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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Significant Allusions

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Historical Allusions: Swift references historical figures to support his argument, write from a particular, satirical perspective, and to poke fun at the fears and fashions of the English. 

  • Salmanazaar: George Psalmanazar—whose name Swift’s narrator misspells—was a Frenchman who claimed to be from Taiwan (then known as Formosa) in order to easily and affordably travel throughout Europe. He became a famous authority on Formosan culture through writing books and pamphlets on fake—and sensationally racist—Taiwanese “customs” (like the supposed right of husbands to eat their wives as a punishment for infidelity, which Swift may have been inspired by for “A Modest Proposal”). In 1706 Psalmanazar confessed his true heritage. This means that Swift’s reading audience would have been aware of Psalmanazar’s history and downfall. 
  • The Pretender: This title refers to James Francis Edward Stuart, who was at the time the exiled Prince of Wales. Being a Catholic, he was excluded from the possibility of British rule. Spain recognized him as the rightful King of England, which was an obvious irritant to the current English governance, who viewed him as an exiled troublemaker.

Nonspecific Allusions: Swift’s use of allusions that don’t reference particular historical figures serves two purposes. The text’s narrator appears to gain some credibility by referencing supposed experts in various fields, but once readers realize that the narrator is a satire of a pompous, overly rational researcher, it becomes clear that reference to these sources deflates credibility rather than enhances it. If a source is not named, it cannot be vetted, and amounts to little more than vague name-dropping. Swift’s choice to have his narrator do this, then, adds to the power of his satire; he is making fun of the false credibility of these pompous researchers and their references and statistics. 

  • A Very Knowing American: Notice that the narrator’s friend embodies English stereotypes of Americans. A popular thought was that Americans were less refined than Europeans were; you can see this reflected in the narrator’s claim that Americans had tried cannibalism before Europeans did. 
  • A very worthy person, a true lover of his country: This reference is the narrator’s patriotic way of introducing the Englishman’s suggestion of eating not only infants but also adolescents. This suggests that the English simply have everyone’s best interests at heart and any barbarism they suggest is ultimately well intended. The narrator is also able to make himself seem more reasonable, because he admits to having reservations about consuming teens; Swift quickly deflates any semblance of reasonableness by having the narrator’s negative reaction stem from a loss of productivity and the “disagreeable” taste of older meat. 
  • An Eminent French Physician: Swift’s narrator uses the word “eminent” here in order to imbue his source with credibility. However, the nonsensical evidence the narrator cites—that fish consumption increases fertility—shows a careful reader that Swift doesn’t intend the claim to be taken seriously.
  • Our Merchants: By portraying the English as people whose salesmen have experience haggling over the price of children and adolescents, Swift is able to comment on the tendency to see people—especially those they believed to be inferior to them, such as the Irish—in terms of monetary worth. Swift’s narrator often defaults to viewing the poor in terms of monetary value and statistics in order to convey his ideas—a tactic that also satirizes the researchers of Swift’s time. 

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