Satire and Significance in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

Tamsen Conner '06, English 171,Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, Autumn 2003

Jonathan Swift's masterful satire, "A Modest Proposal," [mockingly!] proposes to solve the devastating poverty in Ireland by selling poor children as food for wealthy families. Swift goes on to explain how this would solve all of Ireland's problems from domestic abuse to poverty. Swift 's Projector explains his proposal in depth, in many ways treating these children as nothing more than a new type of livestock. Towards the end, however, Swift lists numerous reforms that could help the country. This list makes a change in tone. However, these reforms differ from Swift's "modest proposal" because instead of the poor sacrificing their children, it would involve the rich sacrificing some of their luxuries.

I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and 'twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor household furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.


1. Overall how successful is Swift's piece? At this point when Swift mentions real reforms that could help Ireland, has the satire become overpowering in the piece or does it strengthen this moment? Is the reader desensitized to the essay by this point? Does this moment have the impact it should?

2. Obviously much of Swift's piece is satire, yet, how should lines referring to Catholics and Jews be interrupted? Does the border of satire reach so far as to include these comments or are they real prejudices coming through in the essay?

3. Swift's social politics seem to come through fairly clearly here, placing much of the blame for the state of the nation on the greed of the wealthy; however do you think that it is as simple as that for Swift?

Website Overview Screen Before Victoria Jonathan Swift Reading Questions [Neoclassicism]

Last modified 9 February 2005