A Modest Proposal Essay - Critical Essays

A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift

Introduction

A Modest Proposal Jonathan Swift

This entry presents criticism of Swift's 1729 satire A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents, or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. See also Gulliver's Travels Criticism (1726).

A Modest Proposal is considered one of the finest examples of satire in world literature. Written in the persona of a well-intentioned economist and published in the form of a popular pamphlet, the tract argues that the problem of poverty in Ireland can best be remedied by selling the children of the poor as food for the wealthy. This outlandish thesis is a manifestation of Swift's outrage at what he saw as the scandalous economic and political policies of the Irish and English governments, and the author uses the assumed voice of the economist, an abundance of detail, literalized metaphors, and other ironic and parodic techniques to devastating effect. At the same time Swift directs his satire at Protestant-Catholic divisions, contemporary economic theories, and other targets. A Modest Proposal has long been judged an incomparable work of rhetorical brilliance, and it continues to garner new readers and additional critical attention to this day.

Biographical Information

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland, on November 30, 1667 to Abigaile Erick Swift, seven months after the death of his father, Jonathan Swift, Sr. Swift graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1686. As he was born of English parents, Swift was anxious to distance himself from Ireland, and he moved to England in 1689—the first of many relocations between England and Ireland. While living at Moor Park in England, Swift served as a secretary to Sir William Temple, and it was there that he began his writing career. After receiving his Master of Arts degree from Oxford University in 1692, Swift was ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1694 and was stationed as prebendary of Kilroot, a poor town in northern Ireland. He disliked the experience, and two years later he returned to Moor Park, where he remained until Temple's death in 1699. Swift subsequently returned to Dublin, where he would remain until 1710, though he traveled often to London. Although he originally supported the Whigs, Swift was eventually won over by the Tories due to their support of the Church of Ireland's position regarding taxation. Swift served as the Tory ministry's main political writer, culminating in 1710, when he was asked to take responsibility for directing the Tory journal The Examiner. In 1713 he was appointed dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. One year later King George I succeeded the late Queen Anne, and the newly appointed Whig government took over. Swift was left with no opportunity for further political involvement, and therefore returned to Dublin, where, over the next two decades, he became increasingly engaged in the Irish political landscape and wrote the majority of his most influential political satire. Swift, a longtime sufferer of aphasia and Ménière's syndrome, remained at St. Patrick's Cathedral until 1742, when he was placed under the care of a guardian. He died in Dublin on October 19, 1745, and is buried in the middle aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Summary

In A Modest Proposal Swift adopts the persona of a concerned economist who suggests that, in order to better combat the poverty and overpopulation of Ireland, the children of the poor be sold as food to the wealthy. As a result, he argues, not only will the population be reduced, but the income of the poor will increase significantly as they sell their children. In developing this outrageous thesis, Swift provides abundant detail, projecting the costs of child rearing (which will be saved if the child is eaten), estimating the portion of the population affected, and even providing specific ideas regarding the number of servings a child might provide. He suggests that the meat of the children of Ireland would be considered a delicacy to both the English and to Irish landowners, and would therefore be highly sought after for feasts and special occasions. Throughout, Swift's satire relies on the persona of the economist, an ostensiblly well-meaning visionary whose sympathy for the poor leads him suggest a remedy of murderous cruelty. His arguments, rationally presented, support a profoundly irrational proposition, and their appalling callousness radically undermine their benevolent intent.

Major Themes

Swift uses the absurd thesis of A Modest Proposal to attack contemporary English and Irish politics. He focuses on the metaphorical “devouring” of Ireland's resources by England's policies and by wealthy Irish landowners, literalizing the metaphor to attack the positions of both parties. At its core, his suggestion is that the English and the wealthy landowners of Ireland are causing the poverty and misery of the population. Swift's satire is by turns oblique and direct; in one instance he suggests that, while the meat of children likely could not withstand preservation in salt for long sea voyages, he “could name a country which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.” His allusion to England (deriving from its close proximity) also directly assaults the English misuse of Ireland. Swift does not spare Ireland, however. At one point he presents a list of alternative solutions to Ireland's problems, none of which were ever attempted. In the process he emphasizes the number and extent of Ireland's social ills and the indifference and neglect with which they have been treated. At the same time, through the use of the adopted persona, Swift also satirizes those who propose solutions to political and economic issues without consideration of the human cost involved. With devastating irony, Swift shows the inhumanity of schemes for alleviating the suffering of the poor that are solely based on rational principles.

