George Wittkowsky (essay date January-October 1943)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wittkowsky, George. “Swift's Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4 (January-October 1943): 75-104.

[In one of the first major critical essays on A Modest Proposal, Wittkowsky remarks on the work within its contemporary economic context.]

There is an almost complete absence of sustained scholarship on the subject of Swift's Modest Proposal. The lesser works even of most major writers in English have been investigated with Gestapo-like thoroughness. Even the minor works of minor writers have received loving attention. And yet toward the Modest Proposal, a major work by a...

(The entire section is 11939 words.)

Maurice Johnson (essay date May 1958)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Johnson, Maurice. “The Structural Impact of A Modest Proposal.Bucknell Review 7, no. 4 (May 1958): 234-40.

[In the following essay, Johnson weighs the influence A Modest Proposal derives solely from its syntactical and organizational format.]

A Modest Proposal (1729) has been singled out as the one incontestable example of poetic passion in English Augustan literature. Its pervasive irony, metaphorical contrasts, and paradox have been described as operating on a “grander scale than in any poem of its day.” Simultaneously, it has been studied as an early Georgian tract dealing with contemporary mercantilist attitudes toward balance...

(The entire section is 2800 words.)

Oliver W. Ferguson (essay date October 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ferguson, Oliver W. “Swift's Saeva Indignatio and A Modest Proposal.Philological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (October 1959): 473-79.

[In the following essay, Ferguson refutes the prior assumption that Swift was venting his saeva indignatio at England in A Modest Proposal, and instead proposes that Swift's anger was aimed at all social classes in Ireland.]

For two hundred years readers have admired Swift's Modest Proposal as one of the greatest pieces of sustained irony in the language. No one has failed to note the brilliance with which Swift balanced the opposing tones of the tract: the economic projector's studied...

(The entire section is 3054 words.)

Louis A. Landa (essay date 1959)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Landa, Louis A. “A Modest Proposal and Populousness.” In Eighteenth-Century English Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, edited by James L. Clifford, pp. 102-111. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[In the following essay, Landa remarks on Swift's perception that Ireland's citizens may only become a source of wealth to the nation if the country seizes its natural opportunities and resources.]

Among Swift's Irish tracts is one entitled Maxims Controlled [i.e., confuted] in Ireland, written probably about the time of A Modest Proposal (1729), though published later. In this lesser known tract Swift examined ‘certain...

(The entire section is 4311 words.)

Charles Allen Beaumont (essay date fall 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Beaumont, Charles Allen. “Swift's Classical Rhetoric in A Modest Proposal.Georgia Review 14, no. 3 (fall 1960): 307-17.

[In the following essay, Beaumont comments on the employment of rhetoric and its significance in A Modest Proposal.]

Jonathan Swift had little confidence in man's using his reasoning powers; therefore it is not surprising that he turned to the persuasive power of classical rhetoric to convince man of his sins and follies and to indicate right action. Having been thoroughly trained in classical rhetoric at Kilkenny School and Trinity College, Dublin, Swift made extensive use of the non-argumentative devices of ancient rhetoric in...

(The entire section is 4678 words.)

Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr. (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rosenheim, Edward W., Jr. “The Satiric Victim.” In Swift and the Satirist's Art, pp. 37-108. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

[In the following excerpt, Rosenheim provides a brief review of the satire in Swift's observations of the economy in A Modest Proposal.]

Strangely enough, A Modest Proposal1 presents the reader with some of the same difficulties that are encountered in the Argument [against Abolishing Christianity]. With the exception of Gulliver's Travels, Swift's grotesque argument for infant cannibalism as a solution to the problems of Ireland is certainly the most widely read of his works....

(The entire section is 1962 words.)

John W. Tilton (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Tilton, John W. “The Two ‘Modest Proposals’: A Dual Approach to Swift's Irony.” Bucknell Review 14, no. 3 (1966): 78-88.

