A Modest Proposal

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Themes and Colors
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon
Society, Rationality, and Irrationality Theme Icon
Misanthropy (Hatred of Humankind) Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Modest Proposal, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Theme Icon

Beginning in the 12th century, England ruled its neighboring island Ireland, essentially treating it as a colony. English rule grew increasingly oppressive as it became a Protestant country, while the vast majority of the Irish remained Catholic. By 1729, Irish Catholics, though greater in number than their Protestant rulers, owned less of the land, and they couldn’t vote. To put it simply, a minority of wealthy, Protestant Englishman held all the power over a disenfranchised Irish-Catholic majority.

“A Modest Proposal” relentlessly lampoons this wealthy, educated, English, Protestant ruling class—a class, it should be mentioned, to which Swift himself partly belonged. Swift paints this group as vain, pompous, predatory, and disastrously out of touch with the humanity of the lower classes. The Proposer serves as the chief representative of this class. What he has in learning and rhetorical skill he seems to utterly lack in common sense and morality. He is blind not only to the clear ethical problems posed by his suggestions to cure the economic crisis through cannibalism, but also to the fact that anyone reading his pamphlet will quickly judge him to be psychotic.

At the same time, the Proposer’s inclination towards cannibalism illustrates, in painfully literal terms, the power dynamic between English colonial rule and the widely impoverished Irish populace. In Ireland, the wealthy were already (figuratively) devouring the poor. There is not much difference, Swift suggests, between the everyday activities of Ireland’s rich and the Proposer’s literal cannibalism. Like so many 18th-century colonialists, the Proposer cannot conceive of colonized people as anything other commodities, to be sold, bought, and eventually consumed.

In all, the Proposer serves as a caricature of the English colonial powers in Ireland, who Swift seems to suggest are inherently cannibalistic, exploitative, and inhumanly indifferent to the suffering of the colonized Irish.

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Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity ThemeTracker

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Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity Quotes in A Modest Proposal

Below you will find the important quotes in A Modest Proposal related to the theme of Colonialism, Greed, and Inhumanity.
A Modest Proposal Quotes

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.

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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.