A Modest Proposal Summary

A Modest Proposal is a satirical essay by Jonathan Swift that offers up a potential solution to Ireland's devastating food shortage: eating babies.

  • The narrator suggests that, of the 120,000 babies born in Ireland per year, 100,000 should be eaten. He argues that newborns will provide the tenderest meat and that their skin will make fine leather.
  • The narrator offers up statistics about overpopulation, famine, and the cost of meat, arguing that the sale of infants will stimulate the economy.
  • The narrator admits that the idea will likely be unpopular, but he still feels that it is the best solution.

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A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift, is probably the most famous satirical essay in the English language. It was first published in Dublin as a short, anonymous pamphlet. The essay begins as a seemingly dispassionate diagnosis of the extreme poverty in eighteenth century Ireland. With nary a shift in tone, the essayist discloses his remedy: Render the children of the poor as food for the table. The children of Ireland should be sold and consumed, for sustenance of the destitute, as delicacies for the wealthy, and for the general progress of society. The essayist proceeds to furnish ironically logical reasons in support of this shocking and repulsive proposal.

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Swift was born in Dublin in 1667 to English parents. He wrote poetry, essays, fiction, and political tracts, all with a biting satirical wit. His novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726; originally titled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships) is a mix of travelogue, fantasy, adventure, and satire, making it one of the world’s masterpieces of literature.

While Swift was advancing in the world of popular and polemical literature and aspiring to literary greatness, he was also rising through the ranks of the established clergy. In 1713, he was appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Anglican Cathedral in Dublin. There, he saw firsthand the poverty and oppression of the Irish. He wrote tracts, letters, and essays on their behalf, including “A Letter to a Member of Parliament, in Ireland” (1708), “The Story of an Injured Lady” (1720), A Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), “Drapier’s Letters” (1724), and “A Short View of the State of Ireland” (1728). Of these efforts, which would earn Swift a reputation as a champion of Ireland, A Modest Proposal is the most famous.

By the time he wrote A Modest Proposal, Swift’s satirical methods, rooted in the classical techniques of Roman satirists such as Juvenal, had been perfected. His prose style—muscular, compact, sinewy, and expressive—can lay claim to being the most exact and forceful in the English language. His fertile imagination was able to lay down layer upon layer of irony in almost bewildering succession. A Modest Proposal, like Gulliver’s Travels, transcends the political, social, and economic crises that gave birth to it, woeful as they were. Packed with irony and satirical revelations of the human condition, this fantastical tract rises to timeless literature.

A Modest Proposal was published as a short pamphlet of fewer than two thousand words in September, 1729. It was written anonymously, although readers quickly deduced that the author was the master satirist Dean Swift. It is crucial to note that Swift, while the author of the essay, is not its speaker. Rather the authorial voice, perhaps best called the proposer, is an unnamed and unknown personage whose intellectual characteristics and prejudices can be gleaned from his proposals. What is stated in a straightforward manner by the proposer is meant satirically by Swift. The distance maintained between Swift and the proposer is necessary for the many layers of irony in the essay. The proposer, like the narrators in Swift’s fiction, himself...

(The entire section contains 1844 words.)

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