Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: Summary & Analysis

Patricia has an MFA in Writing, an MS in Teaching and English Language Arts, and a BA in English.
Cite this lesson
In this lesson, you will learn what Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is about, what it means within the context of the British exploitation of Ireland and the prevailing political perceptions of the time.
Summary of ‘A Modest Proposal’
‘A Modest Proposal,’ written by Jonathan Swift in 1729, begins by deploring the sad fate of the poverty-stricken Irish who have to spend all their time trying to feed their large families. As a solution to the poverty in which these families are forced to live, by virtue of having so many mouths to feed, Swift suggests that these poor Irish families should fatten up their children and sell them to the rich English land owners.
He argues that children could be sold into a meat market as early as the age of one, giving poor families some much needed income, while sparing them the expenses of raising so many children. With 100,000 Irish children out of the population being set aside for dinner, his solution, he reasons, will also help to resolve the issues of overpopulation and unemployment in Ireland, giving the Irish economy a much needed boost, while making it easier for England to deal with its unruly Irish subjects.
Swift then goes on to offer statistical support for his proposal and specific data about the number of children to be sold, their weight and price, and the projected eating patterns of their consumers. He even suggests some recipes for preparing this delicious new meat, reasoning that, with innovative cooks generating ever more and delicious new dishes, it will expand and improve the culinary experience of the wealthy, resulting in a healthier and happier population as a whole.
‘A Modest Proposal’ ends with the argument that the practice of selling and eating children will have positive effects on Irish family morality: husbands will treat their wives with more respect, and parents will value their children in ways as yet unknown. His proposal, he argues, will, if implemented, do more to solve Ireland’s complex social, political and economic problems than any other measure that has yet been proposed.
Analysis of ‘A Modest Proposal’
‘A Modest Proposal’ uses an approach called satire to make its point, which is the use of irony, humor or exaggeration to criticize the ideas of others. Swift obviously doesn’t sincerely want the people of Ireland to sell their children as food, but he’s using the outrageous concept to deliver a message.
With ‘A Modest Proposal,’ Swift makes fun of similar pamphlets that were being circulated at the time. His word choice throughout the piece, including the word ‘modest’ in the title, highlights this by mocking the false modesty in the tone of many of the pamphlets of his contemporaries. Their style may have seemed reasonable, but their proposals displayed an arrogance only too common among the British ruling class toward their Irish subjects.
In his proposal, Swift vents his growing aggravation at the incompetence of Ireland’s politicians, the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the tyranny of the English and the squalor and degradation in which he saw so many Irish people living. But, while ‘A Modest Proposal’ bemoans the bleak situation of an Ireland almost totally subject to England’s exploitation, it also expresses Swift’s contempt for the Irish people’s seeming inability to stand up for themselves. It is not only the English, but the Irish themselves, he declares, who are responsible for their nation’s poverty-stricken state.
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