, to which he cannot imagine a single objection. Up to this point, the proposer has shown himself to be a reasonable if somewhat pedantic thinker, armed with a host of statistics about demography and economics in Ireland. Certainly his critique reflects no credit on the Whig government in London, which Swift, a High Church Tory in religion and politics, despised. The English colonial rule of absentee landlords, vast plantations, and enforced settlements is discredited.
Following immediately upon these...
(The entire section is 1844 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Swift’s A Modest Proposal has been called the greatest work of irony ever written. A dispassionate social scientist surveys the poverty in Ireland and structures his proposal in five parts after the classical rhetorical pattern: exordium (introduction), narratio (narrative), confirmatio (confirmation), confutatio (refutation), and peroratio (peroration).
The exordium evokes the familiar sight of female beggars followed by many children dressed in rags. The image suggests the problem of poverty, overpopulation, and hunger that the narrator proposes to solve with his “fair, cheap, and easy method” of fattening the poor babies for a year and then selling them as delicious delicacies for the tables of the rich.
In the narratio, the narrator coldly calculates the number of babies needed. Out of one and a half million people in Ireland, he reckons only two hundred thousand couples are breeders. Subtracting thirty thousand whose parents can afford them, and fifty thousand who die in the first year of life, and sparing twenty thousand for breeding purposes, he figures only one hundred thousand babies will be sold for slaughter each year. Instead of being a burden on families or welfare agencies, these children will contribute to the feeding and clothing of thousands of others, since their skins can also be tanned for leather.
The confirmatio explains the...
(The entire section is 476 words.)