Introduction to A Modest Proposal

“A Modest Proposal” is a satirical essay by Jonathan Swift. It was published anonymously in 1729 as a response to the economic crisis ravaging Ireland and has since become one of the most famous works of satire in all of English literature. At the time that Swift was writing, Ireland was plagued by widespread poverty and subject to political suppression by the English. The titular modest proposal is that the Irish should begin selling and eating infants in order to alleviate their economic woes. The essay was targeted primarily at the aristocracy, who met it with a mixture of horror, outrage, and, at least in some cases, amusement. Though it was published anonymously, many people quickly identified Swift as the author due to the work’s biting wit, layered irony, and forceful prose. 

Smith was a high-ranking clergyman and a staunch champion of Ireland. These perspectives combine to give his writing a deeply political tilt. “A Modest Proposal” blends Swift’s compassion for the poor with his contempt for the bodies that governed Ireland into a scathing satire of those who applied only cold logic to a quintessentially humanistic issue. Indeed, at least superficially, the horrifying proposal presented makes sense. The narrator presents a number of calculations and logical arguments supporting the selling and eating of infants. However, the obvious disgust that the essay is meant to evoke in readers instead showcases the limits of rationality in uplifting the poor. Though Swift acknowledges that there are logical solutions to the issues plaguing Ireland—which Swift’s narrator ironically dismisses as outlandish and impractical—there must also be room for basic human compassion and common sense. 

A Brief Biography of Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was an Anglo-Irish writer. Though his classic book Gulliver’s Travels is often referred to as youth reading, it is in fact an audacious satire on the society in which Swift lived. Swift complemented his satirical work with essays and pamphlets on government and society; his commentary often put him at odds with political parties as well as the monarchy. Swift’s battles were also artistic, as evidenced by “An Essay Upon Ancient and Modern Learning,” which ardently defended classical writing and set off a debate that spanned numerous volumes written by several authors. In “A Modest Proposal,” Swift mockingly proposed that the rich make meals out of poor people’s babies. It was this kind of dark whimsy, in which harsh criticism was wrapped in effervescent ridiculousness, that ultimately defined the work of Jonathan Swift.

Frequently Asked Questions about A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift uses irony on several levels. First, his entire proposal is ironic in that it is a shocking satire. It is not a serious proposal, of course, and it is most...

Latest answer posted May 31, 2021, 12:45 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

Swift wrote "A Modest Proposal" after experiencing frustration that a series of reasonable proposals he had made for alleviating the plight of the Irish poor were ignored. His audience, for the...

Latest answer posted May 26, 2021, 11:58 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

The problem in "A Modest Proposal" is the many Irish poor who are a drag on the economics of the state, according to the narrator. He describes starving women who are trailed by young children they...

Latest answer posted May 26, 2021, 12:14 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

A first advantage of the speaker's proposal is that poor will be able to support themselves. By selling their infants for food, the poor will no longer have to starve, beg, or sell themselves into...

Latest answer posted May 26, 2021, 12:40 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

The message of "A Modest Proposal" is that the wealthy English landowners in Ireland have exploited the poor Irish in such immoral and barbaric ways that this exploitation is tantamount to...

Latest answer posted May 26, 2021, 1:46 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift presents a satirical solution to the problem of Irish poverty. He argues that the Irish poor should sell their children to the rich as food. He is not, of...

Latest answer posted May 29, 2021, 5:33 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

Swift argues that his “modest proposal” will be “of no expense and little trouble” because it does not require anyone to invest or spend money to purchase raw material—there are already ample poor...

Latest answer posted May 29, 2021, 4:04 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift enlivens his essay “A Modest Proposal” with some highly creative and interesting literary devices. First and foremost, he employs satire to present his extremely exaggerated and...

Latest answer posted May 29, 2021, 3:31 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

"A Modest Proposal" is a satirical essay written by Jonathan Swift, the purpose of which is to call out the extremely deplorable living conditions that existed in Ireland during a time when the...

Latest answer posted May 29, 2021, 2:51 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

The narrator of "A Modest Proposal" attempts to appeals to the three pillars of argument: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is credibility and authority. The narrator tries to persuade us that he is...

Latest answer posted May 27, 2021, 3:28 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

The word "modest" means limited or small. When applied to a person, it means unassuming or not willing to overstate one's talents or achievements. On first glance, without having yet read the...

Latest answer posted May 29, 2021, 11:55 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

In "A Modest Proposal," Swift creates a completely clueless narrator who has no idea how his words sound to others. This first-person speaker tells us what he thinks in his own words, completely...

Latest answer posted May 28, 2021, 11:20 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

There is a great deal of sarcasm in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which Swift highlights the extreme poverty in Ireland and criticizes the responses of those who have the power to change...

Latest answer posted May 28, 2021, 5:21 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

In this satirical essay, Swift comments on the problem English society faces in dealing with the "impossible" situation of poverty among the Irish. He particularly points to Irish children, noting...

Latest answer posted May 28, 2021, 1:46 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

This is a trickier question than it might appear at first. On one hand, Swift is certainly not serious about his proposal. Although he spends a great deal of time explaining why they should eat the...

Latest answer posted May 28, 2021, 12:42 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

The first-time reader of Swift's satirical essay "A Modest Proposal" may well think that the author is approaching the topic seriously for the first few paragraphs. Attentive readers will perhaps...

Latest answer posted May 28, 2021, 11:34 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift presents his satirical “plan” to improve life in Ireland by selling off the children of poor Irish people for food. Along the way, Swift subtly but quite...

Latest answer posted May 28, 2021, 12:24 am (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

Swift opens his satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” by stating the purpose of this document: For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country,...

Latest answer posted May 27, 2021, 5:14 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

In 1729, Jonathan Swift published his essay “A Modest Proposal,” in which he suggests that since the rich people of England are already figuratively devouring the poor in Ireland, they might as...

Latest answer posted May 27, 2021, 4:37 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer

A Modest Proposal

"A Modest Proposal" was written by Jonathan Swift as a satirical response to the incredible poverty under which Ireland was suffering in the eighteenth century. In the essay, he suggests that they...

Latest answer posted May 27, 2021, 1:37 pm (UTC)

1 educator answer
Next

Summary