Critical Reception

Somewhat surprisingly, A Modest Proposal received little sustained critical attention until the twentieth century. Most early critics extolled the work but treated it only briefly, judging it to be in a unique class of its own and therefore difficult to analyze. In the twentieth century scholars began to see the tract as more than a simple attack on particular conditions in Ireland, but as a penetrating interrogation of the political and economic theories that gave rise to those conditions. In his 1943 analysis of A Modest Proposal, George Wittkowski argued that the work's comedic parody obscured for earlier critics its examination of political affairs. Since then, sociopolitical interpretations of Swift's satire—such as those by Oliver W. Ferguson, Robert Mahoney, and John Richardson—have vied with analyses of its brilliant deployment of rhetorical strategies—including those of Samuel J. Rogal, Denis Donoghue, and Wayne C. Booth—to account for its enduring power. By consensus, however, A Modest Proposal, is deemed a masterpiece and a stunning example of the satirist's art.

Principal Works

A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome (essay) 1701

*A Tale of a Tub, Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, to Which Is Added an Account of a Battel between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James's Library (satire) 1704

Predictions for the Year 1708, Wherein the Month and Day of the Month Are Set Down, the Persons Named, and the Great Actions and Events of Next Year Particularly Related, as They Will Come to Pass. Written to Prevent the People of England from Being Further Impos'd on by Vulgar Almanack-Makers [as Isaac Bickerstaff] (satire) 1708

Baucis and Philemon (poetry) 1709

A Project for the Advancement of Religion and the Reformation of Manners (essay) 1709

A Meditation upon a Broomstick (essay) 1710

The Conduct of the Allies, and of the Late Ministry in Beginning and Carrying on the Present War (essay) 1712

A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, in Cloaths and Furniture of Houses, etc., Utterly Rejecting and Renouncing Every Thing Wearable That Comes from England (essay) 1720

The Present Miserable State of Ireland (essay) 1721

A Letter to Mr. Harding the Printer, Upon Occasion of a Paragraph in His Newspaper of August...

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Criticism

George Wittkowsky (essay date January-October 1943)

SOURCE: Wittkowsky, George. “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (January-October 1943): 75-104.

[In one of the first major critical essays on A Modest Proposal, Wittkowsky remarks on the work within its contemporary economic context.]

There is an almost complete absence of sustained scholarship on the subject of Swift's Modest Proposal. The lesser works even of most major writers in English have been investigated with Gestapo-like thoroughness. Even the minor works of minor writers have received loving attention. And yet toward the Modest Proposal, a major work by a...

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Maurice Johnson (essay date May 1958)

SOURCE: Johnson, Maurice. “The Structural Impact of A Modest Proposal.Bucknell Review 7, no. 4 (May 1958): 234-40.

[In the following essay, Johnson weighs the influence A Modest Proposal derives solely from its syntactical and organizational format.]

A Modest Proposal (1729) has been singled out as the one incontestable example of poetic passion in English Augustan literature. Its pervasive irony, metaphorical contrasts, and paradox have been described as operating on a “grander scale than in any poem of its day.” Simultaneously, it has been studied as an early Georgian tract dealing with contemporary mercantilist attitudes toward balance...

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Oliver W. Ferguson (essay date October 1959)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Oliver W. “Swift's Saeva Indignatio and A Modest Proposal.Philological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (October 1959): 473-79.

[In the following essay, Ferguson refutes the prior assumption that Swift was venting his saeva indignatio at England in A Modest Proposal, and instead proposes that Swift's anger was aimed at all social classes in Ireland.]

For two hundred years readers have admired Swift's Modest Proposal as one of the greatest pieces of sustained irony in the language. No one has failed to note the brilliance with which Swift balanced the opposing tones of the tract: the economic projector's studied...

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Louis A. Landa (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: Landa, Louis A. “A Modest Proposal and Populousness.” In Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by James L. Clifford, pp. 102-111. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[In the following essay, Landa remarks on Swift's perception that Ireland's citizens may only become a source of wealth to the nation if the country seizes its natural opportunities and resources.]

Among Swift's Irish tracts is one entitled Maxims Controlled [i.e., confuted] in Ireland, written probably about the time of A Modest Proposal (1729), though published later. In this lesser known tract Swift examined ‘certain...

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Charles Allen Beaumont (essay date fall 1960)

SOURCE: Beaumont, Charles Allen. “Swift's Classical Rhetoric in A Modest Proposal.Georgia Review 14, no. 3 (fall 1960): 307-17.

