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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Discussion Topic

The irony of the word "modest" in the title of "A Modest Proposal."

Summary:

The irony of the word "modest" in the title of "A Modest Proposal" lies in the extreme and outrageous nature of Swift's suggestion to solve poverty by eating children. The proposal is anything but modest, as it is intended to shock the reader and highlight the brutal treatment of the poor by the wealthy and the government.

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Why is "A Modest Proposal" termed "modest" instead of just "A Proposal"?

The overall tone of Swift's essay is satirical, and in choosing the modifier "modest" for his tongue-in-cheek proposal, the author employs understatement to deepen the satire.

Something that is modest is humble or unexceptional, but a proposal that Irish children should be sold, killed, and eaten by English epicures is the opposite; it is outlandish and horrific. When he wrote the essay in 1729, Swift was extremely critical of the the suffering of the Irish poor in light of their exploitation by the wealthy elites of England. Swift's essay did not have the desired effect; instead of working to effect social change to assist Ireland's poor, the essay was largely dismissed as a humor piece or ignored by those who could have helped to prop up the Irish economy.

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Why is "A Modest Proposal" termed "modest" instead of just "A Proposal"?

Swift calls it a modest proposal because he wants to draw attention to its supposed reasonableness. This is not just any proposal; it is a modest proposal, a humble proposal, something that the fictitious author hopes—perhaps, just maybe—will be accepted by his learned audience.

As with everything associated with this famous work, Swift's intentions are entirely satirical. In using the word "modest" he's seeking to emphasize the gap between the respectable form in which the pamphlet is written—that of a learned, academic treatise—and its hideous, morally reprehensible contents.

As a satirist of genius, Swift was acutely aware of how those in authority—be it politicians, educators, or scientists—often distort language to hide their true intentions, clothing bad ideas in the garb of reasonable-sounding language to make them sound much less threatening. And what could possibly sound more reasonable and less threatening than a "modest" proposal?

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Why is "A Modest Proposal" termed "modest" instead of just "A Proposal"?

The narrator or proposer of this text likely calls his proposal a "modest" one because he is completely unaware of how monstrous a thing it is that he proposes. One of the ways that Jonathan Swift, the author, develops his position is through the use of irony, and, in the title, it is dramatic irony that helps us to understand what the narrator does not. Swift knows that this proposal is hardly modest; in fact, it is quite bold. We, the audience, also quickly realize that any proposal which suggests cannibalism as a way to eliminate poverty, reduce the number of Catholics in the world, lessen crime, and provide a new and interesting food source cannot be termed "modest." Therefore, we understand something that the narrator, a character, does not: that what he suggests is more than just immodest. It is barbaric and savage and fails to address the real source of the problems in Ireland. The fact that the proposer does not understand the barbarity of his suggestion is made evident, then, as early as the title.

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What is ironic about the word "modest" in the title of "A Modest Proposal"?

It is important to realise the different meanings that the word "modest" can have. Here, Swift ironically uses "modest" to mean "limited in scope." Note how throughout his pamphlet, Swift repeatedly tries to present his ideas by referencing their modesty:

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

Of course, in reality, the "humble" proposal he brings forth is monstrous and extreme. Throughout the essay, of course, Swift expresses the hope that no one will be able to object to his proposal as a way of indicating to the reader the profound satirical nature of his work. Irony runs throughout this shocking and provocative essay, and by creating the massive disparity between the title and what follows, Swift is encouraging the alert reader to see the satirical nature of the content of this polemic.

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What is ironic about the word "modest" in the title of "A Modest Proposal"?

The key to answering this question lies in the one-sentence paragraph that serves as the transition between the introduction of the proposal and the actual proposal. Swift concisely states:

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

Swift skillfully lays out valid arguments to help the Irish people with poverty and overpopulation. Everything makes complete sense the way he spells it out. It sounds reasonable for him to say,

That the remaining hundred thousand [children] may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

The irony comes in the fact that he's talking about eating children. If the reader puts aside his or her feelings, Swift's arguments sound pretty good. However, that is impossible to do, and Swift knows it. There is nothing "modest" about Swift's proposal. Swift was trying to get the English and the Irish to listen to him. By modestly proposing to use babies as a source of food and income, he was finally able to get some attention!

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What modesty is being talked about in the word "modest" in the title of "A Modest Proposal"?

The word "modest" as in Jonathan Swift's satirical essay title "A Modest Proposal" is an adjective that entered English between 1555 and 1565 as a Latin loanword from modestus meaning decorous, restrained (Random House Dictionary at Dictionary.com). The English adjective refers to a humble and moderate estimation of one's own ideas, intellect, powers, possessions etc.; recall that Dickens' satirical character Uriah Heep was modest and 'umble man with modest and 'umble attributes.

The word "modest" in Swift's satirical title is used in the same way that Dickens' used it to describe Heep, who wasn't all that modest, was he, as he swindled Agnes's father and tried to wed Agnes. The reader can compare the outrageous recommendations in the essay to the "modest" title and realize the fact of and extent of Swift's satire of the English attitude toward what was considered as the Irish predicament.

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