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 narrator and their perspective in "A Modest Proposal."


The narrator of "A Modest Proposal" is an unnamed, satirical persona who presents themselves as a rational and concerned economist. This perspective allows Jonathan Swift to critique British policy towards the Irish poor through exaggerated, ironic suggestions, highlighting the dehumanizing attitudes of the time.

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Who is the narrator in "A Modest Proposal" and what is their perspective?

This piece of satiric writing by Swift is one of the best examples of satire in the English language.  Swift lures the reader in and then packs a wallop with the actual details of his proposal.  Part of the effectiveness of the piece is that the narrator/speaker seems completely sane and rational, well-educated and to be logical and thoughtful person, and yet he is calmly proposing that the Irish could solve their financial woes by raising their children to be food. With those words the reader is completely aghast! They are asking themselves "who would so matter-of-factly propose such a plan?" The writing continues to the very end with a tone of pure logos -- no pathos.  It is this seemingly logical speaker that is what is so troubling.  It is never stated who, exactly, he is, but he could be a social planner, a politician, an economist, a government worker, a social scientist or any other kind of learned person.  People in Swift's day and all the way to the present day ask "Did he (Swift) or the speaker (as character) really mean it?" They are completely drawn in. They have to know that no one would seriously suggest such a plan. They appear to have missed the later part of the piece where the speaker says something about all of the other "reasonable solutions" there could be to the solution to Irish poverty -- actual, real, solutions that would take little effort to try.THOSE are what Swift wanted to point out to his audience: there are lots of reasonable things the English could do to improve the situation of their kingdom, but they aren't even trying. Swift's narrator sartorially suggests something horrifying, but the real proposals are right under everyones' noses.

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Who is the narrator in "A Modest Proposal"?

The narrator appears to be an Irishman, as he says in the final paragraph, "I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country [...]."  He claims that his youngest child is nine years old, and his wife is past childbearing age, so he stands to gain nothing from this proposal; this must mean he's Irish since he's implying that he would otherwise be able to make a profit from his scheme (if his wife were still young enough to have babies).  Further, he calls Ireland "my country." 

Moreover, the narrator has evidently been attempting to cultivate a solution to the problem of Ireland's poverty and overpopulation for some time.  He says, "having turned my thoughts for many years upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of other projectors," he has found all of them wanting in some respect.  The narrator seems to feel that it is his duty or responsibility to come up with and share an idea that will aid his country.

This seems to be all we really know about the narrator for sure, aside from the fact that the narrator is not Jonathan Swift.  Swift does not actually want the Irish to sell their babies to the English as a food source; he is using this proposal as a way to satirize the way in which English landowners seem to be figuratively devouring the Irish and Ireland.  If the English are willing to figuratively eat up the country of Ireland, then why not literally eat the Irish?  Swift pushes the reality to an awful extreme to show just how awful the reality really is. 

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