Jonathan Swift

A Modest Proposal

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A Modest Proposal Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift.

A Modest Proposal is a satirical essay published anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729. The essay’s full title, A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, poses as a serious social solution to dealing with the poverty-stricken Irish population. With biting deadpan, Swift suggests that poor Irish people sell their children as food to the wealthy to solve the economic hardships and famine plaguing Ireland. The author’s Juvenalian satire takes aim directly at contemporary English society for its often ruthless attitude toward the poor as well as contemporary policies toward Ireland, which was under British rule at the time.

Swift begins the pamphlet in the voice of an anonymous narrator by outlining the difficult conditions the poor face, which at first seems to be an appeal to the reader’s sense of sympathy. In turn, the reader is wholly unprepared for what the proposer says next. Using economic arguments popular at the time, he makes the case that the starving children of those in poverty should be fattened up and then sold to the rich landowners for consumption.

The narrator elaborates that the children could be sold to a meat market as early as age one, when they are likely to be most delicious. Doubling down on this sustained satire, he details the numerous ways that children can be prepared. This solution, he continues, would contribute to the overall wellbeing of the nation because poor families would be relieved of having too many mouths to feed while making a little cash on the side. The wealthy, meanwhile, would be able to have some variety and novelty in their diet.

Mocking the use of rational thinking to justify cruel economic policies, Swift’s proposer offers analysis to support his point and gives specific data about the market. He explains how children can be priced and gives projected consumption patterns. He is sure that innovative cooks will create numerous ways to serve children, and submits that his solution will inspire family harmony. Husbands will respect their wives more for their economic contributions and the family unit will function more peacefully overall.

The narrator declares that this idea will do far more than any other proposal to stabilize the economy and relieve the economic problems of the working poor. He also claims it will resolve Ireland’s complex political and social problems.

Swift’s use of hyperbole makes it clear that he never intended for the proposal to be taken seriously. Rather, he uses several devices to cause the reader to sympathize and identify with the Irish poor while at the same time revealing the proposer and his manner of thinking to be ludicrous. When Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, the prevailing attitude toward the poor was one of derision. Quite a few sincere proposals also in circulation aimed to better the conditions of the poor without actually addressing the real problems they faced. Many of the projects designed to help them were thinly veiled attempts at improving the situation of the person proposing the idea.

Swift builds his argument using a rhetorical technique called apophasis, an ironic device in which an argument is made by denying it or denying that it should be discussed. To promote his true vision of reform, he lists reforming taxes, lessening imports, using only locally-made products, and teaching landlords to have mercy on their tenants, among other things.

It’s been suggested that A Modest Proposal was aimed not only to address the impoverished conditions of the Irish population, but also at the prevailing economic theories of the time. Mercantilism viewed people as the riches of the nation. The population boom in Ireland, however, disproved the idea that a larger population automatically meant more wealth. In fact, the wealth of the few depended on the poverty of the majority.

Swift targets the type of calculated thinking that focuses on profit and dehumanizes people by treating them as a commodity. He slips in language associated with animal husbandry to degrade the Irish and lend credence to his wild proposal that some classes of people can be served as food. His cold and calculated presentation forces the reader to examine the source of his or her own discomfort and apply it to contemporary theories.

Swift’s use of irony is a powerful tool to advance his social theories and to address the prevailing beliefs in the class system. He was considered part of Ireland’s Anglo-Irish ruling class, but was often disgusted by British policies intended to take advantage of the labor of the working poor without returning tangible benefits. Had he addressed these social theories directly, it’s likely that no one would have listened.

Although the pamphlet did not cause sweeping reform, it remains an excellent example of sustained irony. Swift’s snark has a way of illustrating a larger principle before the reader is able to protest.