A Modest Proposal Themes
by Jonathan Swift

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A Modest Proposal Themes

The main themes in "A Modest Proposal" are the humanity of the poor, suffering and greed, and solutions to poverty.

  • 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.
  • Solutions to poverty: Swift attributes Ireland's struggles with poverty to the greediness of the land-owning classes, who extract too much from the poor.

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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.

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 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 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,...

(The entire section is 1,163 words.)