A Modest Proposal | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Course Hero. "A Modest Proposal Study Guide." October 16, 2017. Accessed August 10, 2022. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Modest-Proposal/.


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A Modest Proposal | Quotes


It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms.


Though the title had been quite explicit about Swift's subject matter, this line introduces it again, appealing to the reader's compassion and senses. Swift here paints a vivid picture of the streets of Dublin, full of beggars. The image is pitiful and moving.

It also suggests a kind of dramatic irony: Swift will discuss something to make these beggars' lives better. He does, but not in the way readers might expect.


Leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.


Much of his first paragraph emphasizes compassion. Swift tries to motivate people to act through appealing to their hearts. However, Swift closes this paragraph by enlisting several other motives. First, the reference to "dear native country" appeals to patriotism and a sense of losing Irish citizens. The idea of them going to fight for "the Pretender" appeals to a different motivation: political self-interest in the preservation of Protestant rule. In 1688 William of Orange deposed James II in the Glorious Revolution. The "Pretender" referred to is James II's son, who in the following years rallied Catholic forces in attempts to take the throne. Swift is suggesting letting the Irish get so desperate may fuel another religion-based war. The reference to the Barbados Islands is a commentary on the fact many Irish who could not feed themselves were immigrating to the New World.


I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.


This single long sentence is the entire second paragraph. In it, Swift establishes common ground with his reader, claiming everyone in Ireland agrees having so many poor beggars in the country is a serious problem. He then follows it with a statement that works like an if/then statement in logic: If anyone could come up with a solution, then that person would be a national hero.

This line also introduces some of Swift's satirical tools, as well as dramatic irony. In claiming the solution he'll propose is "fair, cheap and easy," he emphasizes the pragmatic aspects of proposal over the ethical aspects. It is also deeply satirical to suggest a nation erect a statue to someone who suggests citizens of the country eat one another, because cannibalism is so completely rejected by civilized nations.


I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.


This line is a fine example of situational irony and rhetorical positioning. Readers who take this line literally might expect Swift to actually offer a humble idea. However, the second phrase, claiming no one will object to it, signals the irony of the situation, and of the proposal to follow. Many people, including Swift, had attempted to solve the problem of English-Irish relations. None of the solutions were successful. There was also considerable active debate about what to do. Swift made several proposals. All were rejected. To claim no one would object is a great reversal of the current situation, a kind of ironic hyperbole.


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 boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.


Firstly, the reference to "a very knowing American" serves two purposes. North America was the site of European colonies. Europeans considered it a savage and unknown place. European readers of the time would readily believe just about anything of America, so by referencing an American, Swift is suggesting people already eat children elsewhere, and readers should believe him because it is common there.

The list of options of how one might serve a dead child has its own separate functions. By adding specifics, Swift makes his proposal more fully real. No reader could treat this abstractly when given this many specific examples.


I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.


One of the things keeping the Irish so poor was their relationship to land ownership. Most Irish farmers did not own the land they worked, but instead were tenants to landlords. Many of these landlords were English, and they lived far from their land. As a result, they did not have to face the results of their policies. Irish farmers gained almost no profit from their labor: they sold almost all their annual crop to pay the rent. This is what Swift means by the phrase "have already devoured most of the parents." He is satirically extending a very real situation, essentially asking the landlords, "You already eat most of their labor, so why not eat their children, too?"


I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, laborers, and four-fifths of the farmers).


This line goes on, and Swift provides the numbers for how much it costs to raise a beggar child. What's more important for his argument is the line buried in this parenthetical aside. Cottagers were rural laborers who lived in cottages while they worked the farms. Because Ireland was overwhelmingly agricultural, this tally says almost all the Irish are so poor they should be considered beggars. Because contemporary attitudes tended to blame the poor for their own plight, this works as an implied counterargument: surely not everyone could deserve this level of suffering.


A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme.


Referring to outside sources is a common way of building rhetorical authority. The writer does not have to rely on readers just trusting him, but can enlist the ethos (personal or character-based authority) of other people as well. In addition, Swift invites readers to join him in common logical fallacies, such as the bandwagon fallacy. Because other good people already support this idea, readers should, too. Finally, the idea other people are suggesting modifications of his proposal suggests it is not a new idea. It is an established idea. This adds more authority to Swift's proposal.


But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago.


This passage serves several purposes. First, it extends the chain of association: it isn't just Swift who considers cannibalism, or his friend. His friend got the idea from another person, a famous writer of the period named George Psalmanazar. Psalmanazar claimed to be from Formosa (the island now called Taiwan) and claimed Formosans ate their meat raw (and did so himself), and were cannibals. He became a celebrity—and he was a complete fake. He was a European who was pretending to be Chinese, and went so far as to publish a fictionalized account of his travels in 1704.

Many people believed him—and since there was no television or easy travel to the region, they had more reason to—but others challenged him and called him out as a phony. Readers who remembered this figure should have alarm bells ringing: Swift is signaling he is faking.


For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of Papists.


Swift was a member of the Anglican clergy. His parents were Protestant. Swift lived through Britain's official return to Protestantism, with the conquest of William of Orange and the ouster of the Catholic James II. There was a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain. Swift is appealing to it, commenting on it, and playing off it. He is suggesting the choice to let the Irish starve is driven at least partially by this anti-Catholic sentiment.


Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.


Most of this satire focuses on one thing: the terrible economic conditions of the Irish, in which families are literally starving in the streets. However, from time to time Swift veers off to take a rhetorical swipe at other topics. This is one of those times. Here he observes how men treat their breeding livestock better than their wives because it is in their economic self-interest to do so. The cows and horses make them money, while their wives do not. Because they benefit from the health of their animals, the men treat them better. This relates to his larger issue because Swift is observing people act cruelly out of self-interest, and suggesting self-interest could change that.


Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he has at least some glimpse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.


Swift had made several proposals to improve society and Ireland specifically prior to this. In 1712 he had written a proposal on how to improve English, addressing it to the Earl of Oxford. He knew very well just how little people listened to serious proposals and how vested they were in their current positions regarding the situation in Ireland. This line defends Swift's idea from outright rejection, at least until they've tried more serious efforts to alleviate poverty. This somewhat insulates his reasoning from critique and pushes the satire further.


Although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.


Swift is referring to England here. He's saying England would gladly consume Ireland metaphorically and economically, and so if it were possible to shift the meat obtained through slaughtering to England, they'd be happy to literally consume Ireland and the Irish, too. This is one of the few times in the essay when Swift shifts from discussing his proposed solution to attacking those responsible for it (the English who rule Ireland).


But, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success.


In 1729, when Swift published this essay, he had been making more traditional proposals on ways to improve the Irish condition for decades. This is a moment of bitterness over his perceived lack of success. The statement also positions him rhetorically. It indicates this proposal was not the work of a madman. Instead, years of frustration drove Swift to it. Swift is essentially saying, "I've tried everything else, and nothing has worked!"


I profess in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich.


Swift closes his essay with a brief paragraph reestablishing his own ethos. He claims his only goals are to improve the country, help the poor, and give pleasure to the rich. This last point is clearly tongue in cheek. Pleasing the rich is not widely accepted as ethically good. The sentence following also clears Swift of self-interest; since his family can't benefit financially from his scheme, his hands are clean.

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