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

Quick answer:

Swift is proposing that 100,000 infants in Ireland be sold each year as food for rich people.

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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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Why did Swift write "A Modest Proposal"?

Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal" as a satirical response to Ireland's worsening socioeconomic struggles.

At the time of publication, Ireland existed under the rule of England and without any real sense of independence. Politically, England didn't want Ireland to improve its circumstances; a poor Ireland wasn't likely to threaten England, which thereby maintained the lifestyle of the wealthy English. Increasingly, the poor in Ireland were becoming poorer due to trade restrictions and tax policies. Swift had attempted to speak out on behalf of impoverished Irish citizens but found that his voice was largely ignored. He became increasingly vocal, appealing to the Irish Parliament to fund Irish industry and to consider modernizing agricultural techniques to improve the quality of life for the poor. Nothing seemed to work.

Swift also condemned the Irish poor for failing to advocate for better conditions. Instead of rallying for change, people had become complacent to their lives of poverty, hopeless to make efforts to change their situation.

In this satirical response, Swift condemns the dehumanization of the poor. The scathing tone that is the undercurrent of his proposal was meant to rally the Irish to action and to rebuke those English who overlooked the starvation and manipulation of the Irish poor.

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In "A Modest Proposal," what does Swift suggest in his proposal (on the surface)?

Jonathan Swift, at that time Dean of the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, wrote "A Modest Proposal" as a satirical response to the inefficacy of other schemes to ameliorate poverty and hunger in Ireland. He suggests that the poor should be allowed to sell their babies to be eaten. He makes the "proposal" seem realistic by suggesting possible recipes and commenting on the gastronomic virtues of the infants. He also suggestz that the Catholics, because of their poverty, will be more likely to sell babies than Protestants, and that this would also have the salutary effect pf reducing the Roman Catholic population and helping to convert the country to Protestantism.

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In "A Modest Proposal," what does Swift suggest in his proposal (on the surface)?

Swift, on the surface, suggests that in order to combat poverty and famine in Ireland, the Irish should raise their children and sell them to the landlords of Ireland as food. It would feed the destitute or could be considered a delicacy for the wealthy. This proposal would help poverty and famine as well as control the overpopulation that was hurting Irish families.

He details what percentage of the population should be fed and at what age would be ideal for consumption. He goes on to say that of course a certain percentage must not be sold off in order to keep breeders available to raise the next generation of children for consumption.

Of course, below the surface, the irony of the title "A Modest Proposal" is quite obvious as this piece is not modest but rather frightening and horrifying. It is a satirical commentary that showcases the oppressive situation in Ireland.

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How does Swift use economics in "A Modest Proposal"?

Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal" (1728), one of the greatest examples of satire in the English language, targets both the English, for exploiting Ireland's raw materials and its people, and the Irish, for allowing themselves to be exploited and collaborating in their own exploitation.  Swift uses the persona of the modest projector, a man who suggests a way to resolve Ireland's crippling poverty and massive overpopulation.  The method, of course, is to use Irish children as a viable and economically beneficial food source--cannibalism cloaked in perfect economic calculations by a projector whose only concern is Ireland's welfare.  After all, as the projector points out at the end of the essay, his motives are pure because he has no children and can therefore not gain by his own proposal.

Before the discussion of how the economics of this new food source works, the proposer his readers that

I am assured by our merchants that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity . . . they will not yield above three pounds or three pounds and a half-crown at most . . . the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

In other words, the proposer, having done his research well, argues that children are not worth the value of their upbringing--they simply cost too much to raise.  

Having done further research, including discussing recipes with "an American friend," the proposer discovers that the economics of using a beggar's child, an infant under one year old,  is quite reasonable:

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child . . . to be about two shillings per annum [year], rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine [would not be reluctant to] give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat. . . .

The proposer goes on to say that the mother will have a profit of eight shillings, and for those who really want to make a profit from the child's carcass, the proposer notes that the skin can be used for "admirable gloves for ladies, and summer-boots for fine gentlemen."  So, for an outlay of ten shillings, one can have four servings of meat and use the skin for other salable commodities.

The irony, and horror, of the proposal is in large part created by the very cool, scientific tone with which the calculations of eating children are set forth in the essay.  Had Swift simply written an essay complaining about the treatment of the Irish, which he did in other works beginning in the early 1700s, very few people would have paid much attention to his work.  But creating such a horrific proposal, and using diction usually reserved for dry economic and scientific works, Swift delivered his most effective discussion of what was called at the time the "Irish problem."

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What is Swift trying to communicate in "A Modest Proposal"?

This is a very interesting question, as this wonderful satire operates on many different levels. Clearly, one central target of Swift's pointed treatise is the unsympathetic response and racist attitude of the British towards the Irish famine, and the way that they appear quite happy to do nothing while thousands of Irish are dying. This is clearly indicated by the shocking and "modest" proposal that the speaker makes of breeding Irish children for a possible food source. Swift is deliberately suggesting the unthinkable and horrific to make a pointed remark about how the treatment of the Irish famine has been just as shocking up until this stage.

However, I think it is also possible to detect another, more subtle message. One of the characteristics of the speaker of this essay is that he makes every effort to present himself as a reasonable, scientific man, who reaches his conclusions on the back of logic and serious investigation. Reason and rationality again and again are hallmarks of his discourse. Swift seems to be communicating the dangers of relying on these characteristics alone when considering other human beings. Just as in the case of the speaker, such people who lean to heavily on speculative reason when trying to find solutions may ignore their own better judgement and arrive at inhumane conclusions, rather than trusting to their common sense and human empathy. Likewise there is a massive danger in dehumanising humans and treating them as statistics or numbers, as this makes it that much easier to treat them as such and forget the shared humanity that is shared between you and them.

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Why does Swift use satire to express his main idea in "A Modest Proposal"?

There are several reasons why Jonathan Swift favours satire as a stylistic device in “A Modest Proposal” and several of his other works. The first is that it can be much more entertaining than a straightforward recitation of facts and statistics. The next is that the satire – the very idea that people might be so driven and desperate by hunger as to sell their children – makes the point vivid in a concrete way. The final reason, and I expect the most important, is that satire is the literary equivalent of the philosophical and rhetorical genre of reductio ad absurdum. Swift takes a common assumption of his period, namely that if the Irish were just more enterprising they could feed themselves, and shows how it leads to absurd or impossible consequences.

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