A Modest Proposal Teaching Approaches
by Jonathan Swift

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Teaching Approaches

“A Modest Proposal” as an Introduction to Satire: One of the best known examples of satire in the English-speaking world, “A Modest Proposal” is a traditional introduction to literary satire due to the text’s relatively short length and ease of recognizing the eccentric proposal as tongue-in-cheek.

  • For discussion: How does Swift’s word choice in the first few paragraphs foreshadow his proposal? What about its title? How do readers know that he’s not serious about his suggestion of cannibalism? What is his purpose in suggesting such a shocking solution to the problem of Ireland’s poverty?
  • For discussion: What is the purpose of satire? What examples can you think of where satire changed your mind or someone else’s? How can satire backfire or not achieve its intended goal?

Layers of Narration: Throughout the proposal, there are several layers of narration: Swift, the actual author; the text’s narrator, a researcher; and various sources the narrator cites as proof of his argument. Because of this, “A Modest Proposal” is a good way to introduce layered narration and the concept of an unreliable narrator. Though students may not realize it at first, all sources that the narrator references are vague or untrustworthy, and it’s clear that the narrator is too blinded by his love of productivity and efficiency to posit a plausible solution. Disentangling these three layers will help students understand the essay’s structure and better understand Swift’s purpose for writing. 

  • For discussion: How does Swift signal to readers that his narrator is not a credible source? What solutions does Swift posit to alleviate Ireland’s poverty? Why doesn’t Jonathan Swift make these suggestions outright as himself? 
  • For discussion: What is Swift’s opinion of politicians? What about researchers? The poor Irish? How can you infer his opinions from the text? 
  • For discussion: What sources does Swift’s narrator cite? Are these sources meant to be taken seriously? Do we believe that the narrator is as impartial as he claims to be? Why so? 

Translating Life to Satirical Critique: Swift was motivated to write his proposal during a time of significant economic, religious, and political strife not only in the British Isles but also throughout Europe. While Ireland suffered great poverty, the rivalry between Protestant England and Catholic Spain was growing. Swift plays on the fears of escalation between these two countries as well as politicians’ desires for quick fixes to deeply rooted issues. Additionally, the patriotic and supposedly “rational” tone he employs throughout lampoons the tendency to see human beings as means to production rather than of inherent worth. 

  • For discussion: How does Swift translate the politics of his time to “A Modest Proposal”? What stance has he taken in the debate between the English and the Irish? 
  • For discussion: How does Swift embody a cold, rational researcher? What vocabulary or style of argumentation does he use? 
  • For discussion: What current events or political debates would be suitable for satire? 

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • Why does Swift choose to begin his essay with a relatively sympathetic portrayal of Ireland’s poor? How does this signal the argument’s stakes—that is, demonstrate the importance of the essay—and why does it make his suggestion of cannibalism more shocking? 
  • Who benefits if Swift’s modest proposal is implemented? What does this say about who the audience of the proposal is? 
  • What instances of irony does the text contain? 
  • When does the reader realize that Swift is not seriously proposing cannibalism? 
  • What are the dangers of not recognizing when a text is satirical? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Students Might Miss Some (or All) of the Satire: If students are unfamiliar with the concept of satire, they might be unsure what Swift’s purpose is for suggesting cannibalism. Furthermore, they might miss the nuanced way he parodies the attitudes held by...

(The entire section is 1,391 words.)