In Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," does the speaker mainly analyze the causes of Ireland’s problems or the effects? 

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jonathan Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal" in an attempt to draw attention to the deplorable conditions in Ireland. He does spend more time and description talking about the effects of the crisis; he occasionally references the causes as he highlights the tragic effects of poverty.

The narrator (proposer?) in this pamphlet begins with this sentence:

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight... or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

This is a vivid and moving depiction of the consequences (effects) of poverty in Ireland. He goes on to make a "modest proposal" which should help these mothers by allowing them to sell their children. This plan will eliminate the need for begging and allow families to support themselves without help from the government or others. The cause of Ireland's extreme poverty is not particularly discussed.

The next problem this proposal should mitigate is the high number of abortions occurring in Ireland at this time.

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

The cause of this abortion epidemic is mentioned as being financial more than the shame or stigma attached to having an illegitimate child; however, the cause of the staggering poverty is not addressed.

The narrator does list some options which are not available to young people who want to work:

we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses..., nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old.

Again, we learn about the professions which are now closed off to those who want to work, but we do not get any kind of explanation about why this is so. He affirms this dearth of employment opportunities again when he says "so great a number of [children of] both sexes [are] now ready to starve for want of work and service." It is clear there is nothing for them to do; it is not clear what caused these conditions.

Finally, the narrator has one last "digression" to explain the need for his "modest proposal":

[I]t is very well known, that [poor people] are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young labourers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away from want of nourishment, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

Swift obviously cared more about pointedly drawing a picture of Ireland's problems rather than the causes of the problems. 

Read the study guide:
A Modest Proposal

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