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.
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 becomes a character in the intricate interplay of realism and fable, irony and satire. A Modest Proposal therefore combines Swift’s outrage at the cruelties and stupidities of society with satirical rhetoric and his skill at creating fiction.
The proposer begins the tract by bemoaning the state of the poor in Ireland. Mothers begging for alms, with a crowd of children in their arms, are a common sight. The vast majority of the population is poor, with little useful employment. Poverty drives the youths of Ireland into crime, slavery, or the armies of the deposed Stuart kings in Spain. The proposer has an advantageous solution, to which he cannot imagine a single objection. Up to this point, the proposer has shown himself to be a reasonable if somewhat pedantic thinker, armed with a host of statistics about demography and economics in Ireland. Certainly his critique reflects no credit on the Whig government in London, which Swift, a High Church Tory in religion and politics, despised. The English colonial rule of absentee landlords, vast plantations, and enforced settlements is discredited.
Following immediately upon these trenchant observations comes the solution: 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.
To be exact, the modest proposal is that of the 120,000 infants computed to be born every year in Ireland, 100,000 would be sold to the wealthy to be consumed at table, 20,000 children being reserved for breeding. The proposer calculates that a plump infant of 30 pounds would provide food for many dinners and, preserved with pepper or salt, will last well into winter. The price of each child is estimated to be about ten shillings (about one thousand modern U.S. dollars), providing about eight shillings of profit to the parents. In addition, the skin of the child would make fine gloves for wealthy ladies and summer boots for wealthy gentlemen. However, the proposer rejects the idea of converting adolescents to food, as their flesh is likely to be tough and lean.
The proposer supports his suggestions with a mass of coldly delivered statistics, demographic data, and calculations, as if writing one of the then-popular tracts on mercantilism or trade with the colonies. He pedantically weighs the pros and cons of his proposal, as he would any political argument. He lists six weighty and obvious advantages. First, his proposal would reduce the number of Catholics in Ireland, the traditional enemy of the Protestant settlers. Second, it would give farmers the means to pay their absentee landlords, since their agricultural products and livestock had already been seized under the English tenancy system. Third, it would increase the domestic revenue of Ireland, with no money being sent abroad.
Fourth, the parents—“breeders” as they are called in the tract—would not only receive a generous income, but would also be relieved of the expense of raising their children. Fifth, this new variety of cuisine would produce fine recipes for culinary gentlemen and their dining establishments. Finally, the possibility of selling one’s children would be an inducement to enter into the vital institution of marriage, as parents would better care for their children (and husbands for their pregnant wives) given the happy profits that could be expected from well-nourished infants.
Once he has listed these benefits, the proposer answers the one possible objection that he incredulously predicts one might raise to his scheme. It is true, he says, that this proposal would greatly reduce the population of Ireland, but this very reduction of population would be beneficial, as there is no hope of more humane measures being taken to alleviate Irish misery, such as taxing absentee landlords, replacing profligacy with industry, or cultivating a spirit of mercy from landlords toward their tenants. Finally, the proposer vouches for his own disinterest and lack of self-motivation in his proposal, as his own children are all grown and his wife past child-bearing age. (Swift himself was a lifelong bachelor.)
A Modest Proposal is a devastating critique on many levels. The most obvious object of the satire is the impoverished condition of the Irish, blamed on the oppressive plantation system by which the labor of farmers was exploited by grasping landlords. A Modest Proposal can be seen as an early warning about the distorted economic system that would produce the ruinous potato famine of the 1840’s. The miseries of the Irish were of long standing, but Swift’s critique went right to the heart of the enlightened Whiggery then reigning in London. Indeed, the character of the proposer is a caricature of the modern theorist, stuffed full of economics, statistics, and arithmetic, but blind to fundamental human values. In this manner the proposer resembles the “projectors” of the island of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels, whose new designs for constructing a mill leave the thitherto prosperous countryside in shambles.
Swift’s critique goes beyond the miserable conditions of Ireland or the vapid theories of modernism. In a terse manner, it touches on many of the vices of the human condition. Targets of this satire include the cruelty of parents and governments that value children as commodities; voluntary abortions and infanticide, which are equated with each other and equally abhorred; eugenics or euthanasia as solutions to human want; the greed of merchants and the indolence of the poor; and even colonialism (at the time, all of Ireland was governed from London as part of the United Kingdom). Generosity, decency, and tenderness are scorned, and the metaphoric cannibalism of modern society, in which neighbor preys upon neighbor, is vividly suggested by being made literal.
In Swift’s other great satirical essay, Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708; originally titled An Argument to Prove That the Abolishing of Christianity in England May, as Things Now Stand, Be Attended with Some Inconveniences, and Perhaps Not Produce Those Many Good Effects Proposed Thereby), Swift portrays a parliamentary act removing burdens on religious dissenters as an attack on religion, prompting a savage satire on human unbelief. The authorial voice of that essay is a modern thinker, who ironically proposes a nominal and hypocritical Christianity as the solution for England. Likewise, in A Modest Proposal, Swift leaps from the sorry conditions of Ireland into a savage attack on human indifference and cruelty, writing in the assumed voice of a modern theorist who ironically proposes death to improve life.
A Modest Proposal has become one of the most imitated and cited of all satirical essays to this day. Unfortunately, thousands of writers title their straightforward ideas “modest proposals,” without any apparent irony, indicating a lack of knowledge of the irony inherent in Swift’s title. Even more unfortunate, writers such as Garett Hardin in his influential essay on population “Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) refer to parents as “breeders,” following Swift but without Swift’s irony. On the other hand, some members of the gay rights movement have also appropriated the term, irony and all, to refer to heterosexuals.
The cold rationality of modern theoreticians is implied in Swift’s essay. The essay is also a warning against modernity’s potential for genocide that may be seen to foreshadow a host of events, from the Irish massacres of Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century to the horrors committed during the Holocaust in the twentieth century. It may not be too much of a leap to see the modest proposal as hinting at the eugenics movements, murderous purges, Five-year Plans, Final Solution, Great Leap Forward, and Killing Fields of modern times. As a cry to succor the Irish, this essay earned Swift the title of patriot. As a stylistically masterful satire on the propensity of modern human “cannibalism”—the murder of some humans in the name of bettering the lives of others—it ensures Swift’s reputation as a perennially significant author.
Swift's persona, whose views are the opposite of Swift himself, falsely believes himself to be a reasonable person. He believes it is perfectly rational, and even kind, to suggest fattening and selling the babies of the poor for the rich to eat. The word "modest" as a way to describe this proposal shows that this utterly clueless narrator thinks his idea is reasonable. The word "modest" means unassuming. It means ordinary, as a modest home...
Swift's persona, whose views are the opposite of Swift himself, falsely believes himself to be a reasonable person. He believes it is perfectly rational, and even kind, to suggest fattening and selling the babies of the poor for the rich to eat. The word "modest" as a way to describe this proposal shows that this utterly clueless narrator thinks his idea is reasonable. The word "modest" means unassuming. It means ordinary, as a modest home could be described as very ordinary; however, this proposal is anything but ordinary.
The narrator also focuses closely on the nitty-gritty of such "rational" parts of his proposals as a careful calculation of the profitability of raising a baby for a year to be sold as food and showing how much "return" a poor mother would get on the investment. He talks about the benefits of the "commerce" in babies to such things as Ireland's balance of trade. By emphasizing these economic benefits, he completely loses sight of the moral depravity of what he is suggesting.
Through this narrator, Swift is arguing that viewing humans only in economic terms is dehumanizing. Humans are more than economic units and deserve genuine compassion that isn't based on profit and loss.