[In the following essay, Tilton suggests that A Modest Proposal may be interpreted in two different ways; one concerning the aesthetic art of satire and the other as a contemporaneous utilitarian commentary.]

Supposedly agreement was reached long ago on the peculiar mode of Swift's irony in A Modest Proposal. If any principle seemed to be established in Swiftian criticism it is that a persona functions as the putative author of the Proposal. In the public-spirited Irish economist who methodically, reasonably...

(The entire section is 4401 words.)

Samuel J. Rogal (essay date April 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rogal, Samuel J. “The Timelessness of A Modest Proposal.English Record 18, no. 4 (April 1968): 48-53.

[Rogal observes in the following essay that A Modest Proposal has endured as a work of consequence because its rhetorical composition overshadows its outdated subject matter.]

Ricardo Quintana labels A Modest Proposal as the “greatest of all the later writings on Ireland and his [Swift's] last prose masterpiece. …”1 Apparently he is at least equating the quality of the 1729 essay with the earlier, more developed, and better known Tale of a Tub, Battle of the Books (both 1704), and Gulliver's Travels...

(The entire section is 2598 words.)

Samuel L. Macey (essay date 10 November 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Macey, Samuel L. “The Persona in A Modest Proposal.Lock Haven Review (10 November 1968): 17-24.

[In the following essay, Macey examines Swift's persona as a conduit for satire and as a representative of the author himself.]

The subjective Romantic author—Wordsworth in The Prelude, for example—frequently sets himself up for direct examination by the reader. With the neo-classicist, however, objectivity is the goal, and one of the techniques for achieving this is to set someone else up “pinned and wriggling” against the wall, as do Pope for his sylph in The Rape of the Lock and Eliot for J. Alfred Prufrock. In one sense...

(The entire section is 2743 words.)

Denis Donoghue (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Words.” In Jonathan Swift, a Critical Introduction, pp. 117-159. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt, Donoghue remarks on the exuberant rhetoric of A Modest Proposal.]

Many features of [A Modest Proposal] are at once obvious and important; the tone of the projector fending off human and moral considerations in his economic zeal and yet, now and again, stumbling upon a cliché which conceals an ironic truth—as when the projector varies his diction and calls the people of Ireland ‘souls’; or the tour de force of out-Heroding Herod by parodying the Massacre of the Innocents. The basic...

(The entire section is 2482 words.)

Thomas Lockwood (essay date summer 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lockwood, Thomas. “Swift's Modest Proposal: An Interpretation.” Papers on Language and Literature 10, no. 3 (summer 1974): 254-67.

[In the following essay, Lockwood examines the role of the “economic projector” or narrator of A Modest Proposal, and his objective, if appalling, irony.]

The Modest Proposal has always struck readers as perhaps the perfect work of its kind: breathtakingly to the point, unnerving in the extreme. It is so short and in a certain sense so sweet that one is naturally led to wonder exactly how Swift does what he does in this desperately funny, desperately bleak little performance. Until recently, students of...

(The entire section is 5954 words.)

Wayne C. Booth (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Booth, Wayne C. “Essays, Satire, Parody.” In A Rhetoric of Irony, pp. 91-136. Chicago, III.: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Booth analyzes portions of A Modest Proposal, noting the irony of two contradictory readings.]


[It] is now time to turn to the difficulties offered by even more intricate contexts. For greatest speculative interest, I perhaps ought now to tackle one of the sources of famous critical disagreement—say, Swift's A Tale of a Tub, or the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels, or Melville's Billy Budd. But for the...

(The entire section is 7534 words.)

Robert F. Willson Jr. (essay date autumn 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Willson, Robert F., Jr. “A Modest Proposal: Swift's Persona as Absentee.” Ball State University Forum 17, no. 4 (autumn 1976): 3-11.

[In the following essay, Willson disputes the general recognition of Swift's persona as an economic or political theorist, arguing instead that based on his puns and euphemisms, he is a decidedly antihuman figure.]

