Satire as a Means of Societal Change in "A Modest Proposal"

J.D. Nasaw '08, English 171,Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, Autumn 2003

Is the best place for the overflow of poor children really the dark pit of our stomachs? Yes, argues the speaker in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," but less for want of food than for the sake of effective and engaging argument. Paradoxically, Swift forces his audience to recognize the seriousness of their societal problems by proposing an absurd solution. Swift's narrator, a projector predisposed to viewing the world economically, routinely dehumanizes children into commodities, prices them out, and then proposes graphic ways of devouring them.

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or the kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value. I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust. [p. 2]


1. Although his argument is often compelling, why does Swift present an absurd and immoral solution that is not likely to be instituted?

2. Does Swift put too much faith in his audience to be moved to action by satire? Is satire an effective means of societal change?

3. In this passage and elsewhere, Swift's narrator claims that there should be no objection to his proposal. Why? What is the effect of this claim?

4. Why does Swift separate himself from the narrator at the end of the story? How would his audience view the proposal differently if he had not done so?


Swift, Jonathan. "A Modest Proposal." Accessed 8 Feb. 2005. Last updated 27 Dec. 2004.

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