A Modest Proposal | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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A Modest Proposal | Symbols



For the purposes of this satire, Jonathan Swift is first referring to babies literally. He really does want his readers to consider the idea of the Irish selling their babies and of people eating Irish babies. Beyond this important literal meaning, Swift is also using the image and idea of babies symbolically. Because they are young, babies symbolize youth and innocence. Because they have their entire lives ahead of them, babies symbolize the future, ideally a future full of promise. Through his "modest proposal," Swift attacks a political situation that symbolically kills Irish innocence, youth, and futures with years of ceaseless, profitless labor and desperate poverty.


At least for the purpose of his satire, the first time Swift uses the act of eating is literal. One reason his work is so intense and disgusting is he is literally suggesting people should choose to eat babies. However, Swift is also using eating symbolically. He's referring to the way some people benefit from others, by consuming the results of their labor. This is most clearly indicated when he refers to the landlords already having consumed most of the Irish. He's using eating to refer to symbolic consumption and to an inherently unequal situation in which landlords and the English rulers treat the farmers like animals instead of people and consume their lives.


Swift continually mentions animals throughout this essay. He reasons about how many poor should be allowed to live and breed based on the ratios used for sheep. He draws parallels between slaughtering pigs and slaughtering people. He compares how men treat their pregnant animals to how they treat their wives, and so on. This is part of his rhetorical strategy. Repeatedly mentioning animals symbolizes the low status the Irish poor hold in his society.

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