What is the main idea and summary of Swift's "Modest Proposal"?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "A Modest Proposal," an unnamed narrator suggests that the poor Irish should begin to sell their babies to the rich English as food.  This would provide the Irish with a new source of income, selling something they already have a great deal of anyway.  Further, this would mean that Irish families remain smaller and easier to support, and it would also mean fewer Irish children on the streets, begging for money.  The English would also get a new food source as well as be able to use the infants' skins for boots and gloves.  Everybody wins!

It is important to note, however, that this proposal is NOT in earnest.  Swift has written this satire in order to point out the terrible situation of the Irish and how the English have figuratively "devoured" the country and its people.  The wealthy English owned approximately 90% of the land in Ireland in 1729 (the year when this "proposal" was published); they raised the rents on the Irish who worked the land, making it impossible for many to both pay rent and support their often large families.  Swift used this proposal to suggest that, if England is willing to figuratively devour the Irish, then they might as well go ahead and literally devour, i.e. eat, them.  To be clear, the narrator believes that this proposal makes perfect sense and is mutually beneficial; Jonathan Swift, the author, does not.  He is ridiculing the English who have behaved so unconscionably as well as the Irish who failed to speak out before the situation got this bad.  Therefore, irony is the primary figure of speech here: the audience is meant to understand that we should not respect the narrator or appreciate his suggestion.