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.”
Satire and Sincerity ThemeTracker
Satire and Sincerity Quotes in A Modest Proposal
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…