A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In his opening remarks, the Proposer outlines one of the biggest problems facing the Irish commonwealth: women beggars are everywhere in the streets, and many of them have children whom they cannot support. If nothing is done, these children, like their parents, will end up begging in the streets as well. But the Proposer claims to have a plan that will ensure that all the poor children of Ireland grow up to become contributing members of society.
In these opening paragraphs, the Proposer comes off as fairly innocuous—he is an earnest, concerned citizen, and the problems he describes are indeed serious. In fact, it’s a little hard to tell whether there is any significant difference between the Proposer and the real writer, Jonathan Swift.
Themes
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The Proposer claims to have devoted years of careful thought to this problem. He has weighed the many other plans proposed by civic-minded gentleman like himself, but has found these plans insufficient, their “computations” inaccurate. To offer a corrective, the Proposer makes some computations of his own. The cost of supporting a child for one year is about two shillings, which any beggar can certainly manage. (Under the Proposer’s plan, the child will be released from the care of its parents after its first year.) By the Proposer’s count, there are 200,000 Irish couples who are actively “breeding.” He reckons that, of these 200,000, about 30,000 couples are able to provide for their children. An additional 50,000 lose their children to miscarriage or disease within the first year. That leaves 120,000 couples who are unable to provide for their children, which means that about 120,000 children are born into abject poverty each year. But what to do with them?
The Proposer’s complicated and apparently baseless calculations begin to suggest that he is something of a quack. He pulls his statistics out of thin air, and yet he seems to trust in them utterly. Furthermore, his flurry of calculations belies his concern for the Irish populace: he is unable to think of impoverished families as anything other than data points, perhaps even commodities. However, it’s still somewhat hard to see the distinction here between the Proposer and Jonathan Swift. This kind of off-the-cuff number crunching was common in political writing of the time period.
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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 by stealing, either; they’re too young! Nor is selling them into slavery an option—if only because no infant will fetch a worthwhile price at auction.
The Proposer’s assertion that the Irish neither build houses nor cultivate land, while clearly exaggerated, illustrates one of the effects of colonialism in Ireland: the Irish rely greatly on imported goods. In addition, the Proposer’s casual mention of slavery further reveals his total disregard for the humanity of the lower classes.
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At long last, the Proposer finally unveils his own plan. He has heard from an American friend that the flesh of a one-year-old, breastfed infant is delicious. So, of the 120,000 impoverished children in Ireland, 20,000 will be reserved for breeding in order to maintain the population, while the remaining 100,000 will be reared for a year on their mother’s breast milk and then sold to wealthy gentleman—who will eat them. In particular the children will be sold to wealthy landlords, who have “already devoured most of the parents,” and so “seem to have the best title to the children.” The mothers will turn a considerable profit by selling their offspring. If they’re feeling extra entrepreneurial, they can even sell the hides of their children, which make for lovely gloves and boots!
In a stunningly dark turn, Swift’s satirical intentions become immediately clear, and the reader will be shocked by the Proposer’s monstrous and repulsive suggestion (and by the deadpan manner in which it is delivered). The Proposer is revealed to be a clueless and fundamentally evil member of the ruling class. His comfort with the idea of cannibalism illustrates in literal terms the figuratively cannibalistic greed of the English colonizers. The Proposer makes this connection explicit when he remarks that the (mostly English) landlords have “already devoured most of the parents”—an aside that almost seems to come from Swift himself (rather than the voice of his narrator), winking at his own satire.
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The Proposer then explains that a Very Worthy Person has offered an amendment to this plan: in addition to infants, young teenagers may also be sold, slaughtered, and eaten. Their flesh is, apparently, similar to venison (deer meat), and the Irish deer population has recently been hunted to extinction. However, the Proposer respectfully declines this suggestion. Firstly, he argues, the flesh of teenagers is far too tough. Secondly, certain sensitive people may (wrongly, the Proposer emphasizes), see the consumption of teenagers as somewhat cruel.
In a troubling and hilarious reversal of expectations, the Proposer rejects his friend’s amendment not because it strikes him as unethical, but because he doesn’t believe a teenager would taste very good. At most he is worried that other people will see eating teenagers as cruel.
Themes
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The Proposer wants to give his friend a little credit, however. This Very Worthy Person got his idea from George Psalmanazar, who spoke of an incident on his native island of Formosa in which a young woman was executed for treason and then eaten by various members of the court. Hearing this tale, the Proposer admits that he wouldn’t mind if some of the plumper young women of Dublin’s high society met the same fate.
The mention of Psalmanazar, whose name an 18th-century reader would have certainly recognized, further exposes the Proposer as out of touch with reality. Psalmanazar was widely known to be an imposter, a Frenchman pretending to be a native of Formosa (Taiwan), but the Proposer seems unaware of this. In addition, the Proposer’s suggestion that the female members of his own class be eaten introduces the theme of more general misanthropy.
Themes
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The Proposer acknowledges that while his plan will take care of all the impoverished children, it fails to account for all the many aging, sick, disabled, and starving adults in Ireland. How will they be provided for? The Proposer shrugs this question off, reasoning that the old and sick are nearing death anyway. Soon they will no longer be a burden to the country.
