“A Modest Proposal” begins with an account of the impoverished state of many in Ireland. The writer expresses sympathy and the need for a solution. This proposal hopefully will decrease the number of abortions performed by poor mothers. The writer calculates the number of infants born in Ireland and asks what should be done with them. He points out that they are unfit for any employment, being even too young to steal. Neither will merchants buy or sell children. Therefore, it seems like a good idea that the people of Ireland simply eat the infants when they reach the age of one year.
The writer treats the weight of an infant, what kind of dish it will make, and how many people it will serve. He surmises the times of year when the infants will be most plentiful, based on the purported sexual patterns of the Irish. There might also be uses for the discarded skin of the infants, such as for ladies’ gloves.
A friend of the narrator’s, “a very worthy person,” has already heard the proposal and suggested that children of fourteen, too, be a potential food. The writer has dismissed this idea, though, because the flesh of fourteen-year-old boys is too lean, and fourteen-year-old girls might soon become breeders of infants themselves. He defends his friend, nevertheless, by saying that the friend learned of this practice in Asia among certain savage peoples. This digression continues with the observation that he is unconcerned about those adults who are ill, disabled, or starving, because there is nothing he can do for them.
He returns to the chief proposal and lists six reasons why it should be adopted. First, it will decrease the number of dangerous Catholics. Second, it will give the poor some property. Third, it will increase the nation’s overall wealth, since people will not have to pay for the upkeep of the children. Fourth, the mothers will be free of the burden of bringing up children. Fifth, the new food will be welcomed in taverns and culinary circles. Sixth, it will enhance the institution of marriage as women take better care of their infants so that they may be sold, and men will take better care of their wives so that their wives can make more babies to sell.
Swift then raises a potential objection to his proposal: that it will deplete Ireland’s population. Swift responds by saying that this is the point. He says that this proposal will in no way encumber England, as the infants will not be able to be exported, as their flesh is not easily preserved for later consumption. He is not willing to entertain any other arguments for solving the problem, like virtue and thrift.
Swift concludes by saying first that he would welcome any other suggestions anyone may have on this question, then assuring the reader that he has no personal economic stake in this idea because he has no children and therefore could not profit by selling them to be eaten.
If you do not realize that this proposal is satirical, you have no sense of humor or irony. It is impossible to imagine a serious proposal for eating children. Yet, it is not enough simply to indulge one’s outrage over the argument or to smile at the jokes. Is Swift just having fun, or does he have something serious to say?
Stereotypes against Irish Catholics make it easier for Swift to use them as the subject of his satire. The stereotypes are present in both the reasons for the proposal and the language used. The narrator’s argument that something must be done with infants because they are too young to steal implies that this is a common employment of Irish Catholics, even while it is humorous apart from the stereotype. The overall idea of overpopulation comes from the stereotype that Catholics tend to have a lot of children. The first reason Swift’s narrator gives for adopting his proposal—that it will lessen the number of Catholics—is perhaps the best example of satire of religious prejudice in the piece. Furthermore, he uses the word “papists” in the offensive sense of anti-Catholic rejection of the Pope. In Protestant England, many people might share the stereotypes but would never go so far as the speaker suggests about eating children.
The theme of prejudice against the lower classes is revealed in suggestions such as the idea that the carcasses of the poor children could be used for clothing, women’s gloves. Swift suggests, with this extreme example, as well as his declaration that the landlords have already “devoured” the poor infants’ parents, that the rich live at the expense of the poor. By referring next to another figure, “a very worthy person” (who is meant to represent a member of the upper, learned classes), Swift furthers his satire of the upper classes by implying that there are people so disconnected from the lower classes that they might agree with this outlandish proposal.
Swift’s aim, however, was not merely to expose England’s biased view of Ireland or to illuminate general English arrogance towards other peoples, although the latter aim is achieved. The narrator’s statement that an “American” told him that children are “delicious” parodies the idea that the Americans, like the Irish, were considered to be a barbaric people in need of instruction from the English. So, too, does the reference to the island of Formosa evoke a kind of English cultural arrogance. All people who could be classified as “other” are potentially dangerous to the English, needing to be tamed.
“A Modest Proposal” is also literary commentary. Swift intended to parody similar pamphlets that were being circulated at the time. His diction throughout the piece, including the word modest in the title, highlights this effect. Of course, one’s proposals are modest and offered “humbly.” With word choice like this, Swift is mocking the false modesty in the tone of many of the pamphlets of his contemporaries; their style may have professed deference, but their proposals displayed audacity.
Swift finally gets down to some real arguments when the narrator lists all the arguments that he will not give any time to. If eating the children were off the table, the people would have to turn to realistic arguments like these, such as the encouragement of virtue and thrift.
“A Modest Proposal” is accurately called one of the most effective satires in the English language. There are a few key moments of satirical success that should be mentioned. Swift’s decision to put off the actual suggestion of eating babies until several paragraphs into the piece makes his idea all the more arresting when it does come. Also, naming population decrease as the one potential objection to his proposal, Swift heightens the irony of an already ironic piece. The reader is expecting this objection to be that it is morally wrong to kill babies, but Swift subverts our expectations once again, suggesting that there are people so cold to reality that they could be swayed by merely practical economic arguments and cannot even see the outrage of cannibalism.
Finally, when the writer reassures the reader that he has nothing to gain economically from his proposal, for he has no children, Swift is playing on the common protestation of writers that their political and social proposals are made altruistically for the good of society and should therefore be believed to be all the more sincere. If the writer did have children and lived in Ireland, it would be consistent to eat them or sell them.
Swift, by 1729, was quite late in his career, being already over 60 years old. If his more careful, complex, difficult satires had not been sufficiently understood and appreciated, it was time to bang the people over the head with a satire that they could recognize and which would renew interest in his other works. Although Gulliver’s Travels was fresh in people’s minds, it was already 25 years after A Tale of a Tub. Anyone who becomes intrigued by Jonathan Swift after reading “A Modest Proposal” should go on to the works that are worthy of a more sophisticated critic.