A Modest Proposal and Other Satires

A Modest Proposal and Other Satires Study Guide

A Modest Proposal and Other Satires is a collection of satirical works of political, social, and religious commentary by Jonathan Swift. The most famous of his essays—perhaps the most famous essay of satire in the English language—is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents of Country; and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.” This essay was published anonymously in 1729, a year in which Ireland suffered from poverty and famine. “A Modest Proposal” suggests, as a method for dealing with the destitution, that the Irish eat their babies.

Swift, of course, was not serious. His essay exposed the prejudice against the Irish poor by taking that prejudice to an extreme with a shocking suggestion. Swift also intended to lampoon a series of proposals that were being published at the time about solving Ireland’s economic problems, although many of them were unfeasible and unhelpful. By asserting, like these other pamphlets, to have a cure-all solution, Swift exposed the naiveté of such a view. “A Modest Proposal” was also satirizing the new trend in political thought that applied scientific innovations to political questions. Many British thinkers of the day, including economist Sir William Petty (1623-1687), believed that simple mathematics was all it took to solve society’s ills. Swift intended to mock this idea with “A Modest Proposal,” suggesting that it isn’t merely numbers, but people’s lives that are at stake in political and social decisions.

This collection also contains other satirical works, mostly surrounding religious themes. A Tale of a Tub was published in 1704 and contributed to the Church of England’s displeasure with Swift. The tale mocked the three main branches of Western Christianity, using a character to represent each branch, and generally mocked religious fervor and pride. “The Battle of the Books” was written as a companion to Tale of a Tub, and it takes place at the King’s Library, which contained the British Royal Collection. In the battle, the books form two sides, the Ancients and the Moderns, and they literally fight one another in the library. “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity” was written around 1708 in response to attempts to repeal the Test Act of 1673, which required that individuals wishing to hold public positions take Communion with the Church of England. The Whigs wished to repeal this act, but Swift did not. “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity” exposes the dangers facing the Church from the arguments of Freethinkers.

“A True and Faithful Narrative of what passed in London during the General Consternation of All Ranks and Degrees of Mankind, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday Last” (1732) is likewise a parody of religious excess. “A True and Faithful Narrative” describes the lengths to which individuals go when they believe that a comet is about to strike, only to revert to their usual licentious behavior when this cataclysm does not occur. “A Meditation upon a Broomstick” (1710) was written in response to Robert Boyle’s Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects of 1655. Swift parodied Boyle--and so many others who met Swift's biting wit--for his writing style and Puritan beliefs.