A Modest Proposal

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The Proposer Character Analysis

The unnamed speaker in A Modest Proposal is not Jonathan Swift himself, though at first he may appear to be. Rather, he is an exaggerated persona meant to represent a class of people whom Swift especially disdained. The Proposer appears to be a wealthy, highly educated, Protestant Englishman with little regard for the humanity of Ireland’s Catholic poor. He is a fastidious but entirely deluded planner, whose grand designs for the improvement of Irish society fail to take into account the most basic assumptions of human decency and morality.

The Proposer Quotes in A Modest Proposal

The A Modest Proposal quotes below are all either spoken by The Proposer or refer to The Proposer. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications, Inc. edition of A Modest Proposal published in 1996.
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.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

“A Modest Proposal” opens with this sentence. The Proposer does not delay in explaining what has moved him to write: the Irish commonwealth is in peril, and Irish mothers are begging in the streets. Swift’s use of the demonstrative phrase “this great town” situates the essay firmly in its context. “A Modest Proposal” originally circulated Dublin as an anonymous pamphlet, so all of its first readers would have immediately understood which “great town” the speaker was referring to. Indeed, the Proposer seems to be appealing to a sense of community, inviting the reader into a circle of concerned citizens. And while the Proposer’s description of streets “crowded with beggars” is somewhat overblown, the reader will have a hard time seeing his concern as anything but earnest. For the time being, at least, the Proposer and the reader are on the same page.

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As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Proposer prepares to unveil his plan, he places himself—perhaps unwillingly—in the company of “projectors.” This term describes a specific group of political writers who in the late 17th and early 18th centuries took to writing proposals for various “projects”—vast social programs and reforms, often overzealous and poorly conceived, that were meant to cure society of its ills. These projectors tended to base their proposals in crackpot demography and primitive statistical methods with little bearing on reality. The Proposer wants to distance himself from these methods—as he says, the projectors are “grossly mistaken in their computation.” However, as we soon find out, the Proposer’s own computations are completely ridiculous, perhaps even fabricated. Thus, he comes across as oblivious to his own stupidity, distancing himself from “projectors” while proving himself to be the worst projector of all.

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about 200,000 couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract 30,000 couple who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom;) but this being granted, there will remain 170,000 breeders. I again subtract 50,000 for those women who miscarry or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain 120,000 children of poor parents annually born.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the Proposer presents his computations, which he has promised will serve as a worthy corrective to the “grossly mistaken” computations of his contemporaries and colleagues. The skeptical reader will certainly raise his or her eyebrows, however. Where is the Proposer getting these figures? His subtractions seem entirely arbitrary. Still, this kind of armchair demography (the study of social statistics) was fairly typical of the political writing of the day. The first readers of this paragraph might not have immediately picked up on its irony, as Swift, as usual, remains entirely deadpan and sincere even as his “proposals” grow increasingly absurd.

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old is no saleable commodity; and even when they come to this age they will not yield above 3l. or 3l. 2s. 6d. at most on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriment and rags having been at least four times that value.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This paragraph directly precedes the Proposer’s big reveal, and clues the reader in to his deeply sinister, amoral nature. In the Proposer’s twisted universe, the children of Ireland’s poor should not be sold into slavery—not because this would be morally repulsive, but because children before the age of twelve won’t fetch a worthwhile price at auction! The Proposer clearly has trouble conceiving of the Irish poor as people, preferring to think of them as “saleable commodities.” It seems that it is this utter lack of compassion that allows him to earnestly and without reservation suggest cannibalism as a solution to poverty.

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 fricassee or ragout.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker), The American
Related Symbols: Eating
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In these two shocking paragraphs, which appear on the second page of the proposal, the Proposer abruptly unveils his plan to cure Irish society of its many ills. Until this point, the Proposer has seemed basically innocuous, if a little out of touch and certainly condescending towards the Irish poor. Now, however, he reveals himself to be nothing less than inhuman.

And, in turn, Swift wrenches his essay into the realm of satire. Here the Proposer comes across as a caricature of a morally empty aristocrat. What he boasts in rhetorical skill, refined manners, and worldliness (his friend is an American, whom he met in London), he completely lacks in empathy and basic moral insight. The delicate and fussy French terms “ragout” and “fricassee” stand in sharp contrast to the monstrous context in which they appear—lovely dishes showcasing an unspeakable ingredient.

