How is the title of Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" humorous?
The title of Jonathan Swift’s essay “A Modest Proposal” is humorous because it is ironic. His plan is certainly not modest. It is opposite of modest! His scheme is not humble, does not follow any rules of propriety, and is excessive in scale. The absurdity of solving the dual social problems of overpopulation and starvation with cannibalism is what makes the premise of his “modest” proposal funny.
Merriam-Webster defines the word modest as “placing a moderate estimate on one's abilities or worth,” “observing the proprieties of dress and behavior,” and “limited in size, amount, or scope.” In his essay “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift puts forth an idea for alleviating poverty and food shortages while eliminating starvation. This proposed plan, however, is decidedly NOT modest by any definition of the word. Swift uses the word modest ironically—his proposal is absurd and immoral. Most importantly, the word modest is what makes the essay’s title funny: the proposal is not humble, proper, or limited in scope.
First, the title makes Swift seems like he is just trying to help and merely offering his humble opinion. Initially, he appears sympathetic to the plight of mothers struggling with multiple unclothed offspring as well as children begging in the street. After dramatically describing the plight of overburdened women and “poor innocent babes,” he demurely states,
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
His tone, however, is falsely modest and condescending. Also, the plan he then details is neither humble nor unobjectionable.
Second, this plan flouts the rules of propriety or modesty; his suggestion of cannibalism is ludicrously distasteful and improper. In painstakingly hilarious detail, Swift calculates a cost-benefit analysis of using cannibalism to kill (literally) two birds with one stone. Overpopulation and ensuing masses of hungry mouths to feed would be eliminated by using poor children as food. He writes 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 fricasie, or a ragoust
Furthermore, this gruesome plan would benefit the wealthy class and suggests an undertone of luxury or immodesty:
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.
Third, the plan is not limited in scope but encompasses a large portion of the population, specifically the lower classes. He professes a wish to help
the children of professed beggars [and to]...a much greater extent...the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets
Swift’s supposedly modest plan is actually excessive in depth and breadth with the massive number of children needed for it to be successful and sustainable.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males.
The remaining one hundred thousand children would then be fattened up and sold as food.
Finally, Swift ends his essay with more faux modesty, portraying himself as if selfless humanitarian. He claims that
in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich.
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