Michael J. Cummings...©
and Enlarged in 2009
Modest Proposal" is an essay that uses satire to make its point. A satire
is a literary work that attacks or pokes fun at vices,
abuses, stupidity, and/or any other fault or imperfection. Satire may make
the reader laugh at, or feel disgust for, the person or thing satirized.
Impishly or sardonically, it criticizes someone or something, using wit
and clever wording—and
sometimes makes outrageous assertions or claims. The main purpose of a
satire is to spur readers to remedy the problem under discussion. The main
weapon of the satirist is verbal irony, a figure of speech in which words
are used to ridicule a person or thing by conveying a meaning that is the
opposite of what the words say.
essay was originally printed in the form of a pamphlet. At the time of
its publication, 1729, a pamphlet was a short work that took a stand on
a political, religious, or social issue—or
any other issue of public interest. A typical pamphlet had no binding,
although it sometimes had a paper cover. Writers of pamphlets, called pamphleteers,
played a significant role in inflaming or resolving many of the great controversies
in Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, as well as in the political
debate leading up to the American Revolution.
addition to “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift wrote many political pamphlets
supporting the causes of the Tory political party after he renounced his
allegiance to the Whig party.
Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” to call attention to abuses inflicted on
Irish Catholics by well-to-do English Protestants. Swift himself was a
Protestant, but he was also a native of Ireland, having been born in Dublin
of English parents. He believed England was exploiting and oppressing Ireland.
Irishmen worked farms owned by Englishmen who charged high rents—so
high that the Irish were frequently unable to pay them. Consequently, many
Irish farming families continually
lived on the edge of starvation.
“A Modest Proposal,” Swift satirizes the English landlords with outrageous
humor, proposing that Irish infants be sold as food at age one, when they
are plump and healthy, to give the Irish a new source of income and the
English a new food product to bolster their economy and eliminate a social
problem. He says his proposal, if adopted, would also result in a reduction
in the number of Catholics in Ireland, since most Irish infants—almost
all of whom were baptized Catholic—would
end up in stews and other dishes instead of growing up to go to Catholic
churches. Here, he is satirizing the prejudice of Protestants toward Catholics.
also satirizes the Irish themselves in his essay, for too many of them
had accepted abuse stoically rather than taking action on their own behalf.
the centuries, England gradually gained a foothold in Ireland. In 1541,
the parliament in Dublin recognized England’s Henry VIII, a Protestant,
as King of Ireland. In spite of repeated uprisings by Irish Catholics,
English Protestants acquired more and more estates in Ireland. By 1703,
they owned all but ten percent of the land. Meanwhile, legislation was
enacted that severely limited the rights of the Irish to hold government
office, purchase real estate, get an education, and advance themselves
in other ways. As a result, many Irish fled to foreign lands, including
America. Most of those who remained in Ireland lived in poverty, facing
disease, starvation, and prejudice. It was this Ireland—an
Ireland of the tyrannized and the downtrodden—that
Jonathan Swift attempted to focus attention on in “A Modest Proposal” in
Note: In "A Modest Proposal," Swift assumes the persona of a statistician.
The following summary of the essay greatly condenses the original wording.
so many Irish parents cannot find decent jobs to support their children,
they spend all their time walking the streets to beg alms of passersby.
Meanwhile, the children grow up to become thieves or emigrants.
situation presents a serious problem for Britain, especially since there
are so many Irish children. Each year, several hundred thousand babies
are born to Irish parents. If you subtract those who are born to well-to-do
parents, those who are stillborn, and those who die after birth as a result
of disease or accident, you are still left with about 120,000 babies who
have to be supported by poor parents.
course, a mother can feed her child for one year with breast milk. But
after that, she must beg food for the child. However, I [the writer of
the essay] have a modest proposal to solve this problem. Here it is:
have been told by a knowledgeable American that a year-old-infant is a
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."
I suggest that of the 120,000 new infants of poor parents, 20,000 be reserved
for breeding and the rest be sold to people of quality.
child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the
family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish,
and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on
the fourth day, especially in winter . . . .”
only will my plan provide excellent food and relieve the burden on Irish
parents and Great Britain as a whole, it will also reduce the number of
Roman Catholics, since it is the Roman Catholics who have the most children.
In addition, my plan will have the following advantages:
who serve fat children at their tables will be popular with their customers.
mother of a sold child will pocket a handsome profit and be free to work
until she has another baby.
skin from babies can be used to make gloves for women and boots for men.
will take excellent care of their newly born infants, for they will want
their babies to be plump and healthy when it comes time to sell them.
would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy,
as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sows when
they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent
a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.”
young, tender children would be sold. Older boys, with years of exercise
that develops their muscles, would be too tough to eat. Older girls would
be so close to childbearing age that it would be best to let them breed.
extremely important part of my proposal is that it would eliminate the
need to raise taxes to support the poor, thereby enabling the rich to continue
to enjoy all their luxuries. In addition, English landlords would not have
to show mercy to their Irish tenants. In turn, the Irish tenants would
have enough money to pay their high rents, thanks to the sale of their
must point out that I am not proposing this plan for personal benefit,
inasmuch as I have only one child—age
nine and thus too old to sell—and
my wife is too old to have another baby.
complete title of "A Modest Proposal" is "A Modest Proposal for preventing
the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents
or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick."
