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.
Satire and Sincerity Theme Icon

Today we regard “A Modest Proposal” as a seminal work of Western satire—satire being the use of humor or irony to reveal and criticize the evils of society. Though Swift wrote the tract in response to the specific social conditions afflicting his native Ireland, its bitter humor shocks and delights as much now as it did in 1729, when it circulated the streets of Dublin as an anonymous pamphlet. The power of Swift’s satire resides in the intensity of his verbal irony—that is, his ability to say one thing and mean precisely the opposite.

In large part, the humor of “A Modest Proposal” arises from the enormous gap between the cool, rational, self-righteous voice of the speaker and the obvious repulsiveness of his proposal: that the infant children of Ireland’s poor be raised as livestock, slaughtered, and sold as food to the wealthy, who will enjoy them as a tasty delicacy. No reader, no matter her personal values or political allegiances, will be able to take seriously the speaker’s proposal. Thus, the reader’s engagement with the text will consist in constantly looking beyond what is said in search of what is meant—or, to put it another way, looking for a sincere message hiding behind the obvious satire.

One way to understand the text’s irony—this discrepancy between saying and meaning—is to imagine the speaker as a fictional persona (call him “the Proposer”) who is totally distinct from Jonathan Swift, the author. The Proposer truly believes in the genius of his plan, and seems oblivious to the fact that it will strike any sane person as monstrous.

Yet, at a few moments in the text, it is possible to recognize Swift’s own voice and ideas sneaking around or through the Proposer’s ludicrous suggestions, advancing instead Swift’s own sincere convictions. This happens in the opening paragraphs of the essay, when Swift can be heard speaking alongside the Proposer—it is safe to say that both he and the Proposer share a mutual concern for the state of society in Ireland. This agreement makes the Proposer’s sudden endorsement of cannibalism all the more shocking and hilarious when it finally arrives. It is important to note that, in 1729, political pamphlets often made the rounds in Ireland, many of them offering earnest if somewhat misguided solutions to the social ills plaguing the country. Accordingly, the first readers of “A Modest Proposal” might not have caught on to the essay’s satirical intent until they reached the speaker’s startling claim that the flesh of an infant could make a fine “ragout,” a type of stew.

In what is perhaps the climax of the essay, Swift presents his own sincere (you might also say “actual”) thoughts on how best to resolve the situation in Ireland. But he does so backhandedly. Rather than state his proposal outright, he embeds it within the Proposer’s dismissal of any and all solutions that do not involve eating children. These alternatives, which the Proposer criticizes as impossible, will strike the reader as exceedingly reasonable, not to mention humane. The literary term for this rhetorical move—advancing an argument by pretending to refuse it—is apophasis, Greek for literally “speaking off.”

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Satire and Sincerity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Satire and Sincerity appears in each chapter of A Modest Proposal. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Satire and Sincerity Quotes in A Modest Proposal

Below you will find the important quotes in A Modest Proposal related to the theme of Satire and Sincerity.
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.

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.