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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What are three examples of irony in A Modest Proposal?

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Three examples of irony in A Modest Proposal are when Swift states, "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be lyable to the least Objection," his suggestion that whoever could come up with a solution to the problem of unproductive poor children should "have his Statue set up for a preserver of the Nation," and the title of the work itself.

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Irony is continually present in A Modest Proposal , not least in the title since, if intended seriously, Swift’s proposal would be far from modest but very radical indeed. He writes that his idea would prevent “that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children ... which would move tears...

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and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.”

Though the practice he describes is, in fact, horrid, the irony lies in his solution being even more appalling. This is a common feature of the essay, since there is no doubt that the real situation Swift describes is very dire and could be made the subject of a great deal of pathos without the monstrous solution he proposes.

Later in the essay, Swift say that some people “of a desponding spirit” are overly concerned about the poor “who are aged, diseased or maimed” and therefore unfit for human consumption. For this difficulty, he offers some ironic comfort, saying that no solution is necessary:

I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.

Finally, Swift ironically pretends that his solution is so attractive that he may be suspected of having some children to sell himself and protests that he personally will not profit from the scheme:

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, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

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Irony in literature refers to stating the opposite of what thinks or knows to be true for satirical effect. One example of irony in "A Modest Proposal" is Swift's statement that "These Mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelyhood [livelihood], are forced to employ all their time in Stroling, to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants." The mothers Swift refers to are starving and are far from enjoying their lives while strolling. In fact, they are reduced to begging in order to survive, so Swift's reference to their leisured strolling is ironic in nature. 

Swift goes on to write that whoever can figure out how to make poor children in Ireland productive members of the country in a cheap and efficient manner "would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his Statue set up for a preserver of the Nation." This is also an ironic statement, as Swift's proposal to solve the problem of poor children is to eat them. This type of efficient and callous proposal does not deserve the recognition of the public. Instead, such a proposal is inhumane and deserves condemnation. 

Before Swift proposes his idea of eating poor children, he states that "I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be lyable [liable] to the least Objection." In other words, he says that his ideas are so commonsensical and good that no one could object to them. However, his ideas are provocatively horrible and of course merit total rejection. 

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A Modest Proposalby Jonathan Swift is a satirical piece on how to deal with the poor’s problems.  Basically, “Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies” (enotes topic, see first link).  As the Macgill Book Review notes, “the most powerfully ironic aspect of this essay is rather obvious. The modest proposal is of course anything but modest: It is savage, frightening, perhaps even insane” (Magill Book Reviews, see second link).

Consider the opening sentence, where the speaker pretends to be concerned about the poor.

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an palms. (para 1)

The irony is that the speaker seems to care, but in actuality his suggestion shows that he does not see the poor as humans and really does not care about their plight, or he would not suggest selling their children to be eaten by the rich.

Another irony is that the passage was intended to make people aware of the plight of the poor and their responsibility toward it, but it is told in Stephen Colbert-style satire, pretending to be in the poor’s best interest.

I also find it ironic that this lovely tongue-in-check essay seems to also get a jab at Americans in.  The passage manages to satirize Ireland, England and American at once.

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 StewedRoastedBaked, or Boyled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust. (para 9)

Apparently, Americans are heathens!  We eat our poor babies.

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What are three examples of verbal irony in A Modest Proposal?

Verbal irony is a literary device used to draw attention to what a character thinks or feels by having them express the opposite. Verbal irony often takes the form of sarcasm, but it can also be delivered with the guise of sincerity, as it is in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

Swift takes a serious approach to a serious subject, the exploitation of the Irish Catholic working class by the Protestant English gentry. He structures his proposal formally, opening with a grim picture of female beggars and their helpless infants, providing rudimentary calculations of the cost to sustain them, and arguing that contributions to their livelihood should be limited to one solar year. To an English landlord burdened by the pitiful creatures, Swift appears to be an ally. Beyond his scheme to limit the financial obligation of the upstanding British landlords to the hapless Irish breeders, he adds a moral component: fewer abortions would be necessary under his plan. The savagery and shame of “sacrificing the poor innocent babes” would no longer be on the national conscience.

Having summarized the grievances of the upper class, he proposes his own thoughts, which he hopes “will not be liable to the least objection.”

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 equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

The proposal is to provide for the nourishment of infants until they are one year old, at which point they will be sold to “persons of quality and fortune” and eaten. The poor Irish will have a new source of revenue, and the British will have a new delicacy.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Swift’s actual target is not the ill-treated Irish, of course, but the British landlords who extort so much in exchange for their services that farmers and tenants cannot afford to feed themselves. Swift holds the attention of the upper class long enough to engage them in his scheme to do away with the wretched poor altogether. One can imagine that having come this far, the reader who finally encounters the objectionable thesis—eating babies—will read on in either anger (at being tricked) or horror (at the maniacal proposal).

Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

The antipathy between the Irish and British is not limited to class distinctions. There are also religious tensions. Swift suggests in the above quote that over time, the number of Catholics will be better controlled.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

Rather than writing an essay that simply tells landlords to treat their tenants better, which would probably get very little attention, Swift tells landlords how they could benefit from being better natured. With a bit of good humor, they stand to get more than “excellent nutritive meat.” With the extra money from selling their child, laborers will also be more fit for work between pregnancies.

Under no circumstances did Swift, a Protestant himself, believe that Irish children should be sold and eaten. He did not think women would happily hand over their babies, or that the best way to prevent the “savagery” of abortion was to kill the child after it was born. His use of verbal irony and hyperbole instead emphasized the heartlessness of reality. Families were starving. Poor people were being dehumanized. A Modest Proposal highlighted the need for genuine proposals to solve terrible problems.

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