"A Modest Proposal," Swift uses a standard essay format: an opening that
presents the topic and thesis (the "modest proposal"), a body that develops
the thesis with details, and a conclusion. In the opening, the author states
the problem: the deplorable economic and social conditions that impoverish
the Irish and prevent them from providing adequate care for their children.
Before presenting the thesis, he inserts the following transitional sentence:
"I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will
not be liable to the least objection." He follows this sentence with the
thesis, then presents the details in the body of the essay. In the conclusion,
he states the benefits that would accrue from his proposal. He begins with
the following two sentences: "I have too long digressed, and therefore
shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the proposal which
I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance."
He next lists the advantages, using transitional words such as secondly
and thirdly to move from one point to the next." He ends the conclusion
by explaining why his proposal is superior to other remedies. Keep in mind
that throughout the body and conclusion Swift makes his argument with irony,
stating the opposite of what he really means. For more about Swift's use
of irony, see "Irony," below.
dominant figure of speech in "A Modest Proposal" is verbal irony, in which
a writer or speaker says the opposite of what he means. Swift's masterly
use of this device makes his main argument—that the Irish deserve better
treatment from the English—powerful and dreadfully amusing. For example,
to point out that the Irish should not be treated like animals, Swift compares
them to animals, as in this example: "I rather recommend buying the children
alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs." Also,
to point out that disease, famine, and substandard living conditions threaten
to kill great numbers of Irish, Swift cheers their predicament as a positive
Some persons of
a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor
people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed, and I have been desired to employ
my thoughts what course may be taken to ease the nation of so grievous
an encumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because
it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold
and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected.
And as to the young laborers, they are now in as hopeful a condition; they
cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment, to
a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor,
they have not strength to perform it; and thus the country and themselves
are happily delivered from the evils to come.
Easternmost West Indies island, settled by the British in 1627. When Swift
published "A Modest Proposal" in 1729, the island's plantation owners used
slaves to produce sugar for European consumption.
Dublin: The Irish
city mentioned in "A Modest Proposal." It is the capital of Ireland.
Flay: Remove skin.
name for Taiwan, a Chinese-inhabited island off the southeast coast of
Papist: Roman Catholic.
Francis Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of King James II, who ruled England,
Ireland, and Scotland from 1685 to 1688. James II was a Catholic, as was
his wife, Mary of Modena. After his accession to power, Protestant factions
continually maneuvered against him in the background. When Mary became
pregnant, these factions worried that the birth of her child would establish
a line of Catholic kings. Consequently, they plotted to oust James II and
replace him with Dutchman William of Orange, whose mother was the daughter
of an English king, Charles I, and whose wife was one of James II's own
daughters. When William marched against England, many Protestants in James
II's army deserted to William, and James had no choice but to flee to France.
After he died in 1701, the French king then proclaimed James II's young
son, James Francis Edward Stuart, to be the rightful king of England. The
English Parliament then enacted laws designed to prevent seating another
Catholic king. Nevertheless, in succeeding years, James Francis repeatedly
attempted to regain the throne, and the British eventually nicknamed him
the Old Pretender.
French forger and impostor who traveled widely under different personas.
In one of his most famous schemes, he pretended to be from Formosa (present-day
Taiwan), of which little was known in the Europe of his time. In London,
he published a book about Formosa in which he wrote that Formosan law permitted
a husband to eat a wife if she committed adultery. Psalmanazar had never
visited Formosa; the whole book was made up. Nevertheless, many Englishmen
believed what he had written.
of the Downtrodden
Swift’s audacious satire is a serious theme: that English overlords are
shamelessly exploiting and oppressing the impoverished people of Ireland
through unfair laws, high rents charged by absentee landlords, and other
the time of the publication of "A Modest Proposal," many British Protestants
disdained Roman Catholics--especially Irish Catholics--and enacted laws
limiting their ability to thrive and prosper.
Swift's satirical language
also chides the Irish themselves for not acting with firm resolve to improve
Swift was born on November 30, 1667, in Dublin, Ireland. His father—an
Englishman who had moved to Ireland—died
earlier that year. Receiving financial assistance from relatives, Swift
attended a good school for his basic education and graduated from Trinity
College in Dublin in 1686. He lived off and on in England, became an Anglican
clergyman, and eventually was appointed dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral
in Dublin, although he had lobbied for a position in England. His writing—especially
him one of the most prominent citizens in Great Britain, and he worked
for a time on behalf of Tory causes. His most famous work is Gulliver's
Travels, a book of satire on politics and society in general. Swift
died in Dublin on October 19, 1745. Click
here for additional information.
Study Questions and Essay
Write a satircal essay that
focuses on an issue in your community, your state, or your country.
How would you describe the tone
of "A Modest Proposal?"
To what extent (or ways) was
British exploitation of Irish labor an outgrowth of an economic policy
known as mercantilism?
What historical developments
caused the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Great Britain
of the 1700s?
The language of "A Modest Proposal"
is specific and succinct. It is also playfully shocking, as demonstrated
in the following paragraph in which Swift uses carcasses (remains of
dead animals dressed by butchers) to refer to the remains of children prepared
as meat: "Supposing that one thousand families in this city, would be constant
customers for Infant's Flesh, besides others who might have it at merry
meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, I compute that Dublin
would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses, and the
rest of the Kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper)
the remaining eighty thousand."
Find other passages in the story
in which Swift's words seemed designed to shock or amuse the reader.