I grant that 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.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eating
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

The Proposer makes this assertion soon after revealing his plan, saying that the cost of infant flesh will likely be “dear” (expensive), and so it seems appropriate that only the wealthy landlords should be able to afford it. This is the only place in the text where the connection between the literal cannibalism of the Proposer’s plan and the figurative cannibalism of the English upper class is spelled out in explicit terms. The Proposer is making what amounts to a pun: English landlords have been financially devouring their Irish tenants for years, so why don’t they start literally devouring them? In this way, the Proposer frames his plan as a matter of inertia. Swift seems to argue (almost breaking his deadpan sincerity for once) that as things stand, the English are not far off from literal cannibalism as it is now.

For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies; and who stay at home on purpose to deliver the kingdom to the pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker), The Pretender
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Of all the “benefits” of the Proposer’s plan, this is the first that he lists. The Proposer’s use of the word “we” is telling. Though he means “we” to stand in for the entire nation, he clearly doesn’t mean for it to represent the papists (Catholics). This is certainly strange, because Catholics make up the majority of the Irish population. It would appear that in the Proposer’s mind, the wealthy Protestant minority—many of whom don’t even live in Ireland full-time—are the true citizens of Ireland, while Catholics are enemies of the country. The backwardness of this worldview is only compounded when the Proposer humorously suggests that the Catholics who remain at home are clearly treasonous (staying in their own country to try and deliver it to “the pretender,” James Francis Edward Stuart, a Catholic with claims to the throne), while the Protestants who evade taxes by going abroad are merely acting on their conscience.

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: of taxing our absentees at 5s. a pound: of using neither clothes 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, in the want of which 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 conscience for nothing: of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy toward their tenants: lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shopkeepers…

Related Characters: The Proposer (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

This sentence, appearing toward the end of “A Modest Proposal”, is the essay’s longest and arguably its climax. The long, impassioned string of alternative plans will read as a breath of fresh air amid the Proposer’s insistent calls for cannibalism. Jonathan Swift’s sincere convictions seem to be breaking through the Proposer’s voice, without the Proposer realizing it. Swift’s alternative suggestions focus, for the most part, on instilling good principles and values among the Irish populace and their English colonizers. In this sense these alternatives are difficult to put into practice, and this is why, it seems, the Proposer has abandoned them in favor of cannibalism, which he sees as highly practical. And though Swift seems to harbor a certain optimism here about the possibility of improving society, he is not afraid to describe the current state of humankind as utterly fallen.

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The Proposer Character Timeline in A Modest Proposal

The timeline below shows where the character The Proposer appears in A Modest Proposal. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
A Modest Proposal
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
In his opening remarks , the Proposer outlines one of the biggest problems facing the Irish commonwealth: women beggars are everywhere in... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
The Proposer claims to have devoted years of careful thought to this problem. He has weighed the... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
These children can’t be trained in crafts or farming , the Proposer claims, because the Irish neither build houses nor cultivate land. The children can’t support themselves... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
At long last , the Proposer finally unveils his own plan. He has heard from an American friend that the flesh... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
The Proposer then explains that a Very Worthy Person has offered an amendment to this plan: in... (full context)
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
The Proposer wants to give his friend a little credit, however. This Very Worthy Person got his... (full context)
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
The Proposer acknowledges that while his plan will take care of all the impoverished children, it fails... (full context)
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Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
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Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
Now the Proposer begins to list in detail the many advantages of his plan. Firstly, the plan will... (full context)
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
As a second advantage of the Proposer ’s plan, poor Irish tenants will finally have something with which to pay off their... (full context)
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
As a third advantage of the Proposer ’s plan, the profits made off the sale of children will total 10,000 pounds per... (full context)
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
As a fourth advantage of the Proposer ’s plan, those “constant breeders” who have a new child every year will be relieved... (full context)
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As a fifth advantage of the Proposer ’s plan, the practice of eating children will “bring great custom” to all the local... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
As a sixth advantage of the Proposer ’s plan, the Irish people will feel encouraged to marry—so they can make some money... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
The Proposer can’t think of a single worthwhile objection to his plan. Some people might point out... (full context)
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
To those who would be so bold as to attempt a rebuttal to his plan , the Proposer makes only one request: that they ask the impoverished parents of Ireland if they would... (full context)
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Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
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Finally , the Proposer notes that he can’t help but speak sincerely about his plan, because he stands nothing... (full context)