A Modest Proposal Themes
The main themes in A Modest Proposal are the humanity of the poor, the narrowness of reason, and suffering and greed.
- The humanity of the poor: Swift’s central satirical strategy frames Ireland’s poor as mere economic data. The purpose of the essay, then, is to make evident that the poor are in fact human beings.
- The narrowness of reason: Swift’s ironic adherence to reason reveals the failures of pure reasoning without a set of ethical principles to guide it.
- Suffering and greed: The essay makes explicit the connection between the suffering of the poor and the greed of the rich.
Last Updated on May 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1172
The Humanity of the Poor
In Swift’s satirical 1729 essay A Modest Proposal, the narrator is a conceited and clueless economist who proposes to solve Ireland’s famine by the consumption of infants. Swift’s reprehensible narrator serves a key rhetorical purpose. The narrator’s eponymous “modest proposal”—solving poverty through cannibalism—is meant to appall readers. In creating this narrator and this proposal, Swift is using hyperbole and irony to send a message. The point is to drive readers in the opposite direction of the narrator’s thesis and thus to a greater valuation of human life.
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Swift’s narrator has so intellectualized the problem of poverty that he no longer sees the poor as wholly human. To him, they are mere economic figures whose suffering is less important than their deleterious effect on the economy. The narrator describes poor Irish women trailed by ragged children begging in the streets, starving people who sell themselves into indentured servitude in Barbados, and those who in desperation enlist as mercenaries in foreign armies; in each case, the humanity of these individuals eludes him. In fact, the narrator goes so far as to state that he is not worried at all about the many “aged, diseased, or maimed” Irish because they are dying off as fast as possible due to “cold and famine, and filth, and vermin.” He feels the same about the many starving young men who cannot find work, as they are dying off rapidly enough to suit him. Those who do find work die on the job from being too weak to labor, “happily” ridding the country and themselves of their unwanted presence. It is clear that this narrator has utterly lost his moral compass. Swift’s ironic stance with relation to the narrator brings readers to see more clearly the humanity of the poor.
The Narrowness of Reason
Swift’s narrator focuses minutely on facts and figures about the poor. There is a careful reasoning behind the narrator’s opinions, but his reasoning—unguided by ethics—leads to vile conclusions. For example, he calculates the cost of fattening up and raising a poor infant until the age of one, when it can be sold to be prepared as a delicacy to be served at rich people’s tables. He carefully calculates the profit to be expected but entirely loses sight of the fact that he is talking about human beings. Because he is so consumed with profit, he is able to talk about Irish infants as if they were livestock:
I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.
Readers are meant to be horrified by this vivid image. Swift is parodying figures from his time period who placed too much focus on economics to the exclusion of all else. Swift’s implicit message is that such cold, callous reasoning can be valid in a closed logical system but cannot apply to the real world. For Swift, reason has its place but only if used in conjunction with moral principles. Economic theories are worthless if they are not tempered with mercy and compassion.
Suffering and Greed
Swift traces the link between suffering and greed in this essay. He achieves this through an ironic framing of his clueless narrator, who is indifferent to the suffering of the poor. To him, they are merely a problem for the well-to-do. The Irish poor are starving, unemployed, and desperate, with almost no hope of a better situation. The narrator, for whom morals are subordinate to economic calculations, highlights the plight of the poor, because, to his mind, it buttresses his case for cannibalism. The descriptions of poor people’s sufferings are also an important part of Swift’s broader thesis: he wants readers to know how the Irish poor are suffering and not to have these facts downplayed.
The narrator explicitly connects Irish poverty to the actions of the rich. He states that the children of the poor, if they became a salable commodity, could be used as collateral against debt and taken by landlords as repayment; the landlords have already “seized” all the cattle and crops of the poor. The narrator comments that landlords have not “one degree of mercy towards their tenants.” The narrator makes a statement that from his point of view is sincere. He suggests that the price of the children to eaten will be expensive (“dear”) but is
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 makes it clear that if the landlords had been less greedy, the poor would not be suffering so completely as they do. Thus the problem of poverty in Ireland is not the fault of the poor, but of the rich, who have for too long extracted too much from subjects with no power to fight back.
Solutions to Poverty
One of Swift’s central ideas in this essay is that there are real solutions to the problems of poverty. He did not write this essay for his own amusement or because he agreed that it was a good idea to sell, kill, and eat human infants. A clergyman who felt anger and anguish over the plight of the poor, Swift composed the essay out of a deep frustration with the lack of response from people with power to what he perceived as a humanitarian crisis in Ireland. Before writing this essay, Swift had proposed moderate, sensible solutions to Irish poverty, all of which were routinely ignored. He hoped that satirically proposing something as outrageous as cannibalism would cause readers to recoil from the extremism of the idea and pay more attention to some of the humane ideas he had proposed in the past. He therefore includes these moderate proposals in his essay by having his narrator reject them.
Swift wanted his readers to oppose the cannibalistic solution, but he also wanted them to take a closer look at some of the other ideas in the essay. These realistic proposals put the burden on the rich to reform. One proposal is to tax absentee landlords (usually wealthy English who lived off the rents of their properties without any concern for the poor) at a modest rate to raise money for the relief of the poor. He also suggests that the wealthy reject the pursuit of “foreign luxury” and other extravagant habits that place the rich in financial situations that then cause them to wrest every penny out of the poor. He promotes domestic manufacture, which would provide jobs for the Irish, instead of the importation of foreign goods. He advocates for shopkeepers to treat the poor fairly, rather than cheating them. It is perhaps Swift’s solutions that make the essay most relatable to audiences today. The exploitation of the poor by the rich remains a constant in human societies, and Swift’s ideas about selective taxation and domestic production are as politically relevant today as ever.