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50 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Swift

A Modest Proposal

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1729

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Important Quotes

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“There only remain 120,000 children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, how this number shall be reared and provided for? which as I have already said under the present situation of affairs is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land; they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing, till they arrive at six years old, except where they are of towardly parts.” 


(Page 53)

Even before the narrator reveals the horrific extent of his proposal, he signals his view that children are little more than commodities measured by the value they add to or subtract from the market. This is consistent with pervasive attitudes held by numerous elites at the time of Swift’s writing. Given that the essay has yet to give itself over to hyperbole, the quote serves to prepare the reader for what seems to be a fairly mainstream economic tract.

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“I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above 3l. or 3l. 2s. 6d. at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.” 


(Page 53)

Like the previous quote, this statement comes before Swift’s hyperbolic pivot. Therefore, it can be seen as expressing a sentiment and tone that is consistent with the pamphlets the author seeks to parody. For example, the quote puts forth the same view of people as commodities that prevailed at the time. Furthermore, it engages in the technique of political arithmetic popularized by William Petty.

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“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.” 


(Page 53)

In the most famous line of the essay, Swift makes a sharp pivot toward hyperbolic satire. The shocking nature of the quote operates on two levels. One, the imagery of roasting and boiling babies is on its own astonishing.

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