On the surface, what is Swift proposing in "A Modest Proposal"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

On the surface, Swift's proposal is contained in one short paragraph.

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 fricasie, or a ragoust.

Swift establishes by some rough calculations that approximately 120,000 children are born to poor Irish parents annually. He suggests reserving 20,000 of these for breeding more children and selling 100,000 babies every year when they are one year old. He discusses his proposal in a very calm, matter-of-fact way which takes it for granted that the reader will consider it as a practical solution to the current deplorable poverty in Ireland. This suggestion seems based on the assumption that the reader must be either indifferent to the problem or one of the rich people who is causing the problem and would therefore be the most likely buyer of these infants for his dinnner table. Swift writes:

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Swift causes some slight confusion by digressing from his main proposal to discuss the possibility of selling older children to be eaten, and mentions a gentleman who suggested that

. . .the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service.

But Swift returns to his own modest proposal with the words:

I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject.

He is only proposing that one hundred thousand one-year-old infants should be sold each year to people who will either buy them from butchers already slaughtered or buy them while still alive and kill them just before they are ready to eat them. Perhaps he pretends to consider his proposal "modest" because he is not proposing killing and eating all the Irish pauper children--although he may be leaving the door open for that expedient in the future.

It is not until near the end of his article that Swift reveals his strong feelings about the terrible distress of the Irish Catholic poor.

I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold as to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the suppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

In other words, Swift thinks the poor people of Ireland would have preferred to have died at the age of one to living the lives they have to endure and giving birth to children who will have to suffer the same miseries as themselves. Swift's modest proposal, as intended, leaves the reader aghast.

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A Modest Proposal

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