[In the following essay, Beaumont comments on the employment of rhetoric and its significance in A Modest Proposal.]

Jonathan Swift had little confidence in man's using his reasoning powers; therefore it is not surprising that he turned to the persuasive power of classical rhetoric to convince man of his sins and follies and to indicate right action. Having been thoroughly trained in classical rhetoric at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin, Swift made extensive use of the non-argumentative devices of ancient rhetoric in...

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Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr. (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Rosenheim, Edward W., Jr. “The Satiric Victim.” In Swift and the Satirist's Art, pp. 37-108. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenheim provides a brief review of the satire in Swift's observations of the economy in A Modest Proposal.]

Strangely enough, A Modest Proposal1 presents the reader with some of the same difficulties that are encountered in the Argument [against Abolishing Christianity]. With the exception of Gulliver's Travels, Swift's grotesque argument for infant cannibalism as a solution to the problems of Ireland is certainly the most widely read of his works....

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John W. Tilton (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Tilton, John W. “The Two ‘Modest Proposals’: A Dual Approach to Swift's Irony.” Bucknell Review 14, no. 3 (1966): 78-88.

[In the following essay, Tilton suggests that A Modest Proposal may be interpreted in two different ways; one concerning the aesthetic art of satire and the other as a contemporaneous utilitarian commentary.]

Supposedly agreement was reached long ago on the peculiar mode of Swift's irony in A Modest Proposal. If any principle seemed to be established in Swiftian criticism it is that a persona functions as the putative author of the Proposal. In the public-spirited Irish economist who methodically, reasonably...

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Samuel J. Rogal (essay date April 1968)

SOURCE: Rogal, Samuel J. “The Timelessness of A Modest Proposal.English Record 18, no. 4 (April 1968): 48-53.

[Rogal observes in the following essay that A Modest Proposal has endured as a work of consequence because its rhetorical composition overshadows its outdated subject matter.]

Ricardo Quintana labels A Modest Proposal as the “greatest of all the later writings on Ireland and his [Swift's] last prose masterpiece. …”1 Apparently he is at least equating the quality of the 1729 essay with the earlier, more developed, and better known Tale of a Tub, Battle of the Books (both 1704), and Gulliver's Travels...

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Samuel L. Macey (essay date 10 November 1968)

SOURCE: Macey, Samuel L. “The Persona in A Modest Proposal.Lock Haven Review (10 November 1968): 17-24.

[In the following essay, Macey examines Swift's persona as a conduit for satire and as a representative of the author himself.]

The subjective Romantic author—Wordsworth in The Prelude, for example—frequently sets himself up for direct examination by the reader. With the neo-classicist, however, objectivity is the goal, and one of the techniques for achieving this is to set someone else up “pinned and wriggling” against the wall, as do Pope for his sylph in The Rape of the Lock and Eliot for J. Alfred Prufrock. In one sense...

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Denis Donoghue (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Words.” In Jonathan Swift, a Critical Introduction, pp. 117-159. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Donoghue remarks on the exuberant rhetoric of A Modest Proposal.]

Many features of [A Modest Proposal] are at once obvious and important; the tone of the projector fending off human and moral considerations in his economic zeal and yet, now and again, stumbling upon a cliché which conceals an ironic truth—as when the projector varies his diction and calls the people of Ireland ‘souls’; or the tour de force of out-Heroding Herod by parodying the Massacre of the Innocents. The basic...

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Thomas Lockwood (essay date summer 1974)

SOURCE: Lockwood, Thomas. “Swift's Modest Proposal: An Interpretation.” Papers on Language and Literature 10, no. 3 (summer 1974): 254-67.

[In the following essay, Lockwood examines the role of the “economic projector” or narrator of A Modest Proposal, and his objective, if appalling, irony.]

The Modest Proposal has always struck readers as perhaps the perfect work of its kind: breathtakingly to the point, unnerving in the extreme. It is so short and in a certain sense so sweet that one is naturally led to wonder exactly how Swift does what he does in this desperately funny, desperately bleak little performance. Until recently, students of...

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Wayne C. Booth (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Booth, Wayne C. “Essays, Satire, Parody.” In A Rhetoric of Irony, pp. 91-136. Chicago, III.: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Booth analyzes portions of A Modest Proposal, noting the irony of two contradictory readings.]

A MODEST PROPOSAL AND THE IRONIC SUBLIME

[It] is now time to turn to the difficulties offered by even more intricate contexts. For greatest speculative interest, I perhaps ought now to tackle one of the sources of famous critical disagreement—say, Swift's A Tale of a Tub, or the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels, or Melville's Billy Budd. But for the...

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Robert F. Willson Jr. (essay date autumn 1976)

SOURCE: Willson, Robert F., Jr. “A Modest Proposal: Swift's Persona as Absentee.” Ball State University Forum 17, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 3-11.

[In the following essay, Willson disputes the general recognition of Swift's persona as an economic or political theorist, arguing instead that based on his puns and euphemisms, he is a decidedly antihuman figure.]

It is a melancholy object to encounter the number of critics who have taken their cue concerning the identity of Swift's persona in A Modest Proposal from Louis Landa's theory about the pamphlet's economic nature. Landa has argued that the Proposal was “another protest, in Swift's unique...

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C. N. Manlove (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Manlove, C. N. “Swift.” In Literature and Reality, pp. 114-24. London: MacMillan Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Manlove investigates the reader's propensity to sympathize with advantageous outcomes in A Modest Proposal at the expense of devious measures.]

A MODEST PROPOSAL (1729)

This satire is rather more a test of the reader than is the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity. Given that the Irish are sunk in animal misery, and that they would welcome the scheme outlined (117-18 [The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, vol. 2, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1939.]), how many of us...

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C. J. Rawson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Rawson, C. J. “A Reading of A Modest Proposal.” In Augustan Worlds, edited by J. C. Hilson, M. M. B. Jones and J. R. Watson, pp. 29-50. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Rawson examines various segments of A Modest Proposal and their effects on popular interpretations of the reading.]

The title is famous, but still bears examination: 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.1 The form of title is that of many ‘modest proposals’ and ‘humble petitions’...

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Robert Hunting (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hunting, Robert. “Cathedral Dean and Patriot.” In Jonathan Swift, pp. 79-93. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hunting views Swift's A Modest Proposal not only as a warning to the Irish, but also to the British against taking advantage of them.]

A Modest Proposal is the most brilliant of a long series of Irish tracts by Swift. Ireland first learned about the Proposal in an advertisement in the Dublin Intelligence for 8 November 1729: “The late apparent spirit of patriotism, or love to our country, so abounding of late, has produced a new scheme, said in public to be written by D—— S——, wherein the...

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Lloyd Davis (essay date May 1992)

SOURCE: Davis, Lloyd. “Reading Irony: Dialogism in A Modest Proposal.Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 77 (May 1992): 32-55.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses dialogism and its role in the ironic portrayal of Ireland's sociopolitical situation in A Modest Proposal.]

That Swift's A Modest Proposal is firmly placed in two canons of English, those of composition and literature, suggests that it fulfils certain values emphasized across the discipline. Two discursive features that have been frequently valued in this work and have seen it elevated into the tradition are style and character....

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Robert Phiddian (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Phiddian, Robert. “Have You Eaten Yet?: The Reader in A Modest Proposal.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, no. 3 (summer 1996): 603-21.

[In the following essay, Phiddian considers the position of the reader in A Modest Proposal, who experiences revulsion at the suggestion of eating babies to bolster economic prosperity.]

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London; that a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will...

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Robert Mahoney (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Mahoney, Robert. “Swift's Modest Proposal and the Rhetoric of Irish Colonial Consumption.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, Vol. 4, edited by Kevin L. Cope, Laura Morrow, and Anna Battigelli, pp. 205-14. New York: AMS Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Mahoney discusses the religious implications of A Modest Proposal, suggesting that Swift is actually alluding to the fear that Ireland's Catholics might “consume” the Protestant colony.]

The satire of Swift's Modest Proposal turns on the theme of consumption, with cannibalism as its governing trope. The specifically Irish orientation of that trope...

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John Richardson (essay date October 2001)

SOURCE: Richardson, John. “Swift, A Modest Proposal, and Slavery.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 4 (October 2001): 404-23.

[In the following essay, Richardson suggests that the attitudes of a society of slavery influenced and shaped the irony of A Modest Proposal.]

There are two key elements to A Modest Proposal: a dreadful familiar situation, which has grown to seem less dreadful for being so familiar, and a dreadful unfamiliar solution, which seems more dreadful for its strangeness. The rhetorical effect of this ought to be simple. The strangeness of the solution ought to resurrect the reader's sense of the dreadfulness of the familiar situation, and...

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