A Modest Proposal Questions and Answers
by Jonathan Swift

A Modest Proposal book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What was the problem in Ireland at the time? Context for Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal."

Expert Answers info

parkerlee eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2008

write854 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Science, and History

The 'scarce years' during Swift's lifetime do not refer to the Great Potato Famine in Ireland per se - that had happened about a century beforehand. More specifically, Swift points a finger at Britain's exploitation of Ireland, leaving the rural population in quasi-starvation:

In 1729, Swift attacked with A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People of Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents (1729), which suggested that since Britain had consumed all the wealth of Ireland, only one source of profit was left: the children, doomed to starvation, whom the writer, a supposedly concerned and informed citizen, suggested might well be turned into a new and delicate food for those who had profited from Ireland’s political tragedy.

Swift imitates a "Selah,selah" attitude in his essay "A Modest Proposal," whose nonchalant and detached stance is in striking contradiction with the grotesque "solution" he has found to Ireland's problems.

Insomuch, Swift aptly uses parody (a form of satire), hyperbole (exaggeration in content) and understatement (banalization in tone) to make the point that the ruling state was altogether unabashed at its brutal exploitation of Ireland's resources.  Understood was the fact that his suggestions were barbaric, not 'modest,' and that his 'proposal' was as absurd as the government's oversimplification of its abusive policy (depletion of Ireland's resources) to the point of denial.

Note that the same "unfair trade" policy towards the American colonies led to their revolt (and ultimately, their independance) some fifty years later....

check Approved by eNotes Editorial