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English Literature. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”


Jonathan Swift was popularly known as a satirical writer during his era. Aside from being a poet, essayist, and a political pamphleteer, he became the dean of Saint Patrick’s in Dublin. Swift was born on the 30th of November, 1667 and died on the year 1745. Most of his works were well-liked by the people most especially his works entitled Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, The Battle of the Books and many more masterpieces that took place in the scene of literature. The writer was better known to be a prose satirist rather than being a poet. He actually used pseudonyms in some of his works and hid behind the names of Isaac Bickerstaff, Lemuel Gulliver, and M.B. Drapier or perhaps with an anonymous name.

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His work “A Modest Proposal” was written during 1729 and appeared to be one of the most admired satirical essays in the English language. It tackled about the suggestion of practicing cannibalism by the Irish. When the essay was written in the era of about 1710 up to 1745, Ireland was largely composed of Catholics. Almost seventy percent of the whole population of Ireland was made up of Irish Catholics however; English protestant was the one who dominated the country because of the death of King William III had turn out to be down when King James II took the place of the previous ruler.

The power of the new King brought chaos to the country as it caused many corruptions and abnormalities when it comes to running the system. Religious issues also came in when the Catholics were discriminated by not allowing them to fight for themselves even for protection purposes only. Also, one author said that they have no freedom to vote and choose a protestant partner. A lot of beggars were scattered all over the place and mostly they were females (Gubar 381). This has been an issue ever since and the people had no control over it. So basically, the difficulties during the year the essay was written by Swift, has been in the side of poverty amongst the people of Ireland.

The issue then was raised by Jonathan Swift at 1729 who has been actively voicing out his own opinions about what he believed. He expressed his ideas through writing “A Modest proposal” which depicts the mockery of the Irish dilemma that suggests the idea of eating the poor children by the rich people. Apparently, it resulted to a lot of economic criticisms and opinions from his audiences.


Primarily, 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, as what was said earlier, suggested that the economically challenged Irish people should sell their children to the rich people to be able to make them as their food. With that in mind, the idea of cannibalism comes out into the essay of Swift. According to Smith, it may sound absurd but that was the satirical way of the writer to convey his messages for the rulers and discrimination of the Irish people during that time (Smith 137).

Swift used an emblematic style in writing his essay however, Charles K. Smith disagreed. According to Smith, Swift used a style where in he greatly affected the reader to hate the speaker and pity the Irish. Swift used fascinating details of poverty and the cool approach of the narrator on creating two kinds of opinions that isolated the readers from the teller of the story whom can be viewed as disappointed. However, criticisms for the work of Swift came into the way most especially by the way Swift used lingoes which pertains only for animals. Just like for example commoditizing the children, which some kind of a foul thing to describe a man to an animal. The tone of his essay also added up to the major absurdity of the proposal he made as what an author stated (Landa 162-163).

It is said that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was somehow patterned to Tertullian’s Apology which was also a satirical way of attacking the early Roman singling out of Christianity. Swift basically addressed and heed to the situation of Anglo- Irish in the year 1720s. Thus, Swift wrote his essay in relation with the bold style and similarities on structure of the Apology. The two works depicts the same theme where in both proposed the ides about cannibalizing and the sarcasms they had on the content of the essays (Baker 219). Both concluded that the wickedness of people is like creating a way to degrade the people below them and treat them like not of the specie.

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Famous critics have been very hesitant to give comments blatantly on the work of Swift because of the fear that they might misinterpret the intentions of Swift. According to a critic, some people get the wrong idea that Swift targeted the condition of Ireland at that time, rather, the real target of the essay was the causes and factors why such condition of discrimination and deprivation of the people happened (Wittkowsky 78-80).

Also, it can be viewed that one of the reasons why Swift wrote “A Modest proposal” is to emphasize the unwise decisions and thinking of the people in order to cure the poor social and economic conditions of Ireland specifically launching projects about the how to fix the population and creating jobs for the daily survival of the people. In fact, one idea about involving the poor people to some joint- stock company was one of the questionable ideas that Swift highlighted in his essay. He even did a mockery on the proposal concerning the poor people. The proposal also targets the measurable way of people on how to respond in creating their projects.

The projects were like designed in a self- centered manner where in only the upper people will be benefited and the lower ones will be used as commodities. It was focused to their whims and not to the needs and wants for the welfare of the people and be able to survive the difficulties and challenges they were facing at that time.

Swift’s usage of the mathematical sense in his essay were variously interpreted by the critics just like for example the interpretation of Edmund Wilson on the statistical logic of the proposal is somehow like the principle of Marx where in it says that a crime can be an answer to the excessive number of people while Wittkowsky defended that the satiric use of statistical analysis of Swift is a way to improve the spoof of the coil from the soul of a bitter travesty and not from the pleasure of measuring for the their own benefit (Wittkowsky 84-85).

One of the strengths of “A Modest Proposal” is the dissenting voice of Jonathan Swift in the corruptions that happened in Ireland. He used a satire and imagery of the ugliness and defects throughout the whole country of Ireland. He also supported each argument by detailing the accumulated possible benefits of commoditizing the children and he even included a list where in it stated various ways and styles for the children.

Obviously, after dissecting the benefits of his proposals, a writer said that Swift disapproved other suggestions to minimize the population and improve the quality of living of the Ireland people and instead favored to his idea of cannibalizing the children by selling their bodies to serve as food for the rich people (Phiddian 603-619). Swift effectively held a variety and pattern on his essay by initially describing the poverty of the people and all of a sudden without having an idea of coming out such absurd solutions to be able to respond to the problems of Ireland. He described the scenarios about the population in a great manner and eventually enumerated the possible criteria fro the resolution and came out with the advantages it will bring for both parties.

Moreover, in spite of the sarcasms that Swift proposed in his work, many people did not recognize the subliminal messages that the writer tried to imply in his proposal. The readers focused on the literal content of the essay and forgot interpreting other factors which will result to such ideas. Considering cannibalism and infanticide in the essay can just give you the interpretation of unmanly manners and insanity for using human to substitute animals for food.

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But the real thing is, Swift tried to make the causes a secondary point and not obviously told the readers that poverty in Ireland was cased by the Dominion of English and rich people. Offering the lives of children for the landlords was not just a way of minimizing the population but to accentuate that the landlords should give a just and fair treatment for the people under them (Bullitt 1). They should not discriminate and use lower classes for their own sake. Come to think of it, a concerned person will not talk bunk about the danger of his fellow people if he did not wanted changes from being discriminated.


A Modest Proposal was indeed an excellent essay made by Jonathan Swift. He wrote the essay with the inspiration and motivation of seeing the people in Ireland experiencing unfair treatment from the rulers and upper class people of the country. He composed the essay at the time he thought Ireland people were firmly down and acting like a dumb that did not care for what was happening during that time because of lack of self expression and identification of one’s status.

It prevailed that the target audience of Swift in his proposal were the impoverished people to be able to wake up their minds and open up to the reality of being discriminated. Subliminally, the landlords were also one of the target audiences to be considered because they made up the part of being the primary antagonists for the people’s welfare and fair treatment. Swift being a writer had the strength of identifying the major issue dilemma of the Ireland people and was able to gave out solutions satirically by his rebellious voice and mode of writing. The reception of its audience actually got various criticisms as some audiences understood clearly what Swift was trying to convey in his satirical essay.

Some opposed and argued to the proposal or the message of the essay because according to them it was not a good thing to use a rhetorical style between humans and animals for the two do not have the same level. Also, Smith added that commoditizing children was an insane idea and detailing each process of converting children into a meat and even packaging them (Smith 148- 149). It may sound illogical for most of the critics though, however many people liked and agreed on the sarcasm of Swift. He was not only saying that selling the children for the benefit of both parties will decrease the burden and struggle of the condition of Ireland. Swift just stated the things that he observed in the country and put it into words as a means of expressing his opinions and ideas.

Generally, Swift used the essay to catch the attention of the people about this certain issue and by this; they will understand every angle of having such condition of their country. At the end, the writer sarcastically pleaded for the hearty application of the proposal. It appeared that he was begging for something negative to be put into action that eventually will benefit all of people in Ireland. Perhaps, the essay is also viewed to be a conforming message against the landlords and criticize the way they run the country in totality.


Baker, D. C. “Tertullian and Swift’s a Modest Proposal.” The Classical Journal 52. (1957): 219-220.

Bullitt, J. M. Jonathan Swift and the Anatomy of Satire: A Study of Satiric Technique. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1953.

Gubar, S. “The Female Monster in Augustan Satire” Signs 3.2. (1977): 380–394.

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Landa, L. A., “A Modest Proposal and Populousness.” Modern Philology 40 (1942):161-170.

Phiddian, R. “Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in a Modest Proposal.” Studies in English Literature. 1500-1900 36(3). (1996): 603-621.

Smith, C. K. “Toward a Participatory Rhetoric: Teaching Swift’s Modest Proposal.” College English. 30(2). (1968): 135-149.

Wittkowsky, G. “Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet.” Journal of the History of Ideas 4(1). (1943): 75-104.

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