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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When does the reader begin to realize that "A Modest Proposal" is ironic/satirical?

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When Jonathan Swift makes the nature of his proposal clear, a reader would immediately understand that the essay was meant to be satire.

At first, it seems like Swift is really intending to make a serious proposal. He explains the problem—there are many women who have children and no...

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When Jonathan Swift makes the nature of his proposal clear, a reader would immediately understand that the essay was meant to be satire.

At first, it seems like Swift is really intending to make a serious proposal. He explains the problem—there are many women who have children and no way to feed them—and how it is affecting people. He talks about the state of things in Ireland, which was having a devastating food shortage. For all of this discussion, a reader could easily think he's going to make a real suggestion for a solution. The tone is relatively straightforward.

Then, Swift suggests eating infants in paragraph eight.

No one in their right mind could think that Swift actually believes that eating infants is the solution to the famine in Ireland. So it's clear by this point that the essay is meant to be satire. If someone misses it, Swift's lengthy justification for the idea only gives them more time to be aware of the ironic tone of the essay.

A reader would definitely understand that Swift is satirizing people who are good at understanding things via facts but don't understand actual human logic and emotions. Someone reading it when it was published would probably recognize political and social connections to events taking place. This would help a reader to even more clearly see that his ludicrous suggestion is satire and not meant to be seriously considered.

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In his essay “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift suggests a way to alleviate poverty and human suffering in Ireland. He begins by writing the first three paragraphs in a formal tone and straightforward manner with specific and somber details (large broods of children, beggars, helpless infants, etc.). Images of offspring climbing all over the unemployed bodies of their mothers and fathers evokes the reader’s sympathy in Swift’s call to arms to help the poor.

By the end of the fourth paragraph, however, the reader wonders what solution Swift has planned: he gives the puzzling suggestion that infants be cared for until the age of one year, when they will “contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing of many thousands.” How would this work? In the fifth paragraph, Swift uses the word “scheme” to hint to the reader that his plan might not really be serious, realistic, or ethical. Paragraphs six and seven contain satirical economic calculations of the population (how many kids are born to poor parents, how many will live, etc.) and a cost-benefit analysis of raising a child. Swift points out that they can’t work or even steal until they are six years old; he heard from merchants that kids younger than age twelve don't even command prices that recoup the amount expended feeding and clothing them up to that point.

Having argued the need for a plan, in the eighth paragraph, Swift preps the reader for his proposal with an ironic tone: “I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” Obviously, what follows is neither humble nor unobjectionable.

Paragraph nine is exactly where the reader can be certain that Swift is being ironic: he proposes using the children as food! This proposal alleviates poverty in two ways; it eliminates food shortage and cuts down the overwhelming number of hungry mouths to feed. He claims that children are tasty and nutritious, “whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasee, or a ragoust.”

Swift continues to detail his absurd, gruesome, and immoral plan by strategizing that of one hundred and twenty thousand children, twenty thousand be saved and set aside for breeding. The other one hundred and twenty thousand children should be sold as food. He suggests fattening up the children like cattle before killing them.

The rest of his essay argues for the benefits of his proposal… only now, the reader knows that Swift is being ironic.

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It is at paragraph eight that the reader would begin to realize that this essay is satirical. Up until this point, the narrator sounds like a completely reasonable and humane person, concerned with finding a solution to the pressing problem of poverty in Ireland. He opens by describing the poor in moving terms, calling it "melancholy" to see women in rags begging, followed by their children, and explaining the difficult problem people find themselves in when they can't find work and don't want to become thieves or sell themselves into slavery. A normal reader would agree that this is a sad situation, and agree that it would be a good idea to find " a fair, cheap and easy method" of making hungry young children "useful members" of society. This narrator continues to sound compassionate as he talks about wanting to take care of more than just the children of beggars and when he mentions that he has spent many years thinking about the problem of poverty.

The "turn" in the essay comes as the narrator as the narrator "humbly" offers his own thoughts, which he says cannot be in the least objectionable.

Then, in the very next paragraph, having softened us up with his seeming compassion towards the poor, he hits us with the surprise whammy: his "modest" idea is to note that a well-nourished child at a year old is a "most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled." He want to sell babies as food. At this point, a reader, recoiling with shock, would be saying "this can't be serious." Of course, it's not, and from now on the irony becomes heavier and heavier as the narrator goes into greater detail to outline all the benefits of his plan.

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