A Modest Proposal Summary

Jonathan Swift

A Modest Proposal

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A Modest Proposal Summary

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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, known by its more common short name, A Modest Proposal, is a satirical article written anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729. It was intended to address the heartless treatment of the poor and the general British policy towards the Irish.

Swift begins the pamphlet in the voice of an anonymous proposer, or narrator, by outlining the difficult conditions of the poor and the ways in which this squalor caused them suffering. He goes to great lengths to describe the terrible conditions of the poor and to appeal to the reader’s sense of sympathy and kind-heartedness. The reader is wholly unprepared for what the proposer says next: using sound economic principles of the time, he makes the case that the poor, starving children of those in poverty should be fattened up and then sold to wealthy landowners as food.

The proposer elaborates, declaring that the children could be sold to a meat market as early as age one, the age at which they are likely to be most delicious, and the proposer then listing all the ways that children could 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.

The proposer offers statistical 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 all kinds of ways that children can be served, and that it will inspire greater family wellbeing. Husbands will respect their wives more, and the family unit will function more peacefully overall.

He is sure that this solution will do far more than any other proposal to stabilize the economy and solve the economic problems of the working poor. It will solve Ireland’s complex political and social problems as well.

It is clear that Swift never intended for the proposal to be taken seriously. Rather, he uses several “traps” to cause the reader to sympathize and identify with the Irish poor and, by the same token, to despise the proposer. At the time that Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, the prevailing attitude towards 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 the poor were thinly veiled attempts at improving the situation of the person proposing the idea.

Swift uses his satire to deride those who viewed people merely as a commodity. He even uses animal imagery to dehumanize the Irish and lend credence to his wild proposal that people should serve as food.

He makes use of the accepted form of argument popular during his time to lay out all the necessary reasons that this idea would work. The reader is meant to view this through a critical lens, and to wonder what circumstances would drive a man who seems so rational and dispassionate to such a grotesque idea.

Swift builds his argument using a technique called apophasis, a rhetorical 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, reducing the population to little more than commodity. The population boom in Ireland, however, disproved the idea that a larger population automatically meant more wealth. In fact, mercantilism presented a paradox: the wealth of the few depended on the poverty of the majority.

The morality and ethics presented in the proposal are all the more clear because Swift’s proposer isn’t clear about what’s so wrong with eating babies. His cold and calculated presentation forces the reader to figure out the source of his or her own discomfort. The proposer equates this economic utility with something so heartless that it forces wealthy readers to take action.

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 ruling class, but was often disgusted by British policies intended to take advantage of the labor of the working poor without returning any of the benefit. Had he addressed these social theories directly, it’s likely that no one would have listened.

Although the pamphlet did not cause the sweeping reform Swift intended, 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.