Here the Proposer doubles down on his disregard for the lower classes, revealing that he doesn’t much care if the old and sick simply die. He seems to regard them as eyesores and burdens to the public, not humans in their own right.
Themes
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Now the Proposer begins to list in detail the many advantages of his plan. Firstly, the plan will greatly reduce the number of Papists (Catholics) in Ireland—a wicked group. These Catholics, who are prolific breeders, insist on remaining at home in Ireland, hoping to deliver the nation to the Pretender. They take advantage of the absence of good Protestants, many of whom have left Ireland to avoid paying taxes “against their conscience.”
The Proposer casually lets fly his hatred of Catholics, and employs some incredibly backwards logic to do so. By simply living in their own country, the Catholic Irish are supposedly committing treason—and by evading taxes, Protestants are merely obeying their conscience. Thus Swift satirizes the Protestant minority’s total lack of regard for the actual interests of the Irish people.
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As a second advantage of the Proposer’s plan, poor Irish tenants will finally have something with which to pay off their rent. They are in dire need of this, as their cattle and corn have already been seized by their landlords as collateral.
Here Swift seems to comment on the predatory behavior of the (mostly English) landlords in Ireland. It strikes the Proposer as perfectly normal that a landlord would demand further compensation from his tenants, even after seizing all of their possessions. The reader, however, will (hopefully) be appalled by this notion.
Themes
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As a third advantage of the Proposer’s plan, the profits made off the sale of children will total 10,000 pounds per year. All of this money will circulate internally, within the country, as the children are all of Irish “growth and manufacture.”
The Proposer’s use of the words “growth and manufacture” suggests that he sees Irish children as commodities, little more than livestock. Once again he pulls numbers out of thin air to support the supposed rationality of his plan.
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As a fourth advantage of the Proposer’s plan, those “constant breeders” who have a new child every year will be relieved of the burden of raising many children at once, as their children will be taken from their care after only one year.
For the Proposer, the idea that Irish parents might want to keep their children is entirely out of the question. He’s doing them a favor!
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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 taverns, whose cooks will come to pride themselves on their own preparations of infant flesh, and attract gentleman of taste to their businesses.
This vision of monstrous gluttony and excess is sure to make the reader’s stomach churn. In the Proposer’s universe, eating children is a lovely pastime, even a pleasure for the upper classes to aspire to enjoy.
Themes
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As a sixth advantage of the Proposer’s plan, the Irish people will feel encouraged to marry—so they can make some money off their children—and Irish husbands will refrain from beating their wives, choosing to treat them instead as prized livestock.
The Proposer has an exaggerated idea of the brutality of Irish husbands, but it may be that Swift is also poking fun at the Irish himself. Now not only the children are “livestock,” but the mothers as well.
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Further, Ireland will be able to export all the beef and pork that the flesh of infants will inevitably replace. This will be good for the Irish economy.
Here, again, Swift makes reference to Ireland’s lack of exports. And, once again, the Proposer fails to see the children as anything other than livestock.
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The Proposer can’t think of a single worthwhile objection to his plan. Some people might point out that his plan will lead to a decrease in population, but the Proposer sees this as its chief advantage. Further, all of the alternative plans he has heard—such as instilling values of temperance and moderation among the Irish people, curbing the nation’s reliance on imported goods, taxing landlords who don’t themselves live in Ireland, overcoming factions and mutual bitterness, encouraging honesty among shopkeepers and mercy among creditors—strike him as completely impossible to execute. The Proposer has already wasted many years on such idle, visionary, and ultimately useless thoughts. Now, finally, he’s found a practical solution. The whole nation is deeply in debt—two million pounds collectively—and the Proposer’s plan is the only one that can fix it.
Though the Proposer refuses to entertain the many other plans that have circulated among politicians, he proceeds to list them anyway. Of course, these alternative plans, when compared to outright cannibalism, seem utterly sensible. In this way, Swift’s sincere entreaties to the public can be heard through the voice of the Proposer. At the same time, the Proposer’s refusal to accept any sensible alternative to his plan seems to come from a place of extreme frustration with the human race, a frustration that Swift clearly shares. In one elegant rhetorical move, Swift manages to communicate both optimism and total despair at the same time.
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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 have rather been sold and eaten at the age of one than endure the endless series misfortunes that have marked their lives. The answer, the Proposer heavily implies, will be yes.
This is an ironic request for the Proposer to make, because all the evidence suggests that he himself has never spoken to any poor Irish people, much less consulted them about his plan. Swift probably does think that being a poor person in Ireland is worse than dying, but he disagrees with the Proposer on how to resolve that tragic problem.
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Finally, the Proposer notes that he can’t help but speak sincerely about his plan, because he stands nothing to gain from it. His own child is too old to be sold, and his wife can no longer bear children.
The Proposer’s final promise of sincerity will be laughable to any sane reader, as Swift ends his darkly humorous essay without breaking character.
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