It is a melancholy object to encounter the number of critics who have taken their cue concerning the identity of Swift's persona in A Modest Proposal from Louis Landa's theory about the pamphlet's economic nature. Landa has argued that the Proposal was “another protest, in Swift's unique...

(The entire section is 4576 words.)

C. N. Manlove (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Manlove, C. N. “Swift.” In Literature and Reality, pp. 114-24. London: MacMillan Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Manlove investigates the reader's propensity to sympathize with advantageous outcomes in A Modest Proposal at the expense of devious measures.]


This satire is rather more a test of the reader than is the Argument Against Abolishing Christianity. Given that the Irish are sunk in animal misery, and that they would welcome the scheme outlined (117-18 [The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, vol. 2, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1939.]), how many of us...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)

C. J. Rawson (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rawson, C. J. “A Reading of A Modest Proposal.” In Augustan Worlds, edited by J. C. Hilson, M. M. B. Jones and J. R. Watson, pp. 29-50. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Rawson examines various segments of A Modest Proposal and their effects on popular interpretations of the reading.]

The title is famous, but still bears examination: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick.1 The form of title is that of many ‘modest proposals’ and ‘humble petitions’...

(The entire section is 10047 words.)

Robert Hunting (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hunting, Robert. “Cathedral Dean and Patriot.” In Jonathan Swift, pp. 79-93. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hunting views Swift's A Modest Proposal not only as a warning to the Irish, but also to the British against taking advantage of them.]

A Modest Proposal is the most brilliant of a long series of Irish tracts by Swift. Ireland first learned about the Proposal in an advertisement in the Dublin Intelligence for 8 November 1729: “The late apparent spirit of patriotism, or love to our country, so abounding of late, has produced a new scheme, said in public to be written by D—— S——, wherein the...

(The entire section is 1962 words.)

Lloyd Davis (essay date May 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davis, Lloyd. “Reading Irony: Dialogism in A Modest Proposal.Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 77 (May 1992): 32-55.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses dialogism and its role in the ironic portrayal of Ireland's sociopolitical situation in A Modest Proposal.]

That Swift's A Modest Proposal is firmly placed in two canons of English, those of composition and literature, suggests that it fulfils certain values emphasized across the discipline. Two discursive features that have been frequently valued in this work and have seen it elevated into the tradition are style and character....

(The entire section is 8576 words.)

Robert Phiddian (essay date summer 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Phiddian, Robert. “Have You Eaten Yet?: The Reader in A Modest Proposal.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, no. 3 (summer 1996): 603-21.

[In the following essay, Phiddian considers the position of the reader in A Modest Proposal, who experiences revulsion at the suggestion of eating babies to bolster economic prosperity.]

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London; 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...

(The entire section is 8008 words.)

Robert Mahoney (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Mahoney, Robert. “Swift's Modest Proposal and the Rhetoric of Irish Colonial Consumption.” In 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, Vol. 4, edited by Kevin L. Cope, Laura Morrow, and Anna Battigelli, pp. 205-14. New York: AMS Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Mahoney discusses the religious implications of A Modest Proposal, suggesting that Swift is actually alluding to the fear that Ireland's Catholics might “consume” the Protestant colony.]

The satire of Swift's Modest Proposal turns on the theme of consumption, with cannibalism as its governing trope. The specifically Irish orientation of that trope...

(The entire section is 3059 words.)

John Richardson (essay date October 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Richardson, John. “Swift, A Modest Proposal, and Slavery.” Essays in Criticism 51, no. 4 (October 2001): 404-23.

[In the following essay, Richardson suggests that the attitudes of a society of slavery influenced and shaped the irony of A Modest Proposal.]

There are two key elements to A Modest Proposal: a dreadful familiar situation, which has grown to seem less dreadful for being so familiar, and a dreadful unfamiliar solution, which seems more dreadful for its strangeness. The rhetorical effect of this ought to be simple. The strangeness of the solution ought to resurrect the reader's sense of the dreadfulness of the familiar situation, and...

(The entire section is 6727 words.)