A Modest Proposal Questions and Answers
by Jonathan Swift

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What problem does Swift identify in "A Modest Proposal"? What general solution does he recommend?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Swift, in the persona of a learned scientist, attempts to tackle the chronic problem of over-population in Ireland. In turn, this problem leads to lots of other problems, such as poverty, starvation, and an excess number of Roman Catholics.

At that time Ireland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, was run by the Protestant British, who systematically repressed the majority religion. As part of his recommendation, Swift advocates the breeding of poor Irish children for meat as a way of reducing the number of Catholics in the country. The understanding is that this will make Ireland much easier for the British colonial authorities to administer.

In addition, Swift's modest proposal will also act as a much-needed stimulus to trade in such an economically backward country. As with all of the mock scientific paper's recommendations, this is highly satirical. Swift was a constant critic of the economic exploitation of colonial Ireland, which he saw as keeping the country from becoming prosperous. Instead of stimulating trade and investment as they were supposed to do, the colonial authorities were perfectly happy to let the Irish economy stagnate, the better to enrich the British economy.

One can imagine many administrators warming to the idea of breeding children for meat as a quick fix solution to Ireland's economic problems, and as a way of fulfilling a number of other key policy objectives. This is why Swift's satire is so remarkably effective. In their unguarded moments, hard-pressed colonial administrators may very well have entertained such an unspeakable solution to the many problems that they faced.

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hpvandersteen eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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When Jonathan Swift published "A Modest Proposal" in 1729, he called attention to the problems accompanying poverty in Ireland.  Poor harvests and high rent to English landlords left these poor Irish farmers with little for themselves.  In his matter-of-fact tone, he exposes a problem in a system that is unfair and inhumane. 

His solution focuses particularly on the idea that there are too many mouths to feed in Ireland.  His solution is merely cannibalism.  This outrageous, not modest, proposal strips away the humanity of the impoverished Irish and reduces them to a commodity.  He gives shockingly detailed descriptions of how this could be done.  He describes in detail the nutritional value of young infants and even the "tough and lean" flesh of twelve and fourteen year old boys.  He declares that those too old to be eaten as choice meat can be used to breed.  

Swift lists a total of six persuasive advantages to accepting his proposal and ends with a sincere call to duty and public service.  It is satire to solve an extreme problem, not only of poverty, but of the lack of compassion in a system that does not place the proper value on the human beings under its care.  

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Bridgett Sumner, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Swift sees the streets full of women begging, "followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning . . . for an alms." In other words, he sees large families with more children than the mothers and fathers can house, clothe, or feed. He predicts that these destitute children will grow up to become thieves, soldiers in wars far from home, or slaves.

Swift satirically proposes that the answer to overpopulation and poverty is to offer a certain number of year-old children for sale to people of "quality and fortune" to be eaten. He points out that nine months after Lent the birth rate booms, and an added benefit to these children being consumed is that there would be fewer Catholics. Moreover, besides the tender flesh being consumed, the skin could be used for "admirable gloves for ladies" and "summer boots for fine gentlemen."

Swift's proposal, he claims, would advance Ireland's trade, relieve the poor, and offer some pleasure to the rich. 

Further Reading:

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Jonathan Swift, himself originally Irish, was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and thus a member of the Church of England as well as a distinguished writer.

Ireland at this time was primarily Gaelic-speaking and Roman Catholic. The English had fully conquered Ireland during the Tudor period and were English-speaking Protestants. Outside the Dublin "Pale", many of the Irish resented their English overlords and civil unrest was a perennial issue, with the Irish often aiding English enemies or rebels (such as the Jacobite uprising). In response, England's rule of Ireland was quite oppressive, restricting educational and economic opportunities for Irish Catholics. Partly in consequence of this, the Irish tended to be impoverished, ignorant, and at risk of starvation due to periodic famines. 

The immediate problem that Swift is addressing in "A Modest Proposal" is famine. He wrote during a period in which there were a series of bad harvests and many of the Irish were starving. He is particularly concerned with seeing mothers and young babies starving on the streets. 

In this satire, Swift proposes that much of this starvation could be averted if Irish babies were used or sold for food. He does not mean for this suggestion to be taken literally. Instead, it is intended to make the reader understand the dire nature of the Irish situation and make the English reverse some of the economic laws that had destroyed the Irish economy. 

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "A Modest Proposal," Swift identifies poverty in Ireland as a problem. Through a narrator, who is not Swift but Swift's creation of a clueless bean counter who sees poor people as widgets or objects, Swift paints a poignant picture of women in rags begging in the streets with their hungry children trailing behind them, of people selling themselves into slavery to survive, and of young men so starved that when they do get work, they are so weak the work kills them. This narrator's solution is for poor mothers to fatten and sell their babies to rich people as food that can be eaten. This is not Swift's solution. He writes the essay so that readers will be horrified enough at this "modest" proposal that they will support a reasonable plan, such as a small tax on the rich, to help desperate people in Ireland.

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