tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

Start Free Trial

How does Jonathan Swift use satire in "A Modest Proposal"?

Quick answer:

"A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift uses satire by assuming the role of an English Protestant and suggesting that the Irish eat their children to exaggerate and ridicule prejudice against Irish people and criticize the English's rule over the Irish.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "A Modest Proposal," Swift uses satire to savage the English establishment for its treatment of Ireland as well as mock what he sees as the pretensions of the gentleman scientists of the Royal Society. He makes his satire all the more effective by writing it in the form of a learned scientific paper, the kind that would be read out by a scientist to his learned fellows at the Royal Society, England's foremost national academy of sciences.

The "Proposal" expertly cloaks the heartlessness of the English political establishment in Ireland with the disinterested style of the natural scientist. What the fictitious author of the "Proposal" is putting forward is immoral and disgusting, but in using the language of science, he's able to give his revolting ideas a facade of academic respectability.

What Swift is driving at here is the way that those in positions of authority—be it scientific, political, intellectual, or whatever—routinely abuse language to hide their true intentions. This is a theme that would be developed several centuries later by George Orwell in 1984.

The author of the "Proposal" wants us to think that he only has the best interests of the Irish people at heart, but in actual fact what he's proposing will be utterly calamitous for them. This is a withering satire on English colonial rule in Ireland, which though supposed to be conducted on the basis of what was best for the natives, in actual fact was based on exploitation and repression.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Among many definitions of "satire" the following is the most compelling regarding "A Modest Proposal":

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Hence, this is exactly what Swift does. He exposes and criticizes contemporary politics and the way things are carried out in his society. He particularly attacks the cruel abuse and discrimination against Irish catholics, who are poor, disenfranchised, and still mistreated by English protestants.

Jonathan Swift takes on the voice of an extremely prejudiced English Protestant, and uses the argument of the Irish eating their own children (in order to decrease the amount of Irish Catholics) as an extreme way to exaggerate the usual anti-Irish discourse. This is his way of mocking the people who agree with it:

“For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our dangerous enemies”

Swift also creates satire by using a medium that is commonly used for serious purposes. Think of an open letter, or rather an editorial in an important publication, or even a thesis. These are often conduits of serious topics of discussion, where educated scholars propose meaningful solutions to current issues.

Just imagine taking that same, erudite tone of voice to propose that a group that disturbs the peace of a bunch of abusive, dominant overlords is encouraged to eat their young for purposes of population control. The very idea is unthinkable, and the exaggerated nature of the treatise itself tells that it intends to make mockery of the anti-Irish protestants.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jonathan Swift's essay employs satire by humorously making an outrageous claim to reveal the abuses on Ireland's lower class citizens by wealthy English Protestants. Swift begins to criticize the upper class by suggesting that out of the 120,000 infants born each year, 100,000 should be sold to the wealthy as food while 20,000 would be spared for breeding purposes. Swift then elaborates on his proposal by pointing out the many positives attached to such a plan using figures, statistics, and demographic data. Swift argues that his proposal would reduce the number of Catholics in Ireland, provide farmers a way to pay their landlords, increase domestic revenue, ease the financial burdens on lower class families, and provide a delightful new cuisine for the wealthy. Swift uses irony and satire to address social issues such as the plight of the lower class, government abuses, and the value of children in hopes of encouraging social change. His explicit, repulsive solution to eating the infants metaphorically represents how the modern government preys on its less fortunate population. His ridiculous, exaggerated proposal is a humorous critique of politics, which categorizes his essay as a satire. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift is a prime example of satire. Satire is defined as "the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues." Swift wrote his essay in response to the extreme poverty in 18th century Ireland. In it, the speaker or proposer suggests eating the poor Irish children to combat hunger and poverty. The speaker delivers his proposal in a straightforward and logical manner, complete with statistics and reflections on the economy.

To the reader, the proposal is exaggerated and ridiculous - so ridiculous in fact, that one might find the proposal to be humorous. Swift, separate from the speaker, builds layers of criticism which bash the corrupted farming and labor system, as well as the government that put it in place. Irony is present throughout the piece, but also in the title. The word "modest" describes something small, limited, manageable, but killing 100,000 of Ireland's children to be eaten is the exact opposite of those words! Swift's piece is probably the best example of satire in the English language because he artfully and creatively uses "A Modest Proposal" to critique the broken structures of his day.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why is "A Modest Proposal" an effective satire?

The first-time reader of Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal" may well think that the author is approaching the topic seriously for the first few paragraphs. Attentive readers will perhaps have an inkling of Swift's satirical purpose in the fourth paragraph, but it is not until paragraph nine that he states his proposal plainly. The rational way in which his argument is framed only serves to emphasize the extreme and bizarre nature of his solution. He presents the Irish landlords, who are the primary target of his satire, as rapacious and inhumane by assuming that this new way of exploiting children will naturally find favor with them.

Throughout "A Modest Proposal," Swift's favorite satirical trick is to pretend to rack his brains in anticipation of every objection the landlords might possibly raise. The coup de grâce comes in the final brief paragraph, when he protests that no one could accuse him of self-interest in proposing this scheme, since he has no children of saleable age and his wife is "past child-bearing." By replying to all these ludicrous practical objections while failing to acknowledge that there might be any moral ones, Swift effectively satirizes the complete lack of common humanity he ascribes to his targets. It is the assured coolness of his tone and the precision with which he outlines his plan that render the satire so effective.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does"A Modest Proposal," fit into the category of satire?

Swift's work is the epitome of satire and few have paralleled its mastery.

Overall, satire is characterized by its scorn or ridicule of a topic. Swift's "proposal" certainly does that from beginning to end.

But to further hone the term, Swift's work falls into two categories of satire: "formal" and "indirect." Formal satire speaks in first person (I, my, mine, etc.) For example, the speaker of the proposal argues,

"I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom...".

A Modest Proposal is indirect satire because Swift speaks as a character who is proposing a "solution" to an anonymous audience addressing the political economy:

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 equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on