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
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In "A Modest Proposal," what is the social issue or problem that Swift is commenting on and what is his satirical solution to the problem?

"A Modest Proposal" is an essay that uses satire and irony to criticize the idea of children being treated as laborers rather than human beings. It also uses hyperbole to emphasize the point that no one should have to suffer because they are poor.

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The issue on which Jonathan Swift was commenting when he wrote "A Modest Proposal" was the chronic poverty of the Irish and their ongoing exploitation by the wealthy and powerful in England, many of whom owned land in Ireland and employed the Irish to farm it but paid them little.

The satirical essay utilizes a problem/solution format. Swift opens the essay, subtitled "For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick–1729," with shocking descriptions of how Irish children grow up to become thieves because they are unemployed, or they become mercenaries and fight for Spain or sell themselves into slavery in Barbados.

He goes on to portray children as burdens to their impoverished parents and obstacles to their parents' ability to work. Therefore, he suggests that a "fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth" would be to sell them to the wealthy of England to be eaten.

He claims to have learned from an American visiting 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 fricasie, or a ragoust."

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In 1729, when Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal," a political pamphlet, the wealthy English had purchased 90% of the land in Ireland.  Many Irish worked the farms on this land, but the English owners began to charge them rents that were so high the Irish could not afford to pay.  Consequently, many Irish families lived on the edge of starvation, and often their children had to beg in the streets.  Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” to call attention to the abuses inflicted on Irish Catholics by affluent English Protestants.  Swift was Protestant, and his parents were English, but he was born in Dublin.  He believed England was exploiting and oppressing Ireland economically, politically, and socially. 

Therefore, Swift satirizes English landlords by writing a narrator who proposes that Irish infants be sold to the English, a proposal that would provide a source of food for the English and an additional source of income for the Irish.  This would eliminate the social problem of beggars by reducing poverty (and the number of large families).  It would also enable the Irish to afford the exorbitantly high rents being charged by the English.

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