A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift Jonathan Swift Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was born in Ireland of English parents. He lived in England for many years in the first half of his life, then settled in Ireland for good. He is one of the most brilliant satirists to have written in the English language. Swift was a minister in the Established Church (ie the Protestant church). He was a generous man – he gave much of his income to the poor – and he risked imprisonment for some of his political writings. He is best remembered for Gulliver’s Travels (1726). In this satire in the form of a travel book, Swift attacks many aspects of life in England, including the political system, religious conflicts and business life – indeed, he satirizes human weakness generally.

This is an extract from Jonathan Swift’s pamphlet, published in 1729, suggesting a “remedy” for poverty in Ireland – poverty which Swift believed was largely the result of the English government’s policies. The pamphlet was written at a time when the government in London was destroying important areas of the Irish economy, such as agriculture and the wool industry. Swift, like many Protestants living in Ireland, disagreed strongly with these policies. For Irish Catholics – the majority of the population – things were even worse, as they were discriminated against simply for being Catholic.

This pamphlet was one of the most savage and angry pieces Swift wrote: it has been called “a masterpiece of ironic logic”. The full title of the pamphlet is: A Modest Proposal for preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Public. The irony begins with the title, for the proposal is far from modest.

 

A Modest Proposal

By Jonathan Swift

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 three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most on the Exchange, which cannot turn to account either to the parents or to the 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 boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males, which is more than we allow to sheep, black-cattle, or swine, and my reason is that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune throughout the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year if tolerably nursed increaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant 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.

(extract)

 

Glossary

remedy botemiddel
burden byrde
beneficial av det gode
commodity vare
yield innbringe / kaste av seg
nutriment mat
liable to utsatt for / utsett for
computed anslått
savage villmann
render gjøre/gjere
reckon regne/rekne
devour fortære

 

Tasks
 

Understanding the text

  1. What does Swift mean when he writes that landlords have “devoured” parents (last line)? How is this imagery maintained in the excerpt above? In other words what is the “modest” proposal?
  2. How do you think readers at the time reacted to this? How do you react to it?
  3. In a satire, current issues, foolishness or evil are held up to scorn by means of ridicule and irony. Find as many examples of irony as possible in the excerpt above. What is the author’s underlying message? How effective a tool is irony for getting one’s message across in your opinion?
  4. Swift once wrote of his satire that “the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it”. The word “vex” means to “annoy” or “bother”. If Swift had lived today, what issues or conditions would he “vex” the world with do you think?

 

Writing

Irony is a term used to describe a contrast between what appears to be and what really is. The intended meaning of a statement or work is different from (often the opposite of) what the statement or work literally says.

Sarcasm is mocking language intended to convey scorn or insult.

Pick a topical issue of today, for example reality TV, consumerism, the gap between rich and poor, and write your own satirical pamphlet. Keep in mind that satire uses irony and sarcasm to attack some social institution or human weakness by holding it up to ridicule. Satirical writing also aims to inspire reform. What is it you want to change?