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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A Modest Proposal Summary

A Modest Proposal is a satirical essay by Jonathan Swift that offers up a potential solution to Ireland’s devastating food shortage: eating babies.

  • The narrator suggests that, of the 120,000 babies born in Ireland per year, 100,000 should be eaten. He argues that newborns will provide the tenderest meat and that their skin will make fine leather.
  • The narrator offers up statistics about overpopulation, famine, and the cost of meat, arguing that the sale of infants will stimulate the economy.
  • The narrator admits that the idea will likely be unpopular, but he still feels that it is the best solution.

Summary

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Last Updated November 30, 2023.

“A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick” (commonly referred to as “A Modest Proposal”) is a critical essay written by eighteenth-century Irish poet, essayist, author, and political figure, Jonathan Swift. Though published in 1729, this essay remains esteemed to this day for its satirical nature—a style of writing Swift is revered for—and its commentary on the contemporary social issues Ireland faced. For ease of understanding, the text can be divided into five main sections: 

  1. The context of the time 
  2. Swift’s central proposal
  3. The supposed advantages of his proposal
  4. A series of counter-ideas and arguments
  5. A final claim of the author’s sincerity.

Beginning with the context and motivations for writing such a text, Swift recounts that the state of the once-proud country of Ireland has severely diminished. Poverty, famine, and high unemployment have forced people to become beggars in droves; all Irish towns and cities are “crowded” with these individuals and their families. 

Given Swift's opinion on the “deplorable state of the kingdom”—that is, the political and cultural tensions between Ireland and Britain at the time—this excess poverty can be seen as an additional misfortune the Irish people had to face.

After establishing his negative outlook on the condition of Ireland, Swift then offers his solution: Given the number of child-bearing women (whom he refers to as “breeders”) and the annual birth rate, it would be advantageous for both the impoverished families and the country as a whole is to use these children as a source of food and, occasionally, clothing.

This is where the satire of Swift’s writing comes into play: Though this proposal may seem preposterous to readers, he nevertheless presents it in a logical, clear, and thoughtful manner—as if he genuinely believes it is a viable strategy for Ireland to adopt. By employing this satirical and ironic tone, Swift prompts readers to reconsider Irish values, especially considering their attitudes toward those facing poverty.

Swift continues, explaining six advantages that his proposed solution may offer the people of Ireland. For one, Swift rejoices in the possibility of a decreased number of Roman Catholics in the country, a clear example of the religious tensions that raged throughout Europe at this time. 

Secondly, Swift suggests that poor people throughout Ireland will now have something to contribute to society and have an avenue through which they might make money. Third, Swift argues that because there will be fewer children to maintain, the nation’s stock will increase. Similarly, he explains in his fourth part that mothers—or “breeders”—will face less of a burden in raising their children. Fifth, this new plan will prompt the creation of new customs and styles of cuisine. Finally, there will be an improvement in the quality of marriages and married life.

Completing the logical flow of his argument, Swift then moves to reject any “other expedients” or other ways in which the issues throughout Ireland could be remedied. He addresses and disproves other solutions, such as promoting the use of domestic goods rather than foreign ones, decreasing the pride and vanity that people possess, having mercy for one another, and emphasizing strong ideals throughout the workforce. In that same vein, Swift also turns the question of a solution toward those who might oppose his idea, asking how they plan to feed all the excess people and support an impoverished nation.

Swift closes “A Modest Proposal” by establishing that he has no personal interest in the argument that he has set forth—he simply wants to contribute to the good of the public. After all, as Swift reminds his readers, he has no children in the right age range to contribute to this proposal, nor does he have a wife who can still have children; therefore, he has no actual stake in the proposal, as he cannot personally benefit from it.

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