What is the "proposal" that Jonathan Swift makes?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The topic of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is the dire poverty that gripped Ireland in the 1720s. His actual proposal begins like this:

I have been assured...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 ragout.

So Swift's "modest proposal" is that the poor children of Ireland be sold to be slaughtered and eaten. Swift proceeds to offer a host of justifications for his shocking proposal, which he defends as eminently sensible:

  • It would lessen the "number of Papists [Catholics] among us"
  • The skins of the children could be used as gloves and other fashion items
  • Irish tenants would own something of value that they could sell to pay their rents, thus avoiding removal from lands owned by English landlords
  • The "nation's stock" would be increased by the addition of a formerly unexploited commodity
  • Irish families, "constant breeders," would be rid of the obligation to care for their children

Swift goes on to assure his readers that he does not propose the scheme for his own benefit, as his own children are too old to sell, and his wife was "past child-bearing." Of course, Swift is joking. "A Modest Proposal" is widely considered one of the greatest works of satire ever written. It is intended both as a sincere statement on the plight of Irish tenant farmers and as a rebuke to those whose over-reliance on early Enlightenment-era "reason" might cloud their common sense and even their sense of